387. Little ChrisT.

Woke up to a stunning Facebook message this morning. I saw the death notice of a man I so admired and respected, and whose occasional company I enjoyed greatly. His crisp, clarion voice of true authority; and sharp, sincere gunshot laughs; his strong smile; eyes that led like a long dock out into deep waters…gone? Dead? Impossible!!  He’s ten years younger than I am and in better shape. Let me reread this. I rubbed my eyes and wiped sleep off my face, but the words on the page remained unchanged. “We are devastated by his loss”, Keri wrote. I am in that gutshot we. Something like an earthquake rattled the shelves in my mind. Containers of fond familiarity and jars of pickled reassurance smashed on the rocks of reality below. Waves of shock and confusion hit. Sorrow for his wonderful wife, his kids, his son’s upcoming wedding… all swirled together into a melted mental muddle. As I stared at my monitor, it kept ringing with replies to Keri’s post from friends and loved ones. “Boink, boink, boink”, sounds of life echoing back from a well of sorrow to news of his death. What? How? Why? Too much to process. 51. Spring Gardening. ER??

No, no. Restart, reboot. It can’t be true. Surely this is one of those elaborate Eastern European scams from Slovenia you hear about on the news. I had a false obituary posted on line a few years ago that led to Ancestry . com or something.  That’s it. Just restart your computer and update your malware, that’ll do it. Good as new….

No matter, Chris is, was, and will forever be a man of God. The only question is this: Is the rest of Chris T. Little in heaven now? A big chunk was already there. “He is surely with Jesus now… cuz he always was”, a soundless voice fluttered across my mind, like a dusty butterfly… “he always was”. As I stared at his name, Little Christ kept imprinting on my brain. Pastor Chris T. Little was a Little Christ in our community. Like Jesus he was deeply loved by many but also deeply depreciated by folks who should have known better. And there are always the folks with one footprint in each camp, watching which way the winds of popularity blow. No matter. Chris loved you all because he forgave you all and trusted Jesus to do the math. He did not waste time on bitterness, jealousy, or pretense. His words “I don’t have  time for that”, echo in my memory. That’s one thing I loved about him:  he spoke the unvarnished truth. Unfortunately, many folks like their truth the same as their hot dogs–slathered in sweet relish. Chris, however, spoke the mustard seed truth. That’s what mattered to him.

When I first met Chris, I noticed our extreme differences. I never imagined that we would call one another friend one day. He was a Navy engineer and a United Brethren pastor. Those of you who know me know that I am not an institution, authority-loving sort of guy. I am a former English teacher and a current professional counselor. Okay, and I’m a rebel. I backed into God while covered in the excrement of my own sin not out of my own proactive glorious righteousness. But Chris never asked me to give a faith doctrine defense in order to stand next to him. No time for such nonsense– like Jesus.

Chris and I consulted on some shared cases. Ours was a two pronged approach– his side was spirit led; my prong was more secular, mental health led. Still, we respected one another and were good teammates, serving God in different and unequal ways. He was the quarterback. I blocked.

One epic case we shared over nearly three long, tough years. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you the details, so I’ll keep them confidential as they should remain so. However, Chris stood tall and immovable against Satan’s powers and principalities. His voice thundered with the Holy Spirit as he claimed the truth of the Scriptures and refuted the lies and deceptions of Lucifer’s minions. In the process a soul was rescued from the bloody battleground between heaven and hell. As each brain curdling encounter ended victoriously, he’d smile and laugh at the incredible happenings we had witnessed. “Well that was fun, huh?”

We talked a lot back then. I never would have managed to come through that extraordinary experience without him. Like any friend I’ve lost in my life, I wish I’d talked more often, but there was no urgency, or so I believed. But there is urgency if you do not take your next breath or day of life for granted, or believe it’s an automatic that you will awake in the morning. Once he said out loud what we both were thinking, “You think God is gonna ask us to do this again now that we’re trained?” My answer?  “I sure hope not.” And yet, compared to being comfortably alone versus uncomfortably present with my departed friend,  I would gladly take the discomfort option all day long.

I pray that his mission, though cut short, was still complete. Chris T. Little was a good and great man. Yet he was a humble servant of Jesus Christ.  A Little Christ who led and fed many souls at the altar of God, one mustard seed at a time. Mother Teresa was a Little Christ.  St. Paul. Martin Luther King too. They revealed the majesty of our Supreme Savior in how they lived their humble lives amid a forest of mustard trees.

Dying in one’s own garden seems poetic as well. Planting requires effort up front and patient faith in the future crop. Although Chris is no longer with us, his crop will be a hundred hundred fold.  John 12: 24 tells us, “Truly, truly, I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Until we meet again, my Little Christ friend, in a forest of mustard trees. Be with God.

347. DARKLY

 

We tied fishing rigs for the morning, sure to hit the bluefish that feed voraciously in the Cheasepeake Bay.  Point Lookout, Maryland had been used as a prison camp for the Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.  Hard to imagine now.  It was just a narrow spit of land that jutted into the dark bay water. No signs of tortured troops and squalid conditions from the old days. A lot of men died here from neglect and exposure to the elements.  Nowadays there is no evidence that anything unpleasant ever occurred on these shores.

“That’s Virginia on the other side,” said Cork with as much authority as he could muster.  The fishing trip was his idea.  It was his boat, his truck, his tent, and so forth.  I had never been out on the water, so I accepted the invitation and everything else at face value.  Foolishly, as I would later discover.  But on that warm Friday night in August, the upcoming fishing trip seemed like a sharp memory in the making.   We had worked together painting houses and barns all summer.  This was a reward and a chance to build another area of friendship. Cork and his son Biff had been here many times before, and they enjoyed putting into practice the rules and tips of their recently completed boating safety course.  So I thought.

Around 10 p.m. we decided it would be exciting to go for a short ride on the bay.  There was no moon. The bay was calm and smooth.  We shoved off under the orange glow of the mercury vapor light at the end of our dock.  It felt a bit eerie to me, casting off into the black sky on the black water, sort of what I imagined crossing the River Styx might be like in Greek myths.  Quiet, to be sure, but not safe.  I felt as if there were fish beneath us that could be as large as our little 18 foot Bayliner.  Maybe a sea monster or two.  The fact that we had no lights on the little boat did not seem to be an issue as we put out into deep water.  Captain Cork was in command.

We cruised the bay for an hour or two.  It was fabulous.  I lay down on my back to watch the stars glide overhead.  Every once in a while we checked our poles, but not a single bite.  I lost track of the time and our location.  I never doubted the seaworthy skipper who, by the way, had grown up next to a cornfield in a landlocked county in Pennsylvania.  Not a problem when you are as smart as our skipper.  The intellect is a fine thing when it is not caught in a net of pride and self deceit. It must have been midnight or near 1:00 a.m. when we decided to head back to our familiar dock with the orange mercury vapor light. No problem.  “We’ll just head back in now, fellas,” said Cork matter-of-factly.

That’s when the fabulous dream turned into a harrowing nightmare.  It started slowly and innocently enough.  “Is this Virginia…” asked Captain Cork hesitantly, and then pointing across the miles of dark bay waters, “or is that?”

“Which direction are we headed in?”  I asked.  “If we’re going south, then Virginia will be on our left, the other side of the bay.”

“Hell, if I knew which direction we were headed in, I wouldn’t have to ask you!” declared Cork with a bit of tension and disgust rising in his voice.

“Don’t you have a map or compass?”  I asked.

“Yeah, but they’re back in the truck.  I forgot to put them in the boat.”

Biff calmly pointed to the orange glow emanating from what I was coming to believe was north.  “Isn’t that the dock light up there on the left?  I remember we pulled out from there and circled the bay a few times, but that’s it.”

“Can’t be.  This is Virginia we’re looking at.”  Then he spied a faint dot of orange on the other shoreline, miles away.  “I’m afraid that is our dock light over there.”

I asked, “Well, what are we going to do?  Can we call the Coast Guard on the radio?  Maybe they’ll be in the area and set us straight.”

“No.  I’ll get written up for no lights and no maps,” responded Cork.  “Son of a bitch!”

Now Cork’s anger had kicked in.  It was quite familiar to Biff and me.  On land it was manageable; you  could walk away and generally not have to deal with it.  It was different here.  Here in the dark Cork was at the helm, in control of the boat though not of his own emotions.  A stream of angry epithets preceded him gunning the throttle as we roared toward what he believed was Maryland in the distance. 

I was terrified.  We were literally racing in the dark.  I took our camp flashlight and moved to the front of the boat.  I could see pelicans coming at us like spooks from Hell.  Somewhere I knew there were old target practice ships that the Navy airplanes shot at.  And I recalled seeing the occasional netting strung around telephone poles as some kind of breeding area or hatchery.  Any one of these things could destroy our little boat that was speeding along under the angry blindness of Captain Ahab. Image result for dark water at night pictures

As we raced across the bay, the little orange dot became fainter instead of stronger.  Soon it was gone from sight. “Damn it!”  And various other expletives were hurled at no one in particular, the gods, I supposed.  Cork was often adamant in his agnosticism.  Others’ sins kept him out of church the past twenty five years.  “Goddamn hypocrites!”

I was becoming a believer, a scared believer as we raced back to the previous shoreline.  Maybe we could figure out where we were by a boat registration or a sign on a dock.  Maybe we could even meet someone on the shore and ask for directions.  Maybe one of us could get off the boat and knock on someone’s door at 2:00 a.m.  “Excuse me, is this Maryland or Virginia?  You see we’re lost and really stupid.”

After perhaps an hour and a half of frustration and terror, Cork finally quit.  He angrily surrendered the helm to Biff.  “If you think you’re so goddamn smart, go ahead!”  Biff quietly motored the boat toward the original marker.  Sure enough it was our dock.  The same dock Biff had identified two hours earlier, before the mad scramble in the darkness had begun.  I was relieved that reason had prevailed over anger.  I had already resigned myself to staying out on the water till daybreak.  At least we would not get hurt this way.   Image result for dock light at night pictures

I guess this is just one more example of anger limiting one’s intelligence.  When we get angry we get stupid, stubborn and stuck.  I have had several clients who seem to be driving an unworthy craft through the dark of night, directionless, angry and very, very lost.  Instead of seeking the light and the right direction, they seem to angrily toy with the unforgiving dark.

 But not us, Bogmateys. We are scrupulously careful navigators of life. Dark pride never crosses our stride, right?

 

346. Learned Helplessness

We all know someone who revels in victimhood, who burrows into their miseries like a tick on an old mangy dog, and won’t let go, sucking their toxic sustenance from the sick host. If you try to create some daylight between the host and the parasitic sucker, the career victim says, “Yes but my childhood, my schooling, my family, my lousy birthdate, my skin, my height, my hemorrhoids, etc.” It’s hard to spend time with these folks because after a while you realize that they are sucking whatever optimism you came with right out of you. They deflate the bouncy beach ball of joy into a flat inner tube of despair. The longer you are around them, the more your mind wanders toward making nooses out of inner tubes. Being compassionate, however, you decide to make two. You would not want to inflict this pesty pessimist on any other human being after you hang only yourself. Any optimism on your part is met by the Elite Red Guard of Defeatism and utterly destroyed. After all is said and done, Dark likes it dark.

Learned helplessness is behavior typical of an organism (human or animal) that has endured repeated painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it was unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn escape or avoidance in new situations where such behavior would be effective. In other words, the organism seems to have learned that it is helpless in aversive situations, that it has lost control, and so it gives up trying. Such an organism is said to have acquired learned helplessness. (Wikipedia, support them, blog dogs! I do.) No successful outcomes can be imagined in the dark land of stinking thinking.

A buddy of mine from way back in the day was a functional depressive. He expected to be crapped on in life and just rolled with and in it, never pushing back. His wife dominated him totally. His kids played him like a fiddle. His dog peed on his refrigerator grille just because he knew no consequences were coming. I remember once talking with him about seeking treatment for his depression. He explained,

“Oh, I’ve thought about it, sure. But, see, as bad as my life is, I figure it would take several years of therapy and medication to get better, and by then I’ll be in my early sixties. I don’t expect to live past 70, so I’ll just about be dead by the time I figure out my miserable life. So why bother? I keep a calendar in the basement. Every night I write ‘Life sucks’ in that square, cuz every day life sucks. Month after month after month, life sucks. Then you die. The only question is this: how many more ‘Life Sucks’ boxes between here and ‘Then You Die’?”

I had to agree with him. The matrix he had constructed to insulate himself in misery was a concretized reinforced bunker of resistance. He had grown comfortable in his cell of despair, carpeted it and had cable installed. Why move now? Just have burned pizza delivered to Apartment B, 333 Hell Avenue, Tartarus, until you owned the deed.

I know of an experiment where fatigued swimming rats were rescued just as they were about to drown. When placed in the same cruel water tank again, these rats swam longer than control rats, suggesting “learned optimism”, the reverse of learned helplessness. Apparently, some lab rats want to live more than others.And if a rat catches a break, it will try harder next time.

Learned optimism was defined by Martin Seligman and published in his 1990 book, Learned Optimism. The benefits of an optimistic outlook are many: Optimists are higher achievers and have better overall health. Pessimism, on the other hand, is much more common; pessimists are more likely to give up in the face of adversity or to suffer from depression. Seligman invites pessimists to learn to be optimists by thinking about their reactions to adversity in a new way. The resulting optimism—one that grew from pessimism—is a learned optimism. The optimist’s outlook on failure can thus be summarized as “What happened was an unlucky situation (not personal), and really just a setback (not permanent) for this one, of many, goals (not pervasive)”. (Wikipedia, again.) That’s a long, marshmallow crème sort of prescription. Steve with a V  from Coffee Nation would summarize it succinctly into this:  “Growaset!” I would set up business somewhere between Steve and Martin Seligman.

Falling in love with your excuses is just as weird as dressing up rats and squirrels that will one day chew through your electric wires or your face.  “Aren’t they cute? tick, tick, tick. Look at them in their little Santa suits. Oh, they’re climbing up the Christmas tree. No! Don’t chew the lights!!! Zap. Doggonit!! I paid good money for those Santa suits.” See? I am a chronic loser. I can’t even control pet squirrels.

There is an oddly positive takeaway from chronic depressives, however, that is  similar to being released from a cramped sauna where you have been smashed up with eight sweating sumo wrestlers for an hour. When you hit that clean, cool, dry air outside the cabin, man it feels better! You feel free and light and dry and safe and less awkwardly naked. Yeah, you can’t really reason with over weighted emotions. Like the sumo wrestlers in the sauna, they will just crush you. So here’s a note to self: never sauna with eight sumo wrestlers at one time, or with one depressive.

Oh, the self anointed Realists will tell you that your optimism is silly, naïve, and irresponsible. Better to be prepared for the worst than surprised by it. But the sun never shines on their side of the street. It’s always dark in that mindset because that is the original premise. At best they swim with half inflated life preservers… you know, cuz reality is hard and you have to swim or sink on your own efforts. So why did God give us positive emotions if  we aren’t supposed to expect good things in life or celebrate when something like victory occurs? Again, my depressed buddy’s philosophy– “I think God will punish me if I have a good day. He’ll give me a bad one to keep the score even. So I just hope for mediocre.”

And not surprisingly he hits the target every time.