Monday, November 18, 2013

How to Feel All the Feels

Photo credit: Gunnar Dickfeld

For the uninitiated, the term feels is internet shorthand for extreme emotional reactions. Although the term may be new to a few of you (ahem, mom) the sensation is surely not.

As a person who has lived in the world, you no doubt have stumbled across these moments of extreme emotional response. Whether they've been expected or unexpected, they have invariably left shockwaves of residual feels radiating outward through life, until even the mere memories of these feels produce feels of their own.

Honestly, it's a lot to deal with.

How to Feel All the Feels:

1. Read where you travel and travel where you read. 

During the interminable year-long wait between the publications of Blackout and All Clear, the latest two installments in Connie Willis's unbelievably gripping Oxford Time Travel sequence, my younger sister and I visited London. For many reasons, a visit to St. Paul's seemed inevitable, not the least of which was our desire to see what Dunworthy had found so captivating about the cathedral. 

We soon knew. 

While she took the time to climb to the Golden Gallery, I descended, wobble-kneed, from the Whispering Gallery to collapse in front of The Light of the World. Later, after buying a cheap dinner at a Marks & Spencer, we sat in silence on the steps of St. Paul's and ate fresh fruit in a misty rain, lost in thought, feeling ALL THE TIME-TRAVEL FEELS. 

When we stumbled upon the monument to the Fire Watch nearby, my lip wibbled. I thought of the Hodbins and Eileen and Colin and poor Mike. I searched the crowds for a flash of red hair, thinking to myself, You did this to me, Connie Willis. YOU DID THIS TO ME.


Likewise, in a somewhat inverse experience this past summer, I read Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning war novel The Killer Angels only days after walking the battlefields at Gettysburg. With the landscape fresh in my mind's eye, the narrative seemed to leap directly from the page straight into my brain.

Days later, as my friend and I left Gettysburg and drove her Prius through the Pennsylvania twilight, I could almost hear the fife and drum, all the while half expecting a ghost regiment, complete with hastily-tied bloody bandages and bearing a tattered flag, to come marching from the misty woods along the interstate.


2. Hike to the tops of mountains, stare out over the sweep of the sea, and contemplate the vastness of space.

If you can do any of these and not be overcome by feels, you may not be human.

I'm not kidding. You might literally be a robot. You had better go check.

3. Fall in love with fictional characters and dead historical figures.

Joshua Chamberlain
Sir Percy Blakeney
Mr. Thornton
Edward Rochester
John Keats
Steve Rogers
John Donne
Lincoln Lee

Most were married, some are dead, and a few never existed outside the realm of fiction. And yet how different their lives would have been had they only met us. They are amazing and beautiful and perfect, and no one has ever appreciated them like we do. And yet, we can never have them, leaving our lives a collective emotional wasteland of angst and regret.

This is a bitter cup, from which most of us have drunk deeply. 


4. Participate in the arts. 

As gripping as music is -- as moved as we sometimes are when we listen to it -- something else entirely happens during the process of learning a piece of music. People who haven't learned music -- I mean really, truly learned it -- may not understand this, but here it is: when music is learned, something changes. 

By some strange alchemy, everything merges. We become the music, and the music becomes us. 

After having labored many hours, first alone and later in company, to rehearse and perform Mozart's Requiem, Puccini's Gloria, Mendelssohn's Hymn of Praise, Rutter's Mass of the Children, and various other major works, I've found that contrary to feeling at the end that I'm now "over" these pieces -- that I've somehow gotten them out of my system -- I find instead that the magic deepens. Many's the time I've listened to a major work for days and weeks after a performance just to recapture the fading glory. 

I can no longer listen to any of these works without deep emotion. 

And theater? Forget about it. Only after you've memorized a scene and learned to feel it from the inside out do you ever truly discover the nuance of the phrases, the power of the words. Only once you're off book can you begin to sense, dimly, the giddy undercurrent driving everything forward. 

In the years that I directed plays, I found that the closer we came to opening night, the more often I would find myself laughing, catching my breath, or being moved to tears -- generally in ways I had never anticipated upon first reading a script. After all, an unknown script is a mere possibility, whereas a well-known script produces echoes that will reverberate through the rest of your life.

I feel sorry that the audience generally only gets to experience this once, and even then, it's a dim aftershock of what the actors experience, poised on the stage in the emotional epicenter. 

Unless the script is terrible, of course. In that case, your participation will still produce feels, but of a much different kind. Oh, my friends... those feels... Those feels are dark indeed. 

5. Contemplate the nature of heaven. 

While I may not know everything about heaven, I know that I will see Jesus there, and that gives me feels to the power of infinity.



No matter what brings them on, one fact is certain: feels come to us all. What remains for us to do is to determine how to deal with our feels without exploding into a million glorious, aching little pieces.

Good luck.

Monday, November 11, 2013

What to Do When You Feel Ordinary

I never see it coming. 

One moment I'm pleased with my choices, content with my lot, and proud of my achievements. The next I'm overcome by a crushing sense of pointlessness. Whether this feeling is valid or not is irrelevant.  It feels true, and therefore must be dealt with.

Sometimes it comes from hearing on the news that somewhere out there, someone has done something absolutely amazing -- something that I could never do even were I given all the resources in the world and a billion years. Other times this feeling echoes closer to the bone. I read on social media of a friend accomplishing greatness. Going distant and deep. Being. Doing. Thriving. 

Whether we're pondering galaxies, staring out over the vastness of the ocean, considering life in light of our peers, or evaluating our place in the scope of living history, contemplating greatness rarely leaves us feeling significant.

What to Do When You Feel Ordinary:

Step One: Stop complaining and start capitalizing. We can't all be good at everything. Figure out what you're actually good at and work to make yourself excellent at that

It's true that I will never be an Olympic athlete... or even a decent backyard athlete. I could sit around griping all day long and envying naturally athletic types until I've wasted away to nothing, but that will make nobody any happier. So instead of throwing myself against the black gates of athletic impossibility, I have decided to sit down and hone the skills that I actually have, most of which involve words rather than deeds. (What can I say: we can't all be Bo Jackson.)

So stop complaining about what you can't do and start capitalizing on what you can. Who knows. At the end of the day, there could be someone out there sitting at home feeling droopy because of their inability to do what you seem to accomplish so effortlessly.

Step Two: Stop stagnating and start venturing. While fully standing by the validity of Step One, I also encourage you to supplement your focused attempt at excellence by developing a completely nonexistent skill. Because while honing your natural gifts exclusively will puff you up with pride, pushing against your limits will bring some much-needed humility. 

You'd better believe that when I'm on the mats every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, nobody gives a rip that  if called upon, I could fluidly narrate our entire workout in a series of snarky heroic couplets. They do care, however, that I can't seem to hold the sparring pads correctly: a simple enough task that I seem to find more complicated than brain surgery. 

Instant humility.

But whatever range of emotion I experience while training, at least I never feel ordinary. On the contrary, there are few experiences in life less ordinary than taking a stiff roundhouse kick and living to tell the tale. 

Step Three: Stop moping and start doing. Whatever you do, do something. Awesome people do not behave like outcasts tapping on the glass of life, wishing that someone would let them participate. 

They're out making life awesome. 

Get up and go join them. 

Step Four: Anchor your sense of significance in something greater than yourself. Some would understand this to mean the mere dedication of their lives to a great social or humanitarian cause. While I think that doing so would give a greater sense of significance, the results would only be temporary. 

This actually means a lifelong pursuit of finding identity in Christ. In his presence, regardless of natural gifts, abilities, or experiences, we find a worth and significance beyond the ability to measure. 

Realizing that you are known by the Creator of the universe - that you matter to him - is the ultimate solution to feeling ordinary. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

How to Think about Time

Somewhere in Time

Ah, Daylight Savings Time: all the fun of a mild case of jet lag without the hassle of actual travel.

Am I right?

The hunger cramps at weird hours of the day, the extra daylight or darkness at unexpected times, the general crankiness....

The question of why we still observe Daylight Savings Time is hotly debated, but perhaps more interesting would be the questions associated with how and why we mark time the way that we do.

How We Mark Time:

Perhaps you're one of the lucky souls who has never given too much thought to the nature of how we count time. If so, I'm almost sorry to bring it up.

Let me distill the discussion as simply as I can. Basically, there are two schools of thought regarding how we mark time. 

(There are actually way more than two schools of thought, but unless you're feeling up to debating the duality of quantum field theories, the structure of the space time continuum, and the basic tenets of existentialism, -- not to mention the underlying questions of ontology, epistemology, and the possible existence of the Time Lords -- you're just going to have to cool your jets and settle for these two basic ones.)

The first school of thought is easily grasped: in this system, there are a past, a present, and a future, through which you are constantly moving. Whether you see yourself as moving forward through time toward approaching dates or whether you see yourself as standing still as time moves toward you supposedly says something important about you and how you perceive your place in the universe. But we won't bother with that just now. 

In the second school of thought, the way in which we count time is merely a social construct which helps us make sense of our experiences. (This concept tends to make my brain feel a bit wibbly if I think about it for too long.) Within this system, we merely exist (in the present, to borrow from the vocabulary of the first school). The past and the future do not actually exist as such, but are mere philosophical constructs developed to help us make sense of what is going on.

But let's face it: unless you work in the field of quantum mechanics, this argument is of little practical value; and if you are working in quantum mechanics, you're unlikely to be reading this blog. 

So let's move on, shall we? 

Because the question of why we count time is much more interesting.

Why We Count Time: 

In order for something to merit being counted in the first place, it has to meet certain criteria:
  • We take a head count before leaving a theme park because no matter how irritating they might have become throughout the day, each child in our care carries great value and is irreplaceable. 
  • We work a monthly budget in order to know ahead of time how to allocate our limited resources. After all, we can't spend that we don't have. (At least... we shouldn't.)
  • We check a recipe against the stores in our cupboard before cooking because each ingredient is important. You may be able to bake cookies if you're low on sprinkles, but without flour or eggs, you might as well give up.
Basically, we count time because of its value, limit, and importance.

Time is money. You've heard that cliche, of course, and you no doubt attest to its truth. But it's only true to a point. An investment of cash will often pay dividends down the road, earning you more money in the long run.  But no matter how you choose to spend your time, you'll never earn any more of it.

I suppose a case could be made here for a healthy lifestyle. It's true that time invested in exercise and relaxation could prolong your life in the long run, theoretically earning you more time. There are, of course, exceptions. 

But I have little need to convince you of of the value of time. Most of us clearly demonstrate by our actions that we pay infinitely more attention to our time than we do to money. Think of how many times throughout the day you check your bank account versus how often you check a clock, and you'll see what I mean.

No matter what we do or what we believe, we can all agree that our time is limited.

Hence the counting.

Because of the sheer limits of time, we wrestle against everything that attempts to suck our allotment away from us. We hoard the minutes, clutching at them even as they drip through our fingers. We resent anything that wastes an instant of our time, knowing that once lost, those silver drops can never be recaptured.

"But wait," the Christian might argue. "What about the eternality of the soul? How does that mesh with your statements regarding the limits of time, hmmmm?"

I'm really glad that you brought that up, actually, because it allows me to acknowledge the ongoing theological debate regarding whether or not we will actually count time during the eternal state. After all, due to the radiance of God's glory, there will be no need for a sun or moon (Rev. 7:16), meaning that our external stimuli for counting time will be absent. Furthermore, in the eternal state, the limits on time will be removed. What, then, would be the point in counting time? 

I feel it important to note that there will, however, be music in heaven, and it's hard to imagine music without some sort of counting involved.

So there's that.

And since heaven is, at any rate, another dimension of reality entirely, perhaps it does not do for us to spin theories based solely on our (admittedly imperfect) working knowledge of the operation of elements and laws within this dimension.

So there's also that.

So rather than losing ourselves in these intriguing but impractical debates regarding the eternal state, let's consider the more immediate implications.

Let us choose instead to focus on making our time count now.

* * * * *

This post bubbled forth as the result of having read the following books and spent way too much time contemplating the nature of time. Each of these in some way played a part in the development of this post.

I commend them to you with great enthusiasm.

Recommended Reading: