Tag Archives: anxiety

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist; Nothing to Fear

Revisiting these episodes is reminding me of what a pedestal they were on. In my family, Adventures in Odyssey episodes were imbued with a kind of mystical reverence. I believed they held keys to existence and that taking their advice seriously was the secret to good Christian living. Not as much as the Bible, of course, but they were awfully Biblical and, frankly, easier to understand.

I’ve briefly worried that this is biasing my reviews. Am I blaming them too much for screwing with people’s heads, just because the status they held in my family helped them screw with mine? Then I realized that no, it can’t just be me, because they weren’t passively placed up on that pedestal. They actively campaign for the position. I mentioned in my first review that an annoying lady named Chris gives us a preview of the moral, and a summary of it, just in case we haven’t had the point thoroughly hammered into our head yet. She also makes promises that the upcoming episode will answer our questions, interpret the Bible and make our lives generally perfect.

For example, in this episode she says we will learn a way to make our fears go away, and never come back. Those are her exact words, “go away and never come back.”

The protagonist, Shirley , opens our story with a nice scream, because her friend Jake is showing off his pet mouse, Luther. And by friend I mean “asshole who occasionally associates with her.” After deliberately shoving a phobia of hers in her face, he laughs, and Whit comes over to see what the trouble is. He learns that Shirley is scared of mice, as well as heights, fire, crowds, being alone, turtles, the merry-go-round, toy guns, stuffed animals, the street, the woods, bikes, the dark, loud noises… he actually fails to find something she’s unafraid of. He even asks if she’s afraid of him, and she says, “no, except when you wear your big jacket. It’s kind of creepy.”

Whit gets her to gently hold Luther, which seems to be helping her realize there’s no danger, until it bites her. She drops it and the mouse runs off. This isn’t the part I have a problem with. Gradual, controlled exposure to sources of anxiety can help people overcome fears, both ordinarily and ones that are parts of mental illness. I’ve sometimes used a kind of self-guided immersion therapy to deal with my anxiety disorder. It’s just bad luck that Luther the mouse doesn’t cooperate.

Unfortunately, supportive, gradual exposure to triggering stimuli is not the actual theme of this episode. The actual theme is what Whit tells her.

“There are fears we need to overcome, not just because they are harmful to us, but because they show a lack of faith in God. The Bible says that perfect love casts out all fear.”

To make his point extra clear, he compares God’s love to a light switch in a dark room. You don’t have to move the darkness out to make room for the light. One is there, or the other is. The light casts out the darkness instantaneously.

This is incredibly harmful, because it won’t always work, and when it doesn’t, it creates feelings of shame and inadequacy on top of the existing fear. To be clear, I’m not just saying it won’t work because I don’t believe in God. Many people of different and mutually contradictory beliefs find comfort in their beliefs. A religion doesn’t have to be true to be consoling. I even rather liked the Veggie Tales episode on being scared. But Veggie Tales also affirms that fear is normal and okay. Whit makes any lingering nervousness a direct measurement of your lack of faith.

Shirley goes home to get the bite looked at, and has an intense nightmare about a giant mouse eating her alive. She wakes up to her Mom using the vacuum cleaner, which is also a source of anxiety for her. As she sobs in her mother’s arms, she asks why she has to be afraid all the time, and her Mom is unable to calm her down.

So, for the record, the official stance of this episode is that Shirley is a “scaredy-cat.” Chris actually uses the dictionary definition of scaredy-cat to introduce her. Shirley’s also called a coward by Jake. Whit protests that but seems to object more to the name-calling than the accuracy of the statement. The one label he doesn’t want to put on her is “crazy,” which disturbs me. I wouldn’t call Shirley crazy either, but I would say she shows every symptom of having an anxiety disorder like me.

  • Time. Shirley talks like a seven-to-ten year old, in terms of both voice and vocabulary. Everyone acts as if she’s been this fearful all her life. It’s normal for children to go through phases where they are a bit shy or anxious, but typically they get over them. Longstanding anxiety like this is a sign that something’s chemically imbalanced.
  • Intensity. Look at that list. Look at the severity of her reaction. Look at how pants-wetting panic is her default mode. That’s not normal.
  • Lack of a cause. A child who is experiencing stress at home or has been through a traumatic event will probably have some heightened anxiety for a while. Shirley’s home life seems to be happy and stable.
  • Irrational fears. A few of the things that scare Shirley are rational, like fire, but most are completely harmless. She can intellectually acknowledge that she’s not in danger, but is still afraid.
  • Quality of life. This is the most important one. It’s the ultimate divider between mentally healthy and in need of help. Do the symptoms interfere with your ability to go about your everyday life? Do they take something away from you? Shirley is miserable. She is driven away from places that are supposed to be happy and safe, because she can’t control her fear. She cries over her inability to stop being afraid. She has an anxiety disorder, and she should see a doctor.

For the record, I’m not saying she needs meds. Maybe she does and maybe she doesn’t. I’ve known people who rushed to medicate themselves or their children when some patience and therapy would have done the trick. I’ve known people who put off much-needed medication because of nebulous stigmas, and I include myself in that category. What Shirley needs is between her and her hypothetical doctor, but what she doesn’t need is to be taught that if she can’t control her fear it’s because she’s a bad Christian.

Meanwhile, Jake decides to punish her for losing Luther by luring her into the basement of Whit’s End and exposing her to darkness and generally scary noises. He even rigs boxes to fall over and such, just to maximize the creepiness. Did I mention he’s an asshole? His plan backfires and he falls into his own booby trap. His ankle is twisted and he can’t go get help, so Shirley has to make her way through the dark to find someone. She does this, because people with anxiety disorders are often quite brave in a crisis, because they’re used to being scared so suddenly being in a scary situation doesn’t faze them she sings Bible songs and is filled with the love of Jesus and is magically fearless.

Afterward, she gets some ice cream at Whit’s End and talks to Whit about how Jake will be okay, although he’s grounded for pretty much eternity. Shirley explains, for the benefit of the audience members who haven’t gotten the point yet, that loving Jesus is magical fear-repellent. She declares that she might never be afraid again. Connie then comes in with a cool bug she found, which causes Shirley to shriek in terror.

Whit and Connie laugh. Because it’s funny that her lifelong battle with irrational terror isn’t over yet. Because it’s funny that either she doesn’t love Jesus enough or vice versa. Because somewhere in the development, they decided to end every goddamn episode with Whit laughing, and who gives a shit whether this undermines the whole point of the story.

I have emphasized the medical because, the way Shirley is written, it’s easy for a person with actual mental health issues to identify with her. I remember I did. And the sad truth is that this kind of message isn’t even uncommon in religious circles. I’ve known many Christians who are supportive and knowledgeable about mental health, but I’ve also known Christian communities that stigmatize it and treat it as pure lack of faith. Because of this, I’ve known people who have suffered silently and attempted suicide, rather than seek treatment. When you heap guilt and threats of divine condemnation on top of a chemically fragile mind, the cost can include a human life.

And what really bothers me is that, with that final scene, there seems to be some inadvertent admission that this magic bullet isn’t quite so flawless as they make it out to be. There’s no other indication that this whole “love Jesus and stop being afraid” thing might not be that simple. Remember how Chris opened the episode? Yet, it makes sense that on some level they know it’s an exaggeration. I mean, they must have felt how their own worship never makes the fear go away completely and permanently. Brains just don’t work like light switches. Despite this, they are comfortable telling impressionable, inexperienced children that if they experience fear, it’s because they lack adequate faith and love in Jesus.

Thankfully, I didn’t actually listen to this episode that often. It scared the crap out of me.

Mental Health and Creativity

I’m not sure how to categorize this post. It’s certainly not a review, and its not exactly writing advice either. I suppose, in a way, its my own personal PSA.

Starry Night

I just read yet another book where the author went on a rant about what would happen if we had medicated Van Gogh. Psychiatric drugs are turning us all into zombies and the negative feelings in life fuel our art and many great geniuses would have been diagnosed with mental health problems today. Therefore meds are bad! Sigh.

I do think we often rush to medicate when other options might be better, and there are people out there with good, educated opinions on this issue. But when your example of someone who should not have been medicated is a man who mutilated himself and took his life at 37, my bullshit alarm starts clanging. These arguments make me angry for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that they, at one point, prevented me from even exploring the option of medication. I have an anxiety disorder, and as it turned out, a low dose of an SSRI was extremely effective in treating it. Medication isn’t the answer for everyone, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I want to talk a bit about our ideas about the relationship between mental health and creativity.

The idea that creativity and mental illness are linked is an old one, but studying it is problematic. Search the internet for mental illness and creativity studies, and you’ll find a tenuous statistical connection that raises more questions than it answers. People who spout the Van Gogh argument tend to assume that when mental illness comes along with creativity, the former is essential to the latter. This is only one explanation. Here are some others;

  1. Artists tend to live unstable, stressful lives. This means that those who are predisposed to mental health problems are more likely to develop them.
  2. People who happen to be both mentally ill and creative often turn to art as a kind of self-therapy. If they hadn’t been mentally ill, they still would have been creative, but would have channeled their abilities into other arenas.
  3. Mental illness and creativity share a genetic cause, a bit like those genes that cause both blue eyes and deafness. Just because a person wears a hearing aid, that doesn’t mean their eye color will change.

It’s funny how those who wail the loss of a hypothetically medicated Van Gogh never mention Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne, Morisot or Degas. All of them, like Van Gogh, produced moving Impressionist art that is beloved today. They used the good and the bad in their lives to inspire them. See Morisot’s portrait of her husband on holiday…

 

eugene-manet-on-the-isle-of-wight

… and Monet’s portrait of his dying wife.

Monet's Wife

For most of them, there is no historical evidence that they suffered any kind of mental illness. Others, like Cezanne or Degas, did have some moodiness and isolationism that might have been signs of a disorder, but then again, maybe they were just shy eccentrics. It’s almost as though great creativity appears across a spectrum of functioning, rather than being dependent on extreme mental anguish.

Now, I should say, there have been people who have tried medication and then gone off it, because the side effects were awful, or because the meds didn’t help, or because they felt they could manage it better with therapy alone. Some people who use the Van Gogh argument just mean we shouldn’t force medications on people who don’t find them a net positive. I do agree with that point. Unfortunately, it is just as often used as fear mongering by people who don’t really know anything about either psychiatry or what its like to be mentally ill.

The stigma around mental illness made my parents inclined to ignore it, and the image of the tortured artist was a convenient way for them to explain away the warning signs in young me. I wasn’t really miserable. I was just “moody, like all the great writers were.” Growing up with this as the way to understand myself made me feel guilty even considering that I might have a medical problem. When I considered getting help, my brain filled with some Orwellian nightmare of personality erasure. Even when I broke away from them, these images fed my anxiety disorder and added one more boulder to the massive wall of issues stopping me from seeking help.

For years, I managed my anxiety by educating myself on calming techniques, recognizing my own personal triggers and picking my battles. At some points in my life, that worked fairly well. I would face my fears in order to maintain friendships or keep my job, and then I would go home, cry and crash, not because anything had gone wrong but because I was exhausted from fighting through my fear every time I was around people. Other times, I had to miss out on things I really wanted to do, because I did the math, and I knew I didn’t have enough spoons to both see my friends and face the crowds of strangers at the grocery store. I thought I was doing pretty well. The tears and shaking became almost invisible to me, because they were so normal. Then, I moved in with my boyfriend, and those breakdowns weren’t private anymore. He was loving and supportive, but simply having another pair of eyes on me made me realize how unusual my mental state was.

Then, last fall, my long estranged older brother started reaching out to me. I had to take advantage of this, because I loved and missed him, and our visit went very well. Unfortunately, the trip was so hard that the anxiety crash didn’t take an afternoon of crying. It took weeks, and I couldn’t limit my outbursts to home. I started having breakdowns at work, over nothing. My boss took a moment to talk to me privately about what was going on, and shared her story about how she had gotten on medication. Obviously that story was private, but it debunked a lot of my worries and got me to set up an appointment with a general practitioner (I had tried to get an appointment with a therapist, but invariably my first few calls would go to people who weren’t accepting new patients, and of course one of my major anxiety triggers was making phone calls).

Now I’m on meds. I still feel fear, sadness, and all the other normal negative emotions that we all need to function. What changed is that after I feel them, I calm down normally, without exhaustion, tears and shaking over something that I know, rationally, was no big deal. It hasn’t harmed my creativity. If anything, I have more time and energy to write. Once again, I need to say that everyone reacts a little differently, and what worked for me might not work for someone else. My point is not “go on medication, you will definitely be fine.” Instead, my point is twofold.

To those of you who struggle with mental health problems but have been spooked by those who say you’ll lose your ability to feel, let me tell you, they don’t know what they are talking about. Psychiatric medication might not be the best option for you, but then again it might improve your life more than you ever thought was possible. And here’s the great thing; if you try a medication and you hate how it affects you, you can stop taking it. Do talk to your doctor first, because sometimes you need to wean yourself off gradually, but any decent doctor won’t make you stay on something that is hurting your quality of life. If they aren’t willing to listen to you, change doctors. There are plenty of good ones out there. Your brain is a wonderful, powerful instrument, and your life is a precious thing. Take good care of them both.

To those of you who spew the cliche about Van Gogh, I understand that you probably didn’t mean anything by it. You probably hadn’t thought of this perspective. I hope I’ve given you something to think about. I leave you with this. Perhaps Van Gogh would not have responded well to medication, but given how much pain he was in, he should have been given the choice, and that choice should be respected by us all. If that would have resulted in a world without Starry Night, I dare say we’d have consolation enough from Monet’s Sunrise.

Impression, Sunrise

Why We Need Scary Stories

I love Halloween. I love seeing the world covered in skulls, vampires, bats and zombies. I love the excuse to watch scary movie after scary movie. I love the way that, once out of the year, the world is joining me in contemplation of the grotesque and horrifying.

I have some issues with anxiety. Even when nothing is wrong, my brain likes to pump my head full of scary juices. In fact, it’s worst when nothing is wrong. An actual crisis, for me, is like a vacation. All the unnecessary panic feels like rehearsal, and I can finally put all the adrenaline and hyper-awareness to good use. Perhaps that’s why, so often, my thoughts turn towards disturbing topics or terrifying stories. The emotions are going to be there anyway. It’s nice to give them some appropriate subject matter, to keep them company.

Even for people who aren’t like me, I think there’s benefit to scary stories. That isn’t to say that everyone needs to go watch 28 Days Later or read Lovecraft if that’s not their thing. I’m not trying to police anyone’s genre preferences, or cajole anyone to try horror if they are uncomfortable with it. The benefit I’m talking about is broader, more social.

Here are a few premises for you.

Premise one; the world is in many ways a terrifying place. We all face innumerable challenges, unforeseen tragedies, losses of control and, eventually, death. And that’s just everyday life for the privileged. Once you accept that, you have to take into account certain other facts, like that Kim Jong-un exists.

Premise two; we don’t like thinking about awful things like that. Looking at these issues makes us uncomfortable.

Premise three; we can’t deal with any problem without taking an honest look at it. Attempting to handle a situation without real understanding of it often results in making it worse.

Premise four; stories have the power to teach us about situations by making us live them vicariously. They can be like flight simulations for real life, sometimes in straightforward and obvious ways, other times in subtle and symbolic ways. How a story handles uncomfortable subject matter can teach me how to handle similar feelings in my life.

Conclusion; stories that scare have the power to teach all of us to deal with unpleasant ideas that are still an essential part of life.

Once again, I don’t mean that all of you have to go watch a movie you swore you would never watch because the idea was too scary or icky for you. For one thing, I think these lessons and ideas can be introduced through stories, and then trickle through a whole society by cultural osmosis. I’m not a big fan of romance stories. I’m still familiar with many romantic tropes and their corresponding ideas about love, the good and the bad.

For another, just because scary stories deal with those essential ideas, that doesn’t mean every one handles them well. I am bothered by how many horror films, particularly the gory ones, handle their subject matter by making the victims very flat and eroticizing the violence. I don’t object to eroticism, and I don’t object to gore, and I don’t… well, no, I do object to making the victims flat on the grounds it’s poor writing, especially when they are supposed to be protagonists. But what bothers me most about that combination is that it does position the reader to deal with violence by identifying with the villain. I’m all for understanding, sympathizing with or even empathizing with a villain. Identification with the villain, on the other hand, is uncomfortably close to identification with the oppressor. Humans, uncomfortable witnessing someone suffer, sometimes shut off their ability to sympathize with the ones suffering and instead fixing on the one causing the suffering, who seems interesting and powerful in comparison. In the short term this feels better; in the long run it is the reason former victims are sometimes future abusers. All of which was a long of saying that although I think scary stories can teach us how to deal with fear, not all of them are great teachers.

I do, however, think that every genre, from romance to sci-fi to literary fiction, has examples of stories that handle their subject matter poorly. There is still plenty of fiction in the horror genre that handles awful subject matter in a way that is insightful and artistic, and for the rest of this month I’ll be writing about some of my personal favorites.

Hope you enjoy, and thanks, as always, for reading. Happy Halloween!

Ferris Bueller and the Nature of Goodness

*spoilers abound throughout*

During a recent bout of sickness, my boyfriend and I watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, because it is a wonderful, happy movie that makes life seem less awful even when you have to periodically pause it to rush to the bathroom. While I was watching it, two things struck me. First, it is a wonderful happy movie that makes life seem less awful even when, well, I guess I covered that already. Second, Ferris Bueller does almost nothing I approve of, and yet I can’t help liking him and rooting for him. He rejects education for entirely juvenile reasons. He lies to every authority figure, bullies his best friend into going out, takes another person’s car out for a joyride and cons his way into taking someone else’s dinner reservation (both of which are on the borderline of stealing), all without showing a hint of guilt. Now, there are many stories out there with an amoral, rule-breaking protagonist, but often I root for these protagonists while cringing. I don’t want them to be doing what they are doing, but I still care about them and hope that somehow things work out for them. They are often tragic protagonists who are punished in the end for their wrongdoing, and though I didn’t want to see them suffer I also wouldn’t have been satisfied by any other ending. Ferris, however, is someone who I root for unreservedly, and when, at the end, everything works out for him, I am completely satisfied. It is the one movie that can make me forget all my normal values while I watch it.

Or is it?

The antiheroic characters I described above earn my sympathy through two methods. First, they tend to be charming, cool and often funny, so they are likable. Second, they tend to oppose characters who are unlikable, sometimes even characters who are more morally corrupt than they are. Both of those do apply to Ferris (he is funny and charming, and his main antagonist, Principal Rooney, is so rude and unapologetically overbearing, it’s impossible to root for him) but there is another layer to Ferris’ success as a character. While in an academic sense everything he does is wrong, while you are watching him do things the way he does, it’s hard to disapprove of them.

For one thing, his misbehaving is incredibly harmless. He never seeks to do harm, only to enjoy himself. I’m trying to think of bad things that could have happened offscreen as a result of his actions, and I can only think of one; the maitre d’ who was duped into giving Ferris someone else’s reservation probably got chewed out by his manager. That’s all, and odds are if he’s a decent maitre d’ who doesn’t normally make this kind of mistake, and if the manager is willing to listen to the full explanation, it’s doubtful he suffered any long term consequences. Ferris never steals from somebody who isn’t capable of easily replacing what was taken, he never lies with the intent to cause somebody else physical or emotional pain, and in general he never shows ill will towards anybody, even Mr. Rooney.

In fact, the humiliations Mr. Rooney experiences are entirely unrelated to anything Ferris does. In another movie a Ferris-like scalawag might set sadistic traps for him, but that’s not Ferris’ way. Ferris is content to get out of school, and leave Mr. Rooney in peace. It is Mr. Rooney’s own actions that hurt and humiliate him. He is rude to a lesbian who he mistakes for Ferris, and gets soda spat in his face. He trespasses on the Bueller’s property, and their dog chases him down. He trespasses again, frightens Ferris’ sister and gets the police called on him. I’ve heard some people argue that Mr. Rooney is actually just doing his job, and we just root against him because he is unsympathetic, I think that is a hard position to support. While it is true that Mr. Rooney has a responsibility to maintain his school’s attendance rate, do you think any court or review board would say that responsibility justified abandoning his school for an entire day to chase down a single absent student? Or intruding on someone else’s property? Dropping a flowerpot on their dog? Even though his anger at Ferris is somewhat reasonable, his actions are not.

So there is one reason why Ferris is easy to identify with. He never harms anyone directly, nor does he intend to hurt anyone. That doesn’t necessarily make him a good person. If he cares only about his own pleasure, without any intent to hurt others, that makes him an amorally blithe spirit. To really be considered a good person, he has to care about others in addition to caring about himself. Does he meet this criteria?

I think he does. He brings two people along with him on his day off; his best friend Cameron, and his girlfriend Sloane. At first, when Cameron is sick in bed and conflicted about going, this seems selfish. Ferris claims that Cameron’s illness is all in his head, that he is chronically depressed and anxious and what he really needs is to get out of his head and have some fun. For many characters, this would be just another sort of manipulation, or justifications made for the speaker’s  own convenience, but this movie backs this up. Once Cameron gets out of his house, he really does stop showing any signs of sickness. His facial expressions and mannerisms are very consistent with being anxious, and his parents are described as being both strict and neglectful (speaking as someone who was in the same position for a while, I related to Cameron quite a lot). After Ferris has gotten Cameron out of the house, he continues to have asides to the camera about Cameron’s mental state. Ferris only drops his carefree attitude when he talks about Cameron, because he is genuinely afraid that Cameron will never loosen up and find his confidence. At one point Sloane suggests that Ferris planned this whole trip for Cameron’s benefit, and we aren’t given any reason to think she’s wrong.

I’ve heard some people suggest that Ferris is a sociopath, and it’s true that he is manipulative and shows a callous disregard for the rules, but neither of those are the defining traits of sociopathy. What separates sociopaths from non-sociopaths is that sociopaths completely lack empathy. In fact, people who have many traits of sociopathy, but whose sense of empathy is normal, are known for being extreme altruists; the kinds of people who run into burning buildings or dart into traffic to save small children. Ferris is not a sociopath. He does two things a sociopath would never do. First, when Cameron falls into the pool, seemingly catatonic, Ferris dives in to save him. The look on his face when Cameron falls is of shock and terror, and it’s not for the benefit of any audience. Nobody else is there, except Sloane, who is behind him and couldn’t see his face anyway. Second, when Cameron, at the end of the film, destroys his father’s car, Ferris offers to take the blame. He begs for it. He says this is too much heat for Cameron to take. His feelings for Cameron are both selfless and genuine.

One of Ferris’ most morally questionable acts in the beginning of the film is stealing Cameron’s father’s red Ferrari. I say it’s the most morally questionable because, while Ferris doesn’t intend for it to be damaged, it easily could have been, and because, while Cameron’s family is probably financially capable of replacing it, it has strong emotional value to Cameron’s father.  The car is kept shut up in a garage, never driven, never used, just polished and admired and doted on. Many kids would complain jokingly about their parent’s loving some trinket more than them, but when Cameron says his father loves the Ferrari more than his own son, nobody treats it as an exaggeration. It is this transgression of Ferris’ that worries Cameron the most.

In the end, the car is returned to the garage unharmed, but Ferris’ plan to take off the miles they have driven turns out to be based on a complete lack of understanding of how cars actually work. Cameron goes catatonic for a while, and Ferris’ blithe demeanor is shaken for the first time. He is truly anxious for his friend. Then, Cameron comes out with it, and suddenly trashes his father’s car. He has lived his whole life in terror of his father, and now, facing the imminent threat of his father’s wrath, he decides the fear is not worth it. He wants to face his father, accept whatever consequences there are. This is how you get rid of fear; you stare the thing you fear in the face, and you accept it. From this point on, Cameron does seem more confident. Initially, he was a rule follower, not because he had an internal moral compass telling him to do so, but because he feared authority and devalued himself. Ferris takes him on an adventure to show him that authority is not all powerful, and that Cameron is worthy of the good times that the rules would so often deprive him of, and in the end, this pays off, though not quite the way Ferris had expected.
This movie, while portraying actions that I would never ordinarily condone, does in fact have a moral core that I completely agree with. Ferris breaks the rules because he knows that the rules aren’t always good. In this film, everyone who follows the rules does so for completely the wrong reason. They are either like Mr. Rooney, insisting on the rules because they feel the rules should benefit them personally, or like Cameron, following the rules because they are afraid of the consequences. Their morality does not come from a place of compassion, empathy, or desire to make the world a better place. Instead, it is Ferris’ mischief that actually comes from concern for others, and that makes the lives of those around him better.

Rules don’t exist to make people good. Rules can’t make people good. Rules give us a sense of how the world work, they give us a framework to live in, but it’s up to us to live in that framework in a way that is empathetic and giving. As long as the rules are consistent with that kind of inner goodness, it is good to follow them, but when that’s not always the case. Sometimes the rules are made by people who don’t really have our best interests at heart, like Cameron’s parents, or maybe the rules become just an excuse for people who aren’t acting in a way that’s really good, like Mr. Rooney. For those times, we need characters like Ferris to remind us that sometimes the best thing to do is take a day off.

Just a Little Water

I’m currently working on two posts that are proving harder to write than I anticipated. It’s one of those cases where the process of writing down my thoughts is causing me to dig deeper into them, which is good, but it’s also delaying their posting quite a bit. In the meantime, there’s a story from work that I’m feeling the urge to share.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I work in a special ed preschool. We are currently in the “do assessments then play because who cares about work its summer bitches!” stage of the year, and in that spirit last Friday was water day. We set up a sprinkler on the playground and filled several plastic tubs with water and bath toys. The next hour was all happy screams and soaking wet chaos.

After a few minutes, we noticed one kid was missing. Tommie (not his real name) was hiding behind the slides. In the past he has had trouble distinguishing between the screams that mean “This is funny and exciting” and the ones that mean “we are scared,” so perhaps he had concluded this water day thing was some unholy torture. Or perhaps he simply thought water belonged in bathtubs and water bottles and getting splashed with it on the playground was incorrect.

Our first attempt to convince him that water was a friend was to invite him onto the swings, which were partially in the path of the sprinkler. During regular playground time it’s one of his favorite activities, and we thought the association might make it fun. The same trick had worked with another kid last year. This time, however, he sat on it for a minute before saying, “Tommie get off? Tommie get off?”

We let him off, and he returned to the refuge of the slides. After giving him a break, one teacher took his hand and gently lead him to the other side of the sprinkler. It was not the sort that went all the way back and forth, but went about halfway up and then down again. She had him on the side where the spray wouldn’t come down on him. She held his hand out so he could feel the water on his fingertips, and see that it wasn’t going to hurt him. At first it seemed to be working, but then he started shaking and she let him go.

I was feeling pretty bad for him at this point, and I thought the least I could do was make him feel good about having tried the water twice. It’s a little hard to know how much language he understands, but I went up to him and did my best. I told him he did a good job trying the water, and I was proud of him. I gave him a big grin and a thumbs up, which he copied. I had that sense of practically seeing the wheels turn in his head, as he tried to piece everything that was going on into a coherent picture. After I felt I had either made my point, or come as close to it as I could, I gave him some space.

A few minutes later, he was slowly creeping up on the sprinkler. He studied the spray, and stuck his fingers back in the jets with the air of a little scientist. I wandered up to him and casually stuck my own fingers in. He watched me, obviously seeing that the water wasn’t hurting me but still on the fence about the whole endeavor. I remembered how much he likes having his feet painted for footprint art, so I stuck my feet over the jets and said, “tickle tickle,” which is what we always say when we are painting.

He immediately copied me, and started grinning.

From then on, he was practically glued to the sprinkler, first sticking his fingers and toes in, and eventually running through it like the rest of his friends were. By the time we had to pack up, he was sitting in one of the tubs and very sad about having to come out. As I was pouring the water out of the tub, I decided he should be rewarded for his bravery. I called him over, and poured it out in front of him; a miniature waterfall for him to play with. Tommie stuck his hands in and splashed the last of the water all over his face, laughing hysterically.

My job is awesome.

 

Rereading The Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Four

In part two I talked about a chapter that was hard for me to say anything about, because it was too religion centric for me to get much out of it, but not anti-atheist enough for me to feel it was fair to criticize it. I solved that problem by going meta; writing about the struggle to react itself, as my reaction to the chapter. I feel I’ve said all I need to see on that topic, and so I will skip the next two chapters, which are along the same lines.

In one of the chapters I skipped, we found out a war broke out in the human world. It’s probably WWII, but that’s not important to the demons. What is important, as far as Screwtape is concerned, is how they can use the war against the Patient. That is the focus of chapter six.

“I am delighted to hear that your patient’s age and profession make it possible, but by no means certain, that he will be called up for military service. We want him to be in the maximum uncertainty, so that his mind will be filled with contradictory pictures of the future, every one of which arouses hope or fear.”

I relate to this chapter so much.

I am anxious. I am tempted to write that I have an anxiety disorder, but I won’t do that for two reasons. The first one is that I don’t have a formal diagnosis, but the second, and more important, one is that sometime around age 20 I turned a corner and it ceased to be something that stopped me from doing things I needed to do. The difference between a psychological disorder and a personal quirk is that one interferes with your daily life and the other is just a part of it. It’s one of my frustrations that people look at descriptions of mental disorders and say, “well I do that, I know lots of people who do that, and I don’t think we’re crazy, so mental disorders are full of crap.” There aren’t tidy boxes, there’s a spectrum of a variety of behaviors and patterns of thinking, and people travel back and forth across it all the time. When I was a teenager, I think it’s fair to say I was firmly on the chronically disordered end of the anxiety spectrum. For years, I physically could not answer the phone. Driving lessons gave me panic attacks. Cute boys were impossible to talk to, but so were cashiers at grocery stores.

“It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them as crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practice fortitude and patience to them all in advance.”

The cruel trick of fear is that it is not satisfied with you living through one bad thing once. It thinks you should live through it for as long as possible beforehand, and through everything else that might happen. In real life, one bad thing happening means that, at the very least, some other equally bad thing hasn’t happened. In fear, all the bad things are happening, all together.

“An important spiritual law is here involved. I have explained to you that you can weaken his prayers by diverting his attention from the Enemy Himself to his own states of mind about the Enemy. On the other hand fear becomes easier to master when the patient’s mind is diverted from the thing feared to the fear itself.”

 

Fear is a thorny little bitch. It turns the skin into a pincushion, folds the mind into a pretzel where all thoughts are just contradictory questions screaming at each other. It works the body into a frenzy that paralyzes. Still, it is easier to deal with those sensations directly than the worries it conjures. Fear is confined to my own body. The worries are an infinite multiverse. That was the secret I needed to learn before I could help myself. No, sadly therapists weren’t a part of that journey.

They could have helped, but luckily I’m a good self-educator. I read a lot about anxiety and tried a lot of tricks before I started finding things that worked. Now, anxiety is something perpetually present in my life, but I understand it. It’s like a game of chess that I’m compelled to play every day. On the one hand, sometimes the program I play against takes a piece, but on the other hand, I am unlimited in my ability to learn from my mistakes, while it has maxed out it’s difficulty rating. In the long run, I usually win.

“One can therefore formulate the general rule; in all activities of mind which favor our cause, encourage the patient to be un-selfconscious and to concentrate on the object, but in all activities favorable to the Enemy bend his mind back on itself.”

One thing I love about this chapter is that, even through the voice of Screwtape, Lewis does not condemn the feeling of fear. It is neither good nor bad, just a normal human reaction that he, in his religious view, labels a cross to bear. It is not even that dwelling on the fear or being controlled by it is a sin. Screwtape never suggests that making the Patient fearful will, in and of itself, corrupt him and make him unfit for heaven. His aim instead is to put the Patient in a “favorable mindset,” which I assume means to muddle his understanding of it so he loses control of how he reacts, and it’s in the reactions that sin lie.

In concluding that, I am relying somewhat on my own experience. I don’t think Lewis was thinking about anxiety disorders when he wrote this, but I thought about how, when I was at my most anxious, I did a terrible job of taking care of myself. I suppose you could regard that as a kind of sin, although this is something I dislike about the religious mindset. I don’t think it’s productive to think of actions as sinful, at least the way I’ve always understood sin. Again, it focuses the attention away from the cause of a wrong action, towards the wrong action itself. It can create feelings of shame that will be reinforced whenever the same emotions lead to the same result. It’s better to understand the initial cause, because that can lead to actual steps towards change. Admit fault, and ask forgiveness, by all means, but also understand that you, like anyone, do things for reasons. Know those reasons, and you can then try, by incremental steps, to change habits, and remake a better version of you.