The Metaphor of Corrective Eyesight As Supplied by a Birthday

I recently had a birthday. It was no. 39 and therefore the “deep breath” before the plunge into 40.

In many ways, it was like an old stone by the side of the road where you stop to sit and rest a bit. Not far ahead lies a great, walled city with menacing turrets and a massive iron gate which lies open for you like a dark, foreboding mouth. Behind you, is a sun-baked road that is heavily worn and offers no comfort, save for a few good memories lost behind the distant hills where the dusk now rises. Are your best days behind you? Is the city a dark and lonely place? Or does it just appear that way due to its overly defensive presentation?

"Chmurolamacz" by Polish artist, Jacek Yerka (1994).

“Chmurolamacz” by Polish artist, Jacek Yerka (1994).

39 is definitely a totem of reflection; the last slice of limbo before middle age wraps you in its arms and carries you off into the future. Mine wasn’t as depressing as I expected, however. I always try to do something memorable on each birthday – either by traveling some place new or hosting a uniquely themed party. It is important to me to celebrate every revolution around the sun that I have survived as such benchmarks are worthy of noting. Survival on this blue rock is no easy feat, and although my life is nowhere near as difficult as those born in war-ravaged Sudan or other parts of the world, I do try (every so often) to appreciate that my path has given me wonderful opportunities. Not indulging in those opportunities is like leaving perfectly good fruit to rot in a bowl on your kitchen counter. It’s a waste, plain and simple.

This year, I went to the remanent crater of Mount St, Helens and stared into its desolate shell. This quiet volcano (fairly dormant since its 1980 eruption) reminded me that even in the face of what we perceive as certain doom and destruction, there is a promise of a peaceful after-effect. It’s been 30+ years since the side of this mountain blew out and devastated the surrounding forest. However, today, the area is teaming with life and thousands trees have regrown in shadow of the magma-filled monster. I imagined if all this fear I have of turning 40 is the equivalent of that explosion in 1980, I would be happy to know that eventually, things will take the place of ash and cinder. Life will pour into the space hollowed out by age, and something new will take root.

So stopping to rest at that rock along the road called “39”, I can see that no matter what is waiting for me in that walled city, I will be alright. And as I get closer, maybe that place won’t look like a prison, but rather a busy port with a sailing ship to new places and adventures.

When the Antidote is Gandalf

Sometimes I think Gandalf is the best psychiatrist the world has ever seen.

J.R.R. Tolkien (and to some degree director Peter Jackson and actor Ian McKellan) crafted a wise character worthy of graduating from a Ph. D program. He may look elderly and gray, but this old bird is tough as nails, and he would beat you into a good psychological state.

Dealing with an abusive spouse that’s not unlike the Balrog of Moria? Gandalf’s got your back:

To the spouse: “You shall not pass!”

To you: “Run, you fools!”

Substance abuse issues from a drug pusher named Saruman?

Gandalf: “I will draw you Saruman as poison is drawn from a wound!”

Hopelessness and suicidal thoughts got you down?

Denethor: “Abandon your posts, flee this city! Flee for your lives!”

Gandalf wacks him in the face with his staff and turns to you, “Prepare for battle!”

Feeling lost and cursed in life?

Frodo: “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”

Gandalf: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of Evil.”

On a serious note, I truly believe that people who suffer from psychological problems are often whipped from many directions by negative thoughts: Incessant like slave drivers, these terrible energies push and pull like tidal forces until the soul feels completely exhausted and unable to mount a proper defense. Eventually, the mind harmonizes with the darker voices and accepts defeat…unless a small amount of hope can escape like a moth from the clutches from the dark tower and summon the great eagles for a quick retreat.

So the next time you feel down or have a problem that appears unsolvable, just think:

What would Gandalf do?

drgandalf

No man is an island…a peninsula perhaps, but not an island.

This weekend I was reminded of how lucky I am to have the friends that I do.

First, the set up: I’m a bit of a sarcastic, melancholy chap. I don’t take kindly to very many people and I think my personality sometimes resembles the more unpleasant attributes of a cactus. I am often physically tired, and as such, my temper has all the fury of a hornets’ nest struck by a wandering baseball. I am particular about who I let in to my life and I am not quick to trust. These details form the outline of a person who sometimes isolates himself in order to avoid disappointment, and let’s face it, the human race often excels in this area.

However, there are those moments – though they may be few – where your hope in people is restored. Like finding a wedding ring you are certain was lost down a drain, the feeling of gratitude you experience is both powerful and reconstructive.

This past weekend, I was coming off of an exhausting work week. I was a little depressed about being single (par for the course), and when I attempted to cook some corn bread for a fundraiser. It went badly. The result? Yellow cinder blocks. Instead of following my first reaction: “I am a failure. I quit.” I pressed myself out of that groove and into another: What is the immediate problem at hand? Cooking. Let’s break it down logically:

Do you cook/bake much?

No.

Well then, maybe you’re just inexperienced, which is different from just being a huge failure. Maybe you just need help.

So I phoned a friend who is an excellent cook, went to his house, and together we whipped up some deliciously moist corn bread. Actually, he did most the work. The exercise in asking for help was probably the hardest part of the entire process for me. However, I was also fortunate enough to have this cooking lesson turn into a wonderful evening of passion-fruit vodka martinis, a fantastic chicken dinner, and a thought-provoking political discourse with my friend’s husband. Although I did not fully understand immediately…getting out of my home, spending time with a good friend, interacting with people, and learning something new (how to bake corn bread properly)…left me on a great high note by the end of the weekend.

Now, I know this isn’t a story about someone donating a kidney to me, and people might say, “So you can’t cook corn bread. Big deal. Having your friend help you restores your faith in people?” but I often look for the simple obstacles and their solutions to solve larger ones. Bill Clinton taught me that. He once said that resolving the most complex issue starts with understanding the smallest part of it. I think he said it in that documentary about crossword puzzles. Anyway, it made a lot of sense and it stuck with me.

I think when people are depressed or feel like giving up on endeavors and get lost in that cloud of self-doubt, over-analysis and worry, they forget the first asset available to them: You are connected, by some means, to other people. I truly believe that whatever your tests in this life are…whether it is to become more patient, how to trust your instincts better, or pushing yourself to be more creative…you will not be doing it alone. Even if it feels like a solo flight, 9 times out of 10 it’s not. Collaboration is key. Find a harmonic that strengthens you.

If you don’t have awesome friends, get out there and make some. Keep digging through that pile of trash we call humanity until you find the diamonds. They ARE out there, and they’re worth trudging through the nasty smell to find.

If you have some already, get off your ass and call them. You might not realize it, but you probably have an army of optimism available to you 24/7 on speed-dial. Use it.