The Year I Lost Confidence

It’s the last week of the year and the inevitable “best of…”, “worst of…”, “year in review” type thoughts begin to fill our heads and timelines. As I’ve begun some of my own personal reflections, I’m beginning to see a theme emerging for what 2016 was for me and what I would like to see change in 2017. In short, 2016 was the year that I lost confidence in myself.

It began with losing my job in 2016. In 2014 I was asked to leave a job I loved. It was my “dream job”. I was asked to leave for understandable reasons based on the culture of the organization. I wasn’t perfect at the job, but I was doing good things and I think I was growing into it. I was devastated to lose the job, and yet something of myself was retained despite the devastation. I felt like it was the circumstance more so than my performance that cost me the position.

This year was different. I lost a job I didn’t particularly like, a job for which I felt overqualified. The reasoning given was my being a “bad fit” for the position and also, it was inferred, for the organization. There was a sense that I should be grateful that my ill-fittingness was tolerated as long as it was. I was angry that I was fired. I was hurt. I was confused. But more than anything else, I was embarrassed. I had changed cities for this job. I had moved away from my kids. I had thought this would be my second chance, my reboot, my fresh start. Instead, it was another failure. And I was beginning to stack failures. Plus it’s a blow to the ego to feel overqualified for something and to be told you’re unqualified. How embarrassing!

That was January.

The rest of the year was a series of false starts, unfinished projects, pipe dreams, and disappointments. My resume has to be in the inbox of half of the non-profits in the eastern part of the country. Well, I guess more accurately, my resume was deleted by half of the non-profits in the eastern side of the country. I tried to self start, to be entrepreneurial, to be a go-getter all while getting increasingly depressed and discouraged.

That was my professional life.

In my personal life, I found myself repeating old mistakes, falling into old traps, and losing connections with loved ones. I struggled with feelings of unworthiness and powerlessness. I felt alienated and small. I caught myself grasping at old visions of who I was and what I wanted from my life and losing sight of where I was and what I had. I lost people’s trust and subsequently lost trust in myself and my own ability to make good decisions.

Then the summer came and I did something really stupid. Without consulting my doctor, I went off of my medication. Basically the one thing that is stressed when you are on anti-depressants is to not stop them without your doctor’s supervision. Oops! I wasn’t sure the meds were doing any good. Furthermore I hated that I was unable to trust my own thoughts and feelings. I felt like I was leaning too heavily on the crutch of medication.

Yeah, that was a mistake. I crashed pretty hard during the summer. What momentum I had built up, I lost. I let projects go. I became even more isolated. I became moody (moodier) and despairing. Needless to say, I was a joy to be around.

It took me until a couple of months ago to get back on medication, a different one than I had been on before. It’s through the lens of a couple of months of more effective chemicals and some pretty intense therapy sessions that I have been able to gain some clarity on the year that is passing.

It was a couple of sessions ago that my therapist pointed out that I had lost confidence in myself. The moment she said it, it rang so incredibly true that I was rocked by her words. I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever been an incredibly cocky person, but I’ve always had a baseline of trust in my ability to do the the things that I do well. This year, that baseline level of self confidence was gone. I didn’t trust in my ability to speak. I didn’t trust in my ability to write. I didn’t trust in my ability to connect with people. I’ve spent much of this year feeling like I bring nothing new or interesting to the table. It is an awful feeling.

Self confidence isn’t something that comes from external affirmations. I have had plenty of those. What has kept me going this year is that there are people who believe in me far more than I do in myself. I have cheerleaders in my family, friends who encourage me, and acquaintances who have entered my life simply on the virtue of respecting what I have put out into the world. I am grateful that I have had so many people who have lent me their strength when I have not had my own.

As grateful as I am, that outside energy is no substitute for what has been missing inside of me. I go into this year with a strong desire to get my mojo back. I think the key to that is accomplishing small things on a consistent basis. In the midst of the remembrances of Carrie Fisher’s life that have come out in the last 24 hours, I came across this quote that I really liked:

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I think this is true. I think this is what courage looks like. I think it is about just doing the thing, despite all the voices inside of you telling you that you can’t do the thing. I think it starts small, sometimes simply with making a plan. Part of the next couple of weeks for me will be making my plan for the upcoming year. Shannon got me a cool Panda planner for Christmas. It’s a tool to help me monitor the incremental growth I’m taking towards my objectives. I’m looking forward to using it and rebuilding some of the resilience I feel I’ve lost.

 

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My Princess

This year seems to be unprecedented for celebrity deaths. It started, as I recall with David Bowie right around my birthday and continued on with the likes of Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, and of course, Prince. All of these deaths have touched me on some level as I have been moved by the art of these people in some form or fashion. The arts touch our lives at a deep primal level and we rightfully esteem those who can move us to laugh, cry sing, dance, and contemplate. I have had a level of appreciation for many artists that has brought me to a place of mourning on more than one occasion.

Today is different. Today Carrie Fisher passed away. She had a massive heart attack on a plane coming from the UK to Los Angeles a couple of days ago. Yesterday it was said that she was stable, but today we lost her at the far too young age of 60.

Yes, she had memorable performances in films like The Blues Brothers, When Harry Met Sally, and Austin Powers. Yes, she was a phenomenal author who wrote with rare insight and wit. And yes, she was incredibly outspoken about her struggles with addiction and mental illness. Her candor in speaking about her bipolar disorder has been one of the key inspirations for my being so open about my clinical depression. By all accounts, she was witty, charming, generous, funny, and a true artist. And yet for me she will always be Princess Leia and I say that unapologetically. And to quote Lor Sen Tekka at the beginning of The Force Awakens “To me she is royalty”.

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There’s truly no sense in my recapping how important Star Wars has been in my life. I can’t imagine you would be here if you didn’t know that tidbit about me. When the original trilogy was made, the three leads were treated as equal parts of the story. The credits showed Harrison Ford’s, Mark Hamill’s and Carrie Fisher’s names simultaneously, a move that has not been replicated in the later films. They were equal parts of the story, equal parts of the mythos, and to me, equal in importance. I can’t tell you how important this image was to me. My first heroine was no damsel in distress. She traded verbal jabs with Han Solo. She took charge and was respected for her leadership and bravery. She was no bit player to Han and Luke’s story. It was her story too. She was strong and competent and those things were never sacrificed in those moments when she was also tender and compassionate.

The Leia we see in The Force Awakens, General Leia, is just as rich a character if not more so. More than any other character, it can be argued, Leia has experienced massive loss. In her early years it was the loss of her planet and consequently her adopted family. In Return of the Jedi, it is her loss of identity. She discovers that she is the daughter of a monster and the sister of a Jedi. By episode 7, her husband, son, and brother have all left her. All that she has left is her fight. She tells Han that they both went back to doing what they do best, which for her was rallying people to fight against tyranny. Leia is the character who never runs away from the fight. She never surrenders. She never loses hope. She is the stalwart. She is the heart of both the Rebellion and the Resistance.

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It seems that more and more we are having the conversation that representation in media matters. This is a worthwhile conversation as it is leading to greater numbers of marginalized people getting to see themselves on both big and small screens. What’s often missed in the conversation about representation though, is how important it is for shaping the ideas and ideals of those who already have it. For better or for worse (I would argue mostly for better) Princess Leia shaped much of my adolescent thinking about women. Of course she was a standard of beauty, but she was also a model of strength and leadership. I believe she is the reason why I’ve always been attracted to women who could spar with me verbally and stand up for what they believed. She is the kind of woman I would want with me in the trenches when life gets hard. While I know it is important for young girls to have such role models, it is equally important for young boys to have them as well.

Leia also paved the way for the current direction the Star Wars franchise is going. Very subtly, the world’s largest and most successful franchise has become a platform for female leadership. The two most recent films have had strong, no nonsense female leads who were unencumbered by romantic relationships. Even Lucasfilm has transitioned to being lead by a woman with the transfer of power from George Lucas to Kathleen Kennedy. While there is still some work to do on the representation of women of color, Star Wars has become one of the few tentpole franchises to be carried by the strength of female leads and Princess Leia paved the way for the series’ current direction.

Leia doesn’t work without Fisher’s portrayal. I imagine that for any actor or actress it is difficult to be pigeonholed into one role, even one as iconic as Leia. She spoke of how she struggled under the weight of fans’ expectations of her. I can imagine that she wanted to be seen as more than the girl with the hairbuns and the gold bikini. I’m sure it was tough to be Leia. But I hope she knew how much that character meant to the world. I hope that she could stand back, watch her own work, and realize the soul that she infused into what could have easily been a caricature. I hope she recognized that the strength and goodness that is so central to Leia’s character was her own strength and goodness. And I hope she recognized that when she returned to her role in episodes 7 and the upcoming episode 8 that it inspired all of us to see that not only had Leia never stopped fighting, Carrie never stopped fighting either. She encourages all of us to fight on.

I am incredibly sad. I suppose it is a natural part of life to watch the people who shaped you slip away. And we never fully appreciate a person’s impact on our lives until they are gone. This is true of those we watch from a distance and those in our immediate circumference. It seems silly to be so moved by the death of someone I didn’t know, but then again, she shared much of her life and struggles with the world, so maybe I knew her more than I realize. In any event, this is a huge loss. My words feel inadequate. The world is better for having had Carrie Fisher in it. I’m better for having watched her ply her craft on screen and on the page. Even in the midst of a hard and tragic year, she still inspires me to hope.

What “Rogue One” teaches us about how to resist Empire

 

 

static1-squarespace(This post contains spoilers for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”. Do not proceed if you do not want to know key points of the film)

If there is one thing about which I am not shy, it is my love of Star Wars. In fact, it is one of my favorite topics. The latest entry in the saga, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is the first standalone film that does not connect directly to the larger saga of the Skywalker/Solo clan. It is the story summarized in the opening crawl of the original film:

Rebel spaceships, striking
from a hidden base, have won
their first victory against
the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel
spies managed to steal secret
plans to the Empire's
ultimate weapon, the DEATH
STAR, an armored space
station with enough power
to destroy an entire planet

These couple of lines of text are fleshed out into a thrilling film, that gains momentum with each scene until a third act that might be the most impressive of any Star Wars film. It’s a tight film that wastes no time with “B” stories as, in a way, it is itself a “B” story. The characters are given just enough screen time to get at their motivations and personalities and the visuals are stunning, especially in the aforementioned third act. And though many people have had issues with it, I was impressed with the computer generated resurrection of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin and the quick replication of a much younger Carrie Fisher in her iconic role as Princess Leia.

The film on its own merits is stunning, but in this era where many of us are thinking through what it means to be on side of justice, it also gives us some helpful illustrations of the ways that empire works and what makes for an effective rebellion. I’m sure I’ll have some additional thoughts after my inevitable second (and third… and let’s be honest, fourth) viewing but here’s what I think we can take away right now.

Coalitions: The first half of the film centers largely on finding Galen Erso, a scientist who has been instrumental in the development of the Death Star and who also has sympathies and connections to the burgeoning rebel alliance. Galen’s daughter is Jyn, the film’s main protagonist. Jyn is recruited by the rebel alliance to find Saw Guerrerra, a rebel considered too militant by the more politically-minded leadership of the rebel alliance. Jyn becomes the bridge between the more radical Guerrera and the senators and officials who make up the alliance.

One of the things I have noticed since the election is how fractured the progressive movement is in this country. We disagree on priorities. We privilege our own identity politics above the needs of other marginalized groups. We differ on tactics and strategy. We do all of this to our own detriment and to the detriment of the causes we claim to champion. Effective rebellions are coalitions of people from differing backgrounds and perspective coming together to effect change. We have to recognize that we need the people who know how to work within the system and those who fight the system from the outside. We need the pragmatists and the radicals. We need King and Malcolm X (that’s an oversimplification of both men, but you get my point). We need the resourced supporters and the grassroots activists. The challenges ahead of us are too big to rely on any one tactic exclusively. We need each other in the days ahead and that will mean putting some egos on the shelf for the sake of common goals.

Faith – While “hope” was the common refrain of the film, a more subtle aspect of the story is faith. While we’re used to seeing the Jedi and the Sith use the force to do incredible feats of strength, “Rogue One” gives us a scenario where we see the cult of the force as a folk religion. Jyn’s mother Lyra places a shard of kyber crystal, the same substance used to power both lightsabers and the Death Star’s laser, around Jyn’s neck before they separate. She tells Jyn to “trust the force” in the same way that we might tell someone in a similarly desperate situation to trust that God will be with them. It is Jyn herself who utters the iconic line “May the Force Be with us”, both as a rallying cry and as an act of faith as the team prepares to go on their deadly mission.

The film also gives us two  extraordinary characters in the form of Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus. The two have served as guardians of the Whills, former attendants and protectors of a Jedi temple that is now being ravaged by the empire. Chirrut is a devotee of the Force, constantly reciting the mantra “I am one with the Force, the Force is with me”. Baze, on the other hand, we’re told was once the most devoted of guardians, but has lost his faith in recent years, likely because of what the empire has done to the temple. While he seems to have become somewhat agnostic, at least until the very end, he remains devoted to the cause and the mission largely because of Chirrut’s faith.

Resistance movements need a moral base and compass. Movements need spirituality. It doesn’t need to be any particular faith, but it needs to be so deeply rooted that even the agnostics and non-believers will be moved by the conviction of the faithful. The civil rights movement in this country was energized by black church leaders who felt as much of a spiritual conviction as they did a political one. I believe the days ahead will require an interfaith coalition of people dedicated to justice who are dedicated to something larger than themselves and use their convictions to galvanize people to act.

Sacrifice – (I mentioned that there would be spoilers, right?) There is a moment in the third act when K-2SO, the sarcastic former imperial droid is helping the rebels to get the plans and is overrun by Stormtroopers. He fights them off as best he can, as he continues to go about his mission, but he is eventually overpowered by the surging troops. K-2SO is the first of the main characters to “die” and with his fate it becomes pretty clear: none of our heroes are walking out of this thing alive. One by one the protagonists meet their fates in heroic fashion. I will admit to being teary eyed as Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor hold each other on the beach as the approaching shockwave from the Death Star’s blast overtakes them. They die knowing that they’ve done what they can for the rebellion, that they’ve remained faithful to their comrades and to their convictions, and that they were on the right side of history.

Talib Kweli has a line in his song “Rocket Ships”: They saying that we need a revolution but their passion is reduced to all caps on a computer. A real resistance movement requires genuine sacrifice. It could be sacrifice of status or wealth. It almost always means sacrifice of time and energy. It could mean sacrifice of relationships. For some it will mean physical sacrifice as we put ourselves in between the mechanisms of empire and those who are most vulnerable. To truly be on the side of the hurting means that we have to stand up to the powers that be even when that stand comes at great risk to ourselves. It requires courage. It requires faith. And it requires the belief that you’ve been a part of something that can truly outlive and outlast the individual. This is what movements of rebellion are all about.

“Rogue One” was a phenomenal movie, not just for the ways that it expanded the Star Wars universe, but for the ways that it inspires us to think about what this world needs to push back against the forces of domination and oppression. Ultimately it asks us if we’re willing to do what it takes to be on the side of love and freedom. What are we willing to risk to fight the forces of fear? These are tough questions, but ones that transcend the world of fantasy. We cannot simply escape into the rebellion of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away. We need to join the rebellion that is forming today.

 

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Weak: An Advent Reflection

Words have not come easily to me as of late. It’s a problem with which every writer struggles and none have found a surefire cure. I’m not sure the root of my current bout of writer’s block, but were I to guess, I would say fatigue.

Now, I feel like a bit whiny complaining of fatigue with my current life circumstances. I’ve been out of work for awhile. I’ve been job hunting, trying to keep house a bit, doing some writing projects on the side… but mostly, I just have lots of time on my hands to sit with my thoughts. I think of grandfather, WWII vet who worked on the railroad most of his life to support his wife and four daughters. He was a hard worker. Sometimes I imagine him looking down on me from heaven in disgust. Of course, he wouldn’t. He loved me dearly, but I my mind runs away with me sometimes. He was my model for strength. And I feel weak.

This year has been an exercise in feeling small. I haven’t been the father I want to be, the kind who more than provides for his kids. I haven’t contributed much to the world. I don’t feel like I have much impact on the world. And the world… well, it feels like a big, scary place right now. That seems a childish thing to say, but it’s real. The world feels unstable, unmoored. It feels at times like reality is coming apart at the seams. And in the midst of it I feel small, like a little boy in a rowboat, paddling against the waves of the ocean. I feel my own impotence, my own insignificance.

The thing I have had to contribute to the world as of late is my writing. It feels like not enough. It feels like not much at all. I’m not a great writer. I don’t know that my words have much impact. People have told me on occasion that something I wrote moved them. I am always grateful to hear those words, but I oftentimes feel that they are being polite. Or that I’ve just struck upon something that someone else said far more eloquently than I could. There’s also the fact that I’ve tried in recent months to make some money from my writing and well, that hasn’t gone as I hoped. Don’t get me wrong, I never expected that writing would become my full time job, but I had hoped for a little better. Like it or not, there is still a great deal of my value based on how much I earn.

I hadn’t realized how bad my depression was until just a month or so ago when I got on a medication that works. As much as I want mental health to be without stigma, there is still a part of me that hates that I need a drug to maintain. I spend so much of the little energy that I have trying to understand my own brain. I take a big orange pill every morning and that keeps me from thinking about killing myself. That kinda feels like a low bar to clear, but at least now I’m clearing it.

I’ve been trying to run again. This is maybe my fourth restart in as many months. It’s frustrating. In 2013 I ran a half marathon. Now I get winded after ten minutes. I’ve gained so much weight since I ran that race. I feel fat and sluggish. It doesn’t help that since August my asthma has been worse than it’s been in years.

I fell alone a lot of the time, even when I am with people. This has always been the case for me. I’ve always felt like an outsider, an oddball, a misfit. Sometimes I relish my special snowflake status, but the truth is that I want places where I belong. I want community and camaraderie. I want a tribe.

Lest you think this whole post is just a big pity party, it’s not. I feel weak and tired, small and alone, impotent and insignificant. And it’s Advent. It is an excellent time to feel these things.

On Sunday, I attended my friend Harold’s funeral. Because he was a pastor, he planned his own service and chose the first part of John 1 as one of the readings. Though we rarely read this as a Christmas text – there’s no manger, star, or shepherds – this is as much about Jesus’ origins as any of texts in Matthew or Luke. Jesus is, for John, the light that shines in the darkness, the light the darkness cannot overcome.

Jesus came into a world that must have felt like it was splitting apart at the seams for many in his community. He came to those who felt weak and afraid. He came to those who felt powerless and insignificant. He came to those who felt small and unworthy. He came to those who felt depressed and alone. He was their strength. He was their peace of mind. He was their hope.

A line from the Christmas hymn “O Holy Night” has jumped out at me as of late. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, Til He appeared and the soul felt it’s worth”. What does it mean for a soul to feel it’s worth? To me, it means that all of the external markers of value are stripped away and the Divine spark that resides within all of us emerges as the thing that truly counts. The soul’s worth isn’t based on your income, title, strength, health, nation, race, rank, or status. The souls worth is based on being created, known, and loved by God and the light dispels all of the shadows that keep us from seeing our inherent value.

It feels like dark days are ahead. And though I will do the little bit of good where I can when I can, there will be times when the darkness feels overwhelming. There will be days ahead when I will feel weak, small, and alone. It is in those moments that I will need to be reminded that the darkness, both in the world and in my own heart and mind, cannot be overcome by the light of the world. And that The Light has called me to be light as well, dispelling the shadows that make others feel small, weak, and alone, reminding them that their soul too has worth.

I hope that you will remind me. I will try to do the same for you.