Catching Your Breath: Chapter 1

Who is he?
A railroad track toward hell?
Breaking like a stick of furniture?
The hope that suddenly overflows the cesspool?

The love that goes down the drain like spit?
The love that said forever, forever
and then runs you over like a truck?
Are you a prayer that floats into a radio advertisement?

Despair,
I don’t like you very well.
You don’t suit my clothes or my cigarettes.
Why do you locate here
as large as a tank,
aiming at one half of a lifetime?
— Anne Sexton
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Chapter One: DROWNING

When I was a little boy, my dad was my hero. One summer when I was 5 or 6, we took a trip to Nashville for a few days to visit my dad’s best friend. The hotel had a pool. I distinctly remember standing on the stairs at the entrance to the shallow end when Dad said, “Okay, ready to count? Let’s see how high you can count & how long I can stay under.”

My dad, the career firefighter and marathon runner, held his breath and slipped beneath the surface of the water. I watched him swim away, toward the shallow end, turn, and slowly make his way back.

For the first few seconds, it was so cool, but to a kindergartener, staying under past the count of ten seemed either impossible or superhuman. He didn’t come up for what felt like forever, and I was getting nervous. You know, 60 seconds seems like an eternity if you’re a small child.

When my dad finally emerged and took that first gasp of fresh air, I was both relieved and amazed. I cheered, “Dad! Oh my gosh! I counted to 60! How did you do that?!”

As awed as I was to see my dad’s trick, I always felt better when my hero was near me. The water was an uncertain thing to me: I knew I couldn’t hold my breath and swim for it like he did. And I didn’t like feeling alone.

It’s interesting, children can’t hold their breath as long as adults can. But the older we become, the longer we teach ourselves to hold it in. The same is true in life. Countless people are holding their breath and fears, just waiting to exhale.

A Case of the Mondays

You curse the alarm as it blares in your ears. The new baby was up on-and-off all night. So you were up, too. Your mother-in-law was staying in the guest room to “help,” but she slept soundly all night long.

You have a flat tire because it’s Monday morning and Mondays were made for flat tires. You think to yourself, “I cannot handle one more thing.” You finally get on the road, knowing you’re already ten minutes late for work, just to find cars backed up for miles. Of course, there’s an overturned tractor-trailer on the interstate.

Your blood pressure spikes and anxiety grips your chest as you realize you can’t afford to be late. There are rumors of layoffs at work and everyone wonders which staff meeting will be their last. You can’t afford to give them a reason to sack you.

Maybe you slam a fist into the steering wheel and growl with frustration. Or spill a cup of coffee down your shirt and have a total meltdown in the breakroom, leaving coworkers staring.

If I were there, I’d pull your coworker aside and whisper, “Trust me, friend: it’s never about the spilled coffee.”

Look, you don’t need an official mental health diagnosis to have a meltdown. There are plenty of mostly normal people with relatively ordinary lives and good families who completely lose their shit in chaotic moments.

Can you blame them? At one point or another, we all know what it's like to fear an unpredictable future, dread an encounter with that overbearing person, or experience the shame of an unforgiving past. We stress out over people and situations that we cannot change or control. And then we beat ourselves up about it.

Why are we so hard on ourselves? When I make a mistake, I can be hateful, vile, and just plain mean to myself. Why do we do it? Sure, we mess up. No one is arguing that, but why do we treat ourselves worse than we'd treat our worst enemy? We're human, and for some reason, the Divine didn't program us for perfection. Therefore, there will be times we screw things up.

But instead of talking about the problem (we made a mistake), we view ourselves as the problem. Instead of calling it like it is and saying, "I messed up," we say, "I'm a loser."

What an idiot.

I'm so stupid.

I'm a mistake.

I am a failure.

We give ourselves no room for mercy. We accept no imperfections or flaws. Even if we might offer someone else a second chance, we refuse it for ourselves, condemning ourselves to a life sentence of self-hatred, criticism, and shame. And for what? Making a mistake? Being human? Dropping the ball?

Weak Sometimes

When my son, Ben, was around four years old, I took him with me to the grocery store. As I pushed the cart past the yogurt and cream cheese, I stopped to add a dozen eggs to my cart. I opened the carton and carefully inspected each one. I asked Ben if he knew what I was doing. “Checking to see if they’re broken,” he said. I was pleasantly surprised.

A few days later, I was reminded of those eggshells as I had lunch with a close friend. Kendra always seems to have it together, even in the face of heartbreak and adversity. Few people knew about her unfaithful husband who liked to spend grocery money on his drug habit. She loved him desperately but worried about being able to keep the lights on. She wondered whether Child Protective Services would find out and take her babies away.

Kendra took a second job to make ends meet and never asked a soul for help. While keeping up appearances is something we Southerners pride ourselves on (that and college football), she wasn’t so concerned about what others thought. My friend was just doing what she could to be strong for her kids. She was just trying to make it another damn day.

I had watched Kendra walk through difficult decisions and unbearable circumstances with dignity and grace for years. She’d been pulled in every imaginable direction without friends, family, or coworkers realizing the hell she lived in.

Until she couldn’t. Kendra had been one of the strongest people I knew, but as I sat across from her, I could see her sudden fragility. Years of chaos and mess had nearly broken her. I knew I needed to tread carefully.

I feared she had become like those eggshells, ready to crack at any moment. I wondered if that thin shell might crumble if I asked one more question.

Those moments aren’t easy. When someone I care about seems to be suffocating underneath the weight of life, my deep-rooted habits flare up. My savior complex kicks into overdrive and I have to restrain myself from looking for the nearest phone booth to change from suit to superhero.

I love my friends, so it was tough not to try and swoop in as Kendra’s guardian angel. Cherry-picked Christian scriptures that had been drilled into my head over the years flooded back, along with all the times I’d been told God would magically fix everything if we just pray hard enough. But I couldn’t bear to use Bible verses to give a false sense of hope.

I wanted everything to be alright, and I wanted to play a part in it all working out. But I saw the sadness, exhaustion, and loneliness in my friend’s eyes. Kendra wasn’t looking for a Super Christian or a savior. She just needed space to breathe. She just needed me to embrace the tension of uncertainty with her and let her know that I saw her. This “got-it-together, keep-it-together, don't-let-them-see-you-cry” friend of mine was trusting me with her pain and weariness and fear of all that felt uneasy.

It was a holy moment.

An eggshell holds it all together and protects everything inside. But one foul shake of the carton, one sharp drop, one little push, and splat, out spill baby chicken guts. The harsh reality is this: sometimes, even good eggs crack. In those moments, friends and loved ones get the chance to pad the carton with an extra layer of love. And at the end of the day, that's all we've got: uncertainty, hope, and the compassion of those who care about us.

In moments of personal despair, the Bible mostly either confuses me or pisses me off. Even as a pastor, sometimes the only part that seemed fully human to me was the Book of Psalms, a collection of songs, poems, confessions, and laments that people wrote in the best and worst moments of their lives. One portion that resonates deeply with me is this confession by King David:

I’m up against it, with no exit—

bereft, left alone.

I cry out, God, call out:

‘You’re my last chance, my only hope for life!’

Oh listen, please listen;

I’ve never been this low.

I’m certainly no Bible scholar, but it does seem that David understood what it was like to live in all sorts of chaos. King David was a royal screw up. His confessions in the Psalms are a roller coaster of emotions, but I think he had genuine faith. David’s story is incredibly human and tragically flawed. He was a military veteran, had an affair, knocked up his baby’s mama, and then had her husband killed. Can somebody say, “Jerry Springer episode?” Chapter by chapter, this trainwreck of a “man after God’s own heart” famously flip-flopped from hope to fear, doubt to certainty, despair to peace, anger to sadness, chaos to calm.

As I write this, I'm listening to my very favorite, always-on-repeat song: "Weak Sometimes" by Devin Balram. Here's what it says:

You’re put together, you’re so well and put together

That even on your tragic days, you seem fine

You try so hard to hide that there’s a fight inside

But I can see it in your eyes that you're not fine

 

Whoever said it was wrong to be weak sometimes

To cry yourself to sleep & wake up with your tears barely dry

You might feel like you’re dying, that the end is nowhere near in sight

But whoever said it was wrong to be weak sometimes?

 

You say that pain just gets in the way

Just let it sit, it’ll dissipate

You say that no one’s had a better day

By dealing with their shame

 

Whoever said, it was wrong to be weak sometimes

To cry yourself to sleep & wake up with your tears barely dry

You might feel like you’re dying, that the end is nowhere near in sight

Whoever said it was wrong to be weak sometimes?

Damn, I love those words. After all, we’re all weak sometimes. Or if we’re not, it’s just because we’re so busy holding our breath and trying to “just keep swimming.” Like my friend Mike said recently, “We’re all doing one of the hardest things possible. Living.

When I was much older than the little boy watching my dad from the shallow end, I was acutely aware of what it felt like to hold your breath so long that the pain and shame feel like drowning. For me, the end of the rope looked like waking up in an ICU hospital room after a serious suicide attempt. That was the point I started to learn how to breathe again.

Humaning Ain’t Easy

In chapter five of the biblical book of John, Jesus was at a well-known spot for healing called the Pool of Bethesda. Legend had it that an angel would come stir up the water every so often and whoever got in first would be miraculously healed. So countless sick and disabled people hung around the water, watching and waiting for their chance to slip into the swirling waters.

One guy had been an invalid for thirty-eight years, but he hadn't received his healing because no one would pick him up and carry him to the water's edge when it began to churn. Jesus heard the man's story and said, "Get up. Take your mat with you, and walk!" And the man did.

What was different? The man didn't even have to step into the water. What changed? He didn't know it, but what he had actually been waiting on for nearly forty years was for someone to come along and say, "It's okay." He just needed permission.

What are you waiting for permission for?

Permission to do something.

Permission to quit something.

Permission to say something.

Permission to question.

Permission to rest.

Permission to cry.

Permission to not give a damn.

Permission to expect better.

Permission to still be upset.

Permission to move on.

Permission to seek a better way.

Permission to be weak.

Beneath all the different things we think we need permission for, I believe what we need is permission to be ourselves. Permission to belong, just as we are.

Mostly, I think we’re all in desperate need of permission to be human.

Have you ever secretly wished you could tell someone what you really think? Not necessarily in that "I'mma give her a piece of my mind" kind of way, but just the ability, space, or courage to peel back the plastered smiles, stop hiding what you're feeling, and show everyone who you really are underneath? Yeah. Me too.

Instead, we allow rules of institutions, unrealistic expectations of others, outdated cultural norms, and our own toxic self-hatred to cake on our souls like Playdoh on my four-year-old’s chubby palms. Grime, snot, and purple marker mix with sweat in her little hands as she unintentionally paints the glass of our beautiful French doors. Our spirits look similar, smeared with pain, performance, ego, and fear of what everyone else thinks.

Some days I have to stand in the bathroom, face set firm, staring in the mirror, giving myself permission to be human. Sometimes I still have to remind myself to untie the cape from my neck, come down off the cross, and take a deep breath.

You too? It’s tough to stop. But, friend, do whatever it takes to snap back to this reality: you are human. You are only one person - only capable of doing so much before you completely forget about the fragile beauty of your being. You have permission to be yourself.

Because guess what? You’re a freakin’ human!

Not a robot or an algorithm or the newest AI technology. Not a spreadsheet or a superhero or the savior of the whole damn world. Your name is probably something like Cindy or Billy or Tom or Tammy or Steve or Jon. It’s probably not Jesus (unless you’re Latino) or Clark Kent or anyone else with a cross or a cape on their back.

Before you’re ever part of any group or carry any label - be it Christian, Democrat, parent, spouse, teacher, student, or any ethnicity/nationality/gender/orientation - before ANY of that, you are a human.

We’re human. That’s it! And it’s cause for celebration, and a call for radical grace. Humaning ain’t easy (let’s not even get started on adulting).

We are bruised, yet brave.

Once broken, now held together by strands of love,

Proudly on display on the front porch of God's house.

 

A tapestry of red and yellow, black and white,

Flapping in the breeze of the Holy Spirit.

Unashamed. Unafraid. No longer willing to hide.

Slaves no more.

 

Standing tall.

Fists on hips.

Courage

Just behind our ribs.

The man in John 5 had been an invalid: sick and unable to care for himself. Pronounced another way, the word means something entirely different. In-valid: not valid. Not legitimate. Not significant.

The sick man needed someone to validate him. To confirm him. To approve of him. He needed someone to tell him his life mattered. He was longing for meaning. Just like many of us, he needed permission to be human.

As Jesus spoke, I imagine the man heard something very different than simply, "Get up and walk." I think he heard something more like:

“You have believed your life doesn’t matter for far too long. You have worth. In spite of your past, your imperfections, and what everyone else thinks about you, I am giving you permission to get up and walk away. Get up and leave this place. It is time to move on. Be different. Be new. Don't look back.”

Did you notice that Jesus didn't even address the man's issues? Jesus wasn't blind: I'm sure He noticed the guy's problems. But Jesus loved beyond the labels. He saw past the illness, to the heart of a human being who had been created by Divine Love. While others had tossed him a few coins to silence his cries, Jesus came along and embraced him in the fullness of his humanity.

Jesus recognized the man as a person and helped him find purpose in the midst of the struggle. In recovering his value, the man was able to see himself as an equal, probably for the first time in his life. And that may have been the greatest grace of all.

Whoever you are, whatever your story, whether you even believe in this spiritual stuff or not, listen to the invitation of Jesus, my favorite human:

“Come to me, all you misfits. Come and rest. Bring your story, covered in grit and grime and glitter and let's write something brand-new together. Come to me, all you who have been told you don't belong. Let Love create beauty from the ashes. Sit next to me, you who have believed you'll never be enough. There is space at the table for each of you who've grown weary from holding your breath for far too long. Come to me. Come and rest. You are welcome here, just as you are.”

Even if you don’t believe in Jesus, take those words as an invitation to exhale all the pain, anxiety, anger, and everything else you have been holding on to. We’ll learn to breathe in calm and newness together. We’ve got this! The journey is all about learning to embrace the whole person, which requires cultivating mental, emotional, and even spiritual wellness.

I’m not a medical professional; I’m just a guy who survived a shipwreck and found the courage to talk about it. Much like the day my dad finally laid his head against the edge of the pool and drew a deep breath after his long stretch underwater, my journey from chaos to calm started after years of holding everything inside, blindly hoping all the pain and stress would magically disappear.

No matter how superhuman someone may seem, we all know what it’s like to feel completely overwhelmed by life. We are all desperate for the safety of the shallow end. The good news? We don’t have to live like this forever.

Welcome to the shallow end, friend.


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