The other day, my daughter wouldn’t let me play the song Good to be Alive by Andy Grammer because it had "the A word" in it. To this I said, “Dude, it does NOT say a-hole in that song..."
"MOM! I mean ‘Alleluia!” We aren't supposed to say that during Lent!!"
We Catholics begin Lent with the ashes on the forehead to remind us of our impermanence, and from there we launch into 40 days of giving up something. The next thing you know, Easter shoots up at us like a wind-up jack-in-a-box. It can feel a little jarring.
But the truth is, I love Lent. In the midst of this culture of filtered Instagram shots of perfect sunsets, the tacit expectation that we are to be relentlessly cheerful and happy all the time (especially women, but maybe that’s just my perception), it's kind of a relief to have an entire 40 days to take it down a few notches. To ponder life and death. To think about where we might be missing the mark. To ask questions like “How am I doing? No really. Not the nice version. How am I really doing?”
To get closer to the answer to this question, I gave up what is probably my biggest distraction: Facebook. I love it for the same reason the other 1.4 billion active users on Facebook love it. I don’t need to go into that here.
What I did want to get into was this: What dynamic is at play between me and the FacePlace? Why is it the first thing I turn to when I finish a task, or stand in line? What am I avoiding? Getting curious without too much self judgment was the goal here. And to be absolutely clear, I cheated a few times. (Just posting this blog on Facebook will be cheating, but whatever...)
Here’s what I found out about myself, and maybe you can relate:
My need for stimulation knows no limits.
If not Facebook, then Instagram. If not Instagram, then NYT news app. If not NYT, then NPR. If not… then… and the list goes on. My need for stimulation is a hunger so deep, I don’t even know where it begins or where it ends. It feels massive, unruly and utterly opaque to me.
I also learned that without Facebook (or Instagram... pick your poison), I can be a real bummer. Which leads me to my second major realization of Lent 2016:
My biggest fear is...“What if this is all there is?”
What if driving around from activity to activity, from work to play… making dinners, doing dishes, making sure people were clothed fed and on time to various places…
What if there actually is no real meaning, there’s just… “busy?” And being “busy” just lets us avoid facing the grim truth that we’re all just biding our time until it’s our turn to die, making ourselves exhausted in the process.
What a horrendous thought. And for a dyed-in-the-wool optimist like myself, it was upsetting (and shame inducing) to imagine myself capable of such dour thinking. But there it was.
I also felt disgust. Even with all of the comfort, support and endless opportunities I have… It’s STILL not enough??? Talk about privilege.
But then, true to my Lenten promise, I tried to access some self compassion, side-step the judgment, and got a little more curious:
Do I really believe that life is meaningless? What evidence do I have to suggest that this is true?
Ok, so what evidence did I have? Just the shitty feeling I was now sitting with at the longest stoplight in Northern California. That was about it.
While this shitty emotion was potent, it was no smoking gun as far as convincing arguments go. It was just one singular emotion that surfaced the minute I stripped out the stimulation of scanning the radio for the perfect song, or checking my iPhone for 900th time that hour. I believe that singular emotion could be described as existential dread.
So I asked myself, “What evidence is there to suggest that the opposite is true? That there is meaning everywhere and in everything? And that this busy-ness is certainly NOT all there is to living?”
I was flooded with thoughts and memories. Hiking by myself in Sedona earlier this year, in a state of goofy awe… blown away by the shocking orange of the rocks, the absurd blue of the sky. The beating of my own heart, my loud breathing as I climbed higher on the trail.
I thought of my son’s massive Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal that smacks me in the face every morning as he hoists himself (and Winnie) onto our bed each morning. And how flooded I am with love and gratitude for his skinny little body finding coziness next to mine. I thought about my fiery daughters and their precious faces as they got themselves decked out for "Sunday Best" free dress day at school.
I thought about meeting my husband 15 years ago, and how much joy and new life we’ve created together. I thought about how much I still love hanging out with him. And how incredible that is, when you really think about it.
When I compared the evidence (meaningless vs. meaning-full), it wasn’t even close. My life is crowded with meaning. I’m just usually too over-stimulated to notice.
The big reveal of Lent 2016 has been that what Facebook is helping me avoid is my feelings of existential dread. And yet, at least for me, the existential dread seems to be brought on by the very thing I’m using to numb it. I learned that I use stimulation to avoid feeling bad, even though actually, I’m feeling bad because I’m not allowing myself to be present to the moment I’m actually in.
I felt like Neo listening to wise Morpheus ask, “What if I told you that constant stimulation is actually causing your existential dread?”
But avoiding the stimulation… not checking email obsessively, not checking Facebook, not checking NYTimes.com… avoiding all of these things requires faith. Faith that on the other side of this awkward stillness is meaning. Emotion. Awareness. Goodness. In that moment, it feels like the biggest leap of faith I can make.
Over the past 40 days, I’ve come to see that when I make time for writing, walking around outside, getting endorphins pumping through my system… that’s when life seems to be dripping with meaning—beautiful, dazzling, almost psychedelic.
I’ve come to understand that the part of me that needs constant stimulation doesn’t like to see patches of the calendar filled up with time for writing, dog walking or exercising. But that’s the same part of me that finds life meaningless.
I’ve decided that part of me needs to shut up and sit down. I think it’s time I let faith drive for a while. Come Sunday morning, I will blast that corny Andy Grammer song, and sing at the top of my lungs:
“I think I’ve finally found my alleluia….”
I hope you find yours, too.