Wednesday, January 11, 2012


One Sunday morning, a little over a year ago, I was up before dawn. Personal struggles had led to a particularly difficult few weeks and yet another restless night. We live in the mountains in a home that overlooks a large metropolitan area. I brewed a cup of tea and made my way out onto the deck. As I gazed across the city lights below, I emptied myself out to God in prayer. I say “emptied myself in prayer,” but, if I'm being honest, I think it was more of a gave-up-out-loud while God was listening kind of thing; a behavior in no way to to be confused with “surrender.” Surrender is an act of the will. It's choosing to take the loss and, by default, letting your counterpart win. There's almost always someone else involved— someone to whom you surrender. Giving up? Well, I can do that all by myself. No opponent necessary.

Emotionally speaking, I don't know which I find more frightening: feeling entirely empty or overwhelmingly full. I suppose it depends a good deal on with what I'm filled. On this particular occasion, I felt both empty and full. Is that even possible? To feel completely full up with more negative emotion than one can handle and to feel completely empty in spite of it? Or, did I feel completely empty because of it? All I know is that I wanted to cry.

Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm really not much of a public crier. For the most part, I'm emotionally reserved (thanks, dad). So, some might find it surprising that my heart breaks quite easily; more and more as time goes by. In truth, I'm considerably softhearted (shhh, don't tell). I get that universally familiar lump in my throat and my eyes well up: when I think about my kids, when I hear a particularly moving piece of music, when I feel God speaking through something I read or hear or see, when I gaze at a powerful photo or painting, when I witness an act of truly inspired selflessness, when I think about cats. (I just want to hug them all... or not.) Even so, it's sometimes hard for me to cry. I don't mean it's difficult for me to produce tears. I mean, I seldom truly weep.

I used to think that meant there was something really wrong with me. I envied the catharsis others appeared to find after a good, blubbery breakdown. But, when I do cry, I don't generally feel better for it. Perhaps it's a guy thing. Perhaps not. Either way, for me to say that I wanted to cry is personally significant. I guess it might be more accurate to say that I wanted something inside me to break. It wouldn't. I longed for sorrow. I knew joy was too much to ask for and I just wanted to feel something simple, something noble enough to dispel the feelings of frustration and fear and anger and confusion and helplessness that consumed me.

As I spoke, my throat began to close and my mouth contorted, my neck muscles tensed and my eyes clenched tightly... but alas, nothing. I think I wanted it too badly. I was lost and repentant and hungry for change. I wanted to sit there before God a salty, wet mess; a broken heap. It seemed appropriate. I didn't want to present myself to him all hard and in matter-of-fact. That had to be wrong. But, I was tired in every way a person can be tired. I was physically tired, emotionally tired, spiritually tired, and I was tired of waiting for the soft, helpless, childlike desperation with which you're supposed to approach God... yes? Unfortunately, I couldn't find my way there from where I was. I gave up. I sat staring into the distance, no longer trying to figure out from whence the courage to start my day might come. Either it would come, or it wouldn't. That's all. I gave up.

A stillness began to settle over me— a product of my resignation, no doubt. It was nothing magical, but I was going to take whatever I could get. I inhaled the cool air and looked up at the silhouette of the pine trees around me. The sky was starting to change. A subtle purple hue eased in to replace the blackness. It's actually quite stunning how quickly our world changes from night into day. One minute it's as black as... well, night. And, the next thing you know, light moves over the surface of the earth like a welcome breeze that blows gently across your sweat-damp skin on a hot summer day. But in those fleeting moments I saw something I'd never seen before. The twinkling lights from the city below, the same that had so starkly offset the darkness only a breath or two ago, began to fade before my eyes. They weren't going out. Not really. Still, little by little they became less and less remarkable— another breath, and they were gone.

Now, somewhere there was a power plant pumping raw electricity to transformers that routed impressive amounts of voltage to homes and streetlamps and signs and traffic signals all over the city. The white hot filaments of millions of bulbs continued to burn with passion. But, no matter how much energy coursed through these manufactured luminaries, it was all to no avail. Absolutely meaningless. God, one. Humanity, zero. No contest.

Dawn had come. And, I knew then that it didn't really matter all that much if I surrendered by choice, if I just gave up, or if I held on with a vengeance. When dawn comes, all bets are off.

That was a little over a year ago. How much and yet how little in my life has changed. Just now, outside my study window, I watched the sun set beyond the coastal ridge. The city below has come to life. The lights dance, an amalgam of colors shimmering through the atmosphere attempting to lure me into yet another catatonic gaze. I trust those lights. I understand them. I know how to control them. They know how to control me. They fill me up. It's what I want. And yet, I feel empty. Maybe it's because I know, somehow, that it's a manufactured reality. This doesn't make it any less "real." Still, illusions are almost always based in reality. That doesn't make them true. So, here's to the not-so-subtle difference! Fool me once...