The text messages went something like this:
Me: “Stuck at the DMV. I may not make it out of here any time soon. You might need a backup plan for this morning.”
Alex: “Who waits to renew their license until the day before it expires? Other than me, of course.”
What could I say? I’m a moron. I often put myself in these impossible situations. I knew I wouldn’t get out of the DMV in time for our group (Alex and I lead a weekly Bible study with teens going through an addiction recovery program). Maybe it’s stupidity, but I sometimes find myself giving hope a chance to prove my inner-realist wrong. Possibly I just like to put myself in a position where I can once more smother life out of that starry-eyed youngster in my soul: “What the heck were you thinking, you freaking idiot?!”
Or maybe it’s just that I hate visiting the DMV and I will always put it off as long as I can.
Like all DMVs, ours has multiple, torturously long lines. Wait in this one to be assigned a number. Wait over there until your number is called. Go to your designated window to get instructions for your next line. Make it to the counter and plead for compassion with that person. Wait over there for your name to be called. Now give this line a try.
For pity’s sake! How could there be a shred of hope in a place like this?
You’ve been to the DMV. You know what it’s like to be surrounded by the haunted expressions of lost hope. The frustration. Confusion. Desperation. The heavy sighs and snide remarks. Crying kids. The toxic mutterings bubbling up from the rage that’s simmering all around you. The DMV is hell’s very own kitchen, cooking up a meal of hot vomit-stew while you wait in line for a bowl and a pair of chopsticks. And, yes, you must eat every bite before you can get in the dishwashing line.
It’s miserable. And, yet, somehow it feels comfortable. Or at least familiar. Just a microcosm of my entire existence: Long, painful tests of endurance as I wait for someone to flip that invisible switch that will turn on the real life I’m supposed to have.
I think Bruce Springsteen best summed up my life:
“Yeah, just sittin’ around waitin’ for my life to begin, while it was all just slipping away.” – BETTER DAYS
This is exactly where my soul was lingering when I saw him.
The boy was probably 2-years-old. Dark, round eyes beneath a tousled brown mop of bed-head. Superhero t-shirt and bright orange sweat pants tucked unceremoniously into a pair of rain boots. And staring up from each boot was the cartoon face of a happy little monkey (Delight is definitely out of place in the DMV; it’s clearly marked on the sign at the door: “No Alcohol. No Firearms. No Joy.”).
But there he was, courageously breaking the unspoken rule of, “This is where you shall suffer.”
Monkey-boy was deliriously laughing, spinning around as his father twirled him like a dancing puppet. Their play revealed a lionhearted tenderness that my soul couldn’t ignore, and I became mesmerized by this wondrous snapshot of grace.
I was awestruck by the sight of pure joy frolicking in a melancholy minefield.
“You can have that, too, you know.”
I don’t know if I was actually feeling envy when those words sprang up in my heart, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that monkey-boy was completely enveloped in his father’s love, and somehow that reality shielded him from the ugliness that skulked all around him. He was unfazed by the bitter climate of the DMV, and as I studied the silly monkey face on those skippity-hop-dancing boots, I felt something inside of me begin to expand into a higher state of being.
Did I actually have a say in the matter of what I was feeling?
In John 14:27, we are told to “not let [our] hearts be troubled.” About that, John Eldredge writes: “Wait–do not let your heart be troubled? […] We have a choice? We let our hearts be troubled? I’ve always assumed it was the other way around–that trouble strikes in some form or other, and our hearts simply respond by being troubled.” However, John 14:27 encourages us to stand firm with a declaration of, “This doesn’t have to take me out.”
Make no agreements with the enemy.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)
The message behind Jesus’ words seems to mesh perfectly with that of psychologist William James, who offered this: “All our life […] is but a mass of habits.” Indeed, there have been many times when I’ve trapped myself in a cycle of habitual despair. Looking back, I now recognize that I could’ve come up for air on many occasions, but I wouldn’t permit myself even a moment of joy. Sometimes when we find ourselves in darkness, we embrace it. Some deep part of us makes an agreement with evil–I am supposed to feel miserable and I will stay here until there’s no trace of grief.
At a recent conference, trauma and abuse counselor Dr. Dan Allender noted that we often struggle “because we are NOT used to dealing with delight.”
Could it really be that joy is only a choice away, that to have it could be as simple as breaking some bad emotional habits?
Fact: The DMV is a wretched place.
Fact: You’re in the DMV.
Conclusion: You’re in a wretched place, so you should feel accordingly.
Sadly, this is how much of life feels. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Now, before some of you explode, let me clarify something. I’m not talking about clinical depression or any other mental illness here. In those cases, there are physiological realities that can’t be reversed with a decision to simply change your mind and choose your attitude. Nor am I saying that you shouldn’t ever feel heartbroken and deeply wounded. Despite Jesus’ words I quoted above, we still find him so deeply troubled in the garden that he is literally sweating blood. Can you imagine Peter skipping up to him in that agonizing moment of Jesus’ humanity and spouting off, “Chin up, old sport! I think it’s time to wipe away those tears and choose your attitude!”?
During one of my darkest nights of the soul, I had a few well-intentioned Christians offer something similar, and it only did more damage. In fact, it somehow managed to feed something dark and sinister that I was currently fighting. Friends, encouraging someone to feel joy when it’s impossible at that time is nothing more than a cruel diminishment and dismissal of their wounded heart. Don’t EVER do that. And that’s not what I’m implying here. Ecclesiastes 3 confirms that there are times and seasons for everything, including suffering and anguish.
However, if we want to experience the life Jesus offers in John 10:10 (a life full of abundance), we’re going to have to recognize the truth that there ARE times when we let our hearts be troubled and we don’t have to.
David Sach, M.D. (board certified in Addiction Medicine and Addiction Psychiatry) offers this: “To some extent, we choose our own thoughts and reactions, which impact the way we feel.” As such, a pattern can soon develop in which your misery can actually function as an addiction. (Psychology Today: Are You Addicted to Unhappiness? )
Psychologists agree, there are many instances in which we do let our hearts be troubled by addictive, toxic thought patterns. Dr. Athena Staik points to such “habituated thoughts” as emerging from “limiting beliefs, many of which are subconscious and carry over from the formative years of childhood.”
How many of those do you have on a daily basis? Thoughts that hold your heart in check, or–worse!–in prison. And those are the ones you’re aware of. What about Dr. Staik’s assessment that most of your limiting beliefs are subconscious?
What I hope you realize here is the spiritual component at work. The source of so many of your limiting beliefs and thought patterns (shame, self-pity, diminishment, discouragement, etc.) is the one who knows you well. An age old evil that knows your weak spots, your chinks in the armor, your deepest wounds; and he’ll forever target those spots to keep you self-imprisoned, in full agreement that your habitual sadness is natural, just the way things are, and you’ll just have to endure. “Oh, and you probably earned and deserve that misery you’re drowning in.”
I want you to know that I left the DMV that day with a ridiculous smile across my face and a joy that couldn’t be contained. All because of a boy in monkey-boots who allowed himself to be fully delighted in the presence of his father.
My Father. Our Father.
I overcame a small addiction that day. There are many more I have yet to address.
But I wonder …
I wonder if monkey-boy will ever evolve and learn that he’s supposed to be miserable in the DMV? Just like the rest of us.
God, I hope not.
Addiction is a terrible thing.