Tuesday, July 19, 2011


You know that tingling feeling in your spine where your head meets your neck that happens when you're talking and you impress yourself? No? Then you're probably a much wiser person than I, you probably choose your words carefully and are a great listener. I sometimes wish I was you.

I know this feeling all too well. It feels like someone just hit me with a snowball in the back of the neck, the endorphins releasing into my bloodstream like the burst of ink from a frightened squid. It feels good, and if I'm not careful I can tend to chase this buzz through every conversation, trying to narrate my own natural drug cocktail, all the while leaving casualties in my wake. 

I don't know if it's nature or nurture that makes some of us like this, but I think for me it was a bit of both. I'm from a big family whose ratio greatly favored the male gender, so the "shout-or-be-ignored" principle defined the dynamic most of the time (as well as the "stretch-or-starve" principle, which may explain why I'm orally fixated.) To put it bluntly, we were taught to ramble at a young age, because the more you rambled, the more of the intellectual spotlight you could hog. The more you talked the more valuable you were.

To this day you get two or three of my brothers in one room and you will not get a word in edgewise. It's not vindictive either, it just feels normal to us, and we get worked up talking over each other. My dad is perhaps the king of this. He owns every conversation, blinders on, tongue whirling, snowballs pelting the back of his neck. He's mostly regurgitating smart things he's heard, but he's also brainstorming, forming an opinion as he goes, developing an argument. At some moments the one-sided conversation will peak, like he's on the precipice of that magical moment of insight, and his eyes get excited and he rolls out line after line like a novelist in the throws of writing as his story's climax unfolds effortlessly. He's 'snowballing.' His victim could be a brick wall for all he is concerned, and no volume of eye-rolling or disengaging will cue my fathers pause button. To be fair, my dad is a man of many moods and is not always this manic, but when he is rolling there is not much one can do to stop him.

Studying my dad has helped me realize my own nature. There are moments when I walk away from a conversation and I jerk myself awake with a pang of regret from the realization that I've just dominated the airwaves and that person must think I'm a jerk. I don't know if my dad gets this feeling, but I'd probably be surprised to learn that he does.

There are a lot of negative consequences for those who ramble. You can rub people the wrong way if you're not careful and willing to listen and ask questions. That's been a tough one for me to learn. Also, when you speak before you think, you can end up saying the wrong thing occasionally. You can really hurt people without knowing it. I've been learning to form my words before I speak my mind, because my words are naturally like sharp daggers. Without me consciously enforcing a filter they'll cut people. I have to concentrate to dull them before they go flying out of my mouth. I hope someday I can present them like a bouquet of flowers, soft and patient and loving, like those of wise friends who patiently listen to me babble and then say five beautiful words that echo in my head for days. Flowers perhaps someday, but for now the best I usually do is butter knives. That's why this blog has been so helpful for me. I'm learning to grind down some of those sharp edges with the help of my right pinky finger and the backspace key.

There are some positives that come with being a talker, too. Verbal processing is one of them. Some people get confused, can't sort their thoughts out, and you have to coax the words out of them to get them to feel better. These are the types of people that usually pay money for therapy. I, however, can't help but talk. I can't help but divulge my deepest fears to my wife, a friend, a complete stranger. Anyone on any given day can end up being my therapist, and it doesn't cost me a dime. I don't want to let on like all I do is talk peoples ears off. I can sit in the background, and sometimes I'm not in a very talkative mood. In fact, I'd say 30% of the time I'd rather just watch people interact with each other and not have the pressure be on me. But if something is effecting me, I have no problem putting that into words for a few people until I finally figure out what it is. I usually find out what I'm feeling AS I'm talking, not the other way around. I just kind of start with something that is nagging me like an itch, and then I scratch it verbally, and snowball it to the source of the conflict. And then of course I'll impress myself with words and insights that seem to come out of thin air, and that cocktail of endorphins will go splat in the back of my neck and behind my ears, and I'll feel a lot better.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Prayer and Song

Some of the most humbling experiences in my life happen when I realize that I am not God. Of course I never consciously believe that I am God because that would make me a nut job, but it's true that I can go about my day living as though the world revolves around me. I can tend to think I am pretty important.

I think we all do this. We hunger, we eat. We want, we get. Most of our daily routines, habits and hobbies are maintained with the hope of helping us to accomplish unattainable things for ourselves. We want things like financial security, comfort and freedom. Most risks we take are for our own sake in order to achieve, if not those things, a sense of accomplishment and self pride. In short, most of what we do we do to feel good about ourselves, with the hope that someday everything in our lives will be perfect. We are inherently self-centered.

But every so often something hits me like a gust of wind, powerful yet fleeting, and it scoops me off the ground and gives me, if only briefly, a different perspective, one where I realize that I am not the main character in a movie called The Life of Matt MacDonald. And then I realize that I am not in control, and that my sense of safety is an illusion. That I am and always will be as close to death and tragedy as anyone else on this earth, and nothing I can ever do will fix that. In these moments I realize all of my self-inflicted anxiety and stress in my petty quest for comfort is nothing short of a colossal waste of time.

These are great moments.

There are a few things in life that will usher me into these types of moments. One of them is the beauty of nature - an incredible view of the sunset, the stars, or a mountain range for example. This is simple, it helps me to remember that I'm just an organism trying to survive on a speck of dust floating in the abyss, and that my worries are so small compared to the infinite universe or the expansive natural beauty of earth that existed before human eyes could see it. The other two things are prayer and song. They seem to have the similar effect of shifting my perspective from what doesn't matter to what does.

The Apostle Paul said, "Pray without ceasing." I think he knew something about the power of prayer that most of us tend to forget. The power of prayer is not only that sometimes they miraculously get answered, it's that when you pray it changes your perspective. You relinquish control of the future, and by doing that you are recognizing that you are not the center of the universe. 

I think this is one of the reasons that Alcoholics Anonymous has been so effective for years. A primary step of the program is to recognize that you are not in control, that there is a higher power. You have to humble yourself, you have to give up the idea that you have control over your addiction. You have to realize that you are not God and you cannot fix yourself. I think this happens when we pray.

It's amazing when it happens. I'll have a conflict with a person and a list will start forming in my head. The list includes the many ways they've wronged me, clearly justifying my anger against them. But then I hear this voice, usually right before a confrontation. It says pray about this. If I respond correctly, something happens. I'm whisked away from my pettiness, my need for retaliation and justice. When I appeal to a God that not only said, "Love your neighbor" but who also said, "Love your enemies, do good to those who curse you," I can only respond with love. It's like I've switched to a wide-angle birds-eye view and I see what truly matters; the big picture. And then I realize that it matters very little if I get my revenge, and it matters a lot if I love this person. My heart softens, and I am able to extend the same grace that I've received. The result is always much more joyful and rewarding then when I choose to harden my heart and exact revenge.

A prayer and a song can be very similar. Come to think of it, many of the songs I've written have been prayers of longing, kind of like those old Psalms that David wrote. I've always gravitated toward songs that are about being in one situation but wanting so desperately for another. I think we all relate to that because we all have that insatiable hunger for more. I enjoy songs of praise, the ones that thank God for our blessings and for being, well, God, and I think gratitude is a major key to living a joyful life. But for some reason I identify more with the struggle. I wish churches would play more sad, longing songs about wanting things to be made right in the world, and how it really sucks right now, but I imagine that wouldn't be very good for church attendance. 

Regardless of my preference, songs of all types have occasionally ushered me into the presence of something that felt so good and so right that it gave me a new frame of mind, like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. But it wasn't a weight that was placed on me, but one that I had selfishly placed on myself. My body responds to this with a tingle down my spine, goosebumps on my arms and a lump in my throat. Sometimes I'll be choking back tears to a song that a week ago I criticized for being heartless and boring. Perspective is everything. When this happens I can only feel two emotions: humility and gratitude.

Whenever I praying or singing, complain or thank, I acknowledge that there is something else more powerful than me at work in the world, and it rescues me from spiraling into a black hole of self-"comfort" that only leaves me miserable.

We cannot change the past or predict the future. Safety is an illusion. 

Live and love today.