Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Different Kind of Bio for a Different Kind of Life

My art is naturally affected by the whole of who I am as a person, both my past experiences and the present. In an increasing measure, at many places I go today, my unusual life has become a focus of interest. I share this aspect in hopes that it will touch others, with the realization there are many people today who struggle with issues that may not be seen on the surface. Lifelong trials do not have to be the end of our story. Mental and emotional issues can leave scars of shame for those who suffer with them. Our families or peers may sometimes not understand, though clinically there is more information today than ever.

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My life is very different today. This is all still so new and very recent to me, when taken in comparison with the years of turmoil beforehand. I am 51 years old now. I am married, part of the art and church community, with a measure of success in my art career still in its beginning stages. I have had three solo shows, been part of many group shows, been featured in three magazines, and spoken in public a fair amount of times. I also teach in my home town and belong to a few local art societies in the area.

Until the past few years, however, I lived a very withdrawn life in a deep struggle with social anxiety. I was literally a shut in for much of my life, where art became my own little world. It affected my adolescent years severely. I attended a school for troubled kids when I was a teenager, it was the only way I could graduate with the problems I had. They were very difficult years that left scars of their own by peers who took advantage of my anxiety, in the way they treated me.

By my late teens and into my 20’s I became increasingly more and more troubled, until I basically became a shut in. I was terrified of people and social situations. As I spiraled downward, depression and a severe form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder took over my life. My daily experience became a very dark place. I was shut away from the world quite literally, while my own world was full of pain.

During this time I spent much of it creating and exploring with my art. Though my struggles affected my art as well, overall it was one positive thing to come out through it all, during those very long years.

For most all of my life, up to recent memory, any concept to me of “getting better” was something I could not comprehend. It was just not in the picture at all. It had that much of a control of my life; it was that much a part of me. For the OCD alone, this was very true. I was on several different medicines and combinations of them, one experimental at that time, to try to address the disorder. Doctors eventually gave up on being able to help me with that and the anxiety, including one I had seen for over ten years.

This presents a very bleak picture, and it was. The part that makes it hopeful now is the key word, “was”. That too is complicated, to be sure. Anxiety is not something that dies easily; I still struggle with it immensely today. Through that which may be seen on the outside in accomplishments, this is what is not seen. Yet, now the struggle is a direct reaction to actually interacting socially in a positive way, or achieving or reaching for goals, for positive growth in a forward direction. While this does provoke my anxiety problems, I now grow through it. At times it is very hard and causes a valley I must walk through to get to the other side of it.

In order to address such a life long struggle, for me, I first had to be broken completely. Far beyond rock bottom – I was there many times already. My unhealthy mind needed to be broken, my entire view of life, myself, everything. Being broken sounds scary, it was indeed, yet my unhealthy mind and heart had such a tenacious hold. This was not what can be described with a word, or with twelve steps to be taken, so to speak. My faith as a Christian was paramount as I addressed every unhealthy belief, attitude, and mental lie that shaped my whole painful world. When I mention faith, I do not mean a force or energy that was used in my own effort, as to me faith is really only as good as what object it is in.

In terms of my art and life becoming productive, getting “out there” in the world was a huge step for me. That I was even able to contemplate doing so took a lifetime in realization. It is s huge step that has progressive ongoing mountains to climb, as I go. I began this only four years or so ago. Along the way, speaking in public, and especially teaching were the hardest trials of all to overcome. At first I struggled as I tried to interact socially. I was awkward and very quiet. Over time I have developed the ability to be able to do so much better. With each challenge I still go through a great deal of turmoil. Again, it is in the newness of addressing it directly and growing. In fact, I find it is one of the key things that cause me to cling to God, a beautiful experience to me in the midst of all the trials.

At one time I was ashamed of being different and hid this secret part of my life from others. Transformed blessings have created in me now an appreciation of God’s healing; seeing my art, myself, and my life, in a whole new light. I am no longer ashamed of who I am, at peace with that fact that it is Ok to be different, that God's love is so deeply special to people with struggles. The shame was a deep damaging wound for me during those dark years. Being a grown man and a shut in tore at my own self worth. As it seems I never did anything half way, it became a seething self hatred.

It was a long road - these trials encompassed most of my life - but to me it is that much more deep and meaningful that the grace of God can reach anyone, in any circumstance, no matter how dark. I would never ask to walk it again, to be sure. Some of it, like the struggle with OCD, which ate away and destroyed so many years in pain I can not even describe, is a cause for regret to me. My struggles were not without effect on my family or those around me. I withdrew from them as well, which was a source of pain to my mom. Not to mention a trial of her own, and my step dad, in trying to get me help or live with me. My behavior, in many ways, was incomprehensible to others.

With all this, today I enjoy a virtually new life with all the positive things I shared at the beginning. Simple things that many enjoy over the course of a life – such as having friends, marriage, having a role of some kind in society - to me are all so new, to be experienced in light of all that has come before. Each challenge is also new to me. It requires a great deal of struggle, for things others may handle so much more confidently. I know that God can do anything, can remake anything, and make something good out of the longest and most trying trials. I live in that hope each day.

Through it all, despite it all, in much of my art can be seen a sense of tranquility, of peace. Its realization in my life is a new gift to me and something I actively seek each day. To be at peace with God, with myself, and with the world. To allow peace to come to me, even as I am full of anxiety.

I have met and known many wonderful people in this new phase of my life. Rather than hiding away alone, I enjoy talking to people now. I no longer wish to hide away. I have many goals I seek in my art, for the future. There is so much I want to do with the time I have. Along the way, I have benefited from the help, support, and encouragement of many indeed. It has been a great joy.

Art has been a wonderful blessing to me in my life. As each door opens it is an exciting and challenging adventure. It is one I walk through with a God who is not the God of the almost, the maybe, or the nearly. Even after a lifetime of trial.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Yearning for More Than Conditional Acceptance

Have you ever thought about how many interpersonal relationships are conditional? Most likely you have felt its weight, we all have at some time or another. Most relationships are, to greater or lesser degrees. Whether friends, family, society, church, spouses, school, or social groups - all have lists of requirements in order for us to be acceptable.
Our interactions in life are based on performance wherever we go. If someone does not meet our needs, our emotional demands, if they make mistakes, we do not accept them. We write them off in our minds or reject them. How many churches are reduced to enmity, how many groups at each others throats? How many schoolyards and workplaces are full of animosity? You must meet the criteria, is the message we receive.
Oftentimes, it is the more subtle forms that hurt us the most. The looks, the gossip, the snubs. The remarks directed at us under the breath, or just within earshot for us to hear. Rejection is a very powerful force that sends the message that you are not OK.
God’s love breaks though the superficial and meets our tremendous need to be loved. We do not have to play games to be accepted by God. We do not have to go through life struggling with self hatred, or shame for the very personalities that make us different. Before Him we are bare to the core. He sees and knows all. He knows our secret faults, knows our secret pain.
We talk a great deal about love. From songs to gurus it is a theme. Most of the time this is superficial sentimentality, a vague fuzzy emotion, that is highly conditional. It is easy to "feel nice about" those we find acceptable. Who will love us in the dark, when we are alone? When we hate ourselves, when we are rejected? Who will love us when we fall flat on our face and fail? Until we are confronted with sacrificial love, we can not truly know.
We have a sin problem, there is no getting around that. It is this very reality where God reveals the depths of His love for us. He gave His very Son for us. Christ suffered for us. In this living truth we are free to dance in the joy of being accepted by the very One who created us.
It is an ecstatic joy when you fully see God’s radical love in Christ. He who was spat on, rejected, mocked, and made fun of even as He died for what separates us from Him, loves us inexpressibly. We can count on this, no matter how much we feel hurt by others. His loves abides with us daily, it is not fickle like that we encounter in our daily lives.
In a world of emotional games, a world of longing hopes unfulfilled, the truth of the words of Scripture below are a shining light. It is in Jesus that we are secure and loved:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life". John, 3:16.

Is Christianity a Life of Ease?

There is a certain segment today in Christianity that says that if you believe in Jesus, you will be healthy, wealthy, and wise. All your problems will be solved. You will be rolling in cash by just claiming it in Jesus name and healed of anything from a headache to catastrophic disease, just by speaking it so. Life will be a one way ticket to easy street. If you happen to be struggling with a trial, have deep inner emotional struggles, or are suffering in some way, well, you just do not have enough faith. Or, according to a TV preacher, perhaps you need to "sow a seed" of cash in his or her coffers to reap these benefits..

This is completely opposite the Scriptures. There we are promised that not only will we have trials, but sufferings of some kind or another. In fact, it is the primary way God uses to reduce our own tenacious hold on our lives to learn to trust in Him alone. God takes our defeats, our pain, and our deepest trials and makes something beautiful out of them. What He does in them and through them is far more valuable than the baubles and trinkets of life. Instead of the pipe dream of a life of ease, we find joy and the completion of the deepest yearnings of a heart that cries out for our God. It is said that happiness depends on the convenience of our circumstance, while joy is regardless of circumstance and transcends the worst of them.

God does not want us to have so much that we forget Him, or come to believe we do not need Him. How many societies have spiraled downward this way? This is not because God sentimentally wants us to feel we need Him. Rather, we are created that way. A flower can not live without the sun and water. In the same way, we need the Son and the water of true life to truly live. Abundant life is a promise even in the midst of the greatest obstacles of life.

Life is hard; it gets tough, to say the least. Yet God is mighty to save, to keep, and to care for us though it all. As we love Him who first loved us in Christ, we would have it no other way. He is the joy of our heart, what else we strive for can compare?

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4: 16-18.

Confronting Stress and Anxiety With Truth

There are many trials in life, sometimes daily. Often we confront them in our own exertion alone. We may not fully realize how much extreme effort we are putting in, as anxiety, stress, and what you might call "freaking out" may actually be a kind of work in itself to us. Somehow we feel it will effect an outcome of some kind. In this, our circumstances are held closely to our chests, without considering healthier ways of dealing with them. The energy it produces, even though harmful to our emotions and even our health, in our minds is a valid way of striving and trying to cope. It becomes part of the process of handling life.

In contrast, when we come to God first in our need, when we lay our agitated hearts before Him, we confront life with truth. We cry out for the whirlwind to stop and for Him to be our peace. Peace is sorely missed today - in the world, in our hearts, our minds, and in our relationships. When we give up on the notion of self sufficiency and trust in a gracious God in Christ Jesus to be our enabling and contentment, then we become free. I use the word enable deliberately, as ever I come to see that help alone from God is not what I need. I need Him to enable me Himself entirely, with me out of the way. Grace is not a one time event only when we are saved; it is God's relationship to us daily, moment by moment.

I find that relearning and renewing all my own past unhealthy ways of dealing with life or trials is crucial as I seek total trust in a God who tenderly loves me. It is a process I receive, not one that is manufactured out of self improvement. I am filled with His freely offered grace, through the trials He allows me to be faced with. He allows them because He is a sure trust. More sure than anything we so rely on today.

Faith is only as good as the object it is placed in. In our Father, in His blessed Son our Redeemer, what a sure trust we have. We serve a beautiful God who reigns and has each breath we take in His care.

As someone who has life long suffered from anxiety attacks and social anxiety, there are days when I need to remind myself of these truths over and over. I have a choice to let the anxiety and mental duress define the truth for me, or the character and work of God, even as my emotions seek to control the moment while I seek Him. It seems a precarious balance at times, were it not for God's grace. Praise God for His tender mercy in our Lord.

Artwork: © Jeffrey M Green. "Through the Trees", 16 x 20", colored pencils.