One summer, age 15, I looked around and noticed I was in a fantastic mood. It wasn’t occasioned by anything in particular. I remember the quality of the sunlight and the feeling of lightness. I told myself, Fix this moment in your memory; you’re feeling good for no reason. Next time you’re feeling bad for no reason, remember this, come back here.
Naturally, this never worked. You can remember with clarity how it was to feel a certain way, and still be miles away from feeling it.
Last week I was driving and happened to think of a man I had been infatuated with some time ago. For a moment I could feel myself settling into an old habit of thought, could see it start up in my head like an old song: how much I had cared for him, how inadequate I had felt next to him, the air of impossibility and frustration and obsession that had surrounded so much of our friendship.
Then I said to myself: “No, that’s enough, it’s not helpful to think about that right now.”
So I stopped thinking about it. The thoughts lingered for another minute or two, then dissipated, and I moved on to something else.
If that story doesn’t seem extraordinary to you, congratulations: you may be sane. But to me, the ability to stop thinking about something when it’s painful and useless to think about it is so new, so amazing, that it still seems like a superpower, or like some preternatural ability familiar to Adam and Eve but lost forever to us. Once again I marvel: is this what normal people are like?
I remember the experience of wanting desperately to stop thinking about something, but having no more power to do so than to regulate my heartbeat, or to bring down a fever. I don’t doubt that I’ll experience this kind of thing again. I expect everybody does, from time to time. The difference is that I don’t experience it the majority of the time, which is to say that I’m no longer defenseless against whatever shadow happens to be swooping by, no longer caged, tied down, at its mercy.
I credit the meds for this. I don’t know how much of it is really due to them, how much to therapy, and how much is due to whatever-it-was I gained from the dark valley I passed through last summer. I don’t particularly care, either. An amputee who receives a gorgeous set of mechanical legs might be tempted to sit around and brood that he wasn’t able to sprout a pair of legs on his own — maybe by concentrating really hard, or praying a lot? — but that would be stupid. The point is that now he gets to walk. The point is that the wherever the legs came from, walking is very, very good.
Like Calvin says: “There’s no situation so bad that it can’t be made worse by adding guilt.” To the pain of anxiety, I would always add the guilt of not trusting enough. If I trusted God perfectly, wouldn’t my anxiety have disappeared on its own — no pills necessary?
Maybe. And maybe if the amputee trusted God perfectly, his legs would grow back.1 The question is moot, because I don’t trust God perfectly, and I can’t. It’s not that I don’t want to, and it’s not that I don’t try. It’s that I don’t have the necessary equipment — I can’t trust God perfectly for the same reason that a crocodile can’t fly.
I don’t need to beat myself up about not [yet] owning a pair of wings. Healthy people don’t panic in ordinary situations, but it’s not because they trust perfectly; it’s because they don’t have to trust perfectly to keep from screaming.
So — thanks, Jesus, for this bottle full of lovely white 20mg ovals. If I was perfect, I wouldn’t need them. But I guess if I was perfect I wouldn’t need you, either.