Walking the Black Dog

As I sit down to write it is election night in America. I’m five hours ahead in the UK so I won’t really have any idea about results until the morning. I’ve always had fairly strong political and social ideas, and those ideas sometimes clashed with both my Southern Baptist affiliation and my Deep South location. Leaving America behind has given me the opportunity to develop a philosophy of treating American politics as a spectator sport… at least that’s the joke I tell. But the battle that is playing out today is something of another sort. Over the last several days I have watched with mounting despair as my countrymen have actually begun to board up businesses, hoard non-perishable food, and stockpile ammunition in anticipation of tonight’s results. I am baffled. In my native Gulf Coast region you only board up your property if there’s a pretty big storm coming. What do these people see on the horizon that I don’t? Has America really fractured to the point that a fair, honest, democratic election strikes enough fear into people’s hearts that Walmart has stopped selling guns? Has civility really been jettisoned to the extent people are preparing for armed conflict? Oh, and, by the way, a quarter of a million Americans have now died in a pandemic that many people barely want to admit exists. And England goes back into full lockdown in two days. No big deal. So, with all of this and a few personal issues I’d rather keep to myself rolling around my head, even the thousands of miles of ocean water between me and my homeland cannot separate me from an old acquaintance: the black dog.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the expression, the black dog is an old euphemism for anxiety and melancholy. I find myself taking a walk with this old, unwelcome, friend quite a bit in recent days. We’ve known each other for a pretty long time. Some visits are trivial and I like to make jokes of them. For example, I hate flying and have often made the joke that only my undivided attention to every bump and shimmy of the plane is keeping us in the air. Oh, I know that air travel is statistically the safest form of travel. I also know that, if things do go wrong, it’s a long way down and it won’t be a nice landing when we get there. Like I said, trivial. A funny story to tell when safely on terra firma. But a fear nonetheless.

Some interactions with the old dog are much more serious and last much longer. A little over a decade ago I was working in a small customer service team for an equally small bank when the banking crisis hit. I was spending all my working hours answering phone calls from panicking people asking questions I didn’t know how to answer about a business I didn’t understand. In a very short amount of time I found myself too sick to work and on meds to stop me short of abject terror. As I was unpacking all of this with my doctor, he made an observation: I had moved country, had a desperately sick child, been let go from the job I had moved overseas for (a church job where I essentially killed a youth ministry in just over a year by actually attempting to teach the kids something when they really just wanted something to stave off boredom), and been dropped into the front lines of a crisis in a role I wasn’t suited for. It was no wonder I was feeling the strain.

If I’m honest, from that time forward, I have felt the black dog at my side more or less continuously. Sometimes he’s running off to play on the edge of my vision, sometimes I’m giving him a piggy-back ride, but he’s always there. What made all of this worse was that, for my whole life up to the last couple of years, I was supposed to be tied-in with this God who said He would take all my fears, insecurities, doubts, and general black-doggy-ness upon himself. The simple truth is that I never felt that. Those plane rides that were driving me to distraction weren’t just one-sided fear fests. They were ongoing cycles of fear, followed by self-admonishment that God was in control so I should worry, followed by the realization that I was still afraid so there must be something wrong with my faith, followed by even more fear but now both for my aerial peril and for my fitness as a believer, church leader, husband, father, etc. After all, “don’t be afraid” is, like, the most-repeated command in the Bible. Perfect love drives away fear, apparently. Fear led to a grumpy Jesus telling people off as “ye of little faith.” And, as my scholarly journey took me through the issues raised by Calvinism, I began to worry that this level of anxiety could mean that I wasn’t really of the elect, even though I really wanted to be.

All of that from a plane ride! Imagine what I went through when you add in the multiple transatlantic moves, the sick child, the on-and-off unemployment, the near-constant financial troubles, the soul-searing search for God’s “calling” and “purpose” for my life. I’ve been on meds for over a decade. I’ve been in the hospital for panic attacks masquerading as heart attacks… several times. I’ve been, at times, a miserable husband, father, friend, co-worker… and to what end?

All of this leads to a handful of simple conclusions. The God I was attempting to lean on doesn’t exist. The Bible is an unreliable source of information on a deity that may or may not exist. If God, or some version of Ultimate Reality, does exist, He certainly isn’t the God we are taught about in the Bible, in church, or in Christian college.

Setting the imagined God aside does not relieve my anxiety. I admit, when I’m really struggling, the thing I really want to do is pray. It is scary to leave behind the idea that my big brother in the sky isn’t really there. But there is peace as well. I don’t have to worry about a shortage of faith because there is no eternal consequence. I don’t have to worry about being the perfect dad/husband/believer/friend because the ones keeping score, my family, genuinely exist and love me and aren’t really keeping score at all. All I have to do is meet each day as it comes, do my best, and live with the love and integrity that are the only things my score keepers will really care about when all is said and done. It would be great to make a bit of reliable money, though, if I’m honest.

I really wish I has some magic bit of advice to end with. I wish I could tell you that letting go of faith has also meant leaving the black dog behind, or has meant shoo-ing him away like White Fang. That simply isn’t the case. One thing the Bible had right is when it said that “in this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) That, unfortunately, is the human condition. What is up to us, as Gandalf told his young hobbit friend when he was facing the darkest of times, is “what to do with the time we are given.” The election will pass. Coronavirus will pass. But what will we have done the opportunity life has given us?

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