Archie and the Wickets

My friend David Martin is a heck of a storyteller. He’s a heck of a writer too, but it was in the oral tradition that I first became acquainted with some of his more bizarre and hilarious anecdotes. One of these days he might just put them all together in a memoir tentatively titled Larry, Your Chicken Is Dead: Growing Up Normal in the Sixties. You should read it.

Anyway, of the many stories I remember Dave telling—the unfortunate incident of Nard’s chest, the horrifying tale of the rat and the python, the sad fate of the aforementioned chicken—the one that resonated with me most is that of Archie and the croquet set. Archie was a little dog owned by the Martins when David was a boy. I don’t remember what breed Archie was, but it was something short enough to be easily tripped by croquet wickets. These wickets, disguised by longish grass, lurked treacherously in the Martin yard, and when Archie started running around in energetic small-dog fashion, sooner or later he’d catch his paw on one. He’d fall, bewildered, then pick himself up and look behind him to see what had brought him down. But by now the wicket was lying flat, invisible even to a dog who was really looking. So Archie would get up and start running again, and again a hidden wicket would lay him low. Again he would look behind him; again he’d see nothing.

Animals can do only so much to make sense of the baffling contrivances of the human world. Archie did his best, but the cause of his tripping in the yard remained a dark mystery to him forever. He couldn’t see what was knocking him down, but he knew it was out there, waiting, mocking, and eventually he came up with a coping strategy. As he ran, he would randomly leap every few steps or so, hoping to clear whatever it was that kept tripping him up.

He kept up this behavior long after the croquet set was put away.

Pictured: almost certainly not Archie.

Pictured: almost certainly not Archie.

I listened to Dave tell this story, and I thought, I am exactly like that dog. Over two decades later, I am still thinking it. I can see the thing perfectly from Archie’s point of view. There he was, minding his small-dog business, running about the yard, and every so often some mysterious force of nature would catch his paw and lay him low. This M.F.O.N. was not confined to any one spot in the yard. It could not be seen, felt, or detected in any way; it was completely unpredictable. He might run a good bit without incident, but sooner or later the M.F.O.N. would get him. This was just the way life was.

Pictured: also not Archie.

Pictured: also not Archie.

From earliest childhood I have felt out of my depth. I grew up with a brother and a sister eleven and eight years older than myself. They were entrusted with things—mystifying, awe-inspiring things like operating the record player, heating things on the stove, and walking to the TG&Y without being accompanied by an adult. They were even allowed to take me to the TG&Y. My brother owned a truck and he was allowed to drive it. For all practical purposes I considered them grown up, except for the part where they still had to obey Mom and Dad. They did all this impressive stuff with such casual aplomb, like it was no big deal. They were so very competent, in fact, that it was a lot easier for my parents to have them keep on doing things than to teach me to do them. At the time I suspected this was because I was less capable than other children my age. (Yes, I actually spent time and energy suspecting this. Even as a child I was a habitual overthinker and worrier. Throw faulty assumptions and inadequate information into a mix like that and you get some wild conclusions. I remember hiding and crying in my room one December 31 because I thought this “New Year’s Eve” thing everyone kept talking about signified the end of the world. Later I thought the same thing about the Fourth of July, though for different reasons. The sky was on fire, for crying out loud. How could these people take this so calmly?)

My suspicions about my intrinsic inadequacy were reinforced when I entered first grade. I felt small and young compared to other students. (With a late August birthday, I actually was a little young, and thank you Malcolm Gladwell for confirming that this does in fact make a difference.) The others knew things I didn’t know, like their zip code. They plainly considered me ignorant, and I agreed with them. They had amazing capabilities—not so godlike as my brother’s and sister’s, but impressive. They were able to sit in desk seats for long periods of time and do tedious work like copying words from the blackboard. They could throw and catch a ball. They could jump rope.

In retrospect I think a big part of my problem was an overactive imagination coupled with extreme absentmindedness. I lived inside my own head so much that at any given moment I had little to no idea what was going on in the physical world around me. Learning practical skills was an arduous process for me, and whenever an object broke or malfunctioned or behaved in a way that was at all unexpected, I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do about it unless I had been previously instructed (and maybe not even then). A more enterprising child might have taken initiative and figured it out, but I was far from enterprising. I figured anything I did would only mess things up worse than ever. Better to wait for an older, taller, more competent person to do it for me.

Lack of power is foundational to anxiety, and lack of understanding is closely related to lack of power. Anxiety is as much an issue for animals as it is for people, and when you are managing livestock, avoidance of stress is as big a deal as food and water. In Pastured Poultry Profits, Joel Salatin says, “In a way, animals are much poorer at handling stress than are people because they can’t think through the problem.” Chickens in particular have a low threshold for stress. Overcrowding, undercrowding, loud noises, sudden movements, and any excessive human intrusion can have significant effects on weight gain and even mortality.

This isn't Archie either.

This isn’t Archie either.

Even big tough predators feel the effects of stress and have to be closely monitored for it in captivity. I once watched some footage of Steve Irwin at his zoo doing something or other for a crocodile, maybe giving it food or doing some sort of maintenance on its enclosure. The croc didn’t like having a human in its home, but Steve did whatever he’d come to do, and when he was finished, rather than just leaving the enclosure, he let the croc chase him out. This gave the animal a feeling of control over its environment. In its mind, it was having success at protecting its territory and driving away intruders. Without this sense of security, the crocodile would feel anxious and helpless. It did look awfully smug as Steve scrambled out of the enclosure, but then crocodiles usually do look smug.

I am more proactive than a chicken, and less emotionally fragile than a crocodile, but that only means I have different limits to my comprehension and ability to control my environment. When we can’t see what’s tripping us, we get anxious, and we randomly jump, hoping against reason to time things just right and avoid getting knocked down. Before long, we’re jumping pretty much all the time. Whoa! Didn’t see that coming, and I sure wouldn’t want to be taken by surprise that way again. I will safeguard myself against a recurrence by feeling extremely anxious! Gah! Now something else is tripping me! What kind of world is this?! Jump! Jump! Jump!

(This is as good a time as any to say that I don’t mean to imply that Archie the dog lived a troubled existence marred by constant crippling anxiety. I never knew him, but I’m sure any dog owned by David Martin must have been well cared for and emotionally secure. Yes, he tripped a lot, but he figured out a system, and although it wasn’t a very good system, the wickets did eventually come down, and like Steve’s crocodile, Archie probably congratulated himself on his success. He didn’t understand that correlation does not equal causation, and that’s okay. A little logic goes a long way for a dog.)

Not even close.

Not even close.

Eventually I grew up and decided it was high time I learned to do stuff for myself rather than always waiting for someone else. I’m fairly knowledgeable and competent now, but I remember what it was like not to be, and I’m always absurdly pleased with myself whenever I accomplish some practical task. Yep, that breaker tripped and I got the switch flipped back. I totally know where the breaker box is and everything. The internet age is a dream come true for me. All that knowledge there for the taking! All those articles and original texts and step-by-step numbered lists! Wikipedia and eHow are my friends. People, too, are somewhat less baffling to me since I learned to discern their patterns of behavior, motives, and innate temperaments. I have a better understanding now of why people do the things they do and of what to expect from them.

But in spite of my best efforts, I am not omniscient and never will be. I still get taken by unpleasant surprise. People are still mysterious far beyond my ability to quantify them. Weird stuff still happens in the world, stuff that even the brightest and ablest never saw coming.

The thing about being blindsided is, you never do see it coming. That’s what being blindsided means. Anxiety doesn’t really safeguard us against anything; it just robs us of the precious emotional energy we’ll need when—not if—some random crisis does hit us out of the blue. We can never be vigilant enough to effectively guard against any and all eventualities. We would do better to remain in the present, grounded in the actual rather than the imaginary, focused on what is rather than what may be.

I haven’t arrived by any means, but I do think I’m a little better than I once was at rolling with the punches. At the very least I’ve come to see that my anxiety is exactly as useful as randomly jumping to avoid being tripped. The realization in and of itself isn’t much, but it’s something.

The truth is, there are wickets hiding in the grass, and there always will be. Some days I’m just going to get knocked down. But I’ll get up again, just like Archie did.

joyful dog

Hard Providences

Ever since I started writing so much about loss, anxiety, isolation, and depression, my blog readership has seen a dramatic increase. (Um, yay?) The words seem to have resonated; I’ve been amazed and touched by the responses I’ve received. Some were from strangers; others were from people I’d known for years without being aware of even a fraction of what they were going through. One woman I’ve known over a decade said that “a big part of the struggles is feeling like you can’t talk about it.” She’s right. Isolation is crippling, and there’s relief in simply seeing a problem acknowledged, owning it, and knowing you’re not alone. I remarked on this to another friend, and she replied, “People are desperate for transparent relationships and shared struggle. For far too long, the (American) Christian life has been all about ‘living victoriously’ instead of recognizing the difficulties and helping each other walk through the hard providences.”

isolation backpack

American optimism is a beautiful and potent thing. It survived the first horrific winter in Plymouth Colony; it settled the western frontier; it built the railroads. All these achievements have suffering built into their very foundations, but what we chiefly remember is the triumph. Americans are all about assertion, determination, goals, and action plans. We refuse to accept defeat; we focus on the good to nurture and encourage it; we dream; we achieve.

The can-do spirit is so systemic to our culture that we forget there’s any other way of looking at things. We can get a lot of insight from an outsider’s perspective, as in these hilarious travel tips for Russians visiting the United States. Here’s what the Russian advice-giver has to say about American optimism:

Americans and Russians say different things when faced with the same situation. Seeing the man who had fallen in the street, an American asks, “Are you all right?” Russians will inquire: “Are you ill?” We see a victim of the incident; they see survivors. Survivors are perceived as heroes. Where we “aren’t sick,” they “stay well.” We discuss the problem. They discuss issues and items on the agenda.

Hokey as it may sound, there really is tremendous power in thinking positively, though not as much as some would say. To some degree—we could safely call it a significant degree—our moods are affected by the set of our minds, the things we think about and brood over. And, also to a significant degree, this set of the mind is something we can control. But not always, and not entirely. The author of this Huffington Post article claims that changing from a negative to a positive outlook is as simple as flipping a switch. Seriously, those are the words he uses. Some days this may be true, but not every day or for every person. Sometimes the switch is stuck—corroded, even. Anxiety can do a real number on your mind. Obsessive-compulsive disorder—the real kind, not the eccentric-but-cute version we see in movies—can make you think about things you don’t want to think about, horrible things, over and over, and you can’t stop though you desperately want to. I don’t wish to minimize the real and admirable gumption people can show in disciplining their minds and emotions, much less excuse self-indulgence or mental sloth, but some people have a more challenging set of underlying circumstances than others, and that shouldn’t be dismissed.

C.S. Lewis has this to say in Mere Christianity:

The bad psychological material is not a sin but a disease. It does not need to be repented of, but to be cured. And by the way, that is very important. Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices. When a neurotic who has a pathological horror of cats forces himself to pick up a cat for some good reason, it is quite possible that in God’s eyes he has shown more courage than a healthy man may have shown in winning the V.C. When a man who has been perverted from his youth and taught that cruelty is the right thing does some tiny little kindness, or refrains from some cruelty he might have committed, and thereby, perhaps, risks being sneered at by his companions, he may, in God’s eyes, be doing more than you and I would do if we gave up life itself for a friend.

It is as well to put this the other way round. Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man’s psychological makeup is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.

In recent years a dear friend of mine went through some rough times, which she handled with incredible grace and fortitude. In the face of trials that could have cratered her, she joyfully and deliberately thanked God for blessings of life and salvation and family and coffee and birdsong and sunrise. She had down times too, and she was transparent about these, but hope was never absent. One day she observed that when things are going well, people often assume it’s because their methods for marriage or childrearing or Christian living or whatever must be the right ones. And they congratulate themselves on their success, subtly implying that those who are struggling are doing something wrong. But maybe the self-congratulators haven’t been truly tested yet; maybe their time just hasn’t come. And in the meantime, maybe they ought to be humbly grateful for their blessings and not so quick to take credit for them.

isolation birds

There is no shortage of optimism in the American church. We teach and believe that if you do certain things you will succeed, you will prosper, you will have a spectacular marriage, your children will rise up and call you blessed. And of course it’s true that cause and effect really is a thing and that certain behaviors do generally produce certain results. But there are a lot more causes than our systems account for, and if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll admit we aren’t following the behavioral formulas all that well to begin with.

There is a thing called the just-world fallacy which is responsible for a lot of needless frustration and blame. The idea is that people’s actions always bring fair and fitting consequences; good is rewarded, evil is punished, and moral balance is restored before the final credits roll. This has next to nothing to do with the justice of God; it’s a mythical temporal tit-for-tat that satisfies our limited comprehension. If asked point-blank, most people would claim they don’t believe anything so crazy and simplistic, but their responses to calamities often betray their unconscious bias. If someone gets sick, he must have had unhealthful habits. If a child gets hurt, the parents or caregivers must have been negligent. If someone gets swindled, it’s his own fault for being so gullible. This is a defense mechanism, of course, a psychological barrier to shield us from the knowledge that random terrifying events could happen to us too. Job’s friends subscribed to this belief, and they clung fiercely to it, growing increasingly hostile the longer it was challenged. Admit it! You sinned! You brought this on yourself. What, do you think God is unjust? He only metes out what we deserve. You managed to hide your sin for a long time but you were found out at last. You had it coming! Confess and repent before something worse happens to you!

Sometimes you just get tired. You’ve been staying brave and keeping faith and holding the course to the point of white-knuckled fatigue, but still no joy. You smile, but you feel beat up inside. You see people online and in person who appear to have succeeded where you’ve failed, and you’d like to crawl into bed and shut your eyes and make them all go away. You wish some wise mentor would tell you what you should do, but you’re afraid that confiding your problems will be perceived as gossip and complaining. Besides, even if you’re desperate enough to risk it, is there anyone you trust that much?

isolation weeds

On the whole I believe American optimism is a good thing for the church. It causes you to focus on what you can control rather than what you can’t. In relationships, this means that instead of brooding over another person’s shortcomings, you deal with your own, and that is an excellent thing. Once the other person is off the hook and not being criticized anymore, he might respond with positive change of his own, or you might realize that your shortcomings were the real problem to begin with.

But proactive optimism is not a failsafe formula for success. It can only do so much. And with all the emphasis on overcoming, those who suffer have no place to go. They feel they will be blamed for their own difficulties or their struggles will be minimized.

“These people do not stop smiling,” says the travel advisor to Russians visiting America. “Also, they don’t want to hear your problems because it interrupts their smiling.”

Maybe we need to stop smiling and really listen.

If we are believers, then our greatest burden, that of our own guilt, has already been lifted. We can now help bear one another’s remaining burdens. I think we could do better at this. We need to learn to remain in the tension of a difficult providence, to keep company with one another while accepting the lack of resolution and the helplessness. We really are helpless; we need God to intervene. When we realize this, we pray out of real desperation, and in interceding and being interceded for we become dearer to one another.

We also need to be more transparent about our own difficulties. Most of us probably have at least a few folks around us who would be quick to sympathize with our troubles and distressed that we’d kept them to ourselves so long. Also, being transparent can help another person do the same. It has often happened to me that I have shared a weakness or a struggle, and the other person has looked at me and said, “I am so glad you said that.” And then we really talk. Isn’t that remarkable? I don’t think the words are chosen idly. I think my admission truly makes the other person glad. We are both glad together, and able to relax in one another’s company.

Years ago I read an author’s account of how an acquaintance from church dropped by unannounced for some reason while her house was a wreck. The author was cringing inside, but her guest looked around and announced, “I used to think you were perfect, but now I think we can be friends.”

isolation hand in handLet’s not be perfect. We really can’t anyway, so let’s not even try. Being friends is better. Let’s be friends.

Through the Doorway: More Lessons About Anxiety From a Shetland Sheepdog

ronan intro

This is Ronan. He is my dog, my Sheltie, my 2013 Mother’s Day present. Bridget, my first Sheltie and the first dog who was ever really mine, had died some months back, and the family thought that I should have another.

Like most of our dogs and cats, Ronan was a rescue. My daughters visited him at the shelter and got in the kennel with him. He seemed like a good, friendly, well socialized dog. They brought him home.

He limped badly on his left front leg, putting no weight on it at all. But we were hopeful. He was a young dog; with good care he should recover just fine.

But no. On examination, the leg injury was found to be an old one. The cartilage in the elbow joint was completely worn away; the vet was fascinated by how very absent it was. There was no way to make the leg right. The vet could either fuse the joint together, giving Ronan a stiff leg which he still wouldn’t be able to walk on and which would require lifelong pain meds, or amputate.

This was such an easy choice that I was surprised to be given two options. The fused limb would have no greater function than as a torso decoration. It would be worse than useless; it would be in the way, impeding mobility and causing pain.

The leg came off, and Ronan made a quick recovery. He’d been tripoding around for so long already that the adjustment to three legs didn’t seem to trouble him at all.

ronan recovery

I like Shetland sheepdogs. They’re small, intelligent, and Scottish, and they have the herding-dog mindset that’s so attractive to me. It’s natural that I would compare Ronan to Bridget, though he’s his own dog and has his own place. It didn’t take long to realize that Ronan is a very different dog indeed.

They were different in appearance. Both were initially overweight, but Ronan is just a bigger dog altogether. Bridget eventually slimmed down to twenty pounds, about average for a Sheltie. Ronan started out at a whopping thirty-eight. He’s down to twenty-six now–slender for his dimensions, but still high by Sheltie standards, and that’s with just three legs.

Like Bridget, Ronan has a sable coat, but his facial markings give his face a completely different character. Bridget had a thin white stripe down her nose; her face looked closed and shrewd. Ronan’s stripe is broad, creating a wide-eyed, perpetually surprised expression.

But the most significant difference is in personality. Bridget came to us with many anxieties; Ronan not so much. He is outgoing, for a Sheltie, and largely free from hang-ups.

Largely, but not entirely.

Anytime you have a rescue dog, there will be some mystery about its past. You make inferences based on behavior, but you don’t really know. And there is always something. Even Ready, our Australian shepherd/Border collie mix, who had the most well-balanced personality I’ve ever seen in a dog, was afraid of brooms—not of being hit by a broom, but of the sound the bristles made when drawn across the floor. It just seemed to give him the willies; when I’d start sweeping, he’d skitter off. Had he been spooked by a broom as a pup? Who knows? It was a cute quirk but not that big a deal. Bridget, on the other hand, had a lot of behaviors that made us suspect she’d come from a household with an abuser.

Ronan’s hang-up was one I’d never dealt with before. He wouldn’t come when called.

I’m not talking about when he was excited about a tennis ball or distracted by food or expecting a bath or something. I mean that under ordinary, unremarkable circumstances, this dog would not come. He wouldn’t just ignore the command; he would get up and go the other way, like Jonah fleeing the presence of the LORD and going to Tarshish instead of Nineveh. There was no haste in his movement, just a steady, grave plodding in the opposite direction.

Never before had I known an otherwise well socialized dog to refuse to come. “Come” is usually the easiest command to teach, assuming the dog likes you at all. It wants to come; it wants to be with you.

But Ronan wouldn’t come, and I don’t know why. If he’d feared abuse, I’d expect him to fear people in general. But he seemed comfortable with us. He did prefer the company of women to that of men, as Bridget did, and I’ve heard this is typical of the breed. But his run-away-when-called routine was for women and men alike. He didn’t mind when I approached him; he seemed to welcome my presence and to enjoy being petted. But when I called him to me, he actively sought to get away.

Does he associate something unpleasant with being called? Maybe something to do with his injury? Maybe people used to call him over and then feel the injured joint in a way that hurt him. But it would have to happen an awful lot for him to build up this level of aversion.

Within the house, the behavior wasn’t much of an issue. Ronan would come easily enough to eat (assuming there wasn’t a male family member between him and his food dish). Going from inside to outside wasn’t a problem either. The only real trouble was getting him to pass through an exterior door from outside the house to inside the house.

It isn’t that he dislikes the house. He likes it fine. But something about passing through that doorway in that direction spooks him.

This was a real pain in the early days, especially for the guys. The girls and I had enough trouble getting him inside; when Greg or Daniel tried, it was downright comical. It’s not that he’s a fast animal. With his three-legged gait, he’s easy to catch. But then what? The guys couldn’t exactly tackle him. He’s unsteady, and they didn’t want to knock him down; and he might snap at them. One day Daniel chased him around the house in several sluggish and time-consuming laps before Ronan wiped out on a corner and came down hard on his stump, which hadn’t completely healed. At that point Daniel gave up, for good.

Catching Ronan became a woman’s job. The process evolved over time. At first we’d catch him, pick him up, and carry him up the porch steps and into the house. As heavy as he was in those days, this was a real chore. Then someone had the bright idea of using the leash. This was a big improvement. Once leashed he would succumb to the inevitable and come along with surprising docility. Sometimes the leash wasn’t handy and we were in a hurry, so we’d grab him by the back of the ruff and pull. Then Emilie realized you didn’t always have to pull. Often you could take him gently by the ruff and just guide him inside.

Bridget was extremely reserved, almost a one-person dog, but Ronan is sociable. He never shied away from the other dogs, but he was initially wary of Buddy, the Great Dane mix. Buddy was very much a puppy when Ronan met him, though they were about the same size; he was forward and clumsy in his movements, and his friendly overtures made Ronan nervous—understandable, since Ronan was none too steady on his remaining feet. If Buddy got too close or too nosy, Ronan would snarl, and Buddy would jump back, startled. It was fun to see a Shetland sheepdog make a Great Dane back down.

Buddy is more graceful now, and he and Ronan get along fine. Ronan likes being with the other dogs and does his best to join them in play. He can’t keep up in a running and chasing game, but if Buddy and Feather are running back and forth together from point A to point J, Ronan stays in the middle of their course and runs with them from points D through F as they pass by.

He likes wrestling games too, though the other dogs don’t actually wrestle him. He hovers nearby as they wrestle each other; he moves around them in an arc and occasionally darts in, close but not touching.

It can be sad to be on the periphery. Being close is nice, but it’s not the same as being in the thick of things. Most of the time Ronan is just a glorified spectator. But recently Greg saw Buddy actually playing with Ronan one-on-one. Buddy now weighs sixty pounds, most of which is muzzle and leg; he not only outweighs Ronan by over a hundred percent but also towers over him.

Buddy seemed to know he had to be careful with Ronan. He lowered himself to Ronan’s height and waggled. They “wrestled,” and when Ronan came at him Buddy rolled onto his back as if Ronan were really owning him.

Ronan loved this game. He is free from the self-examination that would cause a human being to realize that a pretend wrestling game with an opponent who is only going through the motions and letting you throw him is not the same as the real thing. Knowing that we are coming up short in some way and that allowances are being made for us can chafe at our pride, but maybe we are too short-sighted. The truth is, none of us is truly whole, and in the community of grace we are all making allowances for each other most of the time.

ronan derp

Any reduction from the normal and healthy is a loss and should be recognized as such. However resilient an individual animal may be in recovering from the loss of a limb, the fact remains that dogs were meant to have four legs. Over his lifetime Ronan will have a lot of unusual wear and strain on his frame due to compensating for his missing limb. Arthritis is likely in the future, and he falls down a lot in the present. He will never again run full-tilt in a double suspension gallop with all limbs fully extended.

pictured: not Ronan

pictured: not Ronan

 It was Emilie who took Ronan to the vet back in the spring to have his leg examined. I remember when she texted me the news that the damage wasn’t reparable. She was pretty down about it; we’d only just adopted him, and now he had to have an amputation. She apologized for gifting me with a dog who had issues. I replied that everyone has issues sooner or later and this one wasn’t that bad. A dog, like a person, is a whole package, an assortment of temperament and history, physiology and character, adding up to something wonderful and unique. Ronan is a gift, and I’m glad to have him. He is a very different dog from Bridget, but like her he has taught me much about myself and about God.

Ronan forgot how to dog bed.

Ronan forgot how to dog bed.

Ronan still has issues with coming when called. As long as he isn’t being called inside, he comes just fine, but when an exterior door is involved, things are a little dicey. It seems to help when no other animals are crowding him. It also helps if I back away from the door, though with all the swarming cats and whatnot this is not usually possible. Once in a great while, when everything is just right and he has plenty of space to negotiate the threshold and isn’t overthinking, he passes through the doorway entirely on his own. Most of the time, though, he still needs help. But he no longer runs away. Sometimes he just laps a few tight circles, allowing himself to work off a little nervous energy without putting actual distance between us, and making it easy for me to catch him.

And sometimes he doesn’t even do that. Sometimes he just stands and looks at me, as if he’s thinking, I know you want me to come through that door, and I’d like to do it, but I don’t quite have the courage to do it on my own. So I’ll wait here, and you can come get me and guide me through.

It’s not brute force that makes this work. I’m not muscling Ronan through the door; I’m just guiding him, and he isn’t resisting. The thing that makes the difference is my presence. Just having me there gives him the courage he needs.

My dog is far from perfect in obedience, but his heart is inclined in the right direction. I’m not so perfect in obedience myself. Sometimes I don’t want to come when called; sometimes I’m unsteady on my feet and afraid I’ll be knocked down. Like Ronan, I don’t have to come through the doorway on my own.

Biting Airplanes Out of the Sky: Lessons About Anxiety From a Shetland Sheepdog

I was driving home with my kids one evening when something fluffy and sable-colored caught my eye from a bar ditch. A long, dignified dog face turned a little to follow our Suburban as we passed. Was it a collie? Something about its posture didn’t seem right. I turned the Suburban around.

Not a collie, but a Shetland sheepdog. She wasn’t visibly injured or starved-looking; in fact, she was on the tubby side. Long bald patches ran down either side of her spine. Her skin was coming off in flakes.

She looked at me as I approached, but without much interest. She didn’t get up, either to meet me or to run away, and she didn’t perk her ears or pant as a dog should. On the whole, the best word I could think of for her condition was “depressed.”

She had no collar, and my friend who lived in the neighborhood told me she’d been roaming loose for days. Nobody knew whose dog she was.

We took her home. It was too late to visit the vet that day. The dog remained listless, resting her head in Anna’s lap and accepting the children’s petting without pleasure or fear. Greg guessed that she had internal injuries and doubted she’d survive the night.

But in the morning she was still with us, a little pile of sable-and-white fluff bedded down on the grass just outside the French doors in the back hard. After waking up she gave a few barks, jerking her pointed nose skyward, and then looked at me through the glass to see how I was taking it.

Hoping she didn’t have some horrific contagious skin disease, I bathed her, wrapped her in towels, and set her in a corner of the living room. She went straight to sleep and remained that way for the better part of two days, seldom leaving her corner, using the towels as a temporary bed. Ready, our Border collie/Australian shepherd mix, paid no attention to her. She was more like a piece of furniture than a second dog.

But after a couple of days she started to wake up and take notice. At first I didn’t actually see her walking around; I’d just go into another room and suddenly there she’d be, looking at me with a strangely expectant face.

The vet said she wasn’t injured. Her lethargy, hair loss, and excess weight turned out to be caused by an underactive thyroid. The flaky skin puzzled us for a while, but eventually we decided it was probably just sunburn due to lack of fur. She’d delivered pups recently and still had milk. Her paw pads were rubbed raw. The vet said, “That’s what comes of being tender-footed and then getting dumped.”

We weren’t surprised when no one claimed the dog. We guessed that she’d been used in a small-time breeding operation and then abandoned because of her thyroid condition.

There was some talk of placing her with a nice Sheltie rescue organization. We already had one dog and two cats, and adding another dog seemed like a big deal. (Yes, we now have a combined canine/feline population total that numbers well into double digits. This was another time.) Greg, sensing my feelings in the matter, said, “You know, we could keep this dog if you want. She’s small. She won’t eat much.”

I named her Bridget, a good Scottish name. With the help of some prescription pills from the vet, she slimmed down and her coat grew thick and lush. There was something deeply compelling in her small pointed face; she was so intelligent, so watchful, so alert, so very fixated on me and me alone. Ready was the first dog I’d ever loved; Bridget was the first dog to be mine.

In many of Bridget's photos, she's either barking or about to be.

In many of Bridget’s photos, she’s either barking or about to be.

It appears to me that God has allowed some special things to happen in the relationship between people and dogs. C.S. Lewis thought so, too. He had this to say about animals in The Problem of Pain.

Atheists naturally regard the co-existence of man and the animals as a mere contingent result of interacting biological facts; and the taming of an animal by a man as a purely arbitrary interference of one species with another. The ‘real’ or ‘natural’ animal to them is the wild one, and the tame animal is an artificial or unnatural thing. But a Christian must not think so. Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by Divine right. The tame animal is therefore, in the deepest sense, the only ‘natural’ animal—the only one we see occupying the place it was made to occupy, and it is on the tame animal that we must base all our doctrine of beasts. Now it will be seen that, in so far as the tame animal has a real self or personality, it owes this almost entirely to its master. If a good sheepdog seems ‘almost human’ that is because a good shepherd has made it so.

Some of this animal selfhood comes from selective breeding. Certainly selective breeding has produced some terrible things; dominion wouldn’t be dominion if it couldn’t be abused. But it’s produced wonderful things too, particularly with dogs. There’s amazing variety to be found in Canis lupus familiaris. Hunting dogs are bred for a certain kind of physiology and intelligence, security dogs for another, shepherds for yet another; and even within those groups there’s great physical and behavioral variation. Our Great Dane/Lab and our Border collie/Spaniel are comically distinct in even so simple an action as walking across a pasture.

The kind of intelligence particular to herding dogs, like Shelties, is a complex one. These dogs have to be able to direct the animals they’re herding, protect them from predators, and communicate with the shepherd.

Shelties probably didn’t have a lot of predators to contend with on the Shetland Islands where the breed was developed, but I’ve read speculation that the modern Sheltie’s tendency to bark at aircraft, and launch its body upward as if to snatch the aircraft from the sky, is a holdover from when the dogs might have had to protect flocks from predatory birds. All the Shelties I’ve known take themselves seriously enough for me to think this might just be correct.

Here we see Bridget barking.

Here we see Bridget barking.

Bridget took a very serious view of life indeed. There was something both comical and poignant about the contrast between, on the one hand, her small size, fluffy coat, and dainty features, and on the other, her deadly seriousness and determination. Affronts to her dignity offended her. She was intelligent and vigilant, reserved with strangers but deeply loyal to me. She was something of a one-person dog, and though from my point of view she seemed friendly enough to the rest of the family, they claimed this was only when I was actually around. In my absence she was moody and peevish. Sometimes when I was away the kids would hang a blanket across the corner to which she’d withdraw herself, thinking that she’d feel better if she didn’t have to look at anyone. She stayed put behind the blanket until I returned, so maybe they were right.

We often wondered what Bridget’s life had been like before she came to us. Her behavior gave us some clues, but we could only guess at their meaning.

Anything resembling violence—rough play, raised voices—made her nervous. One day Greg, who was studying martial arts, was practicing a kata in the bedroom, and he began by clapping his hands together loudly. Bridget was relaxing in the living room; she couldn’t even see Greg, but at the sound of the hand-clap, she snapped upright, ran into the bedroom through the open door, and gave him a severe barking. She didn’t react this way to loud noises in general. Did the sound of flesh striking flesh have some significance to her?

Counting aloud bothered her too. I wondered if she had lived in a household where the parents counted menacingly at the children, as in, “I’m going to give you to the count of three, and then…”

She was mistrustful of men and adolescent boys but protective of children and women. When Daniel and two of his friends fought each other with wooden swords in the back yard she watched without interest, but when one boy’s little brother went outside she suddenly ran over to the big boys and barked and barked. Their violent behavior wasn’t an issue when the worst they might do is pick off each other, but once a small child entered the area, it was a danger that must be stopped.

Well, not exactly stopped. There is a big difference between a watch dog and a guard dog. A Sheltie is a good watch dog because it is vigilant and alert and will bark the heck out of anything it finds odd, but that’s about it. If the aggressor or intruder isn’t deterred by noise alone, he won’t be physically restrained by twenty pounds of fluffy dog. Bridget knew her limits. That she dared as much as she did, given her small size and overall anxiety about the world, demonstrated real valor, I think.

One day Greg was playing with Emilie, who was about eight at the time, tickling her and lifting her into the air. Emilie was squealing with laughter. Bridget didn’t like it; she barked sternly at Greg from a few feet off. Greg set Emilie on the sofa and jokingly (but nothing is a joke to a Sheltie) walked over to Bridget with a sort of bowed-up posture until he was towering directly over her. And Bridget stopped barking, shut her eyes, and crouched down in a tucked posture. She was in no danger, but she didn’t know that. She had done what she could to protect the child, and now she was prepared to take a beating for it.

Greg dropped the menacing posture at once, lowered himself in the most unthreatening way he could manage, and gave Bridget a friendly rub.

Like all of us, Bridget had a unique identity shaped by the genetic package she was born with and her formative experiences. I loved her dearly in all the goodness and frailty of her doganity. I loved her fierce loyalty, her protective impulses, her unnecessary anxiety; I loved the way she followed me around the house, gazed at me when I petted her, got excited when she saw me putting on the shoes that meant we were about to go for a walk.

Bridget and Ready, in from the rain. Not barking.

Bridget and Ready, in from the rain. Not barking.

A herding dog ought to be sensitive and responsive to the shepherd’s will. In Bridget’s world, I stood in the place of a shepherd. She wasn’t always as responsive as I would have liked; she barked more than necessary, often after I’d told her to stop, as if she thought I didn’t understand the threat. She was more vigilant than she needed to be; she spent a lot of time and energy taking defensive measures against forces she didn’t comprehend and couldn’t control anyway. She made me think: does my anxiety look this way to God? How many of my own fears are completely baseless, being concerned with things that will absolutely never come to pass?

Each member of our family has at one time or another had a dog that was that person’s particular dog, and in each case I’ve been amazed by how close a match it was, especially considering that none of us was searching for a particular breed or mix. These dogs just came to us—from the hand of God, I think, ready to love us and teach us and be exactly the companions we needed.

From left to right: my dog, Greg's dog, Daniel's dog.

From left to right: my dog, Greg’s dog, Daniel’s dog.

Bridget was my dog—neurotic, focused, watchful, loyal. She was far from perfect, but she did what she could, and she was wonderfully lovable just as she was. If I love my own shepherd with anything like Bridget’s devotion, I will do well indeed.

bridget sweet

Losing and Finding, and Sometimes Just Losing

For a brief time when I was about five, my family had a dog. His name was Snoopy, which confused me because Snoopy was supposed to be a black and white spotted beagle and our dog was a solid brown dachshund. I was a fearful child, often irrationally so—among other things, I had a phobia of the number four—and I was afraid of Snoopy.

My memories of early childhood are like isolated bursts or blossoms—vivid, discrete units, often lacking context or continuity, floating in an amorphous plasma of not understanding what the heck was going on. I don’t remember petting Snoopy or pouring his dog food or watching him snuggle down in his dog bed, but I do remember swinging on my swingset while he ran back and forth on the ground below, under and around me, barking and barking. Given time, I would have realized that his barking was playful, not menacing; I would have stopped being afraid of him, picked him up, carried him around with me, kissed him between his eyes. But he lived only a short time after we got him. In another blossom-burst of memory, I am outside with my sister and her friends, and my brother is hurrying down the sidewalk towards us, holding Snoopy, who is bloody and yapping in pain. He’s been hit by a car. This is my last memory of him.

Snoopy never slept with me in my bed or cuddled with me on the sofa. I didn’t push him around in a doll stroller or dress him up or feed him treats. I hardly knew him. But his small memory stayed firmly lodged in my mind. As I grew older I thought about him a lot. I felt bad that I hadn’t played with him. I desperately wanted him back—not merely as he had been, but as he should have been throughout the years I should have had with him. For years after his death, I would sometimes lie awake, thinking about this dog I had barely known, and crying.

Some years later, when I was about ten, I lost a stuffed animal—also a dog, bafflingly named Tubels. Some classmates and I had put on a short play for reasons I can’t remember. It was set in a pet store, and I’d brought some toys from home to stand in for animals that weren’t being played by classmates. The play was a rousing success, a credit to me as actor, director, and playwright, and I felt triumphant as I left school, carrying my stuffed animals in a basket. For some reason I was being watched by some after-school babysitting lady that day, a thing which almost never happened in my entire childhood. And somewhere between school and the babysitter’s house, Tubels was lost.

I mourned a long time for that stuffed dog. For a while I actually hoped and prayed that he might somehow be found again and returned to me. Lying awake in bed (again), I mentally replayed the walk to the babysitter’s house. I imagined Tubels falling out of the basket and rolling into a gutter, and me walking away, distracted by post-play euphoria, not paying attention. Sometimes I altered the scene in my mind so that I noticed he was missing, turned back, and rescued him, or never dropped him, or got picked up at school by my mom along with all my animals, safe in their basket.

Maybe I was more obsessed with loss than is usual for a child. The memories of lost inanimate objects, even those of little intrinsic value, remained sharp with me for years. Usually there was guilt involved, as with the plastic ring I took to preschool after I’d been told to leave it at home. Another girl tried to take it and spuriously told the teacher I had stolen it, and the teacher confiscated it from me without due process and put it in a can on a high shelf, from which it was never returned.

Eraser-Mate pens, introduced in the late seventies, were the bane of my sixth-grade existence. I’d always had bad handwriting; my hand cramped easily, and the whole process of putting words on a page was so painful and frustrating that I made a lot of mistakes. By this point in my school career writing with a pen was mandatory, so Eraser-Mate pens seemed like a godsend to me for a time. Theoretically, they offered me a chance to fix my mistakes. In reality, the nonindelible ink smeared under my hand and the eraser didn’t so much remove the ink as smear it around, so my papers looked as bad as ever. Eventually I was forbidden to use the things. But for a while they were precious commodities to me. They were more expensive than regular pens; they had to be stowed securely or brought home after school, or they would be stolen by some dirty pilfering eleven-year-old. I knew this, and yet I could not keep those darn pens in my possession to save my life.

It’s amazing that with my near-pathological levels of anxiety about loss, I didn’t do a better job keeping track of my belongings. My young brain combined hyper-vigilance with extreme absentmindedness. At school, I repeatedly failed to secure the pens in a safe location; at night, lying awake in bed (I did a lot of that), I agonized over my carelessness. Nobody was abusing me at home or making me shovel coal to pay for my lost pens, but there would be an accounting to be made, and I dreaded it.

Loss terrified me, and yet I couldn’t seem to get away from it. Every so often something of mine would just slip into a void, never to be seen again. I always felt I should have been able to prevent the loss, to take better care of my things, but somehow I just couldn’t seem to do it.

Eventually I grew up, and my hyper-vigilance got the better of my absentmindedness. These days I rarely lose my belongings in the sense of mislaying them. I have designated places for almost all household items and I usually put them there. (Sometimes this actually works against me, because when family members can’t find their own misplaced belongings, they know exactly where to look for mine, which they may or may not return after use.) But I am still haunted by loss. Of time, property, money, opportunity, relationship. Of dogs, real ones, whose names and stories I don’t dare set down here because if I do I will never make it through this post.

Sometimes the lost thing is a period of time, an epoch, in which friends and work and opportunity and health come together in a wonderful synergy, a sort of golden age, and suddenly it’s just over, the laughter and the flow of ideas and the good fellowship, and it will never happen again. There will be other people, other good times, but never this particular precious combination.

In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis asks, “How often—will it be for always?—how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss till this moment’? The same leg is cut off time after time.”

Our family has lost a lot of things in recent months. A horse, some dogs and cats, a vehicle. A hard drive, with a full complement of irreplaceable photos we always meant to back up. Some people. Dreams that can no longer be realistically expected to come true. I am tired of losing things. I want another golden age, one that won’t end. I want lasting security. I want to know that the things and people I love will never go away.

The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are precious to me. “And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost” (Luke 15:9). Jesus is speaking in particular of the joy in heaven over a sinner that repents, but the stories wouldn’t resonate so deeply if they didn’t reflect our expansive joy over the restoration of other things. I know that joy, and it is indeed too great to be kept to myself. When the lost kitty, despaired of after going missing for a full week, suddenly turns up early one morning perfectly healthy and meowing for breakfast, my delight must be communicated. I must scoop up the kitty, take it quietly to the bedroom of my sleeping daughter, and put it on her bed, where its softly treading paws and tickling whiskers will make her awakening into a celebration.

The lost-and-found experience teaches me this joy, while the lost-and-still-lost experience keeps me looking forward to the glad morning when I’ll have the most joyful awakening of all. In the meantime, I wait, and hope, and sometimes ache. As C.S. Lewis said in Perelandra, “God makes good use of all that happens. But the loss is real.”





On Trying to be Taller

The truth of the matter is that, despite my best efforts with good posture and steely glares, I am shorter than the average American woman. Going after things that are out of my reach is so much a part of my life that I hardly think about it. During a recent painting project I nearly wiped out standing with one foot on the top rung of a none-too-steady ladder and the other on top of the water heater, while stretching with all my might and main to fit my paintbrush into the farthest, backest corner of the 10-foot ceiling. I regularly plot my trajectory from points A through D: plant knee on counter, hork self to kneeling position, carefully stand upright on slick granite, reach high above head to top of cabinet. Often I stand on one foot and reach with the opposite arm, straining hard in an effort to elongate my spine.

“Why don’t you ask me to get that for you?” my husband asks if he happens to be around. Well, why don’t I? Habit, I guess, or impatience. Greg doesn’t go through what I go through to reach things. He puts up his hand without even stretching his arm to full length, both feet on the floor—no strain, no problem, almost no conscious effort. Then he grabs the thing and hands it to me without any apparent understanding of what a remarkable thing he has done.

“Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?” Jesus asks in Matthew 6:27. A cubit is roughly the length of a human forearm. This would be a significant increase in height—enough to get me to the top shelf of the cabinet with no trouble at all.

The verse is part of a beautiful passage, Matthew 6:25-34, on worry. I am a worrier by nature and have come back again and again to this passage since first reading it in my teens. Lately, it’s verse 27 in particular that keeps recurring to me. The question is rhetorical. None of us can add a cubit to his stature by worry (“taking thought” in the language of the 1611 King James), any more than I can increase my height by straining for something out of reach. Both are exercises in futility, a waste of energy and time.

And yet worry snares me again and again. Often it’s little things that get me started. A young friend’s Facebook post hints at depression, a spoken word has something amiss with the tone, a shadow passes over a face, and my mind is off and running on some wild extrapolation. This is the gift and curse of being a writer: I imagine huge sprawling networks of What Might Happen. My vocation had given me lots of practice at ferreting out the nuances of human emotion and motivation, and I flatter myself that most of my guesses are pretty close to the mark. But sometimes I’m way off. The uncertainty, when applied to someone I care about, drives me crazy.

I want to draw a circle of protection around all those I consider mine and keep them safe from physical harm, foolish choices, darkness of spirit. I know I can’t do it. And yet the compulsion persists. I have this sort of primal belief—shared, I think, by one of my children—that my worry actually accomplishes something, that it holds things together and keeps disaster at bay, like the hypothetical Higgs boson which, if I understand it correctly, keeps atoms together so the universe doesn’t fly to pieces.

Fear, in and of itself, is not irrational. Disaster is not some rare anomaly outside the norm of the fallen world; it’s ever-present in possibility and actuality. Security is an illusion. Sudden violence can maim or destroy life in an instant, and foolish, reckless actions can shipwreck a promising future. I’ve seen it happen over and over.

So fear has its place. The Bible admonishes us to fear legitimate authority, the natural consequences of sin, and God himself. But it also admonishes us not to make fear a crippling mental habit. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). For the Christian, life is more than a bewildering maelstrom of folly and violence. Life has meaning and order, even the tragic parts. God has good plans for his children. And prayer changes things.

I know some people say prayer doesn’t really change anything except the one doing the praying. The future is fixed, immutable; an answered prayer is only one which happens to coincide with the outcome God has predetermined. In other words, it has no effect whatsoever on actual events; but it does in some way draw the intercessor closer to God. If that’s true, then frankly, I don’t have time for it. I’ll spend my energy trying to change things on my own steam, and I’ll never know a moment’s peace of mind.

But the Bible doesn’t bear out the idea of prayer as an exercise in self-improvement rather than a means to change things. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16); it doesn’t just make the man himself a better Christian. Exodus 32:7-14 records a mind-boggling incident (discussed at length in this thought-provoking article) in which the prayer of Moses actually causes God to turn away from a stated purpose and do something else.

I’m not dismissing God’s sovereignty. I just believe that it’s broad enough to incorporate man’s choice in a meaningful way, so that our actions, including prayer, make a genuine difference in the outcome of events—that God actually designed the system to work in such a way that in some instances he waits on our prayers.

I should make it clear that prayer is something I have not been as faithful about as I’d like. Unbelief whispers in my ear the oldest lie in recorded history, that God doesn’t really have my best interests at heart, that he’ll give me a stone when I ask for bread. Another voice sighs that prayer doesn’t change things anyway, other than some vague internal change to me personally.

So I turn to worry instead. Worry is like the strain of trying to make myself taller than I am, to exert power I don’t have. By sheer effort and will, I expect to extend my reach past the stature God has granted me. Prayer is the appeal to the hand that reaches with effortless grace and takes hold of what is beyond my grasp.

It isn’t worry, mine or anyone else’s, that holds the universe together. It’s God himself. “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist” (Colossians 1:16-17).

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by a burden to pray for certain individuals. At such times I feel an almost physical heaviness, a prompting I dare not disobey. It pushed me out the door yesterday with a leashed dog at my side, into the cool April freshness, where I asked God’s providence for the people on my heart—for clarity, truth, light, wisdom, protection, guidance, everything I could think of.

Over my forty-one years, I’ve wasted more time and energy in worry than I care to recount—all for nothing. I didn’t accomplish anything other than sleep-deprivation. All that effort didn’t make me omnipotent, any more than my dangerous stunt on the ladder made me taller. I don’t want to waste any more of whatever years I have left. God waits on me to say the word; he wants to lavish grace and wisdom and comfort on the people he’s placed on my heart, people he loves with a far greater love than mine.

The Eye In The Sky

You can tell a lot about someone by the superpowers he’d like to have. My primary powers of choice are two. First, supersmartness consisting of flawless memory coupled with the ability to instantly assimilate new data in a meaningful way. Second, superspeed that amounts to virtually stopping time while I get stuff done—like assimilating all that data. Put those abilities together, and you have what might be called practical omniscience.

So what does this say about me? That I am a nerd. That I feel a need to control the people and events around me. That I value information and see it as a means to security and power.

Most folks scoff too readily at control freaks. They seem to assume that a wholesale relinquishment of control would be a good time. Truth is, loss of control often leads to loss of life and resources, occasioning the lament, If only I had done this or that at the critical moment, all this destruction and waste could have been prevented.

Of course I’m so simpleminded as to rationally believe that I can or ought to exercise this level of control. Things just aren’t as simple as they appear to me. If I really did have the power to go back and change the thing that appeared to be the catalyst for all that went wrong, a multitude of dependencies besides the ones I’m concerned with would also be altered, leading to outcomes I couldn’t possibly have predicted. For it to work at all, you’d have to be truly omniscient, not just comparatively so; and anyone who is truly omniscient is God and not yours truly. End of story.

Yet the mindset persists. It haunts the present, making me think, What juncture am I at right now that will become the crucial past choice of the future? Will it be a choice I’ll have just cause to regret?

Smallville’s Chloe Sullivan: “It’s easy to think that having all the information is the same as having all the answers.”

“Your biggest problem, Mom,” my eighteen-year-old son told me once, “is that you second-guess yourself.” Boy, did he nail that one.

Various Scriptures, such as Romans 16:27, Jude 1:25, and 1 Timothy 1:17, refer to God as the “only wise.” Of course this doesn’t mean that wisdom never appears outside of the person of God; the Bible makes it clear that God grants wisdom to people. But this wisdom is always partial, limited by our own limits. God alone sees the whole picture. The best course of action for me as a Christian is to pray for wisdom and trust that God will give me as much as I need in any given situation.

A serious impediment to my prayer life is the feeling I often get that I shouldn’t be praying for X; I should have already taken care of X myself. Self-castigation keeps a running commentary in my head, nagging me with the feeling that no matter what I do, it’s not enough. The accusation I fear most is that of laziness. And there is a peculiarly Christian laziness that boils down to using grace as an excuse for sloth.

James 1:5 is a life-saver and sanity-restorer for people like me.

If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

Those three words, “and upbraideth not,” make all the difference in the world. God doesn’t give grudgingly, blaming us for the frailty that compels us to ask, but graciously, liberally, gladly.

I will make missteps. I will continue to have just cause for regret. Even in the retrospect of lucid old age (a blessing I pray God will grant me), some things will remain mysteries to me until the life to come. But my portion of wisdom is enough—not because it feels like enough, but because it’s what God grants me. And I can safely trust his character, even when I cannot comprehend his means.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessèd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great Name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
Thy justice like mountains high soaring above
Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.

To all life thou givest—to both great and small;
In all life thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish—but naught changeth thee.

Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
But of all Thy rich graces this grace, Lord, impart
Take the veil from our faces, the vile from our heart.

All laud we would render; O help us to see
’Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee,
And so let Thy glory, Almighty, impart,
Through Christ in His story, Thy Christ to the heart.

~Walter Chalmers Smith, hymnist, poet, minister of the Free Church of Scotland

Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

~1 Timothy 1:17