I’ve been home from a useful work-trip to Europe for about a month. The first two weeks back were full of purpose, as the trip was fresh in my mind. Then I hit a slump.
I periodically hit slumps. They creep up on me without me noticing it, until I realise I’m having trouble getting anything done, that I don’t feel an emotional connection to my projects, and that even as neutral a skill as “reading comprehension” has deserted me. I push onward, but instead of this helping warm me up and get me into the swing of it, I continue to churn out something that inexplicably has no life in it. If I’m trying to write in this state, it’s as if my memory only lasts a few seconds, so by the time I’ve gotten to the next sentence, I’ve no idea what I wrote before, and when I re-read it, I don’t know how it connects to what follows.
I’m not exaggerating this brain fog, and yet—it is suspiciously selective. I am, meanwhile, perfectly able to watch strings of videos on Netflix, write a reply about something inconsequential on Facebook, or read a trivial article online and then write a long response picking apart a minor detail that really didn’t deserve such attention. In other words, while I can spend time on anything that doesn’t qualify as what I’m supposed to be doing, my brain goes on a mental strike if it’s asked to focus on something with a higher end in view.
Although I found my way out of the worst of this paralysed state a week or so ago, and had become active again in other parts of my life, there was one portion of my life last week that had not yet recovered: I had a blog post due for New Christian Woman, and no matter how many times I turned over the four partial articles I had brought with me to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, I was still stuck. I kept working on them periodically, but the result was a bigger mire of disjointed words to slog through, while my brain was like mud between my ears.
I wonder if a spiritual description of what’s happening to me in this state is that my rational has gotten turned off — the real rational, which is oriented toward heaven, and makes good choices. This part of the rational doesn’t account for my entire rational faculty, as I still seem to have a primitive, natural one, which delights in ratiocination but doesn’t have much time for simple truths like, “You know from the Word, the Writings, and much experience, that you will not be happy if at the end of this day you have only watched movies and haven’t gotten to your work.”
By what mechanism is my good rational mind getting turned off, and why is it so susceptible?
One pattern I’ve identified is that when things are going well, I feel as though I have the leisure to make one . . . then two . . . then three unwise choices. I know they’re a bad idea, and I make them anyway. It’s more subtle than a flagrant disobedience of conscience, because the bad choices aren’t immediately identifiable as moral issues: watching a funny video instead of making a phone call, watching ten more and then doing something else moderately useful but tangential, and putting off the phone call until tomorrow. These fall into the category of, “it’s my life, so if I want to waste today, that’s fine, and it’s not hurting anybody.” But where someone else might be able to sit in front of a screen for an hour and then bounce right back to work, I have a hard time returning to a furrow to plow again after a break. Not keeping promises to myself slips quickly into not keeping them toward others, and by the time I realise that my rational mind is no longer working, I can’t seem to find the switch that turns it back on.
It’s frustrating, and even scary, because I begin to worry whether I’ll ever be able to make myself do anything. I forget that I’ve ever been useful or accomplished anything, and I feel like a non-human: how is it that even though I now desperately want to be working again, and try and try, I still don’t succeed in getting back on track?
Somehow, it always comes down to some version of the same insight: I have to do the opposite thing of what got me into this mess. It’s remarkable to me how this perennial insight evades recurring to me when I’m in the slump: that, since I chose to shut off my rational faculty, chose to make my own rules as if I could avoid consequences, I now need to call on the One whose rules actually govern the universe and submit myself to Him.
And not just call on Him as in “Oh, right, this is where I ask that God person for help and He magically cleans up this mess. . . . Why isn’t this tactic working? Lord? Lord?” That first call isn’t really sincere, and doesn’t fix the problem. Its failure to work in the way I’d like makes me much more receptive to the realisation, a few days or weeks later, that all power is really and truly from the Lord, that His ways are far above mine, that I can do nothing – seriously, nothing – without Him. If I don’t realise this, I may begin to normalise and be moderately productive, but I keep tripping back into the rut, week after week, just when I thought that I had pulled myself out. (“What’s wrong with me that I can’t hold it together?”)
My resistance to the realisation comes, perhaps, because to some portion of my heart, this feels unfair. What, I have to humble myself before the Lord when all I did wrong was refuse to be useful? Other people seem to have no struggle working despite the fact that they’re stealing or are in active adultery; they don’t get paralysed and grind to a halt just for taking a little vacation from acknowledging the Lord.
That’s the mindset before the despair sets in. In retrospect, if not, ahem, at the time, I’m grateful for despair, because choosing humility takes off that heavy yoke of merit where it’s all up to me to crawl through the mud alone, and submits to the Lord’s yoke, where Wow, I didn’t know I could plow and sow such a big field with the Lord’s help! It is sobering to realise, but liberating to acknowledge, that on some level I really believe that I should get a free ride, that merely knowing all this truth is in itself having a spiritual life. Screebies. When I remember it’s the Lord’s truth, and when I choose to serve Him with it, my life becomes fruitful again.
We all get attacked in different ways, but we all get attacked. And we’re all given a chance to turn to the Lord or not as we choose. I hate getting caught in my personal pattern of paralysis and prevarication, but afterwards, with the blessed relief of finishing things and getting back to work, I’m really thankful that the Lord keeps giving me chances to choose His yoke. I still need to learn that my way is pretty miserable, but when I do let go of it and turn to the Lord, I get to experience how it is SO worth giving up.