Thursday, March 14, 2013

making a miracle

There’s a lot I want out of life that in this exact moment I don’t know how to get. There is so much I want to do, so much I am capable of: finding happiness in my career, starting my own family, making the best pizza in the world, making new discoveries in my family history, traveling the world. I believe that it is within my abilities to accomplish these things. Moreover, I feel that some of these things are what God wants for me1. While I know how to inch my way forward in their pursuit, I don’t know how to achieve them with any sort of velocity2.

To accomplish any one of these items would be, for me, a miracle.

I’ve never not believed in miracles. I know they exist and I have seen plenty in my life and in the lives of those I love. I just have never taken time to pause on the nature of miracles until about a month ago when I came across the Stephen Tobolowsky story I wrote about briefly in the previous post. The questions he asks near the end of the story have caused me to ponder:

What happens if miracle and catastrophe are not these two events that happen on the edge of probability? But what happens if they are actually part of the same fabric? And that they’re not outside of nature but they are a primary element of nature itself? What if a miracle is an antidote to fate?

The LDS Bible Dictionary’s definition differs slightly from Tobolowsky’s succinct thesis ("a miracle is an antidote to fate"): "Miracles should not be regarded as deviations from the ordinary course of nature so much as manifestations of divine or spiritual power."

It’s interesting to look at what these two definitions have in common: miracles are "a primary element of nature itself," and part of "the ordinary course of nature."

If miracles are indeed a natural occurrence, how does one create a miracle?

== == == == ==

While recovering from a broken neck, Tobolowsky asked his doctor, "How do I heal?" The doctor explained that after a period of time the bones get sticky and eventually fuse together and are whole. Tobolowsky responded, "That wasn’t the question really I was asking. The question I was asking was, how does all that happen, not how long does it take me to heal, but how do I heal? And he said, 'Well, nobody knows that. That’s a mystery.'"

I’ve thought about this question—"How do I heal?"—in great depth over the past month or so in regards to mental illness, specifically depression. It’s interesting to juxtapose something like depression with a broken neck, or even with something more common and simple, like a broken arm. Suppose I break one of the bones in my forearm. I go to the doctor, he sets the bone and sticks my arm in a cast for eight weeks or whatever is normal for a broken arm. After that time, my arm isn’t necessarily as good as new but if the fracture was simple and cared for properly, it’s likely that my arm will function as it should.

It’s amazing—dare I say miraculous?—how the body heals itself this way. Sure, it takes some intervention on the doctor’s part to set the bone, but once it’s in a stress-free environment, the bone seems to take care of itself3. If I am depressed, how do I heal? What needs to be healed, my body, my mind, or both? Which of these, if not both, needs to be kept in a stress-free environment to foster healing? And once isolated, how do I set that healing in motion?

Perhaps the biggest question of all is, can I heal?

The other day I came across a short quote by Caroline Myss that simplified those questions: "The soul always knows how to heal itself. The challenge is to silence the mind."

If Ms. Myss is to believed and we assume that my depression4 requires healing of the soul5, then the what and how of healing take care of themselves, the same way the body does. So the question now becomes, how do I silence the mind?

== == == == ==

I’ve thought about Tobolowsky’s miracle—that the arthritis in his neck deflected injury to his spinal cord and saved his life when he broke his neck—and I’ve wondered, how do I produce that sort of miracle in my life? My life doesn’t need saving, at least not in a physical sense, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t use a miracle to help me accomplish what I desire, even if that miracle is more patience and a greater tenacity to plug away at what I have already set out to do.

Tobolowsky’s perspective is part of what interests me the most. Rather than bemoan the fact that he broke his neck and could have died, he gave credit to his arthritis—something he had referred to as a curse—as the means of his salvation. Others might not have the insight to recognize the miracles in their lives6. That means an important part of living a miraculous life is being able to actually perceive miracles when they happen.

While, yes, this recognition is important, it doesn’t explain the how or the why of the miracle, and it doesn't give me much help on how I can produce miracles for me. Other than declaring what I want and need out of life, and simply being open to them (in other words, having faith), I don’t know how to produce my own miracles. I can only trust God to give me what I need.

But what about producing miracles in the lives of others?

I love the quote by Spencer W. Kimball, “God does watch over us and does notice us, but it usually through someone else that he meets our needs.”

It can seem presumptuous or arrogant to think that I could be a miracle or produce a miracle for someone else. Yet, there are instances when something I have done or said was the answer to someone else’s prayer. And I know that others have been answers to my prayers. Even more significant, I know that people have been the answer to a question I wasn’t asking—a question that I didn’t have the words or experience to articulate—the question that God knew was deep in my heart.

== == == == ==

As I ponder miracles, as I consider with gratitude those who have wrought miracles in my life, as I search for strength, humility, understanding, tenacity, as I seek to silence my mind in order to give expression to my soul, Stephen Tobolowsky’s words of discovery become my words:

I started to get it. That the miracle I’ve been looking for was me, or part of me. … I thought all of my life that the great access to miracles I was going to have was either through telescopes, microscopes, I had no idea that all I really needed was a mirror. So then I ask this: if we are the miracle and the purpose of a miracle is to change the course of fate then it means the next question is, what’s going to happen today?

Notes, Asides, Post-Scripts, and Acknowledgements:
1I think God couldn’t care less about whether or not I make the best pizza in the world, but I know He does want me to have my own family, make discoveries in my family history, and serve those that I love (and don’t love).

2I realize that if these things are God’s will then they will be accomplished in His time. Patience might be one of the miracles I need in order to keep inching forward. Still, I can’t help but wonder, why do miracles exist, in addition to being the antidote to fate, if not to move life forward with velocity?

3I realize there is much of which I am ignorant in the medical process, and I might be mistaken on a few points (I've never broken a bone). The bottom line: the body the amazing ability to heal itself.

4Keep in mind that I’m not talking about depression as a whole here. I’m simply referring to my depression and that’s it.

5I don’t know how Caroline Myss defines the word "soul" but I like this definition, and it’s what I mean when I refer to the soul in this post: "And the spirit and the body are the soul of man" (Doctrine and Covenants 88:15).

6It’s interesting that Tobolowsky’s doctor helped point out the miracle of his survival. How do others help us recognize the miracles in our lives?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Antidote to Fate

In his book The Dangerous Animals Club, Stephen Tobolowsky mentions more than once that he had broken his neck while on a horseback riding trip in Iceland. But in the book he never tells the whole story. I thought it was strange that he would leave out such a huge life event—how did he survive this harrowing, potentially fatal accident?—and I've been wanting to hear about it since.

I was excited when over a month ago I came across a podcast on PRI called "The Afflictions of Love" wherein Mr. Tobolowsky relates the story of his neck injury. The podcast has been taken down from the PRI website but I found a video of Tobo performing the story for an audience. It's 20 minutes, which seems long and I'm sure you didn't plan on spending 20 minutes on my blog, but I promise it's worth it. If you listen and you sincerely feel like you've wasted your time, I'll buy you your favorite candy bar. I'm serious.

His comments at the end of the story have been stewing in my mind for the past month (again, watch to the video for full effect):

What happens if miracle and catastrophe are not these two events that happen on the edge of probability? But what happens if they are actually part of the same fabric? And that they’re not outside of nature but they are a primary element of nature itself? What if a miracle is an antidote to fate?

How do you define your miracles?

Sunday, March 3, 2013


A couple weeks ago I started reading a book called Weakness Is Not Sin by Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D. I wouldn’t have picked up this book had I not known Wendy personally during a short period of my life. From December 2001 to December 2003, I served as an LDS missionary in Quebec and Ontario, Canada. For the majority of that time, Wendy and her husband, Dave, presided over our mission. They are both extraordinary people and were a huge blessing and source of learning to me as a missionary.

I have a distinct memory of Wendy discussing weakness and sin during a missionary training. I remember hearing that lesson more than once, but despite its repetition, it’s not one I completely grasped regardless of my desire to understand. So when I saw a book called Weakness Is Not Sin by Wendy Ulrich pop up on Amazon, I immediately ordered a copy, although I didn’t plan on reading it immediately. I suppose I was saving it for a rainy day.

At several points in my life I have struggled through episodes of anxiety and depression. It has been hard to know what to do and where to turn in these moments. It’s so easy to feel alone and isolate yourself. During one of these moments I spied Wendy’s book on the bottom shelf of the bookcase in my bedroom. I remembered Wendy's wisdom and I wondered if her book could help me find the relief I was searching and praying for.

Throughout the book, Wendy refers to a verse from the Book of Mormon, Ether 12:271, many times. It’s a verse that gets thrown around a lot among Mormons—and rightfully so, it carries a powerful message—but only in one or two instances have I exerted great effort to apply it in my life. This verse speaks of God’s power to turn man’s weakness into strength:

And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.

As I’ve considered this scripture and read this book, viewing my depression as a weakness—not something to be ashamed of or feel guilty about—has opened a whole new way of looking at depression. I have found myself seeking strength2 and patience through humility and prayer. And I have been able to find self-assurance and satisfaction in the fact that I have been working through this particular weakness in a healthy and proactive way.

== == == == ==

Growing up I was the shyest, most closed-up kid I knew. In my ninth grade algebra class I had a crush on the girl I sat next to. I think her name was Lisa. I remember one night as I went to bed so frustrated with my inability to talk to her that I cried myself to sleep.

Part of what was so frustrating was that not only could I not talk to Lisa, but I couldn’t talk to anyone about the fact that I couldn’t talk to her. I was so afraid of how others might treat my oh-so-tender feelings. I was 18 years old—18—before I could tell someone else that I liked a girl. Not the actual girl but someone else.

I’m still a fairly shy person. I’m not particularly fond of this fact and it’s something that I’m working on. In the meantime, I’ve developed several compensating strengths3 to counteract that. Expressing myself through writing is one of these strengths. Writing is not always ideal, though, because if I’m not careful, it can create a crutch that I use to avoid expressing myself in real time with real people.

Another compensating strength is my ability to share myself with trustworthy people. You might ask, How is sharing yourself different than overcoming shyness? Well, I still have difficulty opening up in groups with people I don’t know very well. This is especially true when there is someone in the group that I would like to get to know better.

What I’m saying is, it’s gotten much easier for me to share myself with people I trust. I know that might be a normal thing to grow into as an adult, looking back at 14 year-old Myke with all those pent-up emotions, crying himself to sleep, the progress seems very significant.

So when I struggle with depression and anxiety, communicating that struggle with others has been an important way for me to gain insight, strength, peace, and relief. Now, this doesn’t mean I share the details of what I’m going through with everyone. The circle of people with whom I share the particulars is fairly small and rightfully so. But I want to share the generalities of what I'm going through with a larger audience for the following reasons:

One. It just feels good. Experiencing life—a composite of good and bad—with another person or other people is simply better than going at it alone.

Two. I often don't know what I'm thinking or feeling until I express it. Whether in writing or vocally, I learn so much about myself when I let someone else know what's going on in my mind. Through conversation, as another individual contributes his or her ideas concerning my experiences and thoughts, as he or she asks questions I wouldn't think to ask, I learn exponentially more than if I were to hash things out on my own.

Three. Sharing myself can help others. I know this because I have received so much strength and comfort when others have been frank and honest in sharing their struggles, whether they are similar to mine or not. When I am open, it allows others the opportunity, if they want it, to share what they’re going through and what they need. It allows me to be a friend to them. And it gives me an opportunity to practice my strengths, to be a good listener, to be compassionate, encouraging, and caring.

== == == == ==

I wish I knew how to be permanently free of my depression and anxiety, or at least how to better manage them. I suspect that I will deal with these issues in one form or another throughout my entire life. I am learning how to be OK with that fact. And while I wrestle with that idea, I am learning that my anxiety—almost always a precursor to my depression—comes not from circumstances and other people, but from how I react to those circumstances and people. I am slowly learning how to act instead of react4 (that too is the pursuit of a lifetime).

And while I would love to be free of this weakness, this predisposition toward anxiety and depression, I can't help but be grateful for it because it has helped me develop compensating strengths that serve me so well, strengths that will also be of great benefit to the people I love.

Notes, Asides, Post-Scripts, and Acknowledgements:
1I feel that Ether 12:27 sometimes is not very well understood by Mormondom at large as so many of us seem prone to feel guilty and ashamed of our weaknesses when these weaknesses—which are not sins, not something to repent of—are simply part of the human experience. As Wendy puts it, "Weakness is the great equalizer, the human trait we all share" (p. 106).

2I think a big part of strength lies not in being free of weakness, but in what we do and where we turn when we come face to face with our weakness.

3Wendy mentions the development of compensating strengths as one of the ways that God helps us overcome weakness.

4Act or react: my cousin Jenny has shared a few recent experiences on her blog that have helped me realize the powerful nuance between these two similar words. This post explains it well.

Where possible, I have tried to explain when certain ideas came from Weakness Is Not Sin and not my own brain. The best way for you to find out is to read the book. Really, I can't recommend it enough. (And I haven't even finished it yet.)