Yeah, it’s a re-run. But it’s a good one!
This is my very favorite Anne Lamott essay of all time, because it was me at my worst, although maybe not so much anymore (although I could be kidding myself):
Say you have a problem, something that is driving you crazy, something you need and want an answer to. Maybe the problem is romantic in nature, or has to do with your career. Maybe a decision needs to be reached that involves one of your kids, or your spouse, or an aged parent or pet. You feel like you really need to go left or right but you have no idea which way to turn. Maybe you feel just a little scared, maybe profoundly anxious; maybe you’ve even developed facial tics and early-stage Tourette’s.
If you’re at all like me, you’re torn between really wanting to know what God’s will is for you, and just desperately wanting this one thing to happen, this one thing to turn out this one particular way. And you keep feeling this, even though you remember the amazing scene at the end of “The Mission,” where the warrior, played by Robert DeNiro, comes to see the priest, Jeremy Irons, to seek his blessing in the battle ahead, and the priest says, “If what you are about to do is God’s will, then you don’t need my blessing. And if it’s not, then my blessing isn’t going to help.”
You remember that and still: You frantically want the guy to call; you want the project to be a huge success; you want the authorities to let your brother off the hook. Whatever. A small part of you, a crescent moon-shaped part of you, wants to be in alignment with God’s will, because you have reason to believe that you are fucked unto the Lord if you somehow get your own will to prevail. But a louder part of you secretly believes that you alone know what the best possible outcome would be, for all parties concerned, even with a lifetime of evidence to the contrary. And you are prepared to use the sheer force of your personality and character to get it to happen.
It’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it — the self-will run riot? Here you long to inwardly resemble the Dalai Lama humming to himself, or Therese of Liseux at dawn Christmas morning in prayer. And instead, on the inside, you’re feeling like Roy Cohn with the flu and bad coffee nerves. Or a dog with a chew toy. A crazy little dog.
A crazy, bad little dog with issues: That’s where the self-will takes me. First there’s all this terrible Jurassic roaring and posturing, the wrestling to the ground, the snapping and gnawing, the growling. And then there’s an unearthly quiet, the isometric moment of silence just before the electrical storm. And then suddenly the toy is flung, tossed up and over the body, and great excitement pours forth like lava as the toy is searched for and captured again; and then dominated, chewed, ripped at, drooled over.
But eventually I am too tired to continue and my head has become too uninhabitable, and I realize I’ve been driving this rickety temperamental old bus of my mind around for too long. I’ve lost all sense of direction and am feeling confused and pissed off and bitter and resentful and nuts; but then finally, finally just tired. I begin to worry that I have had or am having a complete nervous breakdown, and that I am about to start weeping or barking and won’t be able to stop. Sometimes I still look more or less okay on the outside except for the tics, which can actually be pretty unsightly but inside I’m feeling a little bit more like Ted Kaczynski than I like to. And I realize I’m just crazier than a shithouse rat; and that it’s all hopeless. And that the sun is burning out.
This is the point at which I am willing to try using a God-box, because, as is often true in life, the willingness comes from the pain. The most profound sense of willingness I ever experienced was eight years ago, when I got pregnant by a man who was extremely unhappy about this news. First I tried to self-will him into being excited; but he just about lost his mind. I was not doing much better, and eventually got out my God-box. It was just a little wooden box someone had given me once, that I’d decided would be God’s in-box. But I was deeply depressed and hormonally challenged up the yin-yang and lonely and poor and crazy. I felt like my life would be ruined if I had a child by myself, but that my soul might die if I had the abortion I had scheduled. So I wrote a note to God. I said that I was willing to have an abortion, if that would be best for me and the fetus, and I would be willing to have a baby if God had some tricks up His sleeve. And I promised I was not going to do anything at all until I heard from Him.
Then I folded up my note, put it in the box, and waited.
Have I mentioned that waiting is perhaps not my strong suit? But every time I either decided to go ahead with the abortion, or pictured myself nursing a little Gerber baby, I remembered that I was waiting for an answer from God. I didn’t cancel my appointment for an abortion, but by the same token, I didn’t buy any maternity clothes, either. I simply waited to hear.
I don’t understand why it would hurt so much if just once in His life, He used a megaphone. But He never does. I find this infuriating. But what happens when I put a note in the God-box is that the phone rings, or the mail comes; and I hear from Him that way.
And a few days later, just when I was losing faith, the phone rang. A sober friend named Tom had just returned from Hawaii and told me about a group of people he’d met there. They were members of Alcoholics Anonymous, and so on a daily basis they tried to turn their wills and their lives over to the care of God, as each of them understood God. Some of them loved Jesus; some were Jews; some turned to the same mountain the first natives had bowed to before. Some were Buddhists and did not have the sense of a personal God, and so turned their wills and lives over to the care of Good Orderly Direction, or to the Group of Drunks. I like to think that some even turned to Howard, who can be kind of a generic god for agnostics, a big warm caring galoot of divine presence Howard, as in, “Our father, who art in Heaven, Howard be thy name.” Anyway, Tom reported over the phone that this group of Hawaiian drunks had a meeting whose topic was about the 3rd Step, about letting go, and the name of this meeting was Drop the Rock. The Drop the Rock meeting was based on the understanding that left to our own devices, we as a species tend to lug these big rocks around. They are the rocks of our concerns. Everytime we get up, we reach down for our big rock and then we lug it out the door, down the stairs, and roll it into the back seats of our cars. Then after we drive someplace, we open the back door, get out our rock, and carry it with us, wherever we go. Because it’s our rock. It is very important to us and we need to keep it in sight. Also, someone could steal it.
So these Hawaii drunks suggest that you practice dropping the rock. That you put it down, on the ground at your feet. And that you say to God, to Mary, to Pele, Jehovah, Jesus, or Howard: “Here. I’m giving you the rock. YOU deal with it.”
When I heard this, I realized that more than anything, I wanted to put down my rock. My psychic arms ached from carrying it. I got my note out of the God-box, and I re-read it, and then I folded it back up and said to God, “Here. Look at me I am putting down the rock. It’s in your hands now. RSVP.”
Maybe it’s about turning one’s attention from what’s holding us enthralled. Maybe it gives us a little room and a sense of fresh air, and with that comes some kind of healing breath. Maybe it gets us to stop looking in the one direction where we think the mountain is going to rise up before us, and so instead, with our minds free to wander and bob, we notice pathways and even airy glades we hadn’t see before. I do not have any idea how it works, only that two weeks later, I woke up from a very clear and specific dream, and I smiled in joy, even though I was full of fear, because I knew I was going to keep the baby. And I did, and we have been abundantly provided for every step of the way.
Over the years I’ve used brown paper bags and pockets: I’ve used rivers, a leather Native American pouch. I have buried my notes in the ground; I have thrown them into fires, but I usually use the same box I used when I was pregnant. That way, when I write a new note to God, I first get to take out old scraps of paper that held earlier problems, all of them grievious and unsolvable.
The other day I went to put a note in the box, about this guy with whom I have fallen in love, and I found a scrap of paper from last year, when Sam’s pediatrician couldn’t figure out why his bloodwork was so funky and had actually began to consult oncologists. The world, as you can imagine, came to a halt, and all I knew to do was to pray for courage and faith, and to put it in the God-box. A week or so later the doctor discovered that Sam is allergic to dust mites. That morning I took out the bit of paper on which I’d written Sam’s name, and turned my head towards the sky. I said, “Jesus, honey? I don’t even know where to start. I feel like You’re showing off again; so thank You. Thank You. And give my best to Howard.” Then I put the note back inside, so I’d find it again, and remember.