(Don't) Trust Your Instincts

Throw open every window. Stir up the dust from every ledge and let it dance in the glancing sunshine as it blazes in and draws honey-colored grids elongating themselves along the floorboards. Breathe in the blend of grass and dirt and daffodils—death made life—as the breeze blows in through the screens, turning the inside sweet with outside scents. Sense the warmth fall over your shoulders as you sit with your back to the big window taking in a book. Shine a light in every dark corner, beat out the musty upholstery, and shine up every window pane.

Spring has finally winged its way to us in the midwest. And with its lightness springs up a lightness in me.

Except, well, this is always when I get sick. Inevitably, each year just as the world is breaking open with life, I start to feel a little like death, and it causes me to do the very opposite of what spring beckons us all to do. Instead of throwing wide every window I find myself wanting to shut them tight and bolt the sash, pull closed the curtains and keep the sunshine at bay as I try and nurse away a headache or the sniffles or the vacillating sensations of a fever. When I feel sick I want only to sit in a dark room by myself. And don’t dare disturb my hermitage or risk certain churlishness or childishness.

In the 18th and 19th centuries doctors often advised their sickest patients to spend some time away, prescribing a stay in the countryside or by the sea. Sitting on the beach is just about the very last thing I’d like to do when I have the flu, but I wonder if they might have been on to something. When I get sick, popping a pill or two and holing up in a dark room somewhere feels like the right thing to do, but I doubt it does much to make me better. Pulling apart the curtains and opening every window might just be the best thing, reminding me how good and bright and beautiful the world is beyond these walls. I may not feel like seeing sunshine when my bones ache with fever, when my body groans against every movement, but might getting better be a bitter pill?

This spring my sickness is of another sort. I’m heartsick. Heavy. The words of the Psalms have rarely read so true.

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Psalm 32:3-4

Everything that felt effortless is now effort-full, exertion holding up all the heavy things that once felt light as air. Cynicism has been scratching at my thoughts. I’m tired and feeling a little sick all around the edges.

Thus far my instinct has been to retreat, to hide, to seek out dark places. I’ve been craving more and more time alone, longing for the dust to settle, drawing closed the curtains on friendships. I think it’s a self-preservation reflex.

Our reflexes don’t always reflect what’s best for us.

This prolonged retraction is not producing what I might hope it would. I’m not becoming better. In fact, the opposite is probably more true. Yesterday I was reading an essay by the visual artist Makoto Fujimara; he wrote about a time when he had followed his instinct and allowed his art to become his world, to define him. He said:

The more I focused on myself, the less I could find myself. A schism grew inside between who I wanted to be and what I did.

I find the same to be true as I try and define myself in this diminution, this instinct to make my world smaller and safer and more controllable. I’m discovering an even wider gap between the person I want myself to be and the person I am. I become a version of myself that I like less and less. As I retract, as I retreat, I find myself being less of a husband, less of a father, less of a friend, less of a follower of a Jesus, less… full. As I try and grow greater I am less.

That sounds familiar.

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Matthew 16:25

There’s little room in grace for self-preservation. Grace gives. Grace gives even when we feel we have little to give. The widow’s mite makes little sense if we believe in scarcity, but nothing good is scarce in God’s kingdom. Everything is rather upside-down when it comes to the gospel. Or inside out. So I’ve been wondering if I need to let more of the outside in.

When I give away what might be hard, might I uncover what is easy? When I die to the things I feel I want, might I live a life that feels more full? When I want only to curl up on the couch and sleep, might I find rest in heading to the basement to play make believe with the kids? When I want to take a path to my office that promises peace and quiet, might I stumble into life by bumping into a friend? What if I tried giving more? What if I expanded rather than retracted? What if I left the front door open with a welcome mat outside?

There’s a little voice inside me that has been telling me to open up the curtains and let the light in, unlock the windows and let the breeze blow, remind myself what’s past these walls and feel some lightness again.

Last week, as I was knocking out the storm windows and opening up the house to spring, I saw a spider on the windowsill. It lay upon its back with all eight of its legs pulled in tight, curled in toward its abdomen, dead. I think I can do better.