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Ramon Presson, M.S., a clinically certified marriage and family therapist for over twenty years, is the founder of LifeChange Counseling and the Marriage Center of Franklin, TN and also served as a pastor with a special focus in ministry to single and single-again adults for twenty years. He is the author of eleven books, including Beyond the Shadows: Discover Hope for Overcoming Depression, Intentional Choices: Discovering Contentment in Stressful Times, and Love Talks for Couples with Dr. Gary Chapman. He is also an award winning poet and a newspaper columnist. Presson lives with his wife and two sons in Thompson Station, TN.
Is This as Good as It Gets?
Is life supposed to suck? If it is supposed to suck, then I want to trade it in for something else. Exchange it for what, I don't know, but something that doesn't suck.
–Angie, a thirty-one-year-old waitress
Who knew the roof was about to blow off? The setting was comfortable. The participants were familiar. Karla was having a Bible study in her living room with a small group of Brentwood women. I should mention that Brentwood is the wealthiest community in Tennessee's wealthiest county—the ninth-wealthiest county in the United States. These were beautifully dressed and coiffed upper-middle-class women. They were mothers to beautiful children and owners of beautiful homes. By all appearances, these women had it all together.
As always, the Bible study was meaningful and pleasant in a Brentwood sort of way. Here in the Bible Belt, knowing how to conduct oneself at a Bible study is a pretty basic social skill. Karla asked the questions in the study guide, and the women offered up their carefully calibrated answers—answers that would demonstrate sensitivity to "things of the Spirit" without revealing too much or making anybody feel uncomfortable. They were talking about the book of Exodus—the Israelites' ragtag escape out of slavery and their faltering steps toward the Promised Land. It was interesting enough but not very Brentwood. After all, weren't these women already living in the Promised Land?
Becky, a mother of teenagers, suddenly interrupted the overly polite back and forth. "Forgive me if I'm out of line. I think this study of Exodus is all very nice, but what I really want to know is this: when will my life not suck?" A collective gasp seemed to vacuum all the oxygen out of the room. Some of the startled women looked to Karla for a group rescue, while others stared with an awkward intensity into the pages of Exodus on their laps. Then Sandy, who had recently divorced a music industry executive, found her own courage in Becky's willingness to speak the truth. "Yeah, me too. That's what I want to know. When will my life not suck?"
Karla had the wisdom not to try to reel this in. She just nodded and remained silent, trusting that God was doing something important, something real. The raw outbursts from Becky and Sandy, not to mention Karla's mature acceptance, gave the other women permission to drop their masks and let their humanness show through. One by one the women hesitantly removed their fingers from the holes in their protective dykes. Walls began to fall. Every woman in the room—even Karla—acknowledged that somewhere close to the center of her being was a question that she had been afraid to ask: "When will my life not suck?" It was way past lunchtime, but the tears kept coming. The chicken salad and the croissants could wait. These women thought they had come to Karla's house to study the book of Exodus. But they really sought an exodus from feeling stuck.
It was a prison break from a suburban misery of mediocre marriages, consuming parenthood, stressful jobs, accumulating weight, unmet goals, unfulfilled dreams, and crippling debt.
In case you're wondering, I didn't make this up. Karla told me about this episode, and it struck a nerve in me that resulted in this book. The feeling that life sucks is not confined to upper-middle-class women—not by a long shot. Over the years as a pastor, a therapist, and someone who can't help but overhear conversations in the next booth, I've encountered a lot of people who feel that life sucks:
Singles in relationships that are going nowhere
Singles for whom a relationship is nowhere in sight
Wives who feel sentenced to a bland marriage
Husbands who feel expendable at work and unappreciated at home
Blindsided and bludgeoned victims of a ruthless economy
Adults devastated by divorce, and children who must testify in family court
Mothers who seemingly have no identity or life of their own
People battling cancer, a chronic debilitating illness, or chronic pain
Addicts and the people who love them
Single fathers who miss their children, and single mothers who are overwhelmed
People whose Prozac, Wellbutrin, or Lexapro isn't working
People who feel trapped in sluggish, overweight bodies
Parents of a prodigal
Victims of abuse, crime, or just betrayal
The poor of Calhoun City, Mississippi, and the wealthy of Palm Beach, Florida
Public school teachers, cubicle jockeys, real estate agents, and auto workers
The geographically uprooted, relocated, and transplanted
People with sexual scars, addictions, AIDS, or other STDs
Graduates who can't get a job after four years of costly training
Parents who have buried a child, regardless of age
Minorities who are underprivileged and disrespected
You, if we had a chance to talk
God All Muddy
If you've seen the movie Bruce Almighty, you'll remember the scene when everything comes crashing down for Channel 7 Eyewitness News reporter, Bruce Nolan. He's doing a live broadcast from Niagara Falls when he learns that his rival has been given the anchor position that he has been counting on getting himself. After giving full and colorful vent to his feelings on live television, Bruce is fired and literally thrown out into the street, where his car is vandalized, and he is beaten up by a gang.
Bruce's girlfriend tries to put things in perspective. "Thank God you're OK," she says. At the mention of God, Bruce goes off on a tirade. "God is ignoring me completely. God is a mean kid sitting on an anthill with a magnifying glass, and I'm the ant. He could fix my life in five minutes, but he'd rather burn off my feelers and watch me squirm." "I'm just glad you're OK," the girlfriend repeats. Bruce shoots back, "News Flash! I'm not OK. I'm not OK with a mediocre job. I'm not OK with a mediocre apartment. I'm not OK with a mediocre life!" Moments later, after another series of mishaps, Bruce screams at God, "OK, the gloves are off, pal. Let's see a little wrath. C'mon, smite me, O Mighty Smiter. You're the one who ought to be fired. The only one not doing his job around here is you!"
That's a hard scene to watch. It's painful to see a person step so close to the line of blasphemy (or perhaps step over it). But the truth is that Bruce echoes the sentiment of many of us, even though we might be hesitant to say it aloud: "God, my life sucks. You're not doing your job!" I often wonder what we think God's job is. I've had to confront the fact that I have mentally written a job description for God. I've had expectations of God that had nothing to do with reality, and that create dilemmas for me when I think God is falling down on the job. They create conflict when I think the Christian life is not working for me. In fact, the phrase "working for me" is quite telling. It puts me in the role of boss. It gives me the authority to decide which results are acceptable and which aren't. We all seem to be looking for a Christianity that gets results. That's the good life, isn't it?
Browsing in my local bookstore several years ago I came across a book that was all about getting "the good life" from God. Maybe it was a good book, but I choked on the description on the back: "The Good Life is a life full of confidence, connectivity, and competence. The Good Life is what God designed for you—a life full of love and peace, joy and success. God has made a way for you to meet him and has created a map for you to follow ... God has invited you into his presence and given you a road map to becoming a competent Christian."
A road map? Forgive me if I sound cynical, but I think the Bible is more than a wordy version of MapQuest. Sure, there are biblical principles to follow, but I hardly see in Scripture a formula, a recipe, or "a road map to becoming a competent Christian." Is the best I can hope for being a competent Christian? Here's my definition of the word competence: the ability to do something without screwing it up. It means you can do the job at least good enough not to get fired. Wow, that gets my juices flowing. That's definitely something lofty to strive for. But hey, sometimes we'd settle for that, wouldn't we? A competent life that is manageable and working. A Christianity that is manageable; a faith that works. It has to be working for us or what's the point?
The pragmatism that pervades Western thinking and American thought in particular is the idea that if it works then it is true. Thus if it doesn't work then it's probably not true. So if belief/faith/church attendance/serving/tithing/having a quiet time isn't improving your lot—if life still sucks—then God is like a busted hair dryer to be thrown away. Faith worked for a while, but it's broken now. So just toss it and get something that works. According to Christian psychologist and author Dr. Larry Crabb, "Modern Christianity, in dramatic reversal of its biblical form, promises to relieve the pain of living in a fallen world. The message, whether it's from fundamentalists requiring us to live by a favored set of rules, or from charismatics urging a deeper surrender to the Spirit's power, is too often the same: The promise of bliss is for now! Complete satisfaction can be ours this side of heaven."
The self-help industry knows that you want it now, whatever it is. You need your best life now. Thus the subtitle of Mira Kirshenbaum's book, The Gift of a Year, offers to tell you How to Achieve the Most Meaningful, Satisfying, and Pleasurable Year of Your Life. So what are you supposed to do with yourself after that year is over? Buy another self-help book? But maybe you can't afford to spend an entire year getting what you want out of life. You need something sooner, quicker, easier. Well, look no further because the subtitle of Michele Weiner-Davis' book, Change Your Life and Everyone In It (already a scary title), claims it will help you to Transform Difficult Relationships, Overcome Anxiety & Depression, Break Free from Self-Defeating Ways of Thinking, Feeling, and Acting in One Month or Less. Parents will be especially glad to know that thanks to author Kevin Leman they can Have a New Kid by Friday.
And in case a month is too long for personal transformation, a well-known Christian author reminds us that Today Matters and offers 12 Daily Practices to Guarantee Tomorrow's Success. Note those three final words that were thoughtfully selected—powerful words that have us reaching for our wallet and strolling to the cashier with book in hand. These words capture what we really want:
Guarantee: a sure thing that can't miss, and there's no doubt about it
Tomorrow: overnight my happiness so it'll be here by 10:00 a.m. tomorrow
Success: usually spelled $ucce$$ but includes many other components that make up the American Dream
This isn't that kind of book. Later I'll address some specific questions about suffering and provide strategies for dealing with it. But for now, let's just be honest enough with each other to admit that we bring certain expectations to the table. We've believed the Ten Essential Truths, followed the Seven Steps, implemented the Six Simple Strategies, applied the Five Principles, and adhered to the Four Vital Factors. We've followed the Path to Promise, the Trail to Triumph, and the Map to Victory—and when none of it seems to work we feel like throwing God out like a broken toaster. We've got sermon notes, books, tapes, and CDs, and our life still sucks.
If you've bought this book with the hope of it being the one that fixes what's broken in your life, you're going to be disappointed. I'm shooting at a higher target than helping you get happy. Of course I want to instill in you a greater sense of hope. I want to encourage you, make you think, provoke questions, make you wrestle, nudge you to look deeper, make you smile, and occasionally even stick a finger in your armpit and make you laugh. I don't have all the answers, and I don't have a monthly tape subscription to anyone who does. But I would be disappointed if you finished this book without greater hope and trust in the living and loving God and without feeling that your winding, twisting journey has not just a destiny, but a great purpose.
In the end, I hope I can help you embrace the mystery of the life God has for you. Or if you can't quite embrace it, I hope you can at least give it a little hug. I'm not going to solve your mysteries. Audiences think they like mysteries when in fact they like solved mysteries. Writers and producers know that audiences crave resolution and feel-good endings. We all do. But life is messy. And while God promises to one day make everything right, the loose ends won't always get tied up to our great satisfaction. Yet there is genuine joy available in the midst of the most bewildering and painful of circumstances.
I know. I've been there.CHAPTER 2
My Hero Is in the Slammer
What do I know about a life that sucks? I'm well educated. I have no student loan debt. I've had great jobs in big churches. I have a successful counseling practice. I'm a published author. I'm healthy. I have a lovely, devoted wife and two perfectly healthy sons who are good students and excellent athletes. I have a nice house in a lovely part of Tennessee. I've also been hospitalized for depression.
I know what it's like to look at my life, understand that I'm blessed compared to a lot of people, tell myself that I have no real good reasons to be depressed, but suffer crippling depression anyway. My serotonin and dopamine levels aren't always impressed with my self-talk. So I take a prescribed antidepressant medication every morning to calm the chemical pond in my brain.
In 2006 I decided to play amateur psychiatrist/pharmacist and wean myself off an antidepressant. I was feeling great, so I decided to experiment with gradually decreasing the dosage. (I'm not stupid enough to stop cold turkey.) I felt fine. I congratulated myself on my wise approach to the process, which had the added benefits of saving money and greater ease in losing weight. I was feeling so good that I ran a half marathon for the first time.
A week after the marathon, I crashed. The doctors hypothesized that the endorphins from the months of training for the marathon may have temporarily made up for the absence of the medicine. In my post-race exhaustion, the endorphins took a hike, and my depression awoke like an angry bear that did not appreciate being awakened. Here's a bit of free business advice: when you are launching a new business—particularly a counseling private practice—I don't recommend being hospitalized for depression. It's not great for marketing. I've learned my lesson. Now I take a Cymbalta in the morning like it's a Flintstone vitamin, and I get on with my day.
Okay, now you know that the author of the book you're reading is on an antidepressant and once spent some vacation time in a psychiatric hospital. Am I crazy? No. Get the images of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest out of your mind. If you spent a week watching me closely, you'd likely never suspect that a fog sometimes rolls in and obscures my harbor. But like a diabetic or someone with high blood pressure, I have a powerful, threatening condition that I must monitor and manage. Sometimes taking a daily capsule feels like some form of codependency and/or a lack of faith or strength, and sometimes that feeling pummels my self-esteem. But I have mostly come to terms with it, and I am grateful (as is my family!) that the medicine exists and is only twenty dollars with my insurance co-payment.
Some people judge me, but most have been very gracious in their understanding. My transparency about my battle seems to have helped many others feel less shame about their struggle with depression or anxiety, which has allowed them to either seek help or feel better about the help they are getting.
So when I write about life sucking, I'm not writing from an ivory tower. I'm not looking down on my readers, shaking my head at their dysfunction because I have it all together. I've actually become very suspicious of people who act as if they have it all together and deny any past or current brokenness. It's hard for me to trust people who insist they have no wounds or scars. Not that I think you need to walk around with your shirt pulled up so everyone can see the nasty gash on your belly. I just think it helps for you to know where I'm coming from.
Excerpted from When Will My Life Not Suck by RAMON PRESSON. Copyright © 2010 Ramon Presson. Excerpted by permission of New Growth Press.
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Posted August 12, 2014
Posted May 31, 2014
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