|A house on the Isle of Iona.|
What is discouragement? Rick Warren calls it a disease. I'm not sure about that. The dictionary offers these options: the feeling of despair in the face of obstacles, the expression of opposition and disapproval, disheartenment, dissuasion. In other words, discouragement tries to keep one from pursuing a particular course of action. It can be used in a positive sense, such as when a parent discourages a child from petting an angry cat or taking off their pants in public. But many times a visit from discouragement causes us to doubt who we are and what we are doing. Discouragement comes to deprive us of courage, of passion, of hope, of faith. However, sometimes it carries a hint of truth so we should not be too quick to dismiss it. I believe a visit from discouragement calls for a careful response.
Here is what happened to me this past week:
On Thursday afternoon I gave a presentation in a performance studies seminar. The readings in this seminar are outside of my usual genre and sometimes I feel like I am barely keeping my head above water, so I was hoping to do well. As I was showing a few architectural slides which I felt related to the topic, one person wondered why I was making these connections. Was my theme trauma? I wanted to exclaim. "That's not it at all!'" I was a bit thrown off by her question and tried to explain my thinking, but I wasn't sure I was making much sense. Others in the group offered some additional observations and comments which seemed much more informed and nuanced than anything I had said. Oh well. On my way home from the class, I started to get really discouraged. Though everyone in the seminar had been friendly and gracious, I thought., "Perhaps I am doing really badly in this course and don't even know it." Yes, that seemed totally likely. Here I was, a silly, uninformed theology student totally out of her league in a fine arts graduate seminar and everyone seemed to know it except me. A pit of uneasiness started to grow in my stomach. This was going to end badly, I knew it. And then I recognised that I was being visited by discouragement. What do you do when you are visited by discouragement? I decided that instead of letting myself be carried away by it, I would try to be honest, gracious, and responsible in how I responded. So here is what I did.
1. I acknowledged the discouragement. I didn't brush it aside as unfounded negative thoughts or try to overcome it through positive talk. I didn't want to avoid what was happening inside me. I tried to be truthful about how I felt and vocalised it, telling God what my thoughts were. I tried to let the emotion connected to the disappointment out in a safe way. Discouragement can be a bit like mourning because some aspect of hope has died, so I tried to face it with grace and courage and let it run its course.
2. After the emotion subsided a bit, I took a look at the situation. Was there a valid reason to be discouraged? I wasn't sure. All I had was my gut feeling and my perceptions of how people had reacted. I decided that I had to find out more about the situation to see if there was reason for concern.
3. Though I was really tired and just wanted to stay at home, watch television, and eat chips, I got on the bus that evening and made the hour-long trip to a mid-week meeting with my faith community. I engaged in meaningful conversation about a variety of topics, I laughed, I ate yummy snacks, and I asked a friend to pray with me. I gave the situation over to God. I gave the emotions over to God. I gave the past, the present, the in-between time, and the future over to God.
4. I ate a good meal. I went for a long walk. I read an inspiring book. I played with the cat. I breathed deeply and listened to some music. I let lots of life in. And then I got a good night's sleep.
5. The next day, after the fear and panic had pretty much subsided, I contacted my professor and expressed my concern about how I was doing in the course. He provided the clarification I needed and gave me some ideas for how to move forward. It wasn't nearly as bad as I had imagined, but I had indeed picked up on something that needed to be addressed.
The visit by discouragement was relatively short and it left gently, easing off my soul bit by bit until I felt light and filled with hope again. There is still much work ahead of me in my course of study, but I no longer feel like I am floundering. I am thankful that the visitor gave me the opportunity to take a good, honest look at my situation and get real about how things were going. I am thankful that I fought the impulse to isolate myself and did not try to numb the discomfort through food and diversion.
When I get swept away by discouragement, I can find myself off-course very quickly. But if I take a moment to find whatever nugget of truth there might be in my discouraging thoughts and be attentive to it, I come out further ahead than I was before discouragement paid a visit. After this experience, I am not afraid of the next time that discouragement comes knocking. I know what to do.
Matte in Montreal