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    My Mean Brain

    Christ promises us victory over our demons, but also a battle.

    By Kurt Armstrong

    October 5, 2020
    • Diane McElwain

      Apparently this resonates with many people. I too have this melancholy from my Swedish/Danish family. I am not always sure that the devil puts all those thoughts in our mind, but your thoughts on that are good. GO TO HELL. I wonder if those choice words at your baptism were the right thing to say at that time. If it were said to me, my mindset would automatically be negative about what was happpening in my future. Thank you for being honest.

    • Susan Knight Ober

      Thank you for your honest sharing. Yes go to hell to the lying force that wants me emotionally, spiritually and physically crippled. Jesus is the way the truth and the light of my life and absolutely crazy about you and me. Lean in and hear about it..xxoo

    • Dallass Kornelsen

      Hey Kurt, So many good words and impactful thoughts here. A good reminder that my negative thoughts have an other-world source, and an other-worldly solution. Plus, I now know the definition of gewgaw :-) Love ya, bro. Dallas

    • Stephanie Turvey

      Hi Kurt I just read your article and wanted to send an encouragement to you for speaking about your experience of depression and mental health, and being vulnerable and willing to count the cost of possible misinterpretation or even rejection of some of your ideas and reflections. Our world and our church needs more open and honest conversations and dialogues around mental health so that we work towards reclaiming well-being in the face of adversity and change. We can begin to build a stronger inward resilience and manage the inner critic not by over medicating or being silenced but through greater awareness. Personally I would debate whether the devil is the only one responsible for those inner critical thoughts or that we can avoid the self-talk but I truly believe we have the power to re-frame that self-talk in the light of the faith we have in Christ, and in building a sound mind even when faced with depression and anxiety of any kind. I would go so far as to say that it is an illusion to think that to be truly whole and sane we would have no such inner fears, anxieties, depression or negative self-talk. The difference is the way we channel the inner thinking what we focus on and what we nurture and grow. I have written a book on the topic which includes a serious look into our mind, our self-talk, our self-image and finding purpose. How we can find a new life and new purpose out of the most difficult and challenging situations and experiences and we can our lives change from suffering hopelessness and emptiness to fullness, hope and recovery. It is called The Wellbeing Revolution; reclaiming our wellbeing by Stephanie Jane Turvey 2019 Australia I would love to connect further about your experiences and share our different perspectives.

    • Tim O'Regan

      You must be reading my mail! I too live with a mood disorder and battle regularly with these kinds of thoughts. This is a really encouraging piece and it always helps to know that one is not alone in the struggle. Thank you for sharing your experience. I think I'm going to make my own "GO TO HELL" card!

    • Kathleen Rousseau

      Thank you so much for this piece. This was profoundly refreshing. I have struggled with this much of my life, and I so appreciate your honest reflections. May God continue to honor your efforts to honor Him with your writing, and with your pursuit of that which He has called you to do.

    • Shelly Jordan

      Your article means the world to me -- I thought I was the only one. We probably have theological differences but this article overpowers any of them in its richness and insightfulness. Hang on and never quit -- this article is proof that you are an effective minister and top-notch writer. He who began the good work that is in you will be faithful to bring it to abundant harvest.

    • Bill K

      A great bit of writing, and I pray for peace for you, however that may manifest itself.

    • Bethany Peck

      You are not alone - this resonates with me very much.

    • Krista Willertz

      Thank you for this timely and vulnerable message. It was just what I needed to hear so that I, too, can tell the inner voices to “Go to Hell!” and “Get out of the way!” This was a blessing for me!

    Several weeks ago I sat in on a class for ministry leaders, and a recurring theme throughout the week was how to deal with criticism. I’m hardly a fan of virtual meetings, but this time I was glad the class was led by a professor sitting thousands of miles away. Grateful, too, that my face fit into a postage stamp-sized box on the screen. Made it less obvious that I kept crying over and over, all week long.

    Everyone – and I mean everyone – who does anything – and I mean anything – has to deal with criticism. Even breathing is going to bother someone: “You’re breathing too loud.” “Your breath is terrible.” And these days, “Why are you breathing without a mask?” Our lives constantly overlap and intersect, and our differences are real, so conflict is inevitable. If you’ve got a pulse, you’re going to have to learn to deal with conflict and the criticism that inevitably arises from those differences.

    I have an interesting, challenging, life-giving job as a writer and as a part-time lay minister in a vibrant Anglican church in Winnipeg. It’s a healthy work environment, and I’ve got extraordinary colleagues and an enviably supportive congregation. So why is my church job making me feel so awful?

    Sure, the pandemic turned my work life pear-shaped; plus I’m a middle-aged man due for a mid-life crisis; plus I’m fairly neurotic and prone to worrying about my kids, family finances, strange noises coming from under the hood of the van, that weird ache in my left shoulder, etc.; plus I’ve inherited my mother’s melancholy Danish disposition; plus my mental health turns to pudding every now and then.

    No real-life critic could ever match the vitriol of the critic inside my own head.

    But to me, that looks like a list of challenges, and other than the pandemic, I’ve been living with those things for a long time. Something else is poisoning my work. I spent so much time quietly crying in that ministry leadership class because it helped me identify, yet again, the critic who threatens to ruin my job and ruin my mind: the critic inside my own head, my mean brain. My inner critic is a vicious bully: stubborn, cruel, hateful, relentless, savage, manipulative, suspicious, cynical, and hell-bent on destruction. My mean brain tells me I’m stupid and useless, unlovable, a blight, a waste, a black hole that absorbs light and radiates nothing. Sometimes he hollers like a bellicose, overbearing drunk bent on steering the flow of thoughts into a full-blown traffic jam; sometimes he just whispers little lies in my ear like Wormtongue. But he never, ever stops.

    I’ve had a handful of bruising encounters with parishioners and others who don’t like what I say or do or write. I still have scars from an especially angry young parishioner who for months threw spiteful comments at me for my preaching, and sent some mean, sarcastic emails before unceremoniously pulling up stakes and walking away from the congregation. That was more than four years ago, and it’s still a bit of a tender spot. But no real-life critic could ever match the vitriol of the critic inside my own head.

    My mean brain didn’t suddenly start yapping at me the day I started working at church. He’s been there as far back as I can remember. It’s a psychological problem, I’m sure, and I’ve been seeing a counselor for a few years now to try to sort through the kinds of things a counselor’s supposed to help with. But it’s spiritual, too. I’m no raise-your-hands, speak-in-tongues charismatic type, but I’ve got a deep-down sense there’s something evil, something truly diabolical, about that relentless critic inside my head.

    It’s weird enough to believe in God in this so-called age of science, especially if by “God” you mean the actual, real, knowable God revealed in scripture and not just some vague, soft-focus notion of a Higher Power. If you really want to get a funny sideways glance from friends and family, start talking seriously about spiritual forces of darkness, demons, or the devil.

    I grew up in a tradition that took the devil seriously enough, without imagining he was the cause of cancer or sniffles or milk that sours before the date stamped on the carton. We professed our belief in God – Father, Son, and Spirit – and we believed that God has an enemy, the devil and his minions. Preachers at my church never made too much of him, but we didn’t pretend he wasn’t there. Evil was real; forces of evil were real.

    When I was eighteen, I got baptized in the Blood Indian Reservoir in southern Alberta. The congregation gathered on the sandy, manmade beach, and I stood in front of them and gave my testimony about this being my declaration of dependence upon God. I walked out waist-deep into the cold lake, and my youth pastor lowered me backwards into the murky waters, baptizing me in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit. The sun was bright and hot, and the chilly water smelled fishy, green, and full of life.

    Afterward, the pastor told me, “Give your life to Jesus, and the devil’s going to come after you. Now that you’ve gone and made your public declaration, you can expect your life to become more difficult.” He was right. It did. No small part of that had to do with my mental health starting to show signs of wobbliness that year. I have inherited chronic depression through my mother’s side, her extended family a beautiful, beloved cluster of mental-health maladies – everything from low-grade melancholy to suicide. But I have no doubt that part of it was, and continues to be, a genuinely spiritual issue: that having pledged my allegiance to Jesus Christ I was no longer wandering around in the no-man’s-land between the warring armies of good and evil. I had picked my side. Baptism marked me as one of Christ’s own and, therefore, an enemy of the forces of evil.

    “Give your life to Jesus, and the devil’s going to come after you. Now that you’ve gone and made your public declaration, you can expect your life to become more difficult.”

    I can’t precisely differentiate the material or psychological from the spiritual. We are complex creatures. For the past twelve years, most mornings I pop an antidepressant, a little egg-shaped yellow pill that most of the time keeps me from sinking into catastrophic emotional lows; and most mornings I spend time quietly praying to the invisible Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth. The pills and prayer do not comprise the perfect cure, so I book an appointment to go to see the counselor when I can feel the black dogs of depression circling and baring their teeth. I also go to church on Sundays to worship and pray and listen and take the body and the blood of Christ into my own body.

    A well-paid psychiatrist, employee of Canada’s taxpayer-funded healthcare system, sat with me for an hour and diagnosed me as a chronic depressive with moderate bipolar tendencies; when I went under the waters of the Blood Indian Reservoir, the risen Christ marked me one of his own forever. The rough spells that still whallop me now and then, that mean brain that won’t stop saying terrible things in my head, are these things mostly spiritual or psychological?

    When I was nearing the end of my studies at Regent College in Vancouver, I was working away at a thesis project, a collection of nonfiction essays on marriage, and a friend of mine stopped me one evening to ask how the writing was coming along. “Oh, it’s a bit rough,” I said. “Every time I sit down to write, my brain keeps yapping at me, ‘Oh, you’re stupid, you’re an idiot, why do you even try?’ It makes it tough to get the work done.”

    My friend looked mildly shocked. “That sounds demonic,” he said.

    “It’s not like I’m hearing actual voices. It’s really just my own thoughts I’m battling against.”

    “Well, I’m going to pray for you,” he said.

    Now, if he had been one of those hallelujah-praise-Jesus, the-devil-gave-me-writer’s-block-and-lost-my-Word-document types, I might not have given his words much notice. But he wasn’t that kind of guy in the least. He was a gentle, soft-spoken pastor/poet, slow to say anything at all, never mind spouting religious clichés.

    Next time I sat down to work on the writing I took out a note card and wrote down all the things I heard those voices whispering to me: You’re not smart enough. You’re too young. You’re out of touch. You’re naïve. After I’d written down all the things my mean brain was throwing at me, I saw a pattern: the conclusion of every one of the criticisms was the same: therefore, you should quit.

    The rough spells that still whallop me now and then, that mean brain that won’t stop saying terrible things in my head, are these things mostly spiritual or psychological?

    Cultural evangelicalism has made a tossed-off “Jesus is Lord” about as potent as a polite “Have a good day.” When I was a kid, every week on the way to piano lessons we drove past the home of a cowboy-preacher named Johnny Shields, who’d painted “Jesus is Lord” in big white letters on the roof of his big red barn, right next to the highway. If you can no longer find a religious bookstore to buy a “Jesus is Lord” bumper sticker, you can choose from a mind-numbing array online, alongside coffee mugs, hoodies, bookmarks, and Covid-19 face masks emblazoned with “Jesus is Lord” in every font you’ve ever seen. But no cornucopia of gewgaws can rob that simple sentence of its essential gravitas. “Jesus is Lord” remains the most profound metaphysical claim you’ll find anywhere.

    The core Christian claim is that Jesus is Lord, and that Jesus has saved the world from sin and death. But the same scriptures that tell of Jesus also speak of a tempter, the adversary: Satan. There’s a vast range of Christian interpretations of this, but they all point to the reality that there is an enemy of that which is good. “Give your life to Jesus, and the devil’s going to come after you.” You’re no good. Why bother trying? You should quit.

    I turned that card over to the unlined side, and I wrote “GO TO HELL” in big, bold letters. Enough with the naysaying voices bent on interrupting my work. Get out of the way. To the dark forces that want me to give up, to simply close the laptop and quit: GO TO HELL. To the lingering voices that tell me my church work is a joke, foolish, wasteful, and misguided: GO TO HELL. To that pernicious, relentless inner critic who wants me to just pack it in and not bother trying anymore: GO TO HELL. I’ve picked my side. Get out of the way, for Christ’s sake.

    I tucked that little note card into my computer case and kept it there as a reminder every time I wrote. Consigning the diabolical critic to the fires of hell did not finally and absolutely silence all my doubts. But it did clear up my thinking enough to allow me to finish my thesis six months later.

    Contributed By KurtArmstrong Kurt Armstrong

    Kurt Armstrong lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with his wife, Erika, and their three children.

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