The Secret Simple Key to Overcoming Overwhelm

  1. No one can tell me when I’m getting overwhelmed.

  2. Pretty much anyone can tell when I’m getting overwhelmed.

These two facts are in my mind the moment I open my eyes Tuesday morning. They have taken me more time to acknowledge than I would like to admit. And yet if there’s one thing I know, it’s that the things we would most like to deny are the things we most need to acknowledge next. Denying overwhelm has caused me to mess up more than I ever would have without the denial. I know for a fact it’s kept me pointlessly working long beyond what I would have otherwise. IMG_8560

I do know I’m the one who has to spur myself on to get to work and keep at it when I want to quit. No one else can do it. I won’t let them, or it simply won’t work. The simple secret to finishing no one had to tell me is the same for you–and I know because when it comes to our work, we’re all the same this way:

Our work is ours. 

How did any major accomplishment get finished? I know from Anne Lamott it had to simply be done “bird by bird,” but just like waking up this morning and knowing I had to get to work on the 18 things waiting for me after a long weekend, it doesn’t get done on someone else’s motivation. It’s my job to find my motivation.

A swift kick to “just do it” can work for a while, but eventually leads to burnout. I know from experience mustering it to muscle it only messes it up and mangles me. More often than not, the impulse to “just do it” denies what I’m feeling in the overwhelm and the real reason for the overwhelmed feeling. The old mind over matter trick is no trick at all, and trying to ignore it to simply cross things off the list is foolish and disintegrating. What I really need is to simply not look at the list.

What I really need is to acknowledge the feeling and consider what it’s trying to tell me. What I need is to slow down and pay attention, to integrate the fear and the excitement, the anxiety and the anticipation of finishing and celebrating. If I can do that and hold both of those and know that my greater good is here, in the stalling to get out of bed and as I get up slowly to begin the process of getting ready for the day. Process over product is the secret. I don’t have to overthink it, but if I can be present to the fatigue and disconnected sensations of all that remains unresolved from the week and the weekend, and the night before, I can forego the swift kick and the burnout that would follow, and experience the fuller experience, rather than relegating so much of it to unconsciousness, and rendering it unavailable and unrealized.

The truth no one has had to tell us, the simple secret to finishing anything difficult we might consider our true work, is that all of it is ours and meant for us to experience and grow from. We can’t numb ourselves to feeling difficult emotions without also numbing the ones we enjoy, nor can we effectively evaluate what should or should not be disorienting, disintegrating, or distancing us from our fuller selves. We don’t know why certain things affect us, and as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, we don’t control whether or not they will.

However, each of us does control what we will do about the things that affect us. And acknowledging what the emotions are in the midst of the overwhelm never feels good or particularly convenient, but whatever other ideas we had about our true work, this is it. Whatever we may have thought our work was for today, this being conscious and aware of our full feelings about it is our true work. 

And whatever we might call that–messy, frustrating, 100% inconvenient and completely unwelcome–when we don’t list that work first, we merely add one more impossibility to the list.

Can you trust there’s a reason you’re here and being asked to handle this? Regardless of whether you should be facing all that’s on that list, can you acknowledge there’s a higher purpose in it? Something beyond the drudgery and gripey feeling it gives you? Something you might even now be able to relabel a gift?

We don’t need anyone to tell us this is what we’re here for, whatever else we may have to face today. We don’t need proof there’s a very good reason for the place we find ourselves in–the proof is that we’re here. And if we are, it means God is God and he has his reasons. The question is, what would he have us do, learn, feel, say, know, share?

I get up, shower, dress, go down to find the kid who needs to get to school, drive her and drive back, get to my office and get out my list. It’s only Tuesday but it’s already overwhelming, and it’s already clear I’m going to have to adjust some things. But what can get done will get done, and I’ll trust the rest will find its fulfillment another way. One step at a time, one item at a time, all of this is manageable and meant for more than getting through it.

No muscling. No mangling. Just mercy, and more gifts to be received and given back in their proper way and time. And in the slow, deliberate facing of my feelings, and accepting them, and processing them, I’ll find my way to finish all I was given to do.

The list looks much more manageable from that perspective.

“To be a teacher of a process such as this takes qualities too few of us have, but which most of us can develop. We have to be quiet, to listen, to respond.” – Donald M. Murray, “Teach Writing as a Process, Not Product”

 

Makebelievers description

When 28-year-old Zeke Van Wyk finally leaves his dead parents’ faith to join Dr. Modoc’s “mind-spirit” therapy program, he finds God, love, and incredible miracles—along with some terrifying side-effects.

 

Back cover:

You may remember things differently now. That’s good. It means your faith can finally start over.”

Fed up with American Christianity, 28-year-old suburbanite Zeke Van Wyk is burned out trying pretend he still believes in the religion his parents devoted their lives to. Ever since the car accident in his childhood that took them away, he’s been fighting off a crisis of faith. Quitting his cake job at a high-profile international Christian ministry, he and aimless childhood friend Slope receive an invitation from charismatic neuroscience professor, Dr. Brant Modoc, to take part in a “faith-regenerating” therapy program. As beautiful tech assistant Avie administers their selectively-revised flashbacks, Zeke experiences God’s love for the first time, along with some miraculous abilities. But clarity comes at a devastating price. And as their memories begin to fade, they must discover what’s really happened before the truth is lost forever. When belief, free will, and the unanswerable are replaced with absolute certainty, what sort of life would really be left?

Chapter 1

Why Are You Worried?

“Sorrow looks back, Worry looks around, Faith looks up” 
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

People are killed every day.

I have this thought before I’m even awake. A dream, again, inescapable. Unavoidable. I get up and get ready, trying to stop thinking about the reality, not feel it crowding in as I look at my teeth and brush them in the mirror.

The deepest injustice is suffered by hundreds of thousands every day. Death. I drive my oldest daughter to school and have this thought again as the news from Gaza makes it to me. I can’t hear this word without thinking of death. Bleeding wounds seeping through bandages. Protestors have been shot over in the middle east. I think of the high-schoolers protesting guns and hope I’m doing right to not mention the political issues to my daughters just yet.

Is privilege just the ability to ignore what you please?

Yet sanity and self-preservation demand ignoring it. Our hearts and our minds weren’t meant to hold the world’s pain. Jesus walked Gaza but had no cell phone or social media bringing wave after wave of desperate injustice. Inescapable. Unavoidable.

I remember the woman who handled the emailed prayer requests at a big ministry. She was a saint, a prayer warrior. She killed herself and the ministry held a quiet service and sent condolences to her family. And a new employee took her place.

I think of the thousands of people who filter content for social media networks, the reports of their inescapable torment, their nearly inescapable mental health issues. Is this where we’re all headed eventually?

Another hot day and I’m thinking of polar ice caps. A celebratory dinner and I’m considering carcinogenic toxins. Maybe I read too many headlines.

“Do not fear. Do not fret. Trust me.”

HOW? How am I supposed to do that when I’m bombarded even before I can get to work on a Monday? It’s effort just to press on and not feel guilty for working to keep the horror at bay, at least to a dull roar until lunch when I’ll check my phone and respond to emails. And there’s plenty more to deal with–local community, family, neighbors, projects and writers, and personal struggles to choose appropriate responses and time on.

No one could possibly manage it all. And this danged-if-you-do, danged-if-you-don’t situation is unmanageable. Infuriating.

“Count your blessings.”

Despite the dreams and the no-air-conditioning-in-record-heat situation, I did sleep. There’s more light in these longer days and the beauty of spring has sprung. The house and our health aren’t perfect, but they’re amazingly good despite the advancing years thanks to regular upkeep and maintenance. And we enjoyed our moms and celebrated together on Sunday, and the girls are happy and enjoying their lives and music and reading.

Real life is happening and time is short and we’re no better off than when we know both those things. Remember the moment you felt Charlotte’s delight at beating you at the card game? You wanted to remember it forever? 

Yeah. Life is happening and death is part of it. And here were are to enjoy it and make the most of each moment before it’s gone and slipped into another one and another, until there are no more.

That’s every day and everyone and your awareness of it is contagious. Don’t be afraid. Don’t fret. Trust me. 

Can it be this simple? Can I write and do my editing work knowing this is what you’ve called me to until you bring other specific calls? Keep me praying, keep me seeing it all, in the midst of the passing moments. Stay with me and show me how it all is leading me to trust and connect however I can. With words or without. With getting involved or simply praying.

I know the only thing that’s truly up to me is the trusting. Thank you for the continual reminders. Keep me searching for them.

And keep me sharing them and connecting others to see you in their myriad reminders too.

“I trust in you, Lord…. My times are in your hands.” – Psalm 31:14,15

Write on, my friend. There’s always a higher purpose,

M

Makebelievers Chapter 2

[Chapter 1 here]

Chapter 2

 

 

I open my eyes to a white-flocked ceiling slowly coming into focus. I blink in the dim light of the room. A young man—Slope?—sounds insistent in the other room through the partially-closed door.

“No, this was a contractual obligation,” he’s saying. “Look. I know Pastor Glen needs the extra preparation. I heard him preach. But I wouldn’t need to talk with him if you’d just pay me what you owe.”

A notebook sits on the nightstand next to me. The digital clock reads 9:14. I run a hand through my hair, sit up. My mouth has been blow-dried. Rub my face. A headache twinges at my temples, not throbbing but persistent.

“Fine. But I will keep calling.” I hear him slam the phone on the table.

It’s warm in here. I find jeans on the floor and pull them on. A t-shirt across the back the bed, I pull it over my head. There are 2 aspirin left in the bottle on my dresser. I pop them and swallow.

In the front room, Slope is sitting in a gray recliner watching TV. His hair is a mess and his pink t-shirt reads “Happy Jesus Milkshake” in bubble font.

Normally I’d just be finishing up with devotions at EOI by now. I’m not sure what’s going on back at the ministry and I don’t care. The thought is freeing and whatever repercussions I was worried about seem so far away now after the relief that’s taken the place of the fear. And what exactly am I doing now with my life? I can’t seem to remember.

I catch a whiff of coffee and something else—old motor oil? And whiskey? “Slope,” I say. “Did you sleep here again?” He’s been doing this since we worked at EOI together to avoid the commute, and since his mom moved back to south Denver. Why he’s still showing up here, I can’t say. He could visit churches up there. But we’re both creatures of habit, I suppose.

“I’ve been trying to get Rocky Mountain Covenant to pay me for a week,” he says, snapping his cell phone closed. “Man, remind me never to be rude to bill collectors again. Their job sucks.” He’s watching a nature show on mute. He cycles through the channels as I stumble past him into the kitchen to find caffeine. An empty box of coffee pouches sits on the counter next to a few dirty dishes. I pour coffee into a white mug from the cupboard. It looks thin.

“Did you use up all these coffee bags?”

“Coffee bags.” He stretches and smacks his lips. “Yeah, those are gone. Might want to steal some more before you quit the ministry.”

I pause. “I quit the ministry.” Charity’s sad face stares at me through the big window in my mind.

He gawks at me. “And you didn’t even tell me?”

I point at him. “You wanted to poison the executives!”

“I was just kidding!” He shoots up from the chair. “I can’t believe you finally did it! Congratu-freaking-lations, my friend!” He comes over and gives me a tight hug.

I pat his back and say thanks. I do feel relieved to have gotten away, but now I have no purpose—and the thin connection to my late parents and sister feels all the more faded. We return to the living room and look down at whatever he’s been watching on TV.

“I wonder if it’s true we only use ten percent of our brains,” he says, gesturing toward the television. “How much you think that guy’s running on?”

A big-haired pastor strains on TV, hands up in prayer. His shellacked hair shines like it’s fresh from the Play-Doh mold my sister used to play with. “What’s that smell?” I ask.

“Oh. That’s my clothes.” He motions to the stained shirt and shiny black pants on the futon.

“Why do they smell…like booze?”

“I’ve got to be a convincing drunk homeless gay man for church evaluations, don’t I?”

I blink at him. “I’ve got no idea what you just said.” I head back to the kitchen and find a plastic grocery bag under the sink.

“Hey, you’re jobless now,” he calls. “You should come.”

“No way.”

“You said you’d come check it out. I’m gonna score today. Big seminar. Bunch of pastors gonna be there.”

I toss the bag at him. “That’s your disguise?”

“Exactly. With this get-up”—he picks up the shirt and shoves it in—“I’ll have no trouble assuring them I’m a bum.”

I shake my head. “Not sure anyone doubted that.”

He gives a fake laugh.

“So what if you can’t convince them?”

“Won’t happen. If you go with me.”

I close my eyes. “No.”

He growls. “Come on. At least give me a ride. My truck’s still in the shop.”

I roll my eyes and look back at the TV.

“Trust me. Just come.” He aims the remote and the image disappears. “This will totally change your perspective on ministry work.”

I spot my shoes on the floor and pick them up.  “You always have the answer. I was hoping you’d find my perspective.”

He fixes me with a glare. “Come on.”

“You ever notice how you’re always trying to get me to do something crazy?”

“It’s my spiritual gift. So, where’d you go yesterday after you left?”

“Downtown.”

“Nice—how was real life? I knew you’d quit.”

I take a sip from the mug. “You were right again. But I told you I was never staying.”

“Yeah, only five years.” He checks the time on his phone and slaps his knees. “Let’s go.”

“There’s no point.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You can’t change people who don’t want to change.”

He chuckles. “Such sweet innocence. Who said anything about changing them?” He takes my mug and sets it down on the coffee table. “Lesson number one: real life does not have to involve saving the world.” He snatches the clothes off the couch, dumps them in the bag. “Jesus already did that, remember?”

 


 

I’m driving past the ministry building on Shepherd Street.

“Take a right up there,” Slope says.

I follow where he’s looking. “Wait—by any chance, are you planning to crash the pot luck fundraiser at—”

“Yes.”

“Majestus Pactum?”

“Major Butt-Numb. Biggest mega-church in the state. Told you it was a big score.”

Majestus Pactum is one of the biggest churches in the country. I know this from speaking at donor events for Evangelical Outreach. I know everyone on the pastoral staff. Majestus Pactum is amongst the biggest donors of my old employer, EOI. “I was just here last week,” I say, trying not to think back to the uncomfortable meeting. “Ever notice how you’re constantly getting me to do crazy things?”

He smacks the Jesus bobble-head on the dash, a gift from my sister in London. “If this pays off like I think it will, the rent is as good as paid.”

“I told you, you don’t have to worry about—”

“I know.” He pauses, eying me. “But with your help, they’d definitely give us a shot.”

“Your truck isn’t really in the shop, is it?”

“Of course it is.”

“Look, I’m honored by your deceptive ploy,” I say, pulling into the massive parking lot. “But I’m retired. And I definitely don’t do smelly disguises.”

“No need. Just lend me your credence for a couple hours.”

“Why do you do this? Seriously.” I steer us toward a cluster of cars parked next to an event area left of the giant stucco building. I shake off a case of the heebies seeing people milling around a few booths under a giant white tent.

“Visitors section,” he says, pointing. “Wow. Look how welcoming. Visitors’ parking! They’re scoring points already.”

I pull to a stop and he reaches back for the bag.

“Good luck,” I say. “I’ll see you later.”

“What, busy day today?”

I sigh. “The thought of staying here?” I hold out my bare arm. “Literally cold sweat.”

He slaps my stomach, softer for all the beer. “You like baked beans.”

He gets out and adjusts his belt. The enormous neon church sign shines over his right shoulder like a Vegas billboard.

I let my head drop back to the headrest. “It’s too soon. Bob’s gonna be here.”

“M-kay.” He closes the door and leans through the open window. “I think you’re missing the deeper beauty here. Don’t you want a chance to turn the tables? Judge them for a change?”

“Sorry.”

He straightens and nods, looking down at the bag. “You want to know why I do this. Come see. This is what we were made to do.”

“Are you high?” I glance over at the mass of people. “That’s so depressing.”

“Hey, man. I’m glad you quit.” He hefts the bag over his shoulder and scans the crowd. “But you can’t quit life.”

“What are you talking about?”

“We were born Evangelical, bro.” He turns to face the big tent. “We can’t give up our ministry. This is us.”

 


 

I watch him walk away, wondering if he really believes that, and thinking back to the day I received the employee handbook at the start of the week-long orientation meeting. We sat with 13 other fresh-scrubbed recruits around burgundy-covered folding tables. The entire program was well orchestrated, even inspiring, culminating in a welcome video from the founder, Dr. Marcus Lane.

For indoctrination, it was impressively convincing, obviously designed for creating devoted employees. I was already well inoculated from my years of Christian school and three weekly church services. But I could see some people viewed this as their ticket to Christian utopia and the reward of the Lord.

When the lights came back on, the presenter waited at the exit with books, his huge fake smile and big gleaming teeth. He thanked everyone and said something about going out and fulfilling our call. I was one of the first to exit. He shook my hand, curling his palm away so I’d grip only his fingers.

He grinned at me. “Glad to have you on board, Zeke,” he said, seeming so less-than genuine.

I smiled, figuring someone had made sure he knew my name. Maybe he was genuinely glad, but I couldn’t share his enthusiasm. I was here because the founder wanted me to speak at donor events about the impact the ministry had on my family before a sleepy truck driver killed them all and spared me. I was supposed to talk about how Evangelical Outreach International was my foundation for my faith before and after the freeway inferno, and one of the reasons I lived was to share that with the world.

That was my mission, to show God brings good even from such tragedy. And I agreed because it seemed selfish not to.

I pull away and in the rearview, catch at the crowd gathering around the tent.

Something’s happening. The parking lot is growing fuzzy.

Stop, a voice in my head says. You have nowhere to go.

Suddenly, I hit the brakes and the car screeches to a stop. My arms are locked against the steering wheel and my vision begins to grow dark and I shake my head and blink.

My mouth goes dry. The trees and sky are wavy. The little flashing lights at the corners of my vision are getting brighter, and something like a massive dread overpowers me.

I don’t know if I’ve heard the voice exactly right, but I won’t stay and make sure. And my heart is trying to break out of my chest. I fight against the tingling sensation in my neck and ringing in my ears.

I focus on breathing, on the scene out the windshield, but the constriction in my throat is still there and the panic is rising, louder and louder like a feedback loop. I gasp and my heart seems to stop for a moment. My mouth strains to open wider. I can’t get enough air. I blink furiously to clear off the hazy blackness, sucking big gulps of air and trying to keep my arms and legs still. After a few seconds, the dizziness passes and my eyes readjust. I look in the rearview again at the people standing around under the tents behind me.

Just calm down, I think. Everything will be fine.

I’ve had these panic attacks before, less frequently in recent years. Slowly, the world comes back into focus. The grip on my heart releases. The ringing dies down. But the sense of aimlessness and deep aloneness is still lodged like a knife in my chest, chilly against my fast-beating heart. I take a deep breath and check my hand—only shaking slightly now—and begin to slowly pull out of the parking lot.

A deafening motorcycle thunders by on my left, headed toward the street, and I suddenly veer into a parking spot and turn off the engine. I pull out the keys and lean my head back. A few patchy clouds hover in the blue sky. I watch them drift and build for a while.

I open the car door and get out, standing in a sea of blacktop facing the crowd.

Guess I’m staying.

[Chapter 3]

How to Know When You Need an Editor

“Please turn to page 127,” she said.

The word “I” had been circled every time it appeared on the page.

“How many circles are there?” she asked.

I counted fourteen. The page nearly jumped and jostled with circled I’s. But I was not sure what to make of this. Every time I’d written “I,” I meant “I.” Was it wrong to mean “I” so much? Or did the problem have to do with the word itself? Ought I find a synonym–is there a synonym?–for “I?” But no, I suspected the problem ran deeper.

Bonnie Friedman, Writing Past Dark

 

Deliberate is a good word.

As adjective, it means purposeful, the opposite of careless: careful.

As verb, it means to engage in careful consideration.

Deliberate, de-liberate, is to remove carelessness. It’s a good word for clarifying why editors are so feared and often untrusted. Their work is frustrating. Writers need them, sure, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t dread their constraining, de-liberating work.

After all, the editor’s job is to constrain the writer, to bind her wandering words to her intended meaning. You recognize the implication here? The blinding light of inescapable judgment? Like a reckoning?

To the extent you’ve found liberation in writing, an editor de-liberates, evaluates, measures, balances, and masters it. Like a dog.

Famous editor Sol Stein talks about writers getting out of the way of their work, the way Fitzgerald said his editor Max Perkins helped him do. All the throat-clearing distraction and unprofessional insertion and interpretations an author tends to give, the explaining and artful hiding they do, it’s not needed, so editors are helpful, if annoying, sort of house elves.

But honestly, professional editing is not required for any author anymore. Only those entering the traditional industry of royalty-paying publishers. It’s only necessary for reaching a broader audience than the author can reach on their own, if that’s what they want. This painful sacrificing of your way–the unconsidered way–for the better way, it requires an uncomfortable humility, a submitting.

And if you’re gonna do it, that’s not optional.

When I was a self-conscious writer just starting out as an evil editor, I used to try and make a case for editing, try to argue for the professional painful poking and proding of editing. But after so many years, I’ve given up. I’m tired of convincing. I finally decided professionally edited books speak for themselves.

But how can you know when you need an editor? Is there a best time to seek editing?

I think, yes. At least, when you’re a beginner, an editor can help right away–although I wouldn’t recommend hiring an expensive one until you’ve got some experience writing and being critiqued by strong readers. Learn from their books, classes, videos, posts, and articles. Find one or a few you like in your genre and enjoy that learning stage. You can gain so much online these days it’s not even funny.

When you first seek out an editor, you’ll need help with structure, theme, and deeper issues than style and craft. Most editors are better writers than you, but it’s because they know how to set up a story, create context, and identify the underlying promise with tangible examples and sensory detail. Their word choices, clarity, efficiency, and sentences are all secondary to satisfying storytelling.

For example, many writers begin by frontloading their story with backstory. We need to care about our primary character first, so polishing the flashback scene doesn’t help. It needs to be moved to later in the book. In nonfiction, the big problem or context for the promise you’re offering readers hasn’t been sufficiently developed. Developmental editing (substantive editing, or content editing) ensures the book feels weighty and important at the outset.

That’s the kind of thing you’ll get once you’ve written the book, so it’s best to simply write and not worry about wasting time and effort. It’s often more easily solvable once you’ve completed the journey.

But if anxiety about having to edit later is derailing you from writing, or if you’ve gotten some strong pushback from readers about fundamental elements–character, plot, setting, theme–an evaluation or consult with an editor may be a good idea.

Coaching is for writers who need deep encouragement to face their dragons and go into that cave they fear. It’s one thing to know it holds the treasure and you just have to do it, but it can be quite another to keep showing up day after day and struggling to explain why you’re doing this to yourself. But specific editing comments during writing are minor and mainly for reassurance.

The best time to hire an editor in my opinion is after you’ve completed two full drafts and had 2 or 3 trusted readers offer detailed feedback. Building that community is essential and prepares you for professional feedback. Then when major revision or minor recreating is recommended, you’ll have some idea of why and how to do it.

Everyone is different, so you need to consider your personal situation and experience level. If you’re a freshman, senior level classes are going to be hard to apply–and vice versa. What you read and how much you pick up from it are very important factors. If you’re in the writing process, enjoy that and if/when you get stuck, consider a consult if no trusted friends can advise.

While editing is about far more than fixing errors, identifying issues that require some revision is not as painful, horrendous, mortifying, life-altering as most authors tend to think. Take heart, warrior. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last to survive a rewrite.

You’ll be assessed, you’ll be shaped, and you’ll grow. All good things come in good time. Don’t short-circuit the supercharging work your inspirer’s intended to challenge, spur, and revise you. 

I looked at my manuscript in my suitcase, thought about all those beautiful, hilarious, poignant people I had been working with for almost three years, and all of a sudden I was in a rage. I called my editor at home. He was not planning on going to work that day. He was a little depressed, too. “I am coming over,” I said, and there was a silence, and then he said, very tentatively, “Okay,” like he wanted to ask, “And will you be bringing your knives?” 

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

 

It’s all, always been, for a higher purpose,

Mick