I walked into the woods a few weeks ago with a box of shells and a Remington 870 and began blasting away with abandon at tree stumps and fallen logs. I felt a keen need to blow things to smithereens, and a 12-gauge at close quarters certainly does the trick. The explosive concussion of the blasts, flying fragments of wood, and clouds of dust made me very happy.
I was practicing soul care.
If you have followed this magazine and its related media, you probably know we lost a dear, dear friend to cancer in August. And even though we knew the loss was coming, still—it is a terrible glory to go through, losing someone you love. Death is so utterly hostile to what our souls were designed for, so completely violent to God’s design, we experience it as trauma. And well we should: death is not something you want to “get used to.” Nor is the other 85 percent of the violence, tragedy, disappointment, numbness, and mendacity that passes for a normal day on this planet.
But this isn’t going to be an article on grief. I want to share some thoughts on soul care.
Because we live in a brutal world. Do I really need to convince you of this? A friend just lost his job. Another couple can’t get pregnant. The son of other friends tried to take his life last month. A woman we care about has to have this nasty jaw surgery where they cut off your upper palate and bolt it back on. The young wife of a friend doesn't want to have sex with her husband; she was horribly abused as a child, and while my friend completely understands, it’s pretty rough on a marriage not to share physical intimacy. The clerk in Whole Foods just told me yesterday he gave up being a Christian; you know he has his reasons. A friend of mine who lives in London says the leading cause of death for young men in the UK is suicide.
So let’s just make this clear: we live in a brutal world. “I cried when I was born,” wrote the Anglican poet George Herbert, “and every day shows why.” A world like this does damage to your soul as a matter of course, de rigueur. Which is compelling me to do something, on a regular basis, to care for my assaulted soul.
In the case of grief, I needed the shotgun.
As I left our cabin I told my wife, “You are going to hear some shooting, and probably shouting. I am okay.” After I ran out of shells I dropped the shotgun and began bashing fallen tree limbs on the trunks of trees. I was furious, as you can tell, and this was very satisfying. It is critical that we do something with our rage. (And let me say—of course you are angry. Your rage is not a sign that something is wrong with you; there is something wrong with the world. In some ways, everything is wrong with the world. We’re often embarrassed by our anger, but it is simply proof that our hearts are aching for the Kingdom of God.) Soul care means paying attention to what is happening inside and being gracious with what you find there.
Now, I realize that I am in a heightened state of sensitivity in my grief, but I am finding it revealing for that very reason: I can tell immediately what helps and what hurts. It’s enlightening: half the stuff we do to ourselves on a daily basis is actually pretty hurtful.
Soul care means paying attention to what is happening inside and being gracious with what you find there.
Having purged my anger, I went fishing. Sort of. Many an afternoon I would take a Buck’s Boat (one of those little personal pontoon crafts) out onto a very small pond on our ranch and sit there for hours. Only about half the time did I even have my line in the water. I just needed to sit, and sitting by or on water really helps. Rivers are also healing; so is the ocean. (The negative ions created by crashing waves do all sorts of good things for your neurochemistry—but do we really need science to tell us the ocean is wonderful?)
On the other hand, television hurts. Even though I usually enjoy vegging out over the Premier League or the latest episode of Meateater, I can’t do TV. Isn’t that fascinating? It simply does not feel nourishing. There is research that indicates simply watching traumatic events does damage to the soul—and if you consume any movies at all, you have seen thousands of traumatic events. Chatting with a therapist colleague last night, he told me that when he began his clinical work he was helping Vietnam veterans. “I started having my own flashbacks—even though I wasn’t in ‘Nam. I had nightmares of men dying; I would flinch when a car backfired. Their stories were so devastating, my soul was having sympathetic trauma reactions.”
Now here is an interesting moment—the person sitting next to me on this flight is at this moment watching Gladiator. Normally, I love that movie, and I’m drawn to watch over his shoulder. The scene right now is the big coliseum battle, but every time I look over, while part of me is drawn into the fight, the deeper part of my soul cringes; it is not helpful right now. Hmmm…it makes me wonder what I normally subject myself to.
I also needed to give up stimulants for a bit. Nicotine, caffeine, sugar—all those things we use to help prop up our daily happiness—over time burn out the soul. Because the soul can’t always be “on.” (I was in one of those gas station quick marts the other day, and I was shocked at the entire cooler devoted to “energy drinks.” It used to just be Red Bull and a few others; now there are dozens and dozens. They take up more space than water. We are forcing our souls into a perpetual state of anxiety, and that is super damaging, like redlining your car’s RPMs all the time.)
But I did take up comfort food.
BLTs have been part of my regime. Yes—I’m completely aware of what I’m doing: I am medicating. But sometimes you need a little comfort food. Notice the Psalmist says, “My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods” (Psalm 63:5). A little saturated fat is a helluva lot better than pornography. (I don’t have an eating disorder; food is not on my list of possible addictions. If it is on yours, choose something kinder as your comfort.)
There is a huge difference between relief and restoration; much of what provided me relief in the past is not helping my restoration. The state of grief is giving me fresh perspective on what actually helps the soul and what doesn’t. Allow me a brief list:
Helpful: Generous amounts of sunshine. Everything living and green. Long walks. Lonesome country roads. Swimming. Beauty. Music. Water. Friendly dogs (I’ve never understood it when someone says to me, “Yeah—we’re not really dog people.” That’s like saying, “Yeah—we’re not really joy people.”). Chocolate. Compassion. Not expecting myself to produce the same level of work I normally accomplish in a day. Yard work. Building a fence.
Unhelpful: Grocery stores. Malls. Television. Traffic. Draining people wanting to talk to me (friends and family are at this moment wondering which category they fall into. It’s quite simple: draining people are those who live out of touch with their own soul, and thus mine.). Airports. The news—especially politics. Social media. Your typical dose of movie violence.
Now—which cluster of the things I've just named make up most of your weekly life?
Do you begin to see more clearly how essential soul care is?
My friends, the harsh reality is this: life is not going to get better on this planet. It is going to get worse before it gets better; all signs indicate it is getting worse at an alarming rate. “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5). In other words, if you think this is hard, wait till the dog squat really hits the fan.
We are going to want our souls strong and ready for the days ahead, not weary and weak. So we must practice soul care.