I have this friend whose job is to hold my life together.
I don’t mean that she’s a kind, caring, conscientious person — though she is that, too. I mean that I pay her by the hour to take care of some non-negotiables in my life that would otherwise fall by the wayside.
I think one of Satan’s more pernicious lies, and it cuts two ways, is other people have their act together.
Well, some of us do, some of us don’t, and on our best days many of us are half-n-half.
How Do You Know When Someone’s Life is Coming Unglued?
There are people who do their best to keep their public face together despite inner collapse, and people who brandish a veener of chaos but secretly have their act together. In my experience, people who are losing it exhibit a few common signs:
- The friendships get erratic. If someone you had every reason to believe was your friend suddenly loses his temper, quits coming around, gets cagey about commitments, or won’t take your calls, unless you’ve really done something to deserve it, it’s probably not you. Psychopaths will give you good reasons for why you deserve to be maltreated. Your friend who is coming unhinged, in contrast, is the person who knows better, doesn’t have an excuse, and is probably too tired or overwhelmed to even explain why.
- Simple stuff goes out the window. “Simple” is relative of course — if your friend never did keep up with the dishes, dishes in the sink are just a sign of situation-normal. When your friend is losing it, what tends to go are the things that hit either the low-priority-high-pleasure corner of the spectrum or the should-do-usually-do spot. Doesn’t get a thrill out of changing the oil, but always managed to do it before without any difficulty. Always loved sending Christmas cards, let it go this year.
- Small requests seem monumental. You’re unlikely to see this one overtly, because it often shows up indirectly. Your friend probably won’t come out and say, “I was hoping to attend, but if they make everyone find a White Elephant gift I’m just not coming to the Christmas Party this year.” It sounds so lame. How hard is that? Instead, the friend just doesn’t come, or else the friend values the event enough to pull off the cost of admission, but there’s a spike in #1 and #2 behaviors to go with.
I’d like to pause here and say that while these “no longer have it together” behaviors can be associated with depression, a lot of people who don’t have their act together are not depressed. These are things that you see among people who are the opposite of depressed: People who are working their tails off to hold their life together and do as much as they possibly can, despite the fact that the odds are against them.
There are a couple things that can make it hard to really believe your friend is going over the edge.
Your friend still accomplishes quite a lot. Demanding vocations abound. If someone’s running a parish, or a business, or a family, there will always be one more thing to do. As your friend is working like crazy to hold together as much of that vocation as possible, you’ll see results. You’ll see activity. You want to know why Father just lost it in his private meeting with you (see #1, above) about the candle budget, when he didn’t have any problem pasting a smile on his face through the entire two hour long Vacation Bible School songfest? Because he just endured the songfest, and it used up every ounce of willpower he had.
Your friend doesn’t talk about his problems. There are people who just love to talk about their problems, and there are people who don’t. It’s a spectrum, and for a lot of people who are overwhelmed by significant, difficult, persistent life problems, there are some common reasons they aren’t going to bring up those problems in conversation:
- The situation is confidential, embarrassing, or involves another person whose privacy would be infringed.
- There are in fact no real solutions to the problem (and yes, they’ve investigated).
- The problem is the sort best discussed only with those few people who have experience with it.
- It’s depressing talking about what’s going wrong when you could be enjoying hearing about something good.
It’s easy to spout platitudes about the importance of “sharing one’s burdens” or “talk therapy,” but consider the hubris involved in appointing yourself the one person who must be informed of your friend’s every moment of difficulty. Consider instead the possibility that your friend loves and values you, but still doesn’t care to talk about the situation right now.
Your friend continues to pursue personal interests, even impressive ones. A difficult life isn’t necessarily an unhappy life, nor a life devoid of all talent. There’s a tendency to say, “Gosh, she’s able to take care of that dumb horse of hers, how come she can’t help out with the church picnic like everyone else? She’s just malingering.” That dumb horse, as it happens, is the thing that keeps her sane, the one thing she’s going to hang onto until the bitter end, because when your whole life is a train wreck, you want a little refuge of sanity.
In the same manner, an overwhelming life doesn’t mean all your talents suddenly dry up and blow away. If your friend was always perfectly capable of spitting out a copy of a Dutch Renaissance Master on a leisurely Sunday afternoon, unless his hands fell off, he’s probably still going to be able to do that (and even if his hands fall off, he’ll probably find a work-around and get back at it). That he does something he finds easy but you find astonishingly difficult doesn’t mean he’s got his act together. It means he’s still capable of doing some things that are easy for him.
The Two People This Matters To: You and Everybody Else
I write about all this for two reasons. The first is that it’s easy to think everyone else has their life together, and therefore you’re a crappy person and a failed Christian if you do not.
Can moral failure be the reason your life isn’t working out? Sure. But it’s also possible that your life is hard regardless. For most people, moral failure is the bitter rind that surrounds our life, no matter how good or how bad the rest of the fruit is. It’s the seed you spit out and eat the rest.
Your life can be going to pieces despite no particular uptick in sin, just an uptick in lousy life circumstances. Don’t confuse the two. Keep working on the holiness, but don’t measure the holiness by your outward success.
The second reason is that it’s easy to think everyone else has their life together, and therefore they are crappy people and failed Christians if they do not.
Pastoral Perspectives on Apathetic Catholics
There are categories of Christians who get a pass. If they have some obvious or publicly acknowledged excuse for their inability to meet spec, the whole parish pats itself on the back for winning at the Welcoming and Accepting contest just for letting the miserable slobs in the door.
Meanwhile, there’s this cycle of desperation that causes the rest of the parish to eat its young. It goes like this:
- Parish leaders are falling apart at the seams because they can’t do it all.
- Therefore they beg pewsitters to step up and do it all.
- Pewsitters were already falling apart at the seams themselves.
- Leaders burn out, pewsitters either develop a talent for ignoring pleas or else they give up and go home.
There are other types of dysfunction, but this is one I keep seeing. Are there people in your parish who would step up and help out if only they understood the need and were invited to help? Yes there are. Invite them (and very often they go uninvited because they have some outward reason you think they won’t meet spec, when really they’d love to be wanted and put to work).
But there are other people who seem to have it all together and they simply do not. They cannot help you, or they cannot help you in the way you are asking of them.
Suffering is Not New
Let’s quit talking about the modern world. For a hundred years and more, people have been writing about about how the pace of the modern world is the problem. Well, it is, in the sense that none of us have to live in any other world, so this world’s the one that’s going to give us trouble.
But life isn’t difficult because it is modern, it is difficult because it is life. Not having your act together is one of the facets of human life since shortly before we got kicked out of the Garden of Eden. The poor will be with us always, and when we get a turn at experiencing some sort of poverty, that’s just us having our turn at being those poor. Not having your act together is, technically speaking, a sort of blessing.
Edvard Munch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. I think Gary Larson’s Wiener Dog Art version is a little better, though.