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Running on Empty

I took a walk this morning around the neighborhood. Second day in a row. This is an insignificant accomplishment by any objective measure, but it’s a milestone for me. (Recall, if you will, my recounting of Scott Adams’ discussion of the technique whereby one wiggles their pinky finger as the first step to overcoming a kind of motivational paralysis.)

I used to walk five miles a day, as recently as 2017. I did it for health, and to lower stress, and to have time to listen to audiobooks, since after reading and writing all day, sitting down with an actual book is usually the last thing I want to do. So I’d head out, usually after dark (it’s sunny here all the time, and my Irish/Slovak complexion is better suited for the indoors than the Arizona sun) and make my rounds.

But I moved, and without the neighborhood I used to find so conducive for walking, I immediately dropped the habit. It didn’t take long for my motivation to wane entirely, even as I started adding more weight to my already gravitationally-enhanced frame. My current neighborhood presents its own obstacles to resuming the activity: it has no streetlights, which is fantastic for looking at the stars at night, but less conducive for walking. It also has no sidewalks. And, because it opens up to miles of beautiful, natural desert to the south, it has lots of wild animals. There are bobcats — I found one giving me the staredown one early morning as I loaded the back end of my car in preparation for a trip — and javelinas, too. (Wild, ornery, betusked pig-analogs.) And then there are the ever-present coyotes. One early morning, when I couldn’t go back to sleep, I headed out at about 5AM, and ran into a pack of them crossing an intersection. Luckily for me, they scampered off. They don’t always. I haven’t run into any diamondbacks, fortunately, though I know they’re here. I’d prefer not to repeat my copperhead experience with a much larger, more dangerous cousin. Every time I’ve gone walking in the dark, though, I wonder what might jump out at me.

Excuses? Maybe. I’m very good at them. But long story long, I got out of the habit of walking. I also got out of the habit of listening to those books. Hell, in 2020, I got out of a lot of good habits, and into a lot of bad ones. As a homebody by nature, the COVID restrictions — which were never too onerous here — weren’t the thing. It was a lot of other stuff in my life. Personal stuff. Family stuff. Marriage stuff. Faith stuff. Maybe the emotional pressure cooker that 2020 was for most people enhanced all of that potpourri of non-awesomeness that was already stewing. But it was a bad year for me, no two ways about it. That’s putting it too mildly. It was the worst year — and it had some stiff competition. The fact that I came out in tact is surprising. The fact that I did it with a better relationship with my wife and children than I’ve ever had is a miracle. But the wounds are still there, open and bleeding, and they will take time to heal.

Maybe some of you feel like that too. In fact, I’m pretty sure of it, because there seems to be something going around.

I’ve talked to other friends who have been stuck in a weird malaise since at least last fall. It’s a strange, indeterminate thing. You feel kind of like you’re sleepwalking through a life you can’t make sense of anymore. You’re not sure what the future holds, but you’re pretty sure it’s going to be worse than things used to be. Sure, the sun still shines, the birds still sing, and the flowers still bloom. The good things in life are mostly all still there. But you can’t shake the feeling that the color is sort of…draining out of things.

It’s almost like an alternate-universe version of the one you know. It’s close enough to feel familiar, but enough things are off to make it very unsettling.

One of the difficulties I face as a writer is that my creativity and my emotions seem to come from the same place. And my emotions are a hot mess. Not my favorite thing to admit, as a middle-aged man. Makes me sound like a teenage girl. My writing has always been, by necessity, open and honest to the point of being almost confessional in nature, but I’ve been going through some things that are too personal to talk about publicly. Still, they absolutely affect my ability to be myself in general, let alone the public persona I’ve somehow stumbled into becoming. Some of it stems from my childhood. Actually, all of it does, at least indirectly. I’ve come to realize things about myself over the past eight or nine months that I’ve never really come to terms with before. There’s a lot of anxiety and fear — not a little of which is tangled up in a very heavy dose of Catholic Guilt™ — which for me has manifested as a lifetime of anger. That anger has hurt a lot of people I love over the years, and has made me a total jerk to not a few strangers. It’s shaped not just the topics of my work, but my approach to them. When a counselor I talked to about my anger and chronic anxiety told me he thought I had PTSD, I had a hard time accepting it. I still do. PTSD is what guys who go off and have to face the horrors of war have. Not people like me, who have lived relatively normal (if not always ideal) lives.

Of course, it’s difficult to talk openly about things like emotional trauma without revealing the faults of others, which I’m not inclined to do. (Except for the Legionaries of Christ, whose manipulation and betrayal of my total trust in them during my late teens have a starring role in my personal drama. They’re rotten and should be nuked from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.) But what do you do when you realize that all this stuff long ago metastasized into a monster that lived inside of you? What do you do when you finally start to understand the way that monster would come out, and caused you to be a perpetrator of emotional abuse to others? What do you do when you start understanding that what seemed like a normal level of volatility to you was actually anything but, and that it did some real damage you were too blind to see? And how do you pretend like everything’s fine when all these realizations have you trying to deconstruct yourself and put yourself back together again?

The good news is, the monster seems to be gone. Learning these things about myself and letting go of my subconscious death grip on some of what made me this way is a process, and I’m still early in, but it’s having an immediate effect. Since last summer, I’ve barely even had to battle the angry ogre that lived within. It’s a weird experience to be so…calm. I used to joke that my secret, like Bruce Banner, was that I was always angry. I think it was the thing that my brain was convinced kept me safe. Now, however, it’s as though there’s this giant, poisonous emotional iceberg that finally broke up, and big ol’ honkin’ chunks of it are floating to the surface, one piece at a time. With it come all the feelings that are associated with them, not necessarily in ways that make a whole lot of sense.

This morning, as I walked, I listened to a podcast about how military vets with PTSD are finding sojourns into nature to be an effective salve for some of their deepest pain. I was struck by what one of the veterans said. He described how he was watching the Wonder Woman movie, and found himself crying through the World War I fight scene. He said he knew, intellectually, that it was just a movie, but at the same time, he also knew so strongly what the characters were going through, and it dredged those emotions right out of him.

I get that. I’ll be doing some benign activity, like I was this morning, listening to something like that, and the next thing you know I’m rushing to make it home so I can deal with the piece that just unexpectedly broke off so I don’t cry in the street like an idiot. And I don’t even know why, necessarily, that it’s happening. The emotion sometimes seems almost detached from anything specific, but it feels like it has a specific meaning. Almost like when you’re trying to remember something and it’s right on the tip of your brain. I don’t understand it, but I’m just rolling with the punches at this point, because it’s cathartic to get it out.

Because writing about my experiences is what I do, I’m at a point where I can no longer not talk about this aspect of my life without feeling like a phony. Even so, do you know how embarrassing it is to admit it? Especially as a guy. Especially knowing that there are people out there — people who call themselves Catholics — who will almost certainly use this admission to attack me and my credibility? I am so tired of knowing that there are people who claim to share the vast majority of my beliefs, but only want to find an opportunity to score points against me, to drag my name through the mud, to try to prove that I’m just some charlatan looking to exploit my audience. That I’m an apostate or a heretic or in some other way ritually impure because I’m struggling with my faith, and I’m somewhat open about that fact instead of pretending I’m just fine and sticking to the plan of telling you what I think you want to hear because it’s good for business. It is, hands down, the worst thing about this job, and I am mystified at how these people can live with themselves.

But then I remember that the rest of you are out there, sending messages of support and encouragement, telling me how 1P5 has helped you in ways I could never have known if you didn’t share them, even revealing to me that dealing with some of my own issues publicly has been a huge relief to you, because you’re dealing with something similar, too. And that’s why I put myself out there. Because the connection with those who get it is powerful. Because it’s important for people to have that revelatory feeling of, “It’s not just me.”

As for my critics, I can’t tell you how close or far from the mark they are. There’s certainly a lot to criticize here, but I’m a little too busy processing my own issues to worry overly much about it. I’m having to face things about myself that make me question my own integrity, and that’s uncomfortable as hell. Someone very kind told me last night that I am a “heroic figure,” but hot damn do I know better than anyone (except my lovely wife) that I’m anything but. I do not hold myself up as an example. But one thing I am not is the cynical grifter I’m accused of being. I’m not going to sit here and write an article or make a show telling you something I don’t believe solely because I’ve calculated that it’ll bring in more traffic. I can’t do it. Now, as I’ve indicated with our new direction, there’s some stuff that’s actually true that I won’t publish, because I think it’s not helping anyone. I think we’d all be better off with a lot less of the kind of outrage porn that is common to websites in this genre. We’ve been avoiding it almost entirely, and I’m pretty proud of the kind of thing we’re providing instead.

But even if you’re not doing it for clicks, you still notice the difference. “Wow, that fantastic essay had only 34 shares and a few comments?” You can’t help comparing it to that article about some scandal with one or two thousand shares and three hundred comments. I look at the donations, too, because they’re a necessary part of doing business. They’re way down — they’re always down this time of year, but 2021 is lower than usual — and when my wife starts telling me about the bills that haven’t been paid, I don’t know what to tell her. “I’m doing my best, but I’m running on empty right now. We’re trying to put good stuff out there. And I kind of need to sort my own self out.”

Running on empty is hard, especially when you’re used to being able to produce, and do so prolifically. I am devouring as many books as I can right now, trying to refill my tank. Trying to understand what I need to do, what I need to change, looking for perspective. Trying to find answers to fundamental questions.

On that note: when it comes to the faith struggles I’ve admitted I’m working through, I don’t know what to say except that they’re pretty deep. Some of you have expressed your support of my giving voice to them, and I appreciate that. Others have expressed concern, and perhaps even turned away, and I can appreciate that too. All I can say is that I’ve been battling them for many years, and I’ve always managed to tamp them down and lock them in a compartment where they can’t get free. But I’ve never managed to actually fix them. My faith has always been more intellectual and less of an affair of the heart. I could keep it together when the Church kept looking like it made sense, intellectually. But what’s happening in Catholicism right now is so deep, so pervasive, so wrong, such a fundamental shakeup — I’m talking an 8 or 9 on the Richter scale — that the chains have broken for me and it’s all come loose again, right along with those damned iceberg pieces. The things I can’t make sense out of won’t stop bugging me. The questions ask themselves unbidden, my inner skeptic bristling with objections. Most of these things are things I will have to struggle with internally and privately. I have to look for answers, and it will take time. Some answers, even if I do find them, won’t be the kind I can even accept until I deal with the aforementioned emotional trauma that’s finally leaching out. That will be an ongoing process for me, and it will continue to keep me, for the time being, from presuming to offer too many of my own contributions on the kind of topics we’re trying to do more of. (At least until I finally wrestle one of these issues to the ground; at that point, good luck shutting me up about it.) Someone told me recently that God is letting me go through this because it’s the only way to get to the man I need to be. Maybe that’s true. It’s just hard to see the destination from here.

The good thing is: I’m not the only writer here, and I’m going to keep seeking out the best of them to give you what I can’t. My commitment to you, regardless of my own personal struggles, is to run 1P5 according the guiding principles that have always shaped its mission. We’re about deepening our collective understanding and practice of the Catholic faith, and offering our audience the sort of information and analysis that will help move us all there, one article at a time. For a long time, that mission was directed at identifying the enemies within Catholicism. Now, it’s about identifying the ways we can survive and outlast them.

So the only thing I can do for now is keep wiggling my pinky finger. Keep showing up, keep searching for the truth, keep being honest. Keep offering the kind of stuff I think is good and wholesome and beneficial, and hope that those of you who appreciate it will support us in return for the value you see in that kind of thing. Keep hoping that if you value the kind of forthrightness I’ve uncomfortably shoehorned into this thing I’m writing right now, you’ll stick around.

This is who I am. I recognize I’m not for everyone. And I apologize for talking about “me, me, me!” so much today. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but I thought I owed you an explanation on where things stand.

If you can support us, we really could use the help. We know lots of folks are struggling, and we don’t expect anyone who can’t help out to do so. We’re actively working on ways to reduce expenses on our end so we can get by on less. And we’re hitting up our old pal St. Jude to help keep us running.

I also ask for your prayers. For me, selfishly, because I can certainly use them, but also for everyone who is struggling with things of this nature right now. I suspect that would include many of you reading this right now. So, in effect, let’s pray for each other. It’s a weird time. A hard time. The kind of time it’s tough to get through alone.

God bless you all and thanks for reading. Have a great weekend.

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