There’s Absolutely Nothing to Smile About Right Now & Other Lies

Photo of a young Black girl smiling and standing in front of a gate. She's wearing a blue dress.
Photo by IIONA VIRGIN on Unsplash

“I smile, even though I hurt see I smile / I know God is working so I smile / Even though I’ve been here for a while / I smile, smile”  Smile x Kirk Franklin


 

“I really hope I didn’t mess that whole thing up!”  This is me straight trippin’ last week. I had a final round interview for a full-time master’s level salaried position. I haven’t worked 40+ hours a week since I left my previous higher ed position in 2018 due to mental realness.

Since then, my quasi professional life has been working retail on weekends, and being a stay-at-home dad during the week (pre-corona).

Would I ever get my groove back? 

Our dining room table was covered in an assortment of neon colored flash cards, a notepad, and my $10 tripod which was atop the thickest books we own so I could have the best angle for Zoom. I felt exhausted with so much on the line. My nerves were a wreck.

Job searches, am I right?

What’s worse was doubt that attempted to interrupt my rehearsed sentences. The sinking feeling that had (and still has) me believing I’m not worth being hired.

They can’t hire someone like me. The kid whose life was completely upended by a hijacked mind, who still has students and colleagues and professors he didn’t get to say goodbye to, who’s worn pajamas more than he’s worn suits, who damaged credit and lost all credibility, who’s sifting through relationships to see which ones still stick, who doesn’t smile because he’s used to (and far more comfortable) wearing a frown.

Sometimes grief feels like the forever home you never meant to purchase. The rooms are low lit and small. It’s a place you don’t want to leave because it’s all you know now. 

Thank God for the prayer warriors in my life and for the love of my life.

Where would I be? Fortunately it hasn’t been all bad. I’ve had many reasons to smile, to rejoice, to take my mind off the ashes, and I’m working on being humble enough to know that my joy doesn’t come from things of this world – there’s another, everlasting source.

Joy isn’t a comet. At times it’s a sun faintly shimmering in a gray sky.  

Let’s be real.

You’ve had your own doubts. Doubts about: where your next meal will come from, when your check will arrive or clear, if your kids will act right/come back, if your new relationship (borne on a dating website and continued via Facetime) will even make it out of this quarantine alive, if you can cover those medical fees, if people actually care as much as they say they do with their “hope your family is well during all of this” messages, if God even exists (and if He is real, does He even care?). 

And when you’ve felt a smile creeping up, you too, at times, have withstood joy. 

Let me tell you, sometimes it seems better to wallow in pity, regret, frustration, and disappointment, than let light flow through you. Because what if, right?

What if I let this positive feeling wash over me, does that mean all my suffering was in vain? What if I smile for no reason except for respite from sadness? Then what? It’s not like everything will suddenly be okay. 

A friend once told me: “Sometimes I feel like if I smile during heartache, God will think I’m trivializing the trial He’s allowing. But I need to think more highly of God.”

Whew. 

I used to constantly make cases for optimism. Part of that was to be contrarian in what felt like a world of trolls and haters, people out to make lives worse just because.

But now I know it’s essential. It’s essential to not only go searching for hope, but to nourish the joy that – at times – sweeps over us in our darkest moments. Our genuine joy – the kind that’s not easily killed or diminished – is essential.

In short, it’s necessary to let yourself smile.

Take it like a pill. Follow the doctor’s orders this time and do a new thing for your body, for your family, for your sanity, for your soul. 

You know me. You know I’ll invite you to cry until your eyes burn if that’s what you need. But as with most things, life is very much both/and. We have the capacity to carry hope and still be drowning in high water. 

Can you do it?

Can you stand before a mirror and practice a smile for no one to see? Your heart needs to witness this. 

It’s time to be a walking contradiction. Go against the tide of your indignant nature. Relish in some gratitude.

Take apart a good memory: 

where were you

who were you with

what can you hear and see and smell

what did the space look like

how good did you feel 

deep breath

let it all sink in

are you smiling 

 

I dare you to. 

God is still working for your good and the good of those you love. Let Him shine through you this week. It’s not a fake or forced thing. It’s what you’ve been needing. Medicine. But not a panacea. Courage. But not a cure. Do the brave thing, beloved. 

I’ll be smiling back…this time.

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What I Did During the Loneliest Time in My Life

Photo by CW on Unsplash

“Sittin here with my tears/ All alone with my fears / I’m wonderin if I have to do / Withoutcha” – I Get Lonely x Janet Jackson 

“How are you feeling today?” I asked the young lady while I scanned the last of her items. 

“Really alone,” she whispered. 

Beat.

“What’s that?” I asked.

I knew what she said but for some reason I asked again. I thought about validating her response with: “I get it, I really do. I’ve been to hell and back when it comes to isolation. There are some useful online resources out there for mental health though.”

But, I figured that was too much and might come off as insincere from a neighborhood cashier.

I gulped my words and looked at her lowered amber eyes as she dryly replied:

“It’s just really hard these days.” 


That      b   r   o   k   e    me. 
 

Ding. 

Time was up.

I handed her the bags and kicked myself a little.

Her friend had the same melancholy tone as I scanned her few items. Both long-haired women were clad in gray sweatpants and over sized hoodies. Their faces sullen, pale. They appeared to have missed a few showers. They looked wholly troubled.

I wondered if they at least hugged each other or if the resounding ache of loneliness had reached their bones and joints. If they had run out of love to give in a world overflowing with fear. 

I still think about them. About the mom who got laid off from her job at the spa (she and her husband are raising three kids and burning through their savings account).

About the elderly couple that comes through my lane each week. They’re always kind and have helped me refine my small talk skills with every conversation about canned soup.

I think about the people who still haven’t found toilet paper and miss out every time we get a new shipment of hand sanitizer.

I want to help them all, console them all, meet them with an embrace unencumbered by protective barriers because my bones don’t ache. Not anymore. Not today.

I was self-quarantined long before this crisis – one of the small blessings from having had a manic episode.

I’ve mastered crafting worlds within the confines of eggshell colored apartment walls. I’ve had too much time to revisit every mistake I’ve ever made, to go so deep into wounds that I choke.

Too much time to swear at God. To cry myself to sleep. 

Isolation can do this to you, even if you live with people who fiercely love you.

And so, I feel the pain of the person I’ve never met, who’s lonely and unsure and full of shame over losing their job or worried about life after graduation or anxious about how they’ll support their undocumented family members or really missing their grandparents they can’t even travel to visit. But in no way does this mean I know exactly what they’re going through because suffering varies like snowflakes and it’s cold out here. 

One thing I’ve learned about the wintry mix of heartbreak and uncertainty is that we can get caught up with hourglasses. Time becomes an enemy because we spend so much of it wishing things would return back to normal, or trying to adjust to a new normal.

There is no right answer but there are plenty of unhelpful answers.

It’s unhelpful to beat ourselves up. It’s unhelpful to further isolate. It’s unhelpful to stuff hope in the back of the fridge. Unhelpful isn’t wrong, but it sinks you. It fools you into thinking you’re helping when you’re hurting. 

On the flip, reaching out seems like a chore and like something ineffective. How does connecting with someone else improve anything when they’re going through what I’m going through? 

Positive self-talk feels empty. It’s not putting food on the table! 

Hope? Where was hope when my friend died? 

Do you see the spiral, the caught-up-ness of it all? It becomes a perpetual nightmare and we begin to implode – not all at once – slowly, on our own, but in plain sight. 

I don’t want that for you

I want you to overcome and get through this and know this midnight isn’t forever. We cannot turn this car around, there’s no going back, but we will get through this.

Prom still happened. We will get through this. 

A couple got married over Facetime. We will get through this.

Several animal shelters are emptying. We will get through this. 

Mom and hero, Donna Shaw, sent nurses masks and gloves. We will get through this. 

This fine gentleman sang to his girlfriend from outside her nursing home window. We will get through this. 

There is value in every single healthy thing you do to ease your ache and connect in a time of 5G this and NWO that. In a time of fake news and real blues. Don’t get too swept up. Pull away from the drama.

We’re all searching for answers, refreshing for updates, grasping for straws where there aren’t any.

ALL of us. 

And yet, you were never alone (1 Corinthians 3:16). I pray you be reminded of this. Keep praying for my family and I too. 

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When You Just Can’t Stop Stress Eating

Photo by Oliver Sjöström on Unsplash

“How about some chicken wings / Do you want some fish and grits / I’ll hurry and go get it / Whatever” – Whatever x Jill Scott

1.

Here’s a positive memory of me and my pops:

We’re sitting in front of the living room TV. It’s so hot outside that the fake grass mat on the front stoop is melting. We’ve got two fans sending us warm air as we feast on lunch.

And yes, feast is the correct word. My dad ordered an Italian sub with the works – including hots. Plus a large bottle of Coke.

Plus a Tastykake butterscotch krimpet.

Plus some chips.

Teenage me has the same except for Mountain Dew and far less ingredients on my sandwich. 

In South Jersey, our subs came on off-white butcher paper that takes up way more space than it should when spread out. So, there we are, eating food atop too much paper, and stuffing ourselves with way too many carbs while watching B.E.T.

This was our fishing trip.

Our hike in the woods. Our playing catch in the front yard.

I really miss afternoons like that.

Devoid of any elements of our troubled and tumultuous relationship that would land me in years of rehabilitation. I miss that version of my father. 

2.

My wife and I are putting our grocery list together. These days food shopping is met with a lot of anger and frustration because shelves are bare and everybody and their uncle is on a french toast binge (like what else are people doing with all that bread, milk, and eggs?).

I’m perusing the healthy items on our list and smiling at how proud I’d be making my nutritionist. But, there are many sides to hunger, just like there are many sides to coping.

Despair has really set in at this point. As far as staying updated goes, I only listen to short NPR snippets a few times a day, but working retail reminds me of how bleak things are out in these streets.

I’ve grown more and more accustomed to strangers appearing to be dressed in cheap ninja costumes, but my fear has grown as well.

So, when it’s time to fill our fridge again, I’m adding the things I turn to when anxiety is winning. Give me chips, salsa, queso, pop tarts, Eggos, fried everything, greasy everything, the sugary of the sugariest.

It’s been two weeks of this.

Of me hitting up the store every other day and grabbing just a few more items we didn’t need. Me blowing through those tiny boxes of sugary cereal that come in a pack, because it’s what “Ineed to get through nights like this.”

Because of my meds, alcohol isn’t an option. I don’t do drugs or smoke. So, I make up for all that with food. I fill in the gaps of uncertainty with bacon, eggs, cheese, and seconds of that.

It’s my undoing. 

And let me be clear, drugs, food, and alcohol aren’t the only ways we humans cope with hard things. You know your thing.

3.

The morning of me writing all this, I checked my blood sugar. It was up 10 points. It’s still in a decent range, but it’s certainly spiked enough to have me food prepping in earnest and easing back into more mindful eating. I bagged grapes and raisins, rinsed chopped and roasted vegetables, and pre-made sandwiches and tuna salad. I want to be ready for the cravings.

The ones that come when I’m already full. The ones that tell me, “If you indulge, you’ll be distracted and you won’t feel so afraid of the world ending.” 

The ones that bring me back to childhood moments that included the same exact food-filled solutions. 

How about you? How are you coping? 

What are you turning to?

What do you attempt to replace fear with? 

Look, this is one of those times where we’ll all collectively fall off the horse at some point. Our budgets will be in shambles, our emergency funds decimated, our relationships strained, our feelings wrecked, and our faith challenged.

Even in my recovery-after-a-manic-episode season of life, I still hold enough privileges to have the lights on and secure housing. We’re set up. But, everyone isn’t and that’s just extra worry on top of it all. 

All this to say, we really really need to give ourselves extra room to be less than perfect right now. 

I’m not advising we intentionally tank our nest eggs to order pizza and Disney+ subscriptions for the entire neighborhood, but something’s bound to go wrong when we’re holding our breath for this long. And, we’re going to fall back into less than healthy habits. 

This is also prime time to be praying even harder, asking for help, serving others, and delegating.

Seriously, hop off the productivity train for a while and sit down somewhere.

I’m personally praying for and feeling thankful for all the medical professionals dealing with a plethora of challenges, lack of sleep and funding, and something worse at every turn. 

I’m personally praying for you and meditating on Philippians 4:6-7.

Revisit how you’ve been coping and invite yourself to make some small adjustments if you can. 

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You Actually Have Control Over This

Photo by Jordan Wozniak on Unsplash

“I got latitude / I got gratitude / And if you look up to the moon, you’ll see my attitude” – Real in My Veins, Young Thug

. . .

A few years back, there was a lot of hype/research/talk around the idea that gratitude was an antidote to fear. I bought into it, wrote about it, and practiced it.

Sometimes it worked for me, sometimes the anxiety won. 

If I felt a panic coming on, I’d close my eyes, breathe deeply, and think through a few things I was thankful for.

I wouldn’t just list them and be like: “I’m thankful for food, water, and shelter.”

I’d dig into each thought: 

“I’m thankful for healthy food because I know what it’s like to grow up with unhealthy habits. Eating better will help me live longer and be there for my family.” 

“I’m thankful for a roof over my head. I know what it’s like to not have stable housing. There are a lot of people waking up on sidewalks every day.” 

This practice grounded me and still does. These days I do it before I’m feeling anxious. I start my day with prayer.

I thank God each morning for waking me up another day, and I thank God for His protection and provision before I go to bed. I even thank Him when my bank account is empty and when depression has crept up again.

I find great comfort in 1 Chronicles 16:34.

Some people have filled journals with things they’re thankful for. Some just scribble a few words on a post-note and stick it on the bathroom mirror so they’re reminded.

The Shine app prompts you with a daily check in that’s pretty neat because you can track what you’ve written.

You can go on Pinterest right now and fill your board with quotes galore. Whatever floats your boat is cool with me because we need a whole lot of thankfulness these days. 

It seems like things get worse by the minute. Lock downs, shutdowns, layoffs, lack of benefits, and the birthdays and funerals we can’t attend are regular conversation. The National Guard rolled in a few days ago here in Baltimore and things are getting realer and realer.

There’s so much we can’t control.

It makes sense if hopelessness is an unwanted visitor camped in the backyard of your heart. But, I’m here today to tell you that gratitude still counts. It’s not a buzzword, it’s a word to hold onto. Let it fill you up a little while you wade through an ever growing to-do list. 

Maybe gratitude won’t help with your anxiety or fear, do it anyways. It certainly won’t vanquish illness or suffering, but still, do it anyways.

Find things to be thankful for, if nothing but the air in your lungs and the ability to read this text right now. 

I have readers all around the world, so I know your situation looks different depending on your latitude and longitude. I know you might be grieving, holding onto your last few pennies while waiting for a check to clear, or feeling trapped because you can’t even go outside and isolation has gotten the best of you.

But, I still invite you to take a moment each day this week to focus on something that came into your life that you didn’t deserve.

Think about a person who helped you when no one else would.

Reflect on the last time you had a hiccup of happiness.

And sit with it as long as the memory will last because we get to hold onto our joy – even when it’s just an echo.

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The Courage to Panic When the World is on Fire

Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

I personally struggle with accepting that I’m in panic mode. It feels weak.

I tell myself messages like: “Sinclair, you’ve been through worst” or “Dude, generations before you actually went to war, what are you freaking out about?”

But, that doesn’t get me anywhere. You’ve heard that acceptance is the first step, right, but how often do you allow yourself to accept how bad things get when ish hits the fan?

It’s difficult to do. It’s hard to sit with our thoughts in between Netflix episodes. It’s challenging to be with our pain and misery.

Still, it’s important that we do more than just lean into discomfort, we’re called to face it. To look at it, roll around in it, and get to know the things that are bothering us.

I, too, am tired of seeing words like pandemic and crisis, and I know it’s not healthy for me to over-consume news updates. In no way am I suggesting that we should over do it.

But, we can find a middle. Ann Friedman wrote about existing at the crossroads of caution and courage, rather than navigating the line between panic and caution. And that’s something for us to aim for. For us to have the courage to be honest about however we’re feeling and to voice it.

“I’m feeling really ______ right now, and I don’t know what to do!”

“I wish I could _______ but instead I _______.”

Fill in those blanks for yourself.

Wrestle with them. And share what you come up with with someone you trust. Hop on the phone and do some social long-distancing or just take the time to get to know your fear.

I suggest setting a time limit on this. I heard someone call it a Worry Hour once, but for you it might be beneficial to limit it to 10-15 minutes.

I’m done feeling embarrassed by my fears. By mulling over the polarized rhetoric of whether or not we have anything to panic about. If we’re panicking, we’re panicking.

There’s power in accepting this. At some point we’ll move through it. But, let’s not run away from the part of ourselves that tell us what we need to know.

We will get through this.

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Everything Ain’t For Everyone: A Word on Protecting Your Dreams

Photo by Allee Ilyse Photography

“Real Gs move in silence like lasagna.” – Lil Wayne

I’ve made the mistake of telling others about my dreams more than once. I don’t know, I guess I’ve always had this insatiable need for validation.

I’ve wanted people to respond by saying, “Yeah, totally do that thing you really care about. I’m here for it.” 

And then when that doesn’t happen, I curl up like a cinnamon roll and my dream – my precious dream – becomes this impossible, irrational thing. 

But let me slow down for a sec to just say that not all dreams are possible or rational or even attainable as is. Sometimes they need to be edited, altered, scaled down.

Still, there’s nothing assuring or loving about someone telling you that what you want for your future is dumb.

There are a variety of ways respond to someone telling you their life’s passion, and yet, so many of us have experienced the laughs or scoffs or sighs of disappointment that come from people who never deserved to bear witness to our vision in the first place. 

Lemme say that again for the people in the back: everything ain’t for everyone.

Some people don’t deserve to be in the writer’s room of your life.

This goes for family, the girls in the group chat, the workout buddies, the pastor, and sometimes even your therapist. We need to be careful about seeking feedback and guidance from people who haven’t been where we want to go.

It’s a natural tendency to unintentionally deter someone from their dreams because we: a) are unknowingly jealous/envious or b) think we’re doing the right thing by saying, “Pick another dream. That one doesn’t suit you.” 

Now, there’s nothing wrong with advising someone to be realistic or to slow down and rework their plan. But this needs to be done with great grace and care. Our words hold power and our dreams can be fragile from being bruised over the years.

Be mindful of who your share your first and second drafts with because you will absolutely be judged and graded on them. 

Be selective with the people you add to your personal board of directors. Our mentors should have lived the experiences we seek to have.

Resist the urge of just linking up with the first person who will give you the time of day and listen to your story, because you actualizing your dream might mean lives being saved or changed.

Your dreams coming true might mean chains and burdens being broken for someone else. Your vision might bring more beauty to this world and Lord knows we need that.

This is a call to move in silence, because sometimes that’s required to position you for a blessing. A call to be extra intentional with how you move.

It’s a nudge to go back into that cobwebbed closet and dust off that dream you retired because someone dismissed it and invalidated it.

In fact, here’s all the permission and validation you’ll ever need. You’ve been put on this earth for many many reasons and in your heart was planted a great dream – maybe several dreams. It may very well be something you have a natural affinity for, or it might be something far off that you’ll spend a lifetime working for, or some combination of it all.

Never mind all that.

Just get started now because this dream is yours and you are absolutely the right person for the job.

Use your resourcefulness and just get to the next step on the journey of making this thing come true. Keep at it.

Get smart people around you, and make sure your basic needs are taken care of so you’re not suffering while trying to make awesome happen. And remember that relationships matter. Don’t neglect the people that care about you. Take them with you and encourage them to go after their dreams too. 

And no matter what happens, stick with it. If you have to put it on the shelf at times that’s okay. Life happens. We’re keeping it real here, but always come back to what you care about. The way you come back to anything you really love. 

Your dreams matter. Protect them. Chase them. Be mindful of how you talk about them. And never ever stop dreaming. 

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