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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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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How to (Finally) Stop Beating Yourself Up

Photo by Allee Ilyse Photography

A few weeks ago, I was at my weekend retail job silently cursing to myself. I was upset, feeling over it, and feeling pretty embarrassed. 

But let’s jump back a decade real quick.

Jersey City was my home during college. I interned at MTV, helped plan large scale university events, did service in Honduras (while surviving an earthquake), and got a degree. 

A few years later I got another degree. Married the love of my life who birthed the world’s most precious baby, and took on several master’s level positions in the higher ed field. The resume was on lock.

Then disaster struck. My brain was hijacked. Our life and finances in shambles. My situation dire. 

2019 crawled forward and the world kept moving as it does. I eventually picked up weekend work in the fall while continuing to be a stay at home dad during the week.

And let me tell you, though I am over the moon about getting to raise my daughter so closely and for so many hours a day, I felt a great sense of pride when I was cleared to work again. 

My therapist and psychiatrist told me I was “stable”. Stable enough to get a retail job and finally help a little with the bills.

I went from having back to back to back jobs with free housing, an excellent credit score (yeah, I was in the 800+ club), and money in tha bank, to spiraling to a really low place with lots of debt, tears, and pretty much the opposite of everything I worked with my family to build. 

So off to work I was. I told myself my number one goal was to create an amazing experience for every guest that came to my lane. I’d bag their items with a smile, take genuine interest in them, and give them the service I’d expect.

October 2019 was me as the comeback kid and a busy Christmas season later, I’m still here. I’m still smiling – except for the other day when I stood silently cursing to myself while shuffling in carts from the parking lot and emptying trash. 

“I have a master’s degree. What am I doing emptying people’s trash. How did I end up back in this stigmatized class of unskilled workers. I didn’t sign up for this! I worked so hard NOT to be here!”

And I didn’t, but God spoke to me in the gentle way He does when I’m feeling weak, broken, triflin’. He said, “Fam, what’s up? Have you forgotten what this all really means? Have you forgotten who you are and whose you are? I love you but you are no better than anyone.” 

I’ve struggled with the idea of humility for a long time. I’ve been resistant to the idea that we’re all on the same page. Surely having more money, more degrees, better credit scores, more accolades, better character and morals, better better, surely all that put you further along and higher than others who weren’t working as hard.

Surely I could work to be better than those who gave up easily, committed crimes, held petty grudges, gossiped, lied, did their worst on purpose, pierced their upper ears and got lower back tattoos. Right? 

Once, I even debated a close friend on this. I was high up on a horse that hadn’t even left the stable. I was judgmental with a capital J and indignant to a fault. I’d earned the right to be this self-absorbed and myopic – to be better.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it took having a world shattering manic episode to humble me, but I’ve certainly learned a new – more compassionate – version of humility amidst the ashes, the hurt, the pain, and the loss. So much loss. 

So as I tied that trash bag and hauled it to the back of the store, I realized – just a little more – how it’s important for us to resist thinking too highly of ourselves. Especially when much of the world lives without clean access to clean water or clean air.

Especially when all of us are broken in some way and in need of reconciliation.

Especially when none of us could do any good for anyone else by dying on a cross.

Especially when the richest of the richest still struggle with skeletons, mental illness, and grief.

And definitely when the person you secretly compare yourself to every time they pop up on your timeline still experiences hurt, loneliness, and insecurity. 

All of this is a reminder of how short we fall, how messed up we are, and how we need to really actually die to ourselves daily so we don’t forget how to love and show up fully to the people who need us most.

I believe humility is an understanding that we can’t effectively serve others until we get out of our own way. I don’t wanna take advice or guidance from anyone who’s condescending.

And, I’m betting you don’t want handouts or pity from anyone either.

What we want is for someone to say, “I see me in you. Neither one of us is perfect. And still we get to do life together and give all that we can while we’re here.” 

My hope and invitation today is for you to reflect on the small ways in which you puff yourself up, distance yourself from people you’ve judged, or have been hard on yourself because you’re not where you should be in life (I’m talking to the unemployed person, the person on medical leave, the person who just got out of jail, the person back in a rehab situation, the person who just fell off their diet again – the imperfect person). 

My hope for you is just to get in touch with the whole, failure prone, probably-undeserving-but-still-worthy person that you are. That I am. That all of us are. Imperfect. Beautiful. Messy. And, though sometimes unnoticeable, loved.

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You Will Get Through This

Photo by Matthew Bookhout

Your storm will not last forever. You will get through this. 

It’s hard to believe this when the calls stop coming, and the text messages go unanswered, and the showers become a chore to take. But, even still, you will get through this. 

Though your relationships have shifted and your dreams don’t look the way they used to, there’s hope for you yet. 

There’s hope for the person struggling to navigate a toxic relationship. For the person who can’t quite figure out how to stand up for their values. There’s hope for the person that cries themselves to sleep every night – often unsure of why they’re crying in the first place. 

You will get through this.

No matter how hard it is right now, know that something brighter and sweeter is coming. These are not words to be taken lightly – not empty promises. 

Keep showing up however you can – you don’t need to look your best or even do your best. Just keep getting to that next breath. And the next one.

I believe in you. 

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