Christian College Student Concept #1: "I’m going to shut out negative emotions, because I want to encourage everyone around me, and there’s no way I can do that unless I’m cheerful and pleasant."
(If you are tagged in this note, it is because you are a part of the story, and I want to thank you for the influence you've had in this step of my life. The list is by no means all inclusive, just the ones that stand out in my memory of the events recalled in this particular portion I've written about. I'll only tag you once, in the series of notes I'm writing, but know that your influence carries on - it's just going to be a LOT of writing, and I don't want to clog up your facebook wall. So, yes, thank you.)
I smile a lot.
Which is fine, yes. It’s much easier to smile than frown, I’m told. Maybe I just have really wimpy facial muscles.
But it’s one thing to smile often and have a generally cheerful disposition, and quite another to train yourself to only process information in ways that create positive conclusions, and thus, positive emotions. I was recently taught, by a highly respected professor, that only if I am living in this state of continual intentional cheerfulness, is my faith in Christ mature.
I thought about this (for perhaps a fraction of a second), and then tried it out. And it seemed to work out quite perfectly! This state of eternal optimism was a pleasant place to be. It felt amazing – things that would normally be disappointing or upsetting just slid right off me. If someone was having a bad day, I was a bottomless well of cheerful outlook on the situation. And the best part was, every time I had a positive comment, I was moving closer to God. My faith was stronger – this was easy! Endless series of mountaintop experiences simply because of how I was training my mind. “Oh the cleverness of me!”
Do you see the problem? Well several problems, actually.
The first being that old friend of mine, PRIDE. Look at what I was doing to increase my faith. The scriptures tell us that it is by grace we are saved – we don’t do this by our own merit. And even when we are told to continue to ‘work out our faith’, it is with ‘fear and trembling’, to sum up – humility.
The first big problem that I was hit with though, was when my happy little version of reality around me crashed, and crashed hard.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010. I had just finished my morning class, and saw that I had a voicemail from my mom. I wondered why she had called when she knew I was in class – perhaps she was coming to visit, or my little sister had received good news about college applications. I wandered into the hallway to look at the printmaking projects while I listened to her message…
And that moment is locked in my memory forever, hearing her recorded voice start to shake as she told me that there had been an accident that morning… and one of my sister’s best friends, also a friend to me, a boy we had grown up with in our church and in our school, was gone. Later, I would learn that another student from their group of friends had also passed away that morning, in a separate accident.
As I heard her words, “one of the students… Brandon Replogle… didn’t make it…” I froze. The white walls and ceiling and tile floor around me all seemed to pulse as reality hung suspended in time. I deleted her voicemail as soon as it finished; I didn’t want to ever hear it again. But deleting the message in no way changed the reality of the situation.
I was in shock – I started screaming and crying in the empty hallway (was it empty? It was empty to me...). I didn’t know what to do or where to go. My phone started vibrating again, and I looked down to see my sister was calling me. And she was crying and screaming too, and in shock. And I made a quick decision. I was going home. As soon as I could.
And this was a conscious decision. I could have stayed at school, removed from the situation, in my happy little world on my happy little college campus, that I had created in my mind. But I knew, more than anything, that I needed to be in the middle of everything. I needed to know that it was real. I needed to be fully engaged in the midst of the pain, and the suffering, of my family and community.
And somehow (the prayers of friends and professors at school had something to do with it, I’m sure…) I made it back home, and instead of stopping at my house, I continued in to the high school, scared out of my mind of what I would see when I got there, but knowing I needed to be there. My sister was there. Her friends, and my friends, in her class were there. Our drama directors were there.
The school was in a state of shock too. I passed my old principal in the hallway – his eyes were wet, and he was staring blankly down the hall. Students were wandering through in the hallways, though it wasn’t a passing period.
Overwhelmingly noticeable though, was the silence. 700 students. Teachers. Administrators. Present. But not speaking.
I literally ran into my sister, who guided me to the back of the building, where the drama directors had set up a room for the students to come, with huge sheets of papers laid out for them to write notes to Brandon and Amanda. Pictures of both students laid out. Music playing that they had loved.
I was met instantly upon entering the room, by these students, who I remembered as little kids, who I had performed alongside on stage, and who I loved and cared about so much, all in this shared pain. At various stages of anger, sadness, or disbelief. So many tears.
And we were encouraging each other. Holding on to each other to make it through. There wasn’t an ounce of cheerfulness in that room. I didn’t need to put on a happy face and concentrate on framing my mind in the correct way to be pleasant. None of us were shutting out our painful emotions, yet just this shared presence was in itself an encouragement to each other.
And later there would be laughter - when a humorous story was recalled about one or both of them. But that was experienced as it occurred naturally. It wasn't consciously created by the power of our minds.
I’m not saying that I had no hope – no joy. I felt the deep seed of joy inside of me, buried way down, but still alive, at the same time as I was feeling such pain. But joy and cheerfulness are not the same thing.
My reality had been completely shaken – my ideas and concepts about life. Everything I believed about God… I was down to three things that I believed to be true.
God exists. God is good. God is love.
And that is joy. That is the seed I had inside of me, ever present. It was buried deep… but it was warm. And it was there.
And this was the truest sense of community I had ever felt –
Can I honestly believe, after all this, that I must shut out negative emotions, and be always cheerful and pleasant, in order to encourage the people around me in the way that God intends me to?