I went to the doctor yesterday for the first time in years. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been sick; it means I’m the kind of stubborn fool who doesn’t like to take an ibuprofen for a headache, the kind of crank who would rather walk around squinting and snappy than to take the blasted aspirin. I just don’t like medicine. I prefer sweating it out, however inconvenient that is for the people around me. So after ten days of coughing and sniffling and whining I finally decided it must be a sinus infection. I have a show in a few days, and I can’t afford to be sick. So I bravely did what any man in my shoes would do: I asked my wife what to do. She told me which doctor to visit and I drove to the offices with a steely resolve. The nurse behind the sliding glass window handed me the clipboard with the dreaded New Patient Paperwork, and then the thing happened that made me want to write this.
The questions began. “Do you have any allergies?” “Do you drink caffeine?” “Do you use tobacco?” “If so, how often?” “Do you exercise regularly?” “Is there a history of heart disease in your family?” “Have you had any surgeries?
I realized as I answered each question that my impulse was to pad the answers. I had to force myself to be completely honest. For some reason I didn’t want to write down that my dad has type two diabetes or that my grandfather had three heart attacks before he died. No, ma’am, I come from tough stock. No problems at all in the Peterson tree. In the end, I told the truth. I answered “yes” to the exercise question, because it’s true. I do exercise. But then it asked “How often?” Well, that depends. I jog three or four times a week—if I’m home and the weather is nice and I’m not too busy and I’m in the mood. So, sort of often. But I rode my mountain bike twice last year, does that count? “Do you use tobacco?” No. Never. That stuff is gross. But every now and then I like to puff on a pipe, Bilbo Baggins-style, when I’m visiting my dad in the country. And I guess I smoke it when the weather is nice in the spring and my dude friends come over. And on Wednesdays. And Thursdays.
Then came the one that really bugged me. For some reason the questionnaire asked, “Have you ever been to counseling?” My pen hovered over the paper. Why is that any of their business? It would have been easy to skip the question, or to lie. But I could see how that answer could give them some insight into high blood pressure or anxiety-related problems. I still think it’s weird that they wanted to know (maybe some doctors out there will shed some light on it), but what was even weirder was how reluctant I was to answer. And even when I answered I wished for space to make disclaimers and justifications. I’ve only been a few times. I’m not like a regular or anything. Why was I trying to distance myself from people with Real Problems, as if I didn’t qualify?
By the time I saw the doctor and she prescribed my antibiotics, I was laughing to myself about the disparity between who I imagine myself to be and the person I actually am. I imagine that I’m a person who’s never sick, never needs medicine, has no vices, comes from a healthy family, and is so spiritually and emotionally balanced that he never needs help. The person I actually am is more than a little out of shape, is probably a candidate for heart trouble, enjoys a scholarly pipe smoke a little too much, and has several times been so beset with spiritual and emotional trouble that he needed serious help from a counselor. It’s official. Hello, Doc. My name is Andrew, and I’m a person with Real Problems. I sat on the papery hospital bed thinking about how uncomfortable I was that the doctor knew more about the “real” me than most people.
I have always been a private person. The irony is that my whole career is about sharing some of the darkest (and brightest) moments of my life with perfect strangers. That’s what all my records are about, more or less. When I run up against some old sin or doubt or habit in a way that derails my train, and my wife and friends act surprised, I want to hold up a CD and say, “Why are you so shocked? It’s all in there. It’s in almost every song I write. When a lyric says, ‘I’ve got voices that scream in my head like a siren,’ it’s not just poetry or exaggeration. That’s me. That’s what’s really going on.” I don’t have a hard time sharing that stuff from the stage. Then why was I so tempted to pad my answers in the medical questionnaire?
There are a lot of possibilities, but one that comes to mind is this: I have control over what I put in a song. When I’m on the stage I can manage what I reveal about myself, I can put a funny spin on it or sugarcoat the real depth of the sin. But when I’m anonymous, answering questions in a different context, I’m confronted with an awful truth: I am not who I think I am. Nor am I who you think I am. I’m much, much worse. I’m much more lost, much less disciplined, much more screwed up than I allow myself to admit.
Years ago I read a great op-ed piece in Entertainment Weekly about Netflix. The author talked about how seldom he feels like watching the DVDs that come in the mail, prompting him to wonder what he was thinking when he added them to his queue weeks ago. His conclusion was that he’s two people: the movie watcher he wishes he was, someone who enjoys sophisticated, artful fare like A Trip to Bountiful and Tree of Life—and then there’s the movie watcher he is, who, let’s face it, would rather turn off his brain and watch Die Hard and Terminator 2. It’s true of all of us, isn’t it? I love good books, and count Frederick Buechner, Wendell Berry, C. S. Lewis and the like as my favorite authors—but I read those as a discipline, because I know they’ll be good for me. Yet there’s this other part of me that would rather just burn through sci-fi/fantasy novels that have no more literary value than an episode of CSI. I want to be a healthy eater and I truly love sushi; but man, I can down a deep dish Jet’s Pizza in a way that would shock Marlon Brando.
So who am I? That’s the question. Am I the sophisticated art consumer or the brain-dead entertainment glutton? Am I a singer/songwriter with self-control, insight, and integrity or am I a broken man with bad knees and worse habits? The answer is probably more complicated than space allows. In some mysterious way, the answer is both. Maybe the person I wish I were is a projection of the Holy Spirit, calling me upward. Discipline is good. But it’s dangerous to forget how much I need Jesus. It’s like budgeting. Whenever Jamie and I run out of money before the end of the month we always throw our hands in the air and say, “Where did it all GO?” Then we look over the bank statement and remember that we ate out several times, had a few doctor bills, fixed the transmission, bought that one thing that we needed for that other thing, and suddenly it’s clear that we were living beyond our means. It’s easy at the beginning of the month to ignore the awful truth that we are not zillionaires. But at the end of the month, there’s a reckoning. (Of course, in this analogy God’s mercy settles the account. Every time.)
But you see, the story we tell ourselves is skewed. There comes a time when we need to sit and take account of how we’re spending our lives, like at the doctor’s office or with the budget, and be reminded that we are not who we think we are. We need Jesus more than we allow ourselves to admit. We are not really so much better than the people around us whose lives are so obviously messy. In fact, we’re not better at all. They may in fact be closer to the heart of Jesus because they are humble enough to admit to themselves that they need help, humble enough to answer the hard questions about their weakness boldly. And humility is a way of dying; it is the crucifixion of our false selves. Humility and death go hand in hand. It is exemplified in Christ, who humbled himself even unto death on a cross.
I saw the great Garrison Keillor at the Ryman Auditorium a few years ago when A Prairie Home Companion came through town, and was struck by how comfortable he was in his own skin. He has one of the most recognizable voices in radio history and has been entertaining us for decades—but he has, as they say, a face for radio. He’s not an attractive man. His eyes are bulgy, his nose is a little too small, he’s gangly, he hunches, and though his speaking voice is magical his singing voice is about as plain as you could imagine. But when he steps out onto the stage in his suit and bright red sneakers, he shines. He dances around as awkward as a goose on stilts, singing badly and looking odd—but he’s so joyful, so clearly doing what he loves to do, that he doesn’t care how weird he looks. He doesn’t care about his shortcomings. He’s delighted to be alive and doing something he was made to do. I looked around at the audience and saw that his joy was contagious. Every face was smiling, enjoying the beauty of someone who had made peace with who he was. At some point he may have cursed the way he was made, but now he celebrated it and we celebrated with him.
Jesus is making us into something. C. S. Lewis wrote that God is making us into “little Christs.” We all ache for the day when we’ll be free of our sins, our bad habits, our bitterness, the things about us that we think ugly or undesirable. But perhaps the road of sanctification will be an easier one when we recognize in ourselves the sin of self-consciousness, the sin of reputation management, the sin of lying to ourselves. To live our lives with a pretense of self-sufficiency, strength, and have-it-togetherness is to diminish the visible work of God’s grace. One of your greatest blessings to the community around you may be your utter brokenness, it may be something about yourself that you loathe, but which Christ will use for his glory. When Jesus is Lord of our brokenness we are free to rejoice in the mighty work he has yet to do in us. We are free to enter the stage in the face of the devil’s accusation, “You’re not good enough.”
The Christian’s answer: “Exactly!”
And we dance.
(This was first published on NRT.com’s website a few months back.)