Shakespeare and the Blues

When I was teaching high school English literature, I tried to make the pieces we were studying together relevant – especially Shakespeare.  

A quick rundown of the plot of “Romeo and Juliet”: an impetuous teenage boy falls in love with a teenage girl at a masquerade ball.  It is only after they have fallen in love that they realize their parents are engaged in a generations-long feud.  A feud so serious that on the day the play begins, the Prince declares the next person from either family to disturb the peace of the community with their senseless feud will be executed. Of course, as is typical of Shakespeare, multiple tragedies ensue shortly thereafter.

My favorite character in “Romeo and Juliet” is Friar Laurence.  A trusted but flawed neighborhood priest, who knows Romeo, Juliet, and their families, he believes marriage between the two star crossed lovers may bring an end to the violence.  So, he encourages the children in their romance.

In Act 3, Friar Laurence secretly marries the couple.  Anticipating their wedding night, they quickly return to their homes to await nightfall. On Romeo’s way home, he meets his best friend Mercutio and together they happen upon Tybalt, Juliet’s first cousin.  A fight ensues. Tybalt fatally stabs Mercutio and runs away.

Enraged, Romeo seeks revenge for Mercutio’s death and kills Tybalt in a sword fight.  The Prince, furious that two have died in another skirmish between the two families, surprises everyone by showing mercy and instead of executing Romeo for the death of Tybalt, banishes him instead.      

Desperate and distraught, Romeo hides in Friar Laurence’s cell contemplating his future and bemoaning the fact that he will be unable to see Juliet again.  It is a dismal scene. The dark, cold, stone room of Friar Laurence hosts a grieving and sobbing – almost to the point of incoherent – Romeo. Friar Laurence does his best to console him, but his words fall on deaf ears.  

Finally, Friar Laurence has enough of Romeo’s pity-party and says:

“Rouse thee, man!  Thy Juliet is alive, for whose sake thou was but lately dead – There art thou happy.  Tybalt would kill thee, but thou slew’st Tybalt – there art thou happy. The law that threatened death becomes thy friend and turns it to exile – there art thou happy.  A pack of blessing light upon thy back, happiness courts thee in her best array, but, like a misbehaved and sullen wench, thou pout’st upon thy fortune and thy love. Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable.”       

Friar Laurence gives Romeo three specific reasons to be happy:  Juliet is alive. Tybalt, who wanted to kill Romeo, is dead, and the Prince, who could’ve executed Romeo for killing Tybalt, had mercy and only sentenced Romeo to banishment. Even in what seems like a desperate situation, Friar Laurence shows Romeo he has not one – but three reasons to be happy.  

The lesson I tried to impart on ninth graders was not necessarily that they too could be happy in any given situation, but what it was I thought Shakespeare, through the good Friar, was trying to say to his audience:  Look for the good. Look for the blessings. They are always there.

Please don’t misunderstand.  I do not believe that people can just “be happy.”  I also do not believe that you should “fake it till you make it” in some sort of quest to find happiness.  That is ridiculous and infuriating and would likely end up getting me punched in the throat. For some, happiness can be like a search for some sort of elusive, exotic butterfly, and I don’t want to pretend like I know how to find it or keep it.  I don’t.

What I taught in my classroom and what I propose is a substitution for Shakespeare’s original word choice.  Instead of happiness, let’s talk gratitude. Gratitude isn’t an exotic butterfly.

Maintaining an attitude of gratitude can take some practice, especially when you have blues you just can’t shake.  I am convinced, however, that gratitude allows glimmers of happiness to shine through in even the darkest of life’s caverns.  

I first became aware of using gratitude as a tool for positive psychology when I was teaching.  It has been proven through a myriad of research that practicing gratitude can improve not only your mental health but also your physical health.  If you are interested in Googling some of these studies, you’ll have no trouble finding them. Even Oprah can be found discussing the gratitude journal that she kept for a full decade and how it changed her life for the better.

It was through trial and error, though, that I learned about its positive effects.

Teaching is a noble profession.  The best teachers are ebullient about their subjects, passionate about their students, and advocates for their schools.   That’s not easy to maintain, especially over the course of several years. When I taught, I was too easily discouraged.

Jamie would say, “Babe.  You are trying to teach 15 and 16-year-old boys about Jane Eyre.   They aren’t gonna get jacked-up about Jane Eyre. When I was 15, my favorite part in the school day was lunch and borrowing a pencil from a cute girl in the hallway.”   I knew he had a point. Teachers know it’s the small successes that keep you going back for more. Daddy, also a former teacher, advised, “You don’t know what kind of lives these children lead at home.  It may very well be that for some of them, your class is the only 50 minutes of peace they will find all day long. That is success enough, Elizabeth.”

For me, looking for the blessing started with teaching Romeo and Juliet.  I found such joy in sharing what I could apply to my own life with them. Once I took Friar Laurence’s advice, I could create moments that lead to happiness: grateful that I had a job at all, grateful that I could teach literature I loved and that was interesting to me, grateful I could craft a lesson with a great deal of freedom, grateful that a child had an “a-ha” moment in class.  

Finding reasons for gratitude helped lift my dark clouds of self-doubt, fear and frustration, and certainly anxiety.  

When Paul, Silas, and Timothy wrote the church of the Thessalonians, they offered excellent advice for the success of a church.  1 Thessalonians 5: 18 tells us: “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”

It is absolutely impossible to give thanks for all things.  I’m not going to be thankful for the bad things that happen to me or to the people that I love.  That’s not how humans work. I can, though, look for the blessings in all things.

For example, I cannot give thanks that my friend has been diagnosed with cancer.  I can be thankful, however, that she has a brilliant oncologist, found cancer in its early stages, and is surrounded by friends and loved ones that will support her throughout treatment.   

This attitude has to be cultivated.  For some, this attitude of gratitude is easy.  For others, it is a real struggle. And that’s ok.  The important part of this lesson from Friar Laurence and Paul is that we try.  We attempt to do that which is being asked of us.

William Barclay the frequently quoted Bible commentator writes, “We must remember that if we face the sun the shadows will fall behind us, but if we turn our backs to the sun all the shadows will be in front.”

I’d also like to point out not to truncate the verse with “in everything give thanks.”  It continues with “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” I’m quite sure I disappoint, displease, anger, upset and frustrate God. However, it is Christ that continues to give thanks to me and love me in spite of myself.

It’s easy to forget.  Our God doesn’t require things of us without love.   

Secondly, when I feel especially sorry for myself or my anxiety is stirred up and running like mice in the attic of my mind, I can usually distract myself by doing something for someone else.  Thinking about the needs of others and figuring out a way to meet that need is incredibly effective at distracting me from myself.

Bible verses about generosity abound. Paul writes to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 4:15, “You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us, your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.”  

Why else would we make pound cakes and casseroles when someone is sick, or someone we love has died?  Not only are we trying to ease someone else’s pain, but we are also doing one of the only tangible things we know to do to ease those pangs of wanting to DO SOMETHING when someone we love is hurting.  

When something awful happens and we feel like there is nothing we can do – we do what we can.  We make and deliver food, organize donations, send canned goods or coats and blankets, write elected officials.

My mother is one of the most generous people I know.  I have watched her all my life and try hard to be as much like her as I can be.  Mama’s love language is food. If you’re sick, and she knows it, you can expect a meal from Penny Sanders.  It will be the best thing you’ve ever eaten because whatever she cooks was made with you specifically in mind.  Her food restores both heart and soul. It warms and heals.

The women of our church meet every other Tuesday at Mama’s house for Bible study.  Every other Tuesday, she prepares some sort of something for us. Sometimes, it’s a new recipe she wants to try, but almost always it’s served on china plates at a table set especially for us.  She knows once we get around that kitchen table, that’s when our real work of being the hands and feet of Jesus begins. We plan. We laugh. We confide in each other. We cry. We comfort. We pray.  That time together is generosity at its absolute core. I don’t know if she feels better after we leave her house every other Tuesday, but I know I do.

The other thing that helps me is my prescription medication.  Sometimes, you try and try and can’t find gratitude in your heart or ways to be generous.  You can’t see your way out of anxiety or fear, and that’s when you need to find a professional to talk to.  Someone you can trust to get you the help you need. God sends us those people, too.

In the interest of being totally honest, I will share that I have struggled with anxiety for a long time.  If anxiety were a cake, I baked mine in high school. After college, it got better, but after spending a fall season in Washington, DC that included September 11th, an anthrax attack three doors down from our office, and a mysterious sniper killing people at random, I slathered my anxiety cake in frosting – chocolate, if you’re interested.  

After Colin was born, I most definitely plunged both hands into my cake and couldn’t eat it fast enough.  So, I went to my doctor, frosting all over my mouth, and tearfully described my symptoms. He recommended Lexapro, which I began taking immediately.  It’s a tiny little pill, 10mg, a low dose even, but it works for me.

It took me a long time to be able to admit that, too.  I didn’t like that I was “dependent” on medicine to make my anxiety better, but I do.  And I am not ashamed of that anymore. I encourage you not to be either.

Not long after I’d started taking this medicine, I was with a group of folks that didn’t know me particularly well when one of them said, “You know, I really get tired of hearing people talk about anxiety.  If you think you are a Christian but say you have anxiety, maybe you’re not really a Christian.” I could’ve throat punched that guy. Clearly, he doesn’t have issues with anxiety. Hubris, maybe. Anxiety – not so much.   I angry cried all the way home.

Let me assure you, you most definitely can be a Christian and an anxiety ball at the same time.  I can also assure you that having the tools to manage anxiety makes things a lot easier. Lexapro is definitely one of my tools.  

If you think you would benefit from talking with a doctor about your blues, talk.  Talk to someone that loves you about how you are feeling. Or, talk to a trusted health practitioner.  Even Paul had a beloved physician in Luke.

For those of you taking notes or looking for a take-away today, I offer the following:  Even if you aren’t necessarily anxious, but you find yourself feeling blue from time to time, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone.  When you’re feeling blue and you’re ready to feel differently, I recommend any one of these things:

Gratitude Journals:  Although I know a lot of people keep a gratitude journal, I don’t.  I encourage you to use that as a tool. All you have to do is write down 5-10 things per day for which you are grateful.  Studies show if you keep this journal consistently, you will feel noticeably happier.

Prayers of Thanksgiving:  Thank God for five things – everyday – at any time during the day.  Let that be the prayer. Don’t ask for anything. Just thank God for five things.   

Get Out of the House: Whether you go by yourself of go with a friend, sometimes a change in routine helps.  Go to the movies, or a local museum. Treat yourself to coffee at a coffee shop or go to the library.  Sometimes, just being outside in the sunshine for a little bit can help. Go for a walk at a local park or inside a mall.  Change your venue to try and change your mood.

Letter writing/Card sending: Send a note or card to someone on your church prayer list, or a cousin or friend.  It doesn’t have to be a Pulitzer prize winning note, just let that person know you’re thinking about them and that you love them.  It’s amazing what a handwritten note can do to bring cheer – to the recipient and the sender. .

Bake for a neighbor:  It doesn’t have to be an entire meal.  It can be brownies out of a box or slice and bake cookies or a pan of hot cornbread, but walking over something to a neighbor feels good.  

Make a plan.  Having something to look forward can be fun.  Ask a friend over for lunch or coffee and dessert.  Host a game night with a group of friends – when was the last time you played Scrabble or put together a puzzle?  Join a prayer group, or call a local hospital about volunteering. Try an estate sale or an art class. Put something different on your calendar.  It may give you the boost you’re looking for.

Don’t feel badly about having the blues.  The good news is there is reason to be glad, it just may take some effort to find it.  And be comforted, for even good ‘ole Shakespeare way back in 1597 knew his friends could use a reminder, too.

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