I recently watched the excellent documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop. It’s about the 6 months after the former host of the Tonight Show parted ways with NBC and was prohibited from appearing on television, during which he went on a 44-city comedy tour. O’Brien is a likable figure through the piece, but driven (hence the title). He seems unable to take a break and addicted to the applause. Though at times I wondered if O’Brien really behaves that differently from anybody who loves what they do? He does have some moments of anger and fatigue underneath the cheery surface. But if they followed you or me around for months with cameras day and night, wouldn’t they catch us any of us in an irritable moment at some point?
At any rate, the film has a lot to say about the life of the performer…which of course translates in my mind to the life of the preacher. I plan to watch it again with Amanda so we can talk about it together. There is a huge amount of adrenaline released in preaching, and it is in fact addictive. The very idea of speaking for God, the sheer absurdity of talking for an hour about anything and believing it can change the world. It is an intoxicating and odd business.
The biggest struggle often is (and I think you see this in O’Brien, even though there is not some sense of eternal weight to anything he’s saying from the stage), how do I live when those moments of unreality give way to real life? By unreality, I don’t mean saying things you don’t believe. But rather that the drama of preaching is a heightened state of reality, where you are more yourself than you’ve ever been and yet not yourself. Nothing about the rest of your life is quite the same as that sliver of of your life–people aren’t walking around with notebooks listening to you every moment all day. (At least, they don’t do that with me) How do you land after such an experience?
The short answer is, well, not to easily. I used to get depressed after preaching, more so on Monday than right after. I couldn’t enjoy anything, including the things I always enjoy. It’s why I ultimately decided to work Mondays and take Fridays as my day off. If I’m going to be in a bad mood, why not at least be productive while I’m at it?
The truth is, God has done such wonderful things in me that I really do better with the “post game” than I used to. I don’t get as irritable or depressed. I am capable of having fun. I am conscious that even given the heightened reality of preaching, I am the same guy who just preached that way and vice versa. And I’m very, very comfortable with that these days. I don’t have identity wrapped up in preaching the way I used to.
There are some concrete things that help, though. Exercise is one of them. The other week, I came home and mowed after I got done preaching 3 times. Counter-intuitive, but a much better come down than laying on the couch unable to sleep but out of my head in this weird in-between haze. It is especially important to work out Monday morning, even though I always wake up feeling like I’ve been hit by a truck, and normally from bad dreams do (your sub-conscience is pretty active after that kind of public exposure).
Sometimes after I preach, I really need to get away and not be with people to decompress. Sometimes, I really need to be with people in order to decompress. That doesn’t always look the same. The funniest thing, and I’m hoping some preachers will really laugh at this, is how to be at a meal after preaching. Okay, so you’ve just unzipped yourself from neck to navel and let your innards be on display for an hour (at least that is how I do it). Now, lunch table conversation. How about the message? “It was good. I really enjoyed it.” Oh, okay, cool. I don’t need everybody to build me up all the time, but I’ve just got done talking about things that are more important to me than anything else while naked, and I’m still in that zone. How am I supposed to now talk about some tv program or funny cat video on youtube or the weather? I don’t know how to do that. And anytime I have to act after doing the thing where I act the least (and I am convinced that the voice I have in the pulpit is somehow more honest than the voice I’ve got in my own head), acting interested in something I’m not interested in is harder than preaching that message again would be.
This is why you don’t just need therapy to be a preacher, but to live with a preacher. Amanda is brilliant at handling me afterwards, and I gladly let myself be handled. Because I’m something more than and yet less than human when I get done, and like shaft “no one understands me but my woman.”