Skip to content

On Markup Languages: My Crisis of Faith

Ten and a half years ago, I had a crisis of faith. And I don’t mean that in the metaphorical way it’s so often used. I mean genuinely, spiritually, heartbreakingly literally.

It’s a sad story. But stories have the power to heal. They have the power to help others. And, if you stick with me, this one even has the power to make your writing a little less painful.

See, when I was a kid, I was deeply religious. At one point I spent a year trying to organize my church friends into an a capella singing group, in spite of the fact that I couldn’t carry a note, only one of them actually wanted to do it, and we were all twelve.

I went to church camp every summer, served Communion as often as my turn came up, taught classes at retreats and even went away for a week-long youth group Leadership Training Seminar at some point. Then I went off to a private Christian school for college, and my first semester there one of my professors invited me to participate in the summer British Isles Mission Trip.

I’d never been overseas, and I’d spent much of my life dreaming about a visit to the English countryside. So when he asked, I leaped at the chance. It was an opportunity to do something good, and go to fantastic places while doing it.

Dr. John Maple, the leader of the mission trip, spent six months helping us arrange funding and prepare for the trip. There were eleven college students in the group, and we’d be heading over to the British Isles for six weeks. Six weeks! It was terrifyingly big, but Dr. Maple made it all sound simple. He’d been doing it every summer for years.

When we got there, we spent a week teaching a little VBS at a community church, and then a couple weeks assisting at a staffed church camp in England that tended to get a little overworked. After that we moved up to Scotland where we actually were the staff of another church camp, teaching lessons, putting on puppet shows, organizing activities, and generally keeping the kids from wandering off and getting kidnapped off the moors by malicious faeries.

It was all the stuff I’d done in my youth group for years. None of it was terribly challenging, and I was there along with ten other phenomenally committed, hardworking, and just generally excellent people.

But I hated it. I hated every minute of it. I hated touring London with the rest of the group on our first day there. I hated getting together with the rest of the group every morning for breakfast. I hated teaching classes. I hated playing out in the yard with the kids….

Here, let me put it like this. The first place we went, the camp there in England…it was in an old castle. Walking in the front door, I could easily picture Hogwarts. My room was up in a turret, looking out over the lawn, which was cleared of trees for a good forty yards in all directions. And I was so miserable just being there, that I hated staying in a castle.

I had no idea why. I kept trying to figure it out, but there were no answers. I was doing the Lord’s work in a place I’d always wanted to visit, surrounded by incredible people, and it made me miserable.

So I drew the only conclusion I possibly could: I’m a horrible person. There’s something deeply wrong with me, if I hate doing good this much.

I kept trying to tell myself that it wasn’t true, that I was just in some kind of funk, but day in and day out for six weeks, it never once lifted, and I finally just came to terms with it. I don’t love God, I decided. I don’t love the faith of my fathers. I’m just a jerk who hates all these kids and all these good people.

I’ve got enough self-esteem that I didn’t hang onto those thoughts too long. I got home from the mission trip, I was sick for a week or so while my hatred subsided, and then I gradually forgot to despise myself.

I never really got back to the religion I’d had beforehand, though. I realized there was no place in that religion for me. I still had no clue what it was, but I knew there was something inside me that just did not work with the principles I’d been chasing after for my whole life.

It took me eight years before I found the answer. And it was a depressingly simple answer, too. Social anxiety. It’s a relatively common personality disorder, and I now know I’ve had problems with it for most of my life.

I’ve also dealt with it, without ever really knowing what was going on. But the mission trip was too much — too many new people, too many new places, too much chaos and absolutely no escape for six weeks straight. I basically went into an anxiety attack in June that didn’t let up until mid August, and I had to work long hours through every single day of it.

Labels vs. Effects

It’s just a name, “social anxiety disorder,” but those three short words told me enough to resolve instantly all those years of confusion and self-doubt. They told me enough to reconcile myself to the faith I’d mostly abandoned (or, as it felt, been abandoned by).

Those words fixed something that was broken inside me, before I even started fixing the actual disorder. Without changing the effects at all, without altering my experience in any way, having an accurate label for those effects improved my life.

Because it helped me understand. It helped me find the “why.” It provided a reasonable context for something that had seemed entirely arbitrary, and that explanation was enough to bring me from crisis all the way to understanding.

That’s what’s in a name. And we wrestle with those very same issues in writing. It’s on a much less dramatic scale, of course, but if you’ve ever wanted to scream at your document because the formatting just wasn’t working, and it made no sense…you’ve been there.

Come back tomorrow, and we’ll talk about your writing disorder. It’s amazing how much you can improve your document with a simple understanding of the difference between label-based and effect-based document formatting.

3 Responses to “On Markup Languages: My Crisis of Faith”

  1. Courtney Cantrell says:

    You know, it’s funny how I can *hear* something (such as a friend’s heart-breaking story about losing faith) several times, yet certain things don’t click for me until I actually read the words. I am such a visual/kinesthetic learner, it’s ridiculous.

    Anyway. Here’s something that’s clicking right now:

    Culture shock does weird things to people. It augments quirks, it increases frustrations, and it shortens fuses. If it’s bad enough, it strips a person of all previously functional coping mechanisms. And it can do all of this practically from the first moment we set foot on foreign soil.

    I’ve seen it happen over and over again (and have experienced it myself, ugh). We’d have a great campaign team, everyone got along, people were motivated and excited, the group dynamic was so sweet and positive it would just make you sick…. And the moment the team got to where we were going, these same functional, interacting, fun-loving, excited people turned morose, irritable, nit-picky, and just plain grouchy.

    Why? Because all of their reference points had suddenly disappeared. Every device they relied on for dealing with everyday life was suddenly altered almost beyond recognition. All input and all feedback was different.

    Culture shock highlights and exacerbates every “issue” we’re already dealing with — but at home, or at least in familiar situations, we have established routines and support systems, checks and balances that keep us steady and keep us going. Entry into another culture removes all of that — and all the “issues” suddenly rise to the top, taking over and clouding our vision until the misery is all we can see.

    And don’t even get me started on reverse culture shock — or reverse reverse reverse culture shock! ;o)

    But for someone dealing with an unrecognized social anxiety disorder, the experience must be unimaginably harrowing. Good for you for not letting that ruin your life. Good for you for not letting that *control* your life.

    Because there are people who experience culture shock or reverse culture shock and choose to “wallow” in it for the rest of their lives. They never allow themselves to get past it and so miss the chance to take the good, discard the bad, and rise above themselves. I’m glad you took that chance.

  2. Trish Pogue says:

    I remember thinking, “Why is this trip so miserable?” I think I wanted to cry every day. Now I know that it was a combination of your social anxiety and culture shock (both of us).

    I would do so many things differently, just thinking about that trip. I hope we helped people despite our shortcomings.

  3. Courtney Cantrell says:

    Trish, I have no doubt you did help people in spite of all the heartache you both were suffering. God has a strange way of working effectively through us when we feel like we’re at our lowest.