Getting Out of Bed When You Don’t Have What It Takes with Dr. Alan Noble

March 10, 2024

There are days when for all of us, it just feels like too much. The trials and tribulations of this world seem insurmountable. And frankly, the lure of staying in bed and hiding away from everybody and everything looks like a really good solution. Every single parent has experienced this feeling of overwhelm but we know that we have to do it—our kids are depending on us. Their world can’t run without us. So how do we get ourselves out of bed when we feel like we don’t have what it takes?

Today we’re going to be talking to Dr. Alan Noble, associate professor at Oklahoma Baptist University and the co-founder and editor in chief at Christ and Pop culture. He has written for the Atlantic Fox, the Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today and so many more. He is the author of multiple books, including the one that we’re going to be discussing today, and it’s called On Getting Out of Bed: the Burden and the Gift of Living.

What was the driving factor that drove you to write this book?

So there were really two sources. This book came out of an essay I wrote called “On Living” that dealt with this basic fundamental life question: why live? It came about because a prominent evangelical figure had taken their own life. And that made me really reflect on what happens to our witness, when other people see us give up on life. And that’s a hard question to ask. It’s not a question we’d like to ask, but it’s a reality that people are watching us and the way we suffer tells other people how they should suffer. And so I was reflecting on that personally while I was going through a very difficult time myself and thinking about, “Okay, how do my kids see me suffering? How do they see me carrying on through difficult times?” And it just struck me that this is a profound truth, that we are bearing witness to the goodness of life by choosing to get out of bed each day. And that’s the book.

You point out how suffering is normal and we know that for most people, not just single parents. But we still aren’t always honest about how difficult that can be and how normal it is for human life to suffer. So how can we become more open about it? How can we accept suffering as a part of life?

I think it begins with this recognition that other people are suffering around you. I begin the book by describing how growing up, I grew up around a lot of suffering. A lot of people around me were abused or addicted to drugs, going through all kinds of different mental health crises. But I was under the illusion that those people were anomalies, that they were outliers, that most adults lived pretty happy content lives, and that those people kind of just chose to suffer and made bad life choices. But as I grew up and started to get into various small groups and get to know other adults, I realized, “Gosh, almost everybody’s carrying around serious baggage. It turns out that life is really hard.” The people I saw who seemed to have it all together were dealing with tremendous suffering. And I think you have to begin there because that allows you to have the ability to communicate your suffering to others. When you recognize that you’re not alone, that you are actually the norm, that struggling to get out of bed some days is a normal human experience, then it frees you up to say to somebody who you love, “Hey, I’m really having a hard time.”

And the other thing I’ll say is that it takes a great deal of courage, but there’s something really freeing in opening up to somebody else. And I do want to say as a caveat, there’s a danger of oversharing in our social media age projecting your suffering out into the world. So I want to discourage that, but I want to encourage finding trustworthy, wise, loving people who you can divulge your suffering to. Because once you do that, what you’re going to find is that it frees them up to communicate their suffering to you, and you can begin to carry each other’s burdens, which is what God is calling us to do.

I was on group last night and one of our newer solo parents has only been on for a few weeks now. During her open share, she shared how transformative the few weeks she’s been part of the group has been, how she’s understood from other people sharing their struggles that she’s not alone in it and how much healing can happen. And it goes to show exactly what you’re saying, Alan.  There’s so much power in sharing our struggles and being with each other in it, in those pits, in those dark places, and even in the joys and the celebrations too. It doesn’t have to be all about suffering.

And I think what has been transformational for us as an organization and the solo parents that we serve is this ability to get together and share each other’s burdens and shine a light on the fact that we’re not in this alone and that we’re all struggling with things.

Why do you think [in Christian circles] we have a hard time admitting that we’re suffering? Then, if we drill down a little bit further, it’s hard to know how much to share with our kids, and obviously we need to have some boundaries and be careful of that. How do we do this? So one fear is that if I’m suffering that I’m in sin somehow, right?

That if I’m suffering, I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Another concern, I think we live in a secular age where Christianity is just seen as one option available to people, and there’s lots of different worldview options out there. We often want to put our best face forward even among other Christians. So we want to say, “Christianity is solving my problems.” We often don’t want to admit mental health problems or suffering with depression or anxiety because it sounds like what we’re saying is “Christianity doesn’t fix everything” or “It doesn’t fix everything immediately,” and that’s not a good sales pitch. We want to have a good sales pitch, so we want to say, “No, I’m doing fine.”

And it’s interesting because we’re willing to say “I lost my job.” And we don’t see that as a knock against Christianity, but if you say “I’m depressed” that’s something we feel Christianity should automatically fix and God is going to fix all things. He’s making all things new, but sometimes like Paul, we have a thorn in our flesh and we have to accept that. And God is made great in our weakness, and that’s just a reality we have to live with. So there’s lots of social pressure to give the appearance that we’re okay. I think how much to divulge your children is a difficult question.

To answer, I’ve had two things pulling different directions in my mind. One is I don’t want to overburden my children. I don’t want them to have to carry the burden of dad’s mental health. On the other hand, I don’t want to deprive them of the opportunity to see me struggle and persevere. They need to see resilience modeled because they’re going to have a hard time in life too. I don’t know what’s going to happen to them. They don’t know what’s going to happen to them, but they’re going to have a hard time and they’re going to need to know that when you have a hard time, it’s good to keep going. It’s good to get out of bed. It’s to keep moving and serving others and loving others and caring and fulfilling your obligations. And I think it’s important not to shelter them so much that they don’t see that resilience modeled—it deprives them of something really valuable in life. Our kids need to be resilient, and we can show them resilience.

You have a quote in the book that says, Living in a society governed by technique conditions us to believe that in every way life is easier than it has ever been. The promise of technique is that we are collectively overcoming all the challenges to life through research, technology, and discipline. All you have to do is find the right self-help book or life hack or app or life coach or devotional. And so even though we intellectually know that not all these things are going to solve our problems, we still have this hope that it will.”

How do we get past false hope? In my darkest hour, I’m reading every book I possibly can to heal as fast as I can, not wanting to feel it anymore. So how do we deal with that?

Part of the drive of technique is this promise that we can efficiently solve all our problems. And I think parents feel this most acutely. In our society, parents are the group that is most targeted and pressured with efficiency. I can’t think of another group where you have more people telling you how to properly raise your kids. And if you don’t do that, you feel a sense of guilt: I’m not potty training my kids. I’m not tutoring my kids. I’m not teaching them how to do their chores and they’re going to be left behind and it’s going to be because of me. There’s all kinds of guilt and pressure. I think ultimately the answer is we have to depend on grace. It’s not that we don’t want to use good systems because there are good systems available out there, but our hope has to be the hope in God’s grace, that he’s the one making all things new, he’s the one caring for our children, he’s the one caring for us, he’s the one curing us, he’s the one healing us.

And that doesn’t mean we can’t advocate for ourselves. It’s important to advocate for yourself and to pursue health, but you do that knowing your real healing is going to come through God. And so it might not come as quickly as you want, which means that you don’t feel this pressure to get everything perfectly right, to find the exact self-help guru who’s going to cure your depression or anxiety or procrastination or whatever it might be. But instead, you trust in God’s grace for you in your life.

I think of the verse, “Don’t be surprised when you face troubles.” I’m going to butcher it, but basically “Because I have overcome the world.” The interesting thing about that verse is that it’s not “you will overcome the world.” So often I forget that. I’ve got to muster up all my strength to get out of bed or to take on litigation that my ex is bringing against me or whatever it is. Our faith is elsewhere, not just in ourselves. It doesn’t mean we can’t go through and learn appropriate techniques or skills, but really at the end of the day, this idea of getting out of bed is actually a powerful witness to the goodness of life and of God.

And I mentioned this in discussing our witness to our children. They need to see resilience. I said they do see resilience when they see us suffering and choosing to get out of bed and continue. It’s what we do when we get out of bed and embrace life, because getting out of bed is really saying “Life is worth living.” That is an action that communicates to other people. “Life is worth living even though it’s really hard.” That’s a profound echo of God’s It is good in Genesis; you are echoing what God said. You are affirming God’s creative act and his preservation of you by saying, “This life is worth living.” What a profound witness that is. And when you realize that one of the things that happens when you go through a period of depression or anxiety or mental anguish is that you feel that life is too overwhelming, that you can’t contribute, that you can’t do anything meaningful. And so you feel helpless. But when you realize getting out of bed is a profound proclamation, that communicates to your loved ones of the goodness of existence. Then you realize that the bar to doing something great is actually pretty low. It’s just getting out of bed. Can I get out of bed? Can I feed the dog? Can I feed my kids? Can I take the dog for a walk? Can I take them to school? Can I do these basic things that are communicating a lot to the world? And that is, I think, a burden off. And you see, “Wow, I am contributing something meaningful to this world.”

When you’re going through your worst and in self-pity and down in the dumps, it’s easy to look around and think that everyone else has it together. Nothing’s changed for everybody else. And in your book you say they don’t feel bad. They enjoy books or food, they pray easily, they find comedies funny, and you’ll want to yell at them, “Look around, do you not see how profoundly terrible and empty this all is?”

In these moments where we’re feeling so much of the bitterness and the rage and the envy, how can we overcome that and not let it overtake us?

The first thing you have to do is recognize it, right? I think the second thing you want to do is have patience for other people. Recognize that bitterness that you’re feeling is unfair to them, that it’s not an act of love to them. That the loving thing to do is to rejoice with those who rejoice, to allow them to feel joy and to not be bitter. The next thing is to focus on you and what you need to be doing. In my experience, you don’t find joy by trying to feel joyful. You don’t find peace by trying to feel peaceful. You find those by doing behaviors that bring peace or bring joy. So what I would say is you ask yourself, okay, what behaviors can I do today that have historically brought me to a place of peace?

So for me, for example, every night I have a cup of ice cream, and that’s how I like that. Maybe it’s not the healthiest thing, but this brings me a sense of peace. And I know that that behavior gives me a sense of completion for the night and a sense of peace and a sense of joy, of doing something I enjoy. Have concrete things that you’re pursuing that historically have brought you joy because you’ve got to get your mind off of what other people are feeling and thinking. Those thoughts are going to come; that bitterness is going to come. It’s natural, but you’ve got to shift your attention away from that because that’s a dead end. That’s a way of death. It’s a way of comparison, and it’s never going to bring you any resolution that you want.

I identify (especially in the throes of some of the hardest days that I faced as a single dad), with this situation you talked about: “You can be having a breakdown in the bathroom, and your kids will knock on the door and ask for a glass of water. Your loved ones don’t stop needing you just because you’re suffering and stuck in your head or pinned to the bed.” And I will tell you, there is this uncanny ability of our kids to know the moment that you’re at the bottom and you’re in the corner of a closet or in the bathroom or whatever, whether it’s I need a glass of water or Dad, Zoe just took my hairbrush, and it is like Murphy’s law. There’s always that moment where they need something right now when I’m just trying to have some reprieve.

So how do you show up for your kids when you just don’t have it in you and you feel like you are bottomed out?

I think there are different levels. There are times when I think when you are literally bottomed out, when you need to tap out and you need to say to your kids, “I’m sorry, you’re going to have to watch something, or you call a friend or a neighbor and you get some space.” I mean, I want to acknowledge that there are places you can get to where you don’t have any reservoirs, you don’t have anything to pull from to do more, and you really need to call for help. And I don’t think we can always muscle through, but I think most of the time we’re not in that place. We might feel like we are in that place, but most of the time we’re not in that place. Most of the time we are suffering terribly and we’re having a very difficult time, but we still have the resources to pull from to be there for them.

And in those moments, what we have to do is we have to acknowledge that their lives don’t stop just because our lives feel like they’re stopping. People still need us, people still love us, people still rely on us. And we have an obligation to show up and to be present and to be there. Part of what we have to do is shift our focus out from ourselves to the people around us who love us. And often those moments create momentum. Once you take a moment to shift your attention to the needs of your kid who’s hitting his sister with a hairbrush or something, your gaze is going to shift away from yourself and your own suffering. And it becomes a little bit easier to be present for them, but it’s going to take time. We need to recognize that we have duties, and we can’t just check out most of the time.

A long time ago I did a seminar with somebody who talked about the importance of pattern breaks—interrupting a pattern. In hearing you, it made me think about if I’m in that situation, I’m in the bathroom on the floor and one of my daughters needs a glass of water, there actually is value in breaking a pattern, getting up, getting a glass of water and that can actually serve you in your pursuit of mental health or finding peace. I don’t mean running from it, but I do think that pattern interruption is a thing.

And I think that’s especially true when breaking down doesn’t serve you. And we need to be self-aware enough to figure out how our behaviors are functioning. So sometimes when we’re on the floor in the bathroom, we just need a good cry. You give me 15 minutes on the floor crying and I can get back up and I can be dad. Other times it’s not serving us. Other times it’s harmful, it’s distracting, and it’s not actually bringing peace. It’s not actually purging us. It’s not actually bringing resolution. It’s more obsessive. It’s more anxiety driven, let’s say. And what we need to do is act. We need to get up and we need to be present. We need to be moving, we need to be doing things. So especially in those latter cases where our behavior is not serving us, then I think breaking those habits can be really valuable and important.

So one thing that we as single parents really, really struggle with is putting ourselves last and we run on empty usually without even realizing it until something sets us off. And we’re doing everything for everyone else except for ourselves. We’re not taking the time even to go lay on the floor and cry in the bathroom until we can’t do anything else. And in addition to that, we struggle with asking for help.

So what would your encouragement be for single parents who struggle in this way, who just give and give and give and give until they’re running on less than empty, really?

Growing up in the late eighties and early nineties, the concept of self-love was taught by society. And I was always highly skeptical of it because it sounded like squishy pop psychology, a meaningless idea, loving yourself. And especially because when you would ask someone, “Well, why should I love myself?” The answer would be essentially going back to technique. It’s more efficient. If you love yourself, you’ll take better care of yourself, and you’ll have a better life. Well, that’s not a reason to love myself. That just means that it’s a more efficient way to live. That’s not a reason why I should love myself. What’s lovable about me. And there’s no answer to that. It’s just like, well, you should love yourself. And I was highly skeptical of it. And then recently in preparing to write this book, I came across a German Thomas Aquinas scholar named Joseph Peeper, who gave me this profound insight in this essay he had on love.

And essentially he says to paraphrase, “If God loves us and we can’t possibly know better than God, then we ought to love ourselves.” And I was just like, “Oh, that’s the reason. That’s the reason I’ve always been wondering.” I wanted somebody to answer the question, why should I love myself? That’s the reason. If God loves us, whatever reason we have for not loving ourselves is nonsense compared to God’s love for us. So if God loves us, we ought to love ourselves. And if we ought to love ourselves, then we ought to take care of ourselves. We’re actually echoing God’s act of creation and preservation when we choose to take care of ourselves. And that means setting limits, knowing boundaries, doing self-care, and all of a sudden self-love seen in that light is not a selfish thing. And in fact, it’s not a virtuous thing to run ourselves ragged. It’s actually a virtuous thing to care for ourselves, to make space for ourselves, to take care of ourselves. Because what we’re doing is we’re saying, “God, it was good when you created me. You had a reason and you continue to have a reason for preserving me. So I’m going to honor that act by caring for this creation: me.”

The thing that I take away is normalizing the idea that we all have those days when we feel like we can’t do it. And it was more prevalent when I was a single dad, but I think just in general, everybody deals with those days where we’re just like I don’t have what it takes. Just the very fact of realizing you’re not alone in that is comforting. You’re not the only one carrying this burden.

And suffering is more common than not suffering. Just remember it’s not, especially when going back to that whole comparison and envy idea. Just because someone might be having a good day doesn’t mean that yesterday they didn’t have a horrible day. And then also the other thing was the whole idea that when you get out of bed, it’s an act of God’s goodness. It’s basically being witness to when God said “It is good,” and you’re getting out of bed and carrying on, even in the midst of suffering, even in the midst of trials, tribulations. It’s an act of worship in a way. It’s acknowledging that God has gone before me, he created me. He wanted me to be here. And just putting your feet on the ground and getting up is a testament.

Listener Question:

Since becoming a single parent, it’s been really challenging for me to attend my kids’ school functions that happen during the day or before 5:00 PM and one of my younger kids is begging for me to chaperone her next field trip. I know they feel really left out, but I can’t miss work. How can I make this better for them?

The struggle is real. It is. And I have one child, so this is a little different for me. It is hard to get away. And I can’t go to every single one of Jax’s field trips. It takes up a full day sometimes. Sometimes it’s only a few hours. But I look ahead and I say, “Okay, he’s got three field trips this year.” Luckily there’s one that parents can’t attend, so that’s great. But then there were two others. One of them I couldn’t attend because something was going on with work and it wasn’t possible. But the other one was like, “Okay, well this one’s only from ten to one, so I’m going to go ahead and request off, hold that on my calendar, do what I need to do for that one.” And then of course they’ll have little things that pop up here and there. A couple of Fridays ago, I got an email two days ahead of time that said, “Hey, they’re doing their fifth grade Olympics on Friday morning for an hour.”  It was right in the middle of work. But I was like, “He’s in fifth grade. This is not going to be a thing for very much longer.” So I’m going to go ahead and take the hour and run over to the school, watch him do his thing, and then hop back at it and just work an extra hour somewhere in my day or somewhere in my week. I know that not everybody has that flexibility, but I do try to keep it in perspective with the fact that all through these elementary school years, this is the time when I can go. I need to prioritize going to have lunch with him, or I need to prioritize going on these field trips or going to the class parties. Once he hits sixth grade. I’m not even allowed in that school outside of parent functions. I’m trying to prioritize the elementary school years and being present for him in those ways as best I can, knowing that this isn’t forever.

Speaking of wanting to get out of bed and feeling overwhelmed. This is a good example of that. I did juggle a bunch with three girls and they had cheer and dance and soccer, all of it. Did I ever have a soccer game at the same time as a dance competition? Hundred percent. You have to decide. The thing that I come back to (that I didn’t do great at this all the time), but did okay at, is over communicating with my boss and over communicating with the school. At the beginning of the school year, talking to the teachers and talking to the principal or whatever and say, “Look, I’m a single dad. Mom’s not in the picture right now. So I’m doing my best to be at everything. So as much heads up as you can give me, and if I’m not able to make it, then as much interaction that the teacher can have with my child is good. I would really appreciate it.” Then going to my boss, it’s a little bit different. I was my own boss, but I did have partners and just saying, “Look, we’re getting into a school year. There are going to be times that I just have to go and be with my kids.” And I think if I had a job that was like, I worked at Wendy’s or an hourly job, I would be communicating, “Look, I love this job. I’m so committed to this. You need to hear that from the beginning. Also, I want you to know that I’m juggling three girls, and from time to time there may be something that I just really want to be at for my kids. My family is so important. I would just ask for some consideration there. I’m not asking to do this all the time, and there are times when work has to come above that, but I would ask that you would take that into consideration because I’m doing the best that I can, and as much as I love working here, I also want to be a great mom or I want to be a great dad.”

And I think just being prepared is probably what I would say is the baseline. And that also comes to my girls as well. I did have this conversation with them. I was like, “I’m going to be at everything I can possibly be at. There’s going to be things that I can’t do, but I want you to know it’s not that I don’t want to be there.” But all around, over-communicating with all the parties involved. And at the end of the day, not every parent can show up. And I’m one that has been able to show up quite a bit in working for myself over the last few years. So I’ve had that flexibility until recently. Even with that fifth grade Olympics thing, there were other single moms who weren’t able to be there. There were three in particular. Their boys are in fifth grade as well. And so I took videos of their boys doing their activity, and texted them in real time. That way when the boys got home from school, their mom would already have a video and already have an idea of what they did. They can say, “Oh, couldn’t be there. But I saw the video. ”Look out for other single parents.  

Yes, absolutely. Yeah. So I mean, as best as you can do that for someone else or ask them, “Hey, would you mind taking some pictures today?” Because I’ve definitely gotten texts like that too.

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On Getting Out of Bed: the Burden and the Gift of Living by Alan Noble