#DearSpiderKid: My Dilemma as A Neurotic Christian

Dear Spider Kid,

I am writing to you almost as a last resort because I have a problem that seems unsolvable, and I’ve all but given up on it. The problem pertains to my personality. In summary, here is my dilemma: I have come to believe that neuroticism is a fundamental and permanent part of me, which I will have to live with for the rest of my life. The prospect makes me feel absolutely, tragically awful.

In my third year of high school, I took a class that gave me my first major exposure to psychology, and with it, a cursory lesson in personality types. It was then that I learned about the “Big 5” OCEAN categories: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. In the classroom, our teacher showed us sample questions with which to quiz ourselves. At the end of the test, I was the only person in the classroom whose results determined predominantly neurotic, besides which, my Neuroticism score was much higher than everybody else’s.

I still consider that moment one of the most profound among all my teenage years. I was terrified at that result. I knew I was suffering from some form of depression. But it was one thing to call myself momentarily depressed, and quite another to discover that I had a personality that practically guaranteed emotional instability for life and that made me more prone than everyone else to sadness, anger and anxiety. I left the classroom that day thinking, “Oh my God. Oh my God. There’s something wrong with me!”

That sense of feeling like a creature of bad design and an oddball lasted far longer than my dwelling on the subject of OCEAN personality types. Without ever forgetting that I was different in a bad way from others, I forgot about OCEAN almost entirely… until this year. This year, various events have revealed to me the necessity of recognizing how deeply influential people’s personalities are in determining their ideal lifestyles.

As far as I know, every other Big 5 category in OCEAN has advantages. I feel I need not explain how the following qualities can serve excellent purposes: daringness, organization, sociability, friendliness. Now, Neuroticism—increased tendencies to get anxious, angered or depressed—where are the strengths in that?

I tried looking it up online, trying to figure out if there were at all any advantages of scoring high on the Neuroticism scale. I found exactly one, and it is so far of a reach that I can’t even take it seriously: a couple of sites told me that people who score high in Neuroticism tend to live longer because their anxiety prohibits them from taking many risks, and thus increases their chances of long life purely through the conscious avoidance of dangerous circumstances. They are telling me that the only thing useful about my predominant personality trait is that I’m afraid of everything, and that my reward for being afraid of everything is long life. Especially ironic, considering how much time I have spent in my life wanting to not be alive.

The night of the Google search that led me here, I got so discouraged and felt so useless that I could only cry myself to sleep. Every attempt to ask the internet for tips on how to live one’s best life as a Neurotic person met me with a result regarding how to live one’s best life while facing the unfortunate problem of living or working with a Neurotic. (Translation: Being Neurotic itself is an unsolvable problem. The best you can do is hope that everybody else can figure out how to tolerate you.)

Given that I identify as a Christian, my theology is usually involved in the way I think about identity. Because of my faith, I believe in intentional design. From a Christian perspective, it is normal for me to believe that God forms human beings with specific personalities for His glory—that people are given different strengths to fulfill their individual purposes. It’s also not a foreign idea that people are given weaknesses—thorns in their flesh—for God-serving purposes. But what happens when your “weaknesses” constitute the very bedrock of your personality? In what way could this possibly be designed to serve one’s Creator?

I will willingly admit that outside of my personality, I am blessed with many good qualities, including but not limited to boldness, intelligence, and creativity. Yet it is near impossible to put such things to good use when I am almost always preoccupied with anger, depression or anxiety, even outside of clinical diagnosis.

At the end of all my restless thinking, these are the ultimately discouraging points I am left with:

  • The secular world cannot find advantages to being predominantly Neurotic.
  • I am a burden to those who love me enough to tolerate me and a blemish to those who would rather not have to deal with a personality like mine.

My concluding question to you, Spider Kid, is as follows: As a Neurotic Christian, what in heaven’s name am I supposed to do with myself?

Yours Exhaustedly,

Akotz.

 

 

Dear Akotz,

I was immensely pleased to receive your letter the other day, regarding personality and Christianity because it is a topic I have been burning to address for a while. Since you have given me the privilege of having outlined your practical and theological worries on this matter, I hope to return the favor by addressing both in my reply.

Let me begin, as you have done, with the practical—which, though not explicitly so, is far from mutually exclusive from the theological.

In your message, you assert that, according to OCEAN analysis, there is nothing advantageous about having a Neurotic personality. However, I want to make it clear from the very beginning, that even if that claim were true—even if there wasn’t anything particularly useful about highly Neurotic personalities, it does not mean in the least that there is nothing particularly useful about highly Neurotic people. And this is the first point I want you to grasp: Your personality is not the entirety of your personhood. While a personality may influence the way one responds to stimuli, and/or our unconscious patterns, nobody ought to be enslaved by it. I suspect you may be feeling enslaved by yours.

Recently, I too have been doing some research into personalities, in order to better understand myself. I’ve found that a personality categorization system that at last seems sufficiently complex and comprehensive to gain my trust is the Enneagram. I would recommend you doing some research into it. You may find it enlightening, and much less rigid or damning than OCEAN. While learning about how the Enneagram system works, I came across the concept of Levels of Development. Within any single personality type, there are levels of healthiness and unhealthiness. It turns out that it is when we are unhealthy that our personalities tend to govern us; but when we are healthy, we can govern them. Check out this quote from the Enneagram Institute’s page:

One of the most profound ways of understanding the Levels is as a measure of our capacity to be present. The more we move down the Levels, the more identified we are with our ego and its increasingly negative and restrictive patterns. Our personality becomes more defensive, reactive, and automatic— and we consequently have less and less real freedom and less real consciousness. As we move down the Levels, we become caught in more compulsive, destructive actions which are ultimately self-defeating.

By contrast, the movement toward health, up the Levels, is simultaneous with being more present and awake in our minds, hearts, and bodies. As we become more present, we become less fixated in the defensive structures of our personality and are more attuned and open to ourselves and our environment. We see our personality objectively in action rather than “falling asleep” to our automatic personality patterns. There is therefore the possibility of “not doing” our personality and of gaining some real distance from the negative consequences of getting caught in it.

This, for me, is even more proof than I needed that our personalities do not encompass the entirety of our personhood. We are, as humans designed by an Intelligent Creator, far more complex than that.

I haven’t heard this topic spoken of much from a Christian perspective, but I happen to have the privilege of seeing a therapist who shares my Christian faith, and there is something she has made clear to me which I would like to make clear to you, in my own words. Given that we live in a fallen world—a word plagued by sin due to man’s fallen nature—there is more than enough cause to be anxious, depressed and angry. High neuroticism consists of an above-average tendency to respond to stimuli in those very ways. What I’m trying to say is this: Neuroticism is not completely baseless. On the contrary, in fact, I would say that in a fallen world, it is the most appropriate personality type one could have.

Or at least it would be—if not for Jesus. Even before his human birth, the fallen world already had hope, in the promises of God. Take, for instance, the prophet’s words in Habakkuk 3:17-19.

Though the fig tree does not bud

and there are no grapes on the vines,

though the olive crop fails

and the fields produce no food,

though there are no sheep in the pen

and no cattle in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the LORD,

I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign LORD is my strength;

he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,

he enables me to tread on the heights.

From everything the prophet is describing, it doesn’t seem like he has any occasion to be joyful. From his circumstances, I think anxiety, depression and anger would be far more appropriate. Yet, he reacts in an entirely inappropriate way because neither his joy, strength, nor assurance is dependent on the circumstances of the fallen world. Admittedly, we can’t be sure if Habakkuk was born Neurotic or not, but I daresay it doesn’t matter. Whether he was excessively predisposed to negative emotions or only normally predisposed to them doesn’t change the relative irrationality of his reaction to stimuli around him.

And if a man could think like that in the Old Testament, how much more now, when the work of Jesus in conquering the world is actually finished? How much more for a person who may call herself saved? In the words of Jesus Christ, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33).” Bear in mind that Jesus said this to his disciples right after informing them that they were all about to be separated and isolated from each other—and prior to that, that the world was about to hate and brutally persecute them. Cheerful guy, this Jesus.

The point is that, while there are several factors that would make anxiety, depression and anger appropriate, the salvation of Jesus allows us to maintain contrary stances such as those rooted in love, hope and faith, no matter how inappropriate the context.

Furthermore, allow me to posit that, as a Christian person, the greatest advantage of presumably having few to no inherent personality advantages is precisely this lack of advantages. Neuroticism may be one of the greatest opportunities for God and his Spirit to work through and within a person. When you’re Neurotic, your moods threaten to govern your life. The fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22), love, joy, peace, kindness, patience, goodness, faithfulness and self-control are rather difficult to feel or exhibit when we’re being erratic or being pulled down anyhow by our blasted natural inclinations. and if the fruits of the Spirit are at work in a naturally neurotic person, think how striking it would be. The glory of the Lord is so much more evident when the glory can’t be attributed to the vessel through which it is displayed. This may be a rather unfavorable analogy but humor me and kindly consider it anyway: If a detergent company wants to show off the power of its stain-removal abilities, the detergent’s power is going to be most evident if they test it out not on an already clean piece of fabric, but on one with a particularly difficult-looking stain. If said stain disappears, well—glory to the manufacturers. The detergent is no less powerful if it is applied on clean fabric; the difference is in the evidence of its power to onlookers. Contrast just so happens to have a large impact on the human mind. It is no wonder, then, that our Creator is fond of using miracles to catch people’s attention. And what is more miraculous or contradictory than an astonishingly stable Neurotic?

Now, to combine the practical and theological in order to answer your brilliantly blunt question on what in heaven’s name you are to do with yourself: You might be surprised how often—especially in non-clinical cases—depression, anger and anxiety have to do with the mere thoughts inside your head. While it may be extremely difficult or near impossible to spontaneously change how you feel, I believe it is not nearly as hard to play around with the primary thoughts taking up space in your head at any given moment. As much as personality might be much too permanent to shed, habits can be almost as stubbornly difficult to break—and it is a very learnable habit to reorganize one’s thoughts. I speak from experience, since I have been frequently using a new trick I developed with my therapist’s help. The trick is based on Philippians 4:8:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

When I am threatened by my own feelings, I counteract them with my thoughts. I create lists of everything that happens to be both contextually relevant and true, or noble, or right, or pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy, and I dwell on them until my emotions realize they can’t win. I’m not saying it works like magic and my emotions instantly switch. I’m saying that however valiantly my emotions may fight, it is my thoughts that are on the winning side, and that’s often sufficient to keep me moving. I have used this trick often enough for it to become my default. Reorganizing my thoughts is a new habit I never before thought I could form.

This is what I’m trying to tell you: that you can govern over your personality once you develop a strategy that works for you and make it a habit. As a habit, it ought to become so automatic that you begin to stop noticing when it’s happening; when it might start to feel like the way you have trained yourself to live is the way you have lived all along.

Like any other kind of habit, a psychological habit may turn out to be just as hard to form as it is eventually difficult to break. And if you’re a similar kind of Christian to me, you might want to base your new habits upon scripture and faith.

Regarding the points to which your restless thinking led you: I’d suggest you scrap them and put these in their place:

  • A person predisposed to neuroticism need not define themselves by their neuroticism, and that includes you.
  • Whether or not the secular world can find advantages to neurotic personalities has nothing to do with you and the value of your personhood.
  • Our theology has many useful responses to the things that aggravate you, not least of which are that:
  • Your salvation permits you to respond irrationally.
  • The Holy Spirit works within you to produce fruit that stand in stark contrast to the fruits produced by neurotic predisposition.

The healthier you get, the more you can triumph over your personality—especially if you choose to adopt psychological, spiritual habits that antagonize your predisposition.

To conclude, I would like to sincerely thank you for your letter once again, and hope that mine will be of use to you, even in the smallest way possible. I’ll remember to keep you in my prayers.

Yours faithfully,

The Spider Kid.

My Faith + My Body.

Note: The faith being referred to in this essay is specifically Christianity, to which the author subscribes.

The devil has been in a war for my soul. In a deliberately insidious way, to keep me from immediately realizing what he was doing so I could end its influence early. He chose the route of my body.

If the devil’s greatest desire is to wrest away the worship mankind is meant to give to God and redirect it towards himself, it should be known that he tailors each of our temptations personally. It wouldn’t have been easy to shake my faith from its theological foundations, hence the back-route.

Let me tell you why personalized temptations are extremely dangerous: it’s very, very easy to hold macro beliefs about big things, like the nature of the world and the origins of creation, even as these beliefs contrast with your micro beliefs; beliefs about yourself as an individual, yourself in a moment, you as a specific soul encased in flesh, going about your mundane tasks. When your temptations are personalized, you can be attacked in ways that wouldn’t affect the person sitting right next to you, even if you both hold the same macro beliefs. You are both still very different people on a micro level.

I know how common physical insecurities are. For example, I think my nose is too wide, my buttocks protrude too much, I can’t believe I still don’t have a flat stomach, and my forehead takes up approximately half my face. But these are things I can rationally explain based on the evidence around me. I see my relatives all the time. I know from which genealogical line I inherited which physical characteristics. I know my health habits. My dissatisfaction with these parts of my body is typical and isn’t quite where the devil’s attacks are concentrated. They’re concentrated in the characteristics of my body that aren’t visible.

It seems to me that, at any moment of my life, I am experiencing some bodily malfunction—whether the issue is that I’m on the fourth day of a relentless migraine, or the fourth day after a slightly strenuous activity when I can still barely leave my bed but to go to the bathroom. I can work on a project for six hours in one day and then be entirely nonfunctional for the next two days because I maxed out. I can watch two movies in a day and not be able to tolerate either natural or artificial light for the next two days because my very photosensitive eyes over-stretched their limits of safe photon consumption. My apartment mates can go out every night of the week, but after one time, my limbs will turn to lead and my mind will balk at the thought of seeing another human being for the next week. Back pains, chest pains, wrist pains, eye pains, neck pains—it’s as if a part of me is always in pain, from performing the most normal activities of the 21st century. Not to mention that I suffer from anxiety, which almost always manifests physically; my heart rate misbehaving, or a sweat breakout, or my muscles tensing up to harmful degrees.

I have been aware for a long time now that my physical capacity, for nearly anything, is significantly lower than that of the average human being around me. And this frustrates me endlessly. It makes me feel like I am a product of bad design. I often don’t know what else I’m supposed to think. My body literally cannot seem to function like everyone else’s, and I don’t have any medical condition that I’m aware of and which can explain it. In fact, I used to be a hyper-active child with few to no complications. This lack of capacity that makes my young adult body feel half a century old doesn’t seem genetic. On the contrary, my family has a penchant for living remarkably long and mostly-healthy lives. In the absence of explanation, especially throughout 2018, when the effects have seemed the most dramatic, I have only been able to conclude that I am a product of bad design. As a matter of fact, between my physical problems and my many psychological ones, I started thinking God made me like this because he hated me. I can’t count the number of times I have wailed to my best friend, “Why does God hate me? What did I do?”

faith+body1

For a faith-ascribing person, it’s obvious why this is a dangerous thing to believe. I mean, who do I think designed me, based on my own theological beliefs? The devil’s strategy was to get me to damn myself.

I remember, a few months ago, having a conversation with my best friend about my insistence that I was badly designed. He asked me a question kind of like this: “So, when the Psalmist says, ‘I am fearfully and wonderfully made,’ you don’t think this applies to you?” And I told him that was exactly right, I didn’t think that applied to me at all. I think he asked me, as a follow-up question, if I believed the Psalmist’s statement applied to everyone else, and I said yes, I believed it did. Just not to me.

In terms of faith, what did that make me? I didn’t want to think about the answer to that question. But even unbidden, thoughts and questions invaded my mind. Did I really believe my perfect God made a mistake in creating me? Yeah. Did that make sense? Shh! Did I really believe the Master Crafter, the Intelligent Designer, designed me badly? Yeah. Did that make sense? Be quiet! By calling myself a bad design, wasn’t I calling God a bad designer?

My overwhelming cognitive dissonance came from a peculiar type of idolatry. I believed myself to be a piece of evidence powerful enough to single-handedly, exceptionally, negate everything else true about my Creator and his creations. I didn’t bother to examine the poisonous roots of why I thought I should get to be the exception.

Fun fact: There is literally no reason why I should get to be the exception. Related: I’m not an exception.

“For you created my inmost being;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful,

I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

when I was made in the secret place,

when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed body;

all the days ordained for me were written in your book

before one of them came to be.”

–Psalm 139:13-16

There is nothing about this that indicates carelessness, hatred or unintentionality. But I did not share the premise of the Psalmist’s praise. And why? Simply because my body didn’t seem to have been built like everybody else’s around me, whether “healthy” (like me—theoretically) or “sick” (as in diagnosed with identifiable, physical, medical conditions)? Is the fact that I do not understand my design enough to call it bad design—for me to withhold the worship I should have been giving God for how I am made, like the Psalmist does? Not in the least.

Redirecting praise of my design to God—and in so doing, attacking my unbelief—is a difficult battle I have only just committed to start fighting. In fact, I started writing this essay while under unofficial house-arrest and being nearly bedridden thanks to my body’s final, incredibly dramatic, week-long malfunction of 2018. (More on this in a subsequent essay.)

Praising God for my design doesn’t involve the problematic route of thinking that says, “Thank you God that at least I’m not like so-and-so person on their deathbed with cancer” or “Thank you God that at least I’m not like that person with the disability in a wheelchair.” No. We don’t praise God because of “at least.” We don’t praise God by comparison to those we consider less fortunate than us. We praise God because we are fearfully, wonderfully and intentionally made, no matter in what configurations. That is all.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence or things not seen—and not understood, for that matter. Now, I can’t see what the purpose of me being designed the way I’m designed could possibly be—but I have to hope that there is one and believe that it is good. I don’t understand why my physical self behaves the way it does, but I have to trust that the Maker who decreed that it should work this way does understand it. All in faith. I am an intentionally created being, designed like I was meant to function. And in refusing to understand that, I would be refusing to worship God in a very important regard, as someone who was made in His image. As Jesus’ sister, best believe that’s not on my agenda. In other words, “Not today, Satan.”

I’m at the foot of the stairway of re-orientation. There’s a very, very long climb ahead. Thankfully, I don’t have to try completing it on my own.

-Akotowaa

Breaking Bars Broken Down

As a lexivist, I choose not to be apologetic about being more concerned with (read: borderline obsessed with) the meaning and words in songs more than anything else about them. Usually. There are certainly exceptions. However, most often, the lyrics are what define excellence for me, and from what I’ve seen, in this regard, I am in the minority. But who cares? I’m a writer first and a musician anywhere from second to tenth.

Now as someone primarily concerned with lyrical meaning, I cannot help but desire to expose and explain songs or projects that I find particularly meaningful for their lyrical content. Examples on my blog are The Magnificent Relevance of Motherfuckitude and The Spiritual Journey of Gallant. And now, I want to talk about one of the most lyrically important songs I have ever heard in my life, especially considering my own geographical and cultural contexts: Breaking Bars, by Tronomie.

cooepdmxgaayh2f
Cover art by DeSouza Nelson

Aside from the fact that Tronomie is currently my best friend, whom I’d like to believe I know deeply well enough to write accurately about his intention, the thing that makes this post different from the ones about Motherfuckitude and Ology is that this is not an interpretation of the lyrics; it is an explanation. I understand the lyrics better than anyone other than Tronomie himself, precisely because I co-wrote them.

Before I go into lyrical meaning, I want to first acknowledge that this song sounds fantastic. Sonic quality alone. And if you want a better idea of why Breaking Bars’ sonic uniqueness is just about as relevant as its lyrics to the Ghanaian music society from people who seem to understand the sonic qualities of music several times better than I do, I suggest you listen to Episode 3 of Nkenten’s Decaf podcast, which talks extensively about the song and whatever industrial complexities surround it. (Aside: You can also listen to Episode 2 of the Decaf Podcast, The Lexivist Edition, which features yours truly!)

Now, on to my specialty area: the lyrics. (Which many people either seem neither to understand nor care that they don’t understand. And if you think this is salt…well, it just might be. LOL)

“Mirror, mirror

It’s been a while since the face in you was mine

Now all I see is a broken figure”

The lyrics begin with an awakening to self, or the consciousness within a persona/the singer/Tronomie that he is not doing something right.

“How long until I settle for ‘this is fine’?”

But a greater issue than the fact that the persona is no longer recognizable to himself is the fact that he can foresee a moment when he will no longer aspire to be better than he is – to conquer the true vice that makes him unrecognizable to himself in the mirror: mediocrity.

If you had no idea what the song was really about, at least you could follow the metaphor up to that point. Before we come in with our river metaphors, leave you baffled and potentially lose you entirely. And so, at this point, I would like to explain the actual meaning of the song.

The Christian artistic industry, especially the music one, in Ghana appears to be suffering from mediocrity with regards to content. Many are satisfied with merely scratching the surface of the religion, playing it safe in the name of approval from local audiences, content that as long as they mention Jesus’ name in their song, it automatically becomes great Christian music. Resultantly, they fail to address issues of prime concern in society which need to be tackled, but more than that, refuse to apply genius and creativity in the way they create their art – leading to an occasionally stunning difference in quality of what is considered “secular” music and what we accept as “Christian” music. While it is sometimes evident how much effort some secular artistes/rappers put into their songwriting internationally (note that international ≠ exclusively foreign, so save your breath if you wanted to attack me for that) is evidence of effort that is so often apparently missing from the works of Ghanaian Christian artistes who consciously or unconsciously know that whether their songs are trashy or not, they are likely to get coverage in the church context. (I’m talking about music specifically in this blog post, partially because I know that if I start going off on the Ghanaian Christian spoken word scene, this blog post won’t finish.)

What on earth does all this have to do with Breaking Bars? Well, you see, the Christian artiste who makes mediocre music, both lyrically and sonically, is exactly like the persona at the beginning of Breaking Bars, reversed; s/he hasn’t realized that his/her image is distorted, and has indeed settled, unknowingly for “this [mediocrity] is fine”. BUT

“Why should a river compromise if it reflects the sky?”

The persona – no, the Christian artiste – is the river. What is the sky? The sky is God. The Christian must reflect God the way a river reflects the sky. S/he cannot do that if there are a bunch of obstacles in his/her way – in this case, the obstacles are those of mediocrity. The idea of river and sky’s reflection is just a way to imperfectly (which metaphor can ever fully encapsulate a complex, real-world idea?) the concept of having a higher purpose or potential. The absolute highest thing a river can reflect is not the branch of a tree, nor a mountaintop, nor even a passing bird; it is the limitless sky. To be content with anything intermediary, less, is to be content with mediocrity, in the context of this song.

And again, here, we potentially lose you again with the confusing retention of the general river metaphor, while we swiftly change the dimensions of it.

“So I’m going to run on deeper,

Break the dam if the bars won’t let me by”

Where is the change? Well, it lies in how we have suddenly gone from looking at things in the upward direction (sky) to looking at them sideways. No longer are we talking about the river’s reflection, but now we are talking about its flow. The same way objects between river and sky stop the river from reflecting, so do the “bars” create a dam within the river, a stoppage that does not allow it to flow the way it should. The bar is mediocrity. And the goal is to break past it.

Then there’s another very rapid metaphor switch, sorry-not-sorry. The “bars” have transformed from river dam bars into prison bars. Either way, they are the unwanted obstruction. Now the bars of mediocrity are the ones that “hold the standards too low”. We are speaking again, of course, of the general standards of the Christian artistic industry. And so this persona/Tronomie sees an antidote as a course of action, to

“Rip every note,

Transcend what I’ve known”.

It’s somewhat metonymic. Ripping notes, singing excellently, stands in for also doing everything related to music creation or art creation excellently. Including writing lyrics. [This is where I am pleased to reveal my jon by mentioning that music is and/or lyrics are written in…bars. Hehehee!] So, fundamentally, this is the meaning of Breaking Bars. You could stop reading here because by now you should at least vaguely get it. But please continue reading because I am going to continue writing, as there are obviously more lyrics, and certainly more to say.

The second verse of the song more explicitly brings out the purpose of the song rather than just the meaning. The purpose of this song is to be a challenge to Christian artistes wherever, to step up their game when it comes to making excellent art.

“Step up, leader

If your speaker is connected to your mic

Your voice makes me listen, eager

But your message is disconnected from my mind”

If you have access to a platform, and an audience for anything that you do (e.g. If you have a working microphone and have a voice coming out through speakers that people are listening to), you are probably a leader of sorts, whether you know it or not. But now what is the point of the sweetest voice that claims to be doing the work of glorifying God but is really not saying anything that the audience’s minds can recognize as substantial content? If you have a platform, you might as well use it well.

“Silver spoon on a golden plate,

Do you only decorate?

Your guests will be starving for dinner

If you’re living your life behind your case.”

(Trust Tronomie to be there thinking about spoons when we’re talking about bars. I mean, it’s not like I didn’t already know that he was crazy but…LOL.)

How baffling that you can turn something so purposefully utilitarian (literally, utensils) into purposeless decorations. As an artist, you should not want to be a purposeless decoration – not when people are starving and you are the person that can be used to feed them. The “case” here is your comfort zone of mediocrity, of acceptability, of refusal to say or do anything that could disrupt the problematically silent status quo of Christian culture on issues that matter more than we give them credit for. This protective shield is another “bar” that must be broken. Christianity. Is. Not. Safe. You can’t even finish listing issues Christian culture, especially in Ghana, has too long been silent about. Examples that readily come to my mind are mental health, the de-contextualization of Scripture, and the very real struggle of going through doubt while still ascribing to the faith. I’m sure there are countless more you can name.

“Where is the mind God has given you?

Do you want to do better?

Do you want to say better?”

The minds that we have must be used. The Psalmist was an artiste who used his mind to create lyrical excellence. What is your excuse? To refuse usage of the mind in the capacity it was designed for is to transform it from purposefully utilitarian to purposelessly decorative.

And so as a whole, we tried to do with Breaking Bars what Breaking Bars is trying to challenge others to do. If the amount of deliberation, intentionality and effort that was put into trying to make this song transcend standards and expectations is any indication, I’d say we have reason to be at least a little bit proud of what Tronomie and everyone involved in the making of this song have managed to produce.

Lastly, I would like to emphasize that Breaking Bars is not a Gospel song. I have heard it referred to as such and I just can’t deal with it. What it is, plain as day, is a song written by a couple of Christians. It is a song. It is music. Aside from the fact that it simply does not fit the conventional “Gospel” category of music, there is also the (valid) argument that there really is no such thing as Christian music in the first place. And to illustrate, I shall pull up my favorite quote from rapper Lecrae’s Unashamed autobiography:

“There is no such thing as Christian rap and secular rap. Only people can become Christians. Music can’t accept Jesus into its heart. So I am not trying to make Christian music or secular music. I’m just making music. Hip-hop, like all music, is a good thing. I could use it for evil by filling it with violence and misogyny and profanity. Or I can use it to glorify God. Every song I write doesn’t have to have the Gospel spelled out or quote Scripture so that people will know I love Jesus. My goal is just to use my gifts to produce great art that tells the truth about the world. If I see the world through a biblical lens, the music will naturally paint a picture that serves people and honors God.” – Lecrae Moore

Fin.

-Akotowaa

P.S.: The Genius.com lyrics to Breaking Bars can be found here.

Can You See God?

It was late, near midnight, and I was in the library, trying to finish a paper whose deadline (midnight) I wouldn’t meet anyway, and overdosed on coffee to the point of mentally hyperactive discomfort. The paper I was writing was far less exciting for me than the project of passion that I was working on simultaneously with the team over a long distance: the Solitaire EP.

Moving to California for school caused a lot of complications and coordination problems with the Vision Inspired team back in Ghana, not least of which was the 8-hour difference between us. This was early in the morning in Ghana, around 7 or 8 am, and Tronomie had just sent me a Whatsapp audio of the final arrangement of Dear God part 2. He hadn’t slept all night. Of course I halted my work immediately to listen to it. And. I. Loved. It. I think that was the moment I actually began to get excited about the whole EP. I think this is how Tronomie became my favorite singer. The only person who loved it more than I did was my manager/CEO, Ekko, who had, as usual, offered his creative input and direction – in this case, his suggestions had worked such that Dear God had begun to sound not just like two songs, but like three.

Before these Vision Inspired Magicians did their surgical sorcery to Dear God, it had existed as a classically angsty Akotowaa spoken-word-on-beat with all the enthusiastic anger my performances are known for.

“I feel caged by expectations, grades, examinations, the range of practical occupations” – Akotowaa [Dear God]

And it was very short – barely even 2 minutes long. Also, it wasn’t supposed to be part of the Solitaire EP. Ironically, now that Tronomie is on it, I think it’s the longest Solitaire track.

When I got the “final draft” of Dear God, it was the first time I’d heard that final bit of the song; the Ekko addition that made the song sound like three instead of just two. The aim of all the light production and the BVs was to end the track on a sonically significantly happier note than the one it began with. When Ekko asked me what I thought about it, I said, truthfully, that the sound I was hearing did not fit my perception of something that should come out of God. (And for those of you who still haven’t gotten the clue that Tronomie is the voice of God on this track, here’s your chance to pretend like you knew it all along.)

As horrified as I was to admit it, it was true. Despite my intellectual awareness of the complex nature of God, I still had a fixed, streamlined vision of Him in my mind – one that was very much captured by the production vocals Tronomie had created at the beginning of Dear God part 2. The sudden, powerful drums. The vocals swinging through crescendo and diminuendo to give me the impression of a dark room, smoke and an invisible, invincible, untouchable, out-of-reach force. That was God. The sweetly-singing “Love me” person just wasn’t adding up to the one whom I’d heard sing before him, in my brain. Problematic? Indeed. (Ironically, I had written the lyrics, and I don’t know how I expected the words “love me” to constantly sound booming and menacing, more like a command and less like a request.)

I had another poem in the works by this time, one I was to perform at the VIM concert on the 23rd of December. It was supposed to be a Christmas poem. I’d been working on it for a while but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. It was one of those unfortunate projects that felt like everything that was coming out of my pen was trash. I was trying unsuccessfully to turn the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth into a poetic narrative, but it lacked any meaning I could identify… until after this incident with being asked about how I felt about the end of Dear God.

When I began I See God, I didn’t know it was going to be my Christmas poem. It was merely a story I was telling of a man who could only see the harshest side of God, being introduced to the loving image of Him. The God of John 3:16.

“I see God in the rolling thunder,

The crashing of the waves and them pulling under

Everything that cannot withstand

The fearful power of the ocean’s command” -Akotowaa [I See God]

In the beginning, this fictional man’s rant to the stranger who has joined him seems harmless. You see God as impressive and powerful; is He not these things, anyway? Will every knee not eventually bow to him whether it desires to or not? But then later, you start to see how destructive this kind of image, when held in isolation from the whole nature of God, begins to get.

“I see God as an icy God

A block so cold proximity burns

A rock so old it doesn’t age

The God that sent Egypt the plague

…A God that, by nature, pushes people away.” -Akotowaa [I See God]

When this carries on, the image of invincible power turns into an image of unbridled cruelty. Such a Being becomes unapproachable and incapable of love, much less getting others to love Him. He is indeed a God who pushes people away. A Being like that is someone I’d be careful to keep my distance from because I’d be terrified of what He could do to me if I even breathed the wrong way.

The stranger whom the man in my poem is showing his God off to remains unimpressed. You can tell that the man who spoke was proud of his speech. The might of his God probably fed his ego; made him feel special and conceited, for belonging to a religion whose God would effortlessly smite the gods of any other person’s religion. I can only imagine how he expected the stranger to look at him with starry eyes, envying this man his religion and even fearing him a little for being a worshipper of Someone so fearful. But then the stranger says to the man what I would now say to myself:

“Your God sounds like a terrorist

A God without rhyme,

A God without reason

A God that only knows the harshest season

A God of power but not of love

A God as a vulture, never a dove

The God of the flood,

But not of the rainbow

That’s the God that most of us claim to know.” -Akotowaa [I See God]

The question, as I was thinking of all this dialogue between the two men, was where had I seen evidence – plain, undeniable evidence – of the loving, soft God that would croon “Love me” softly to me? Where could I find evidence of the John 3:16 God who “so loved the world that he gave His only begotten son…”? Well, in the circumstances of John 3:16, of course!

If God loved us enough to send His son to save us, in what manner would His son be sent? In a tornado, perhaps? The falling of the sky? For goodness’ sake, this is the entrance of Jesus we’re talking about. Jesus, who is a son of the terrifying, all-powerful God; Jesus who is himself God. Surely, the earth would at least quake a little. But Jesus showed up in a way I’d have never, ever expected an omnipotent being to show himself to mankind: naturally, as a baby, naked, small and defenseless, pulled from a woman’s vagina into a manger. It really doesn’t make any sense. If you showed me a naked, newborn baby and told me that he was God, I’d probably laugh in your face. Interestingly enough, that isn’t what the shepherds did. I would really love to know what those guys were thinking that night. I wonder how difficult it was to accept everything that they were experiencing.

“What if he looked naked?
And quiet?
With the facial features of an Israelite
With baby skin not made of iron
covered in blood and prone to crying
The one who made us in His image
taking our image and making it His
defying your notion of a superhero
and speaking to people just like this?
A lamb to complement my argument for the lion
the one who forgave and healed and saved
and became a shoulder to cry on” -Akotowaa [I See God]

Yes, God is mighty and supreme. It is impossible to ignore this aspect of Him. But God is also meek and humble. It is impossible to ignore this side of Him. To hold the image of a perpetually angry and mean God will push you away. However, to ignore Him as a supreme holder of power in favor of the loving image, to believe that every single thing you do would be looked upon favorably no matter what, will also condemn you. Be careful how you see God. I do not have enough expertise in theology to explain this to a greater extent yet, but hopefully you understand what I’m saying.

When I stopped to think about it, that image of a superpower-less, naked baby countered my perception of a solely huge, unapproachable and severe God. And since the circumstances around this were the ones for which Christmas is celebrated, well, I finally had subject matter for my overdue Christmas poem.

I merged I See God with the as-yet-titleless poem I’d been constructing, and I’m happy to say that I wrote a poem that would have changed (some part of) my life if I hadn’t written it myself. As a matter of fact, something about my life (i.e. my vision of God) did indeed have to change before I could even write his poem. I’m proud of I See God. I think it’s excellent content-wise. (The sonic quality is questionable, given that it was recorded on my phone, and the VI guys did their best to enhance it so that it didn’t sound entirely like trash. Shout-out to Reynolds TheGentleMan for the dope production!)

I don’t know how many people have the same problem with how they see God as I did. Whoever they are, wherever they are, I hope they somehow get to hear I See God and be as impacted by listening to it as I was by writing it.

-Akotowaa

For complete lyrics of Dear God, click here.

For complete lyrics of I See God, click here.