If y’all were to see me and my friend Austin James hanging out, y’all might think, “Huh? What do y’all have in common again?” Well, take a hint from the fact I used the fantastically useful term, “y’all,” three times in the last sentence. Yalp, we met in undergraduate at West Texas A&M University. And for those of you who are wondering, A&M stands for Agricultural & Mechanical. There were plenty of cowboy boot-wearing folks stomping around campus, stable manure chipping off little by little. Neither of us studied farming or livestock management, however; he studied business management and I studied social work.
We also shared our faith, and both liked C.S. Lewis. I remember one passionate conversation we had about “The Great Divorce,” although I don’t remember the content of said conversation. (Sound like we were in our early-20s or something? Touché.) Austin is from the *huge* city of Lubbock, TX, which consists of 244,000 Texans, while I was a country mouse. My home town‘s population is a whopping 1200 peoples. City size is all relative in Texas, folks.
When he learned about my project exploring what keeps people alive, Austin volunteered himself up. So with no further ado, here’s what Austin says keeps him alive.
- The “joy bubble” I feel when I see a pink bell, because I know the Sweet Elixir of Life – Mountain Dew Baja Blast – is seconds from my tongue! To you non-southeners, welcome to the world of fast-food Tex-Mex, the king of which is Taco Bell! Austin has long since discovered what easily beats 5-hour energy drinks. Baja Blast “gets him going” like nothing else, puts him in a “semi-hyper, emotional high,” encourages “positive thinking,” removes some of his inhibitions, and helps him feel “more himself.” If this sounds like a dangerous addiction, not to worry! Austin saves this special drink for special occasions only and drinks water most days. And conveniently, this high caused by a very-much legal substance doesn’t wear off too quickly, but continues to give him energy into the next day! To all of you inspired to try this next weekend, Austin says you’re welcome.
- I love Birthdays. It’s a day people celebrate that I’m alive and I (kind of) get a free pass to say and do whatever I want. Austin jokes that birthdays are really “national narcism days,” when people get to pretend that the world really does revolve around them! He strives to actually believe people who say nice things to him on his birthday (so bring on the compliments and flattery)! And he throws off obligations and instead makes it his “be awesome day.” “They say to live every day as if it’s your last,” Austin says, “but come on! That’s impossible!” So when Austin turned 25 exactly 4 days ago, he went to see Guardians of the Galaxy II, danced his socks off at Kong’s — a local shuffle dance club — and let himself bask in the birthday wishes that magically showed up on Facebook.
- Creating rhymes. It’s a way my mind connects with my heart. When I look at the world it can seem so dark. But finding beauty in the midst of it gives me a spark. Austin’s goal isn’t to impress anyone or win the Pulitzer Prize. For him, it’s about adding a fun, playful element to his communication with others. “Poetry creates space for the extremes of human emotion, and somehow, amplifies things,” Austin explained. “It’s often a powerful thought expressed in very few words,” such as when God told Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” Austin likes to use poetry to explore human brokenness, to ask who we are as humans. Mostly, though, he uses simple rhymes to cheer people up, make them laugh, and to tap into their positive emotions. For example, Austin regularly sends out a silly birthday rhyme to his thousands of fellow employees at the bank where he works. It closes with, “You have my permission to do something awesome today, so don’t you dare hit the hay until you have it your way.”
- The Answer to my greatest doubts, the Strength in my weakness, and the Exposing Light to the ridiculous lies I believe. Like many of us, Austin is too hard on himself — sometimes to the point of self-hatred. “I’m always overblowing my mistakes,” he told me. “Always paying penance, always trying to tell people my faults and short-comings before they can discover them for themselves.” He identifies with Martin Luther, the pillar of the Christian faith who wrote about his own exhausting self-condemnation and constant, OCD-like moral self-review. “I never feel worthy and am all too aware of my issues and weird side,” Austin admits. He knows well that his self-flagellation and deep fear of others’ judgement is unhealthy. “I was in my second semester of college when I heard a campus minister talking about God’s grace,” he told me. “The idea that stuck with me was that God’s favor and love is unmerited and unconditional. In other words, instead of me proving my worth, God already likes and accepts me where I am – idiosyncrasies and all!” This realization was a life-changer for Austin and helped him feel safer and more secure. He described having a “complete appreciation” for what God (in Jesus) had done to restore him into a healthy relationship with his Creator. Still, Austin often finds himself asking, “Are you really with me, God? Are you seriously here in this room right now or are you in an entirely different country? And are You powerful enough to use me, messed up as I am?” So Austin tells me he desperately needs others to remind him of the truth, and to challenge him to keep growing. Meditating and listening to music, such Christian rap and worship music, also helps him by “amplifying the things I’ve heard before,” he explains.
- I enjoy the fact I have very little shame muddled in dancing. Whether I look decent or I make a fool of myself – I have fun! “Dancing frees me from the death I experience on a personal, physical level, and allows me to counter the critical voice in my head,” Austin said. He jokes that if he goes too long without dancing, his body starts getting antsy from unexpressed emotion. Like his faith, moving his body allows Austin to shift out of nit-picking himself mode. Whether dancing to rap or shuffle, he is able to express what can’t be said in words. “It’s therapeutic for me and I enjoy cheering people up!” Austin says. (He’s the guy in the middle of the dance circle, busting a move.)
- And lastly, When I hit my stride in running and feel I could go on forever, it’s empowering. I forget I’m running and can notice my surrounding in a unique way. Being a fellow runner, I can relate to Austin on this one. It’s the feeling of peace that Austin loves, when he no longer feels pain, but instead the euphoria of subduing his body. “I like feeling in control of my body, the feeling of being away from the world, the relief of just ‘being,” he explains. While he’s running, Austin’s brain is able to productively filter through his troubles and questions, seeing life more clearly for a bit. Meanwhile, he takes in the beauty around him – the colors, designs, the incredible portrait the sky is painting. For a moment, things just are – not moving, not changing. For a moment, life is good.
As we wrap up our 2+ hour phone interview, Austin’s southern accent and the way he talks continues to strike me. It’s all so familiar. All so…Texan. “It’s been an honor — a real honor,” he says. Same here, friend!
I’m glad this guy is still alive.