the seagull story

Devotional, Journal

Everything in this story is true.

In the fall of 2009 I became severely depressed and socially anxious. It had been gradually building within my psyche since my freshman year of college: a slow progression of events and bad choices, perfectly timed and sequenced, all finally coming together like cogs in a watch in September of my senior year. I had what most people would call a nervous breakdown. I quit band, stopped going to class, let my phone die and never recharged it, didn’t check email, didn’t talk to friends or family. For four months I barely ever left my ex-girlfriend’s apartment. I sat by the balcony and smoked weed all day, trying to forget that I existed.

The feeling I remember most from that period is an intense, overwhelming hopelessness and fear. I couldn’t explain what was happening to me, and I knew the people in my life would never understand. I would never recover. Every day that passed made it seem even more impossible to “come back”. It felt like the whole momentum of my life had been irreversibly halted, like every door in my world was shutting in my face, and I was powerless to stop it.

I want to be clear about one thing: I was an absolutely atrocious person at this point in my life, and if I didn’t deserve a massive reality check, nobody ever has. I made many, many conscious decisions to get myself into that mess. I had no self-discipline at all when it came to pot, gambling, lust, etc. I just had no control over whatever stupid impulse I felt in the moment. I became an incredibly selfish and nasty person, particularly toward my ex-girlfriend, who took a lot of crap from me that she never deserved. When faced with an easy choice or a right one, I took the easy one every single time. I cut classes all the time, skipped homework assignments and smoked away my motivation to find a good career. I ended up totally losing my way academically; I became a sociology major (a criminally easy subject that meant nothing to me) and still didn’t manage better than C’s. I had so many chances to stop the spiral before it pulled me under completely. Unfortunately I never took any of them.

All of these bad decisions came together with a bunch of rough experiences in the dorms, in band, with girls, losing friends at school, losing interest in engineering, being rejected to film school, and the constant awesomeness of being a small, underweight nerd in college. There were several social experiences I can point to that mark signposts along the path to my breakdown. But in all reality I was responsible for my own downfall.

But if I was the architect of my demise, Jesus would become the author of my salvation. This is where my story takes a left turn I never saw coming. At some point during those days I began to browse through Wikipedia, and I remember being fascinated by the natural universe. In particular I remember reading articles about the stars — Betelgeuse, Rigel, Arcturus, Procyon, Sirius, Aldebaran, and of course the Sun — and being amazed that these incredible objects actually exist. I went from there to galaxies and the Big Bang, to string theory, elementary forces, the formation of the Solar System, comets and icy satellites and dwarf planets, to Jupiter and Saturn and Mars and Venus and the Moon, and finally to Earth.

I can’t really explain what happened in my heart while I was reading about these great and mysterious astronomical objects on Wikipedia, but I think it was something like spiritual conception. Something was being formed in my soul — reverence for God. I began to believe that God was real, and not only was he real, he was great. The diversity and grandeur and fascination of the whole universe just blew me away.

So I started to read the Bible again. I grew up in church. I was always the kid who memorized bible verses the best. I played drums in the band. I went to tons of Wednesday night meetings. It wasn’t as though I just went and blankly sat there, either, like a lot of kids. I really did believe in Jesus. But when I went away to college… I just kind of forgot. When I had to apply the reality of Jesus to the realities of life, it never happened. Now my world was broken beyond repair. I finally came back to the Bible and I read it through renewed eyes, like it was all actually true. Particularly what I read in the gospels.

So here was this man: Jesus. Of course I knew all the stories, all the miracles he did. But here was this man walking through the countryside of Israel actually doing them. Healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, speaking words of incredible power. And he was so full of love. He never turned away from a single person — he healed everyone who came to him, and not only healed them but forgave their sins, and gave them peace with God. He acted with such purpose. Every step he took was directed at a definite goal, whether teaching his disciples, casting out demons, calming the waves of a storm, or entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to save the world. And then his suffering, death and resurrection, all in perfect accordance with the prophecies in the Old Testament. This was the Son of the God who made the stars. I was certain. It was like I saw him for the very first time, in all his glory. He was transfigured before my eyes.

One early Sunday morning, I drove down PCH to a little state beach near where I grew up. I had a little brown Bible, I’m pretty sure I had bought it from Borders (this was back before they went the way of Blockbuster). It wasn’t like I woke up early to do this. My sleep schedule was so out of whack that I was basically asleep and awake at random intervals throughout the day. I think I had woken up at around 2AM, after going to sleep around 5PM on Saturday. (I still have massive problems keeping on a normal sleep schedule — it’s one of the several effects the breakdown had that are still with me today.) But anyway, there I was sitting in the parking lot of this beach, reading Matthew 18, and crying out to Jesus as the sun rose over the Saddleback mountains. Right then and there I confessed the horrible life I had been living, asked him to forgive me and give me a new start. He did.

Fast forward a few weeks. I’m still in hell, living in that same apartment, still held under the inertia of depression, still getting beaten up every minute of the day by paranoia and despair. Still wrestling mightily with my own utter lack of control in any facet of life. But now, at least I was wrestling. The Spirit of God was giving me strength through the Scriptures. I was beginning to fight back against my demons. I listened to sermons on podcast and prayed all the time, prayed as if God was in the room right there with me. It was an incredible feeling. He was taking a completely terrible person and inexplicably saving him.

By now I knew I needed to quit pot, I needed to leave that apartment, I needed to get my life straight again. But I had nowhere to go, and no strength to get it done. So I drove to a beach again — but this time in Malibu — and this time it was closer to 3AM than 6, and at the end of my day, not the beginning. I paced back and forth across the sand, talking animatedly to God, raising my voice, lifting my hands and shouting and screaming. My prayers have never been what you would call “holy”. I tend to be very passionate toward him and sometimes I say dumb things, but I’m trying to open my whole self up because I’m usually in huge need of his help. This prayer was not an exception. I shouted at the stars, I reasoned, I begged, I got mad, I wept. The central request of my prayer was: let me have an escape. Give me a way out of here. Help me get out, help me get back on my feet. Please. Just help.

I drove home and fell asleep, exhausted. My girlfriend woke me up four hours later. She said my dad was in Long Beach, visiting my grandpa who was on his deathbed, and he wanted to talk to me immediately. I must have been pretty surprised by this, because instead of calling I decided to drive down and meet him. Yep — I actually left the apartment to see my family.

When I got there I wasn’t really prepared for the sight of Grandpa Dolan on that bed. There is a certain look a human being takes on very near the end of their life; you can see it in their face, and in the whole countenance of their body. The man was dying. And Dad was there, along with some of my aunts and uncles. Dad wanted to talk to me. He took me aside. He didn’t ask where I had been. But he told me he sensed something was wrong, and if I wanted, I could come out to live with him in Arizona for a while. I could take a quarter or two off school, get a job, and basically just hit the reset button.

I told him I’d think about it, thanked him and left. In the car I was totally stunned. I remember using the word “Wow” many times, loudly, looking out my driver’s side window toward the sky. It was the most immediate and powerful answer to prayer I had ever seen in my life. I was in shock. Things like that don’t just happen; this was divine intervention. This was a miracle. Of course, it didn’t mean that I was going to actually do it. That would take something really spectacular. But Jesus had heard my prayer on the beach the night before, and he had responded. We had conducted business together. God Himself had listened to me, Danny Dolan, and he had answered my prayer. For the moment, that was enough.

But the offer was now on the table, from my dad, and by extension from God. Both of them were basically saying, OK, you want an escape? You want to get free from this? Go right ahead. Here’s the path through the Red Sea. Now it was on me to walk through it, and I wasn’t anywhere near ready. I was under an ocean of pain. It’s hard to say these things without sounding like I’m exaggerating, but I’m trying to communicate how it felt to have this sick weight of hopelessness sitting in my gut for months, keeping me on the ground, unable to move, unable to even lift my head.

Depression is something we don’t talk nearly enough about as a society. I never understood this growing up, but it’s not just a negative state of mind: it’s an actual mental disorder. So we should be able to talk about it. We can talk about OCD, or autism, or Alzheimer’s, without judging the sick person. Depression and anxiety are just the same. They are symptoms of an unnatural chemistry in my brain. They are the result of a physiological imbalance. Yet there is this insane stigma attached to it, where we make people feel ashamed of being depressed. We are ashamed of depressed people. They bum us out. We think they’re weak willed, we wish they would snap out of it and be normal again. But you can’t “snap out of” OCD or autism — just like you can’t snap out of depression. It is a disease, a terrible, debilitating disease.

But nobody understood then, and nobody understands now. So I was just left alone by everyone I knew. Everyone just let me go. (And I’m not blaming anyone for that. I can’t blame anyone at all, I’d have probably done the same. In fact I HAVE done the same to a couple of old friends who were going through hard times.) I’m sure of one thing: navigating that sea of isolation and self-hatred would have been impossible without God. I would have drowned. Bottom line, no doubt in my mind. But God did not leave me alone. He had given me a way of escape, and now he would help me take it.

Christmas Day, 2009, I spent totally alone. I didn’t go home or call my parents. I slept until 4PM and woke up as the sky was getting dark outside. My girlfriend had gone home for the holidays, and the apartment felt even emptier than normal. I went to the balcony and sparked up a bowl. I hated myself for doing all of this. I knew how ridiculously selfish and callous it was toward my family, who were naturally expecting me. I’m not even going to make excuses for it today. There were many low points in my life that season, and this was among the lowest.

I spent Christmas night sitting on the floor in the dark, watching basketball games and movies on my glowing computer screen. I had Bible Gateway bookmarked on Firefox, and the little button was staring at me that whole night from my browser. I knew God was calling me. I knew he was mad, he had to be mad, so I ignored him for as long as I could.

But at around 4:30AM I decided to drive out to Malibu again. It had become a kind of pilgrimage for me within the last month — whenever I felt like praying, I would drive to the beach and spend time with God. So on Christmas night, I knew it was time for another conversation. The air was clear and chilly outside in Westwood. I had a playlist full of worship songs on my iPod that I had illegally downloaded from Limewire, and I listened to those as I drove west along Sunset Boulevard.

It was nearly sunrise by the time I reached the Malibu pier. The stars were beginning to fade, the dawn was growing, and a distant row of fluffy clouds floated above the Pacific Ocean. I parked across the street and walked across an empty lot, to a bunch of rocks piled up on the shore, and I climbed down and found a roughly flat granite boulder to sit down on and watch the waves.

My mind had been full of rage the whole drive to the beach. Most of it was directed at myself; a good amount of it was directed at God, for putting me in this hell in the first place, for locking me up and holding me down. It wasn’t fair, but there it was. I’ve struggled a lot with anger at God ever since. I’ve said some pretty unforgivable things to him over the years. As nasty as I can be to other people, I always save the worst for him. The level of mercy he’s shown me in forgiving those outbursts is honestly superhuman. But when I sat on that rock and listened to worship songs and looked out at the ocean, I just forgot my anger. It was too peaceful there. I even forgot my self-hatred. I just left everything behind and sang and prayed to God. The hard heart that had been solidified by years of self-abuse and depression was softening. The Spirit of God was renewing mine.

As the sky turned pink, I looked down the beach and saw a flock of seagulls fluttering in circles above the sand, a hundred feet away. I looked the opposite way, and there was another group of seagulls touching down on the paved parking lot. At that moment, the loneliness of the past months and the darkness of Christmas Day crashed down on me, and it might sound silly, but all I wanted in that moment was the tiniest bit of company, even from those seagulls. Without thinking much about it I spoke to Jesus. “Why do those birds have to be so far away from me? Couldn’t I have a friend? Couldn’t some birds fly over here and be my friends?”

Yes. I know. Sounds pretty sad, right? But I can’t tell this story without telling you that part. Think about how comforting it is to have a companion, even an animal. If you have any pets — or you’ve ever been alone for a very long time — you might understand how I felt.

The sunrise that morning was quite easily the most glorious one I have ever seen. I mean, it was like a Rembrandt painting. It had been months since I’d seen a real sunrise. The last time I had been outside at dawn, I was in my car near the beach, but only saw the dinky little parking lot I was sitting in. This time I was watching the sky catch fire over Los Angeles. It’s impossible for me to describe. The worship songs in my earbuds became even more alive with the power of God.

Eventually the sky became too bright and I had to look down at the sand. About twenty feet from me, sitting on the beach, was a fat little seagull. It was staring up at me.

I did a little wave at it. It didn’t move. I slowly got down off the rock and squatted down on the sand, ten feet from the seagull. It backed up a few steps, but didn’t fly away. It just stared at me.

I am not kidding: that seagull and I sat there on the beach for at least twenty minutes, just watching each other. It could have been begging for food — but I had none, and after a minute it would have realized I wasn’t offering any. There were no other seagulls along the beach for hundreds of feet in either direction. This lone seagull was genuinely staying there just to hang out with me. I would scratch an itch, and it would ruffle and clean its feathers in response. I talked to it, of course. I can’t remember anything I said. But I do remember that it never replied.

Soon after the twenty minutes were up, the fat little bird turned away and began waddling along the beach headed west. I sat there and watched it go. It got maybe fifteen feet down the beach, then turned and looked at me. It looked right at me. It looked at me for a long moment, and then it turned again and walked off down the sand.

It’s pretty hard for me to describe what it felt like, sitting there, watching that little seagull walk away.

God had heard my prayer again. He had heard, and he had responded. He had sent a bird to be my friend. He actually sent a bird to be my friend. It was another miracle — but this miracle was different than the first.

By answering my initial prayer for an escape, God was confirming that yes, I definitely needed it. He was condemning the sin I lived in. He was giving me a purpose, a direction, a next step, and a second chance. He was demonstrating his power to answer prayer in the first place. But this miracle was different than the first.

In sending the seagull to visit me, Jesus was telling me something about himself. He wasn’t telling me that some anonymous seagull was my friend; he was telling me that he was my friend. When all the people I knew bailed on me, when I was sitting on a beach completely wrecked and alone, Jesus wanted me to know that he was my friend.

He would send birds to sit there on the beach with me for twenty minutes — just because I asked him to. He would do miracles for my sake. He would pay attention to my prayers. He would spend his time with me, and he would never leave. Not even the bleakness of my life could get him to abandon me. In that last look back from the seagull, I saw the eyes of Jesus looking right at me. He was there with me on that beach, and he was my friend.

At the time, I remember thinking it was the most beautiful thing that had ever happened to me. It was totally unexpected, sublime, and incredibly kind of God. And He intended it for me personally — me, this categorical nobody, this forgotten kid who locked himself in a prison cell located nowhere at all. I will never forget the way the sun lit up the sky over the Pacific that day. It was like Heaven itself came down to me on that beach. That little seagull moved me in a way that I honestly didn’t realize I could be moved. To say it plain, it showed me that Jesus loved me.

My memory of that day has not faded even a little bit. I don’t think it ever will. It was one of the very best days of my life.

By the way, I don’t believe for one second that I’m somehow special or different because I got the seagull. I admit it, I used to believe that, but I know differently now. God’s kindness and love for me is no greater than His love for you, without doubt. He loves YOU with the same generosity and personal attention that He showed to me that day, and keeps showing me day after day. He gave His Son for YOU. He loves you in Jesus Christ fully, individually, eternally. Ask God to show you Himself, and He will blow you away. That is a promise I make to you right this very moment.

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father… that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:14, 17-19)

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