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“Do we care about mental illness?”
The title of E. Lawrence’s June blog post at WIT: Women in Theology caught my attention. There, E. argued that there are formidable barriers to serious theological conversation about mental illness in the Catholic academy. The post identified two in particular. First, she explained the stigmatization of mental illness due to its association with U.S. bourgeois culture and its comfort-seeking, self-indulgent, and self-medicating practices. Next, she highlighted the apprehension many theologians have concerning psychological notions of the human person.
Although I know relatively little about theological treatments of mental illness, I felt compelled to comment when I finished reading the post. I rarely participate in online discussion in this way, but it seemed to me that the point I wanted to raise was pertinent, perhaps even important. So I logged in, clicked the comment box, and constructed a sentence or two. And then I stopped. After an extended pause, I deleted those sentences. I read E.’s post again. Eyeing the comment box once more, I resigned, closed the browser, and folded my laptop screen.
In that almost-comment I had intended to suggest another barrier to theological conversation about mental illness: the mental illness experienced by theologians, themselves. While E. had rightly acknowledged that many in academic theology experience mental illness, she had not identified this as a barrier. It seemed to be an obvious one to me. It seemed obvious because I have a mental illness.
E. explained that “mental illness” is, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.” It was almost a year ago now that I received a diagnosis of anxiety from my psychologist. The event of getting an official diagnosis was really a non-event for me, in large part because I was too preoccupied with managing the actual experience of the illness. Anxiety, which had taken hold of my life years before, seemed increasingly to take over my life altogether.
How might a theologian’s personal experience of mental illness inhibit theological conversation about topic? My struggle to offer a comment in this virtual discussion was case in point. I wanted to suggest that some theologians don’t talk about mental illness because such an undertaking would necessitate coming to terms with his/her own mental illness—something that is difficult for many. At the time I had begun to wonder whether my career aspirations in academic theology magnified this difficulty for me. In a profession that is so overtly associated with a sharp, strong intellect—a strong mind—it is frightening to admit to myself and to others that my mind is sick.
I couldn’t bring myself to identify this barrier in response to E.’s post because I was simply so uncomfortable with how much of an obstacle mental illness has been for own identity as an aspiring theologian. It has taken me many months—and a whole lot of therapy—to come to terms with the fact that I’m a human being who struggles with a mental illness. I’m an aspiring academic whose mind is weak in this particular way. I struggled a great deal to integrate this illness into my personal, professional, and spiritual identity. I still do and must continue to do so, for even as this illness is far less paralyzing than it used be, I know I will probably always be a person with anxiety. A “cure” for me comes not by way of irradiating this dimension of my mind, but by accepting it as a component of who I am and learning to live with it in healthier ways.
Earlier this week I recalled how my early encounters with academic theology led me to view it as a space for vulnerability and courage. It was a place where people risked exploring and interrogating what matters to them most. I admitted that overtime I had come to doubt whether this was really true, and consequently I had put up guards in the classroom and academy. I wanted to come across as a capable, strong theological mind rather than the human being that I am. I am a human being who, like everyone, is weak sometimes. When my anxiety escalated this year, my illness demanded that I accept myself as, well, myself. I could no longer maintain the pretense of an unshakable mind.
The difficult work of intensive counseling and the immeasurable support of family and friends has transformed my everyday life over the course of this year. This process has been—and remains—exhausting. But it has also brought many blessings. One has been the opportunity to begin again in theology. I have reached the conviction that I want to live into my theological vocation with my weaknesses—not in spite of them. For, as Tillich reminded me last week, until I bring all of who I am to theology, it’s not quite theology: How can we reflect upon that which is the Ground of Who We Are if we do not bring all of Who We Are to the task?
Anxious as I may be, I am garnering the “courage to be” me in academic theology. I’m beginning, again.
On Sunday I headed to Mass with my parents where the new pastor of their diocesan parish introduced himself to the eager congregation. He skillfully utilized a story about growing up with “boat people” here in the Seattle area to offer a little background on his upbringing and simultaneously make a point about the day’s scripture readings. His mother is a life-long sailor, and met his father, a football player, when he came to her for sailing lessons at the university recreation center. When they married they bought a “fixer-uper” on the lake so sailing could continue as a regular part of their lives together. Consequently, this pastor grew up on the water, “rowing before he could walk.”
He recalled that the first thing his father taught him about sailing concerned steering. “Figure out where you want to go and pick a spot in that direction on the horizon,” his father instructed. “Steer the boat in that direction.” Trouble arises, he explained, when things distract the sailor from that far-off guide-point. When this occurs one’s steering shifts, thinkingly or unthinkingly, and the boat will quickly veer off course. “We must, as Christians, keep our eyes on that right spot in the horizon to ensure that we’re steering our lives in the proper direction,” the pastor exhorted.
As I continued to ponder his illustration after the liturgy, it began to reframe an issue I have been grappling with for a couple weeks now. At the end of July my friend Dan over at datinggod.org and America reported that Pope Francis had formed a “ground-breaking lay committee.” The committee “will have broad, unprecedented powers at the church’s highest levels” he explained. Dan’s commentary illuminated the significance of this reform within the Vatican: “This move marks a significant change in the way that the Vatican power structure had been previously organized”—a change that empowers lay people, satisfying (at least in part) an enduring hope among many who rally for anti-clerical church reform.
Yet, amidst my excitement about the symbolic capital of this committee, I found myself distracted by a number of nagging doubts. “I wonder if there will be any women on this committee….” This was one of the first thoughts I had upon the news of the committee. I would learn that there is one female committee member. “Just one?” As I read the comments on Dan’s posts, another disappointment arose. Someone observed that there is only one committee member from outside Europe. “Just one?” I found myself asking again.
Even as the virtual comments about this committee echoed doubts I had already named or disappoints that quickly resonated when I read them, they bothered me. They bothered me, and have subsequently led me to reevaluate my own response to this good news from the Vatican: Why is it that disappointment is one of my first responses to this good news of reform? Why is it that negative observations about this committee ring much louder in my mind than points of appreciation? Why am I so vulnerable to being distracted by the shortcomings of Vatican happenings, even when I am confronted with such positive signs of reforms? Why do I so quickly render this reform a failure of some sort?
These comments bothered me because the shortcomings of the lay committee seemed to garner more attention (from me, and from many others) than its apparent gains. I thought about this after the homily this weekend. The pastor’s sailing image poignantly presents Christian life in terms of orientation. It invites us to consider whether we are headed in the right direction, generally—whether we are on our way toward the proper destination, a destination that is always ultimately out of reach. It invites us to consider whether or not we respond to the happenings of the world in a way that keeps us oriented toward God.
We can consider this as individuals and as a church community: As an individual, I suspect that my doubt and disappointment can distract me at times from hope in the world and my church. Pessimism about the Vatican distracted me from encountering good news with hope—the kind of hope that is so central to a Christian orientation in life. It distracted me from recognizing that the Church may be changing, moving—oriented in the right direction. And in fact, my pessimism may distract me from participating in the movement of the Church.
That is not to say, of course, that one is misguided in recognizing and responding to the shortcomings of the church. We are a pilgrim church, a reforming forming church, and we must work toward a more Christian life together. However, it is tempting as a Catholic to be distracted by the endless shortcomings of the institution and the people who make up our church. (Likewise, it is easy to be caught up in one’s own personal and perpetual failings as a Christian). This orients us toward our failings rather than the orienting point in the horizon—a point we will never reach but nevertheless steers us in toward better life together.
Attending to the shortcomings of our community is imperative to staying the course of Christian life. My struggle as a Catholic (and I suspect I’m not alone) is learning to tend to our personal and communal failings without being so consumed by them that I shift my gaze and the direction of my life toward them alone. In order to move in the right direction, we must fix our eyes on the guiding point that will lead us toward God and a more holy life together.
I didn’t turn to Etty Hillesum to consider writing. Earlier this year some mentors urged me to read the work of this young Dutch Jewish woman as a source of spiritual insight, testifying to the profound impact her writings have made on their own lives. Furthermore, knowing my affection for the writings of Simone Weil, another bright Jewish woman who grappled with questions of faith amidst the Shoah and the Second World War, they thought I might find another kindred spirit in the pages of Hillesum’s diaries and letters, as so many others have. While a collection of her diaries and letters sat on my shelf for months, I began to come across references to her work in the other books I made time to read. Suddenly her name seemed ubiquitous. It appeared that I would not escape her.
Last week when I followed up on the recommendations and began to read her diaries, I learned that Hillesum died at the age of twenty-nine at Auschwitz. On a train en route to the gas chambers, she had released a postcard out the window. “We left the camp singing…” it reported. I suspected when I read this that she would indeed capture me. I’ve long been intrigued by people who retain such hope amidst the horrors and tragedies of life. In view of the praise of my mentors and the facts of her biography, I anticipated her spiritual wisdom, reflections on suffering, commentary on evil, and a testament to enduring hope. What I did not expect, however, was how much of her writing focuses on, well, writing.
Like many others who enjoy writing and appreciate the good writing of others, I am fascinated by reflections on the craft of writing. There is a way to approach texts about the craft of writing in a “how-to” fashion, as if learning the details of another person’s writing practice could enable one to replicate the method and quality of his/her writing. I’m quite convinced that this is a very limited, if not totally misguided, way to engage the self-reflection of other writers. Hillesum would agree with me that one can only write oneself. That is, one can only write well according to one’s own particular method and style. There is no single formula for the craft or product of good writing. Yet Hillesum would also agree with me that for many of us it is easier to think about writing authentically than to actually do it. It is this struggle, recorded throughout Hillesum’s diaries, that intrigues and surprises me. In fact, I think it is this struggle that intrigues me about so many authors’ reflections about the craft of writing. I read it, selfishly, because I relate to it. I read it for companionship in writing.
“There is a strange little melody inside me that sometimes cries out for words,” writes Hillesum, “But through inhibition, lack of self-confidence, laziness, and goodness knows what else, that tune remains stifled, haunting me from within. Sometimes it wears me out completely. And then again it fills me with gentle, melancholy music.” How well this characterizes my experience of writing! Often, I have something to share, some drive to communicate and connect with others through reflection on a topic or experience—and yet something gives me pause. Something—insecurity, laziness, whatever—leads me to doubt my ability to convey what I want to convey. I question whether what I have to convey is worth any reader’s time and effort. This leads to total self-defeat, of course. For even when my writing is often lost to these inhibitions, I do not lose that “gentle, melancholy music” that stirs within me, and “cries out for words.” So, with Etty, I too often find myself compelled to write but held back my own doubts, however silly they may ultimately be. Too often I can’t even bring myself to try it.
Some days I feel so overwhelmed by my doubts and inhibitions that the only thing I can bring myself to write about is my writer’s inhibition itself. And when I do, it never escapes me how unproductive and self-indulgent this can be. I might be better served to move ahead—to just write already!—rather than wallow in my interior hang-ups about it. This, too, is a tension I see in Hillesum.
On one hand, she chastises herself for her self-indulgence, for her mental “masturbation,” and for all the factors that serve as obstacles to her writing. “I protest too much,” she writes, “I have all the time in the world to write. More time than anyone else, probably. But there is that inner vacillation. Why, I wonder? Because I think I must come out with nothing but brilliant ideas? Because I haven’t yet worked it all out? But that can only come with practice.” She spares no harshness when she turns on herself in these pages.
On the other hand, as I have already noted, she does frequently indulge her inhibitions by dedicating entry after entry, page after page, to her doubts about her ability to be a good writer. At one point, she even presents a moving justification for the energy she dedicates to exploring her interior life, with all its anxieties and irrationalities. “I imagine that there are people who pray with their eyes turned heavenward. They seek God outside themselves. And there are those who bow their head and busy it in their hands. I think that these seek God inside.” “There is really a deep well inside me,” she observes, “And in it dwells God.” Hillesum truly believed that interior exploration would help her discover God, and in discovering God, she would be free for authentic writing and a more loving, peaceful engagement with the world.
It is this back and forth between self-reflection and action—between reflection on writing and the act of writing itself—that fascinates me in Etty’s writing (among many other things, too). It has helped me to think differently about my own writer’s inhibitions, and now—with this post—to act differently—that is, to actually write, even if all I can do today is write about my inhibitions. Hopefully, if I continue to address my inhibitions while continuing to write, all while hedging against the rut of self-indulgence like Etty tried to do so earnestly, then I will, actually, come to write more freely.
Etty once wrote, “I really must abandon all that laziness, and particularly my inhibitions and insecurity, if I am ever to find myself, and through myself, find others.” Perhaps today this is my charge, too.
I find myself among many others who have been pleasantly surprised by the first few days of Francis’s papal ministry. From the first moments of his balcony introduction, when he donned relatively humble attire, to his commentary on the selection of his name, Francis—after Francis of Assisi, a saint known for his humble commitment to the most vulnerable of God’s creation, I’ve been experiencing feelings I have so rarely held with regard to a pope: Excitement. Gratitude. Affection. Hope.
Could it be that we find ourselves with a pope who demonstrates, in such a seemingly accessible way, the virtues of Christianity to which many of us have clung for so long? Isn’t this the type of papal leadership that for which we’ve hope for so, so long? With only a few days gone by, I am constantly surprised as I respond to questions like these with affirmation: Why maybe, yes, this is what we are witnessing…for now, yes, this might actually be happening…. Even as Pope Francis simply reflects the values that I have long believed to stand at the heart of Christianity—radical commitments to the weak and to a life of humility and mercy—I am still so surprised to see it in a public figurehead of the Church.
Accompanying all these good feelings and surprising affirmations has been a sense of hesitation, however. It is a lingering pause. A reluctance. These past few days have confronted me with the fact that I live as a Catholic so often expecting disappointment from the high-ranking officials of the Church. This is a protection mechanism. It is how I protect myself from the constant scandal and failure of fellow Christians in these positions of power. Were I to give myself, wholeheartedly and without hesitation, to belief in the Spirit’s transformative power in the ministry of these leaders, to the hope that they might really participate in the actualization of the goodness and mercy that we proclaim, then I might live always with a broken heart. I might live plagued by the failings of Church leaders.
Instead, I live with a very qualified Christian hope in our leadership. “I believe that the Spirit is moving in our world, in our Church, in its leaders,” I say, “but—” Always but. But the temptation of wealth and power. But the corruption of sin. But millennia of shortcomings. “Sure,” I think, “in principle the Holy Spirit is working through the ministry of these leaders, but de facto I no longer expect to see much evidence of it among these higher ups.” If I don’t expect radical mercy and visionary witness from them, then I don’t have to live with so much disappointment, right?
My reflections about this tension—this tension of hope and hesitation—has got me thinking a lot about Thomas, the disciple beloved among doubters like me. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” he told his friend upon the news that Jesus had risen and appeared to them. Despite dedicating his life to following Jesus, Thomas could not, in that moment, believe that Jesus was the kind of Messiah that had actually overcome death. And I don’t blame him. I imagine we can all relate to Thomas in some way: He was grieving the loss of his friend, and hope in Jesus’s return would be a profound risk of heart—a heart that was already hurting with such sadness and disappointment.
In many ways, Thomas’s doubt was quite reasonable. And, to be sure, there are many good reasons to qualify one’s hope in church officials such as the pope. For one, far too many people invest all their hope for the Church in these men, equating the Church with its hierarchy and overlooking the loving, awe-inspiring work of Catholics living out all sorts of vocations throughout the world. Furthermore, these guys are not God, but sinful creatures like the rest of us. Sin is a reality that does impede our ability to actualize the Christian life to the fullest and freest degree imaginable. We shouldn’t place an unqualified hope in anyone.
Still, Christian life is about courageous hope and love, not enduring cynicism. I am saddened that my response to the witness of charity and humility that I see in Pope Francis is so deeply tainted by cynicism. For, is not the goodness of creation at the heart of the Christian message? Have I not let my fear of disappointment from church leadership prevent me from anticipating the goodness of this man, and so many other Church leaders for that matter? It seems that my doubt in the enduring work of the Holy Spirit has inhibited my ability to believe what I see right before my eyes—moments when the Christian message really comes to life.
While most of us recognize the disciple Thomas as “Doubting Thomas,” I read recently that there is also a tradition of referring to him as “Believing Thomas.” It wasn’t until this week that I marveled so much at the belief he proclaimed after placing his hands in Jesus’s wounds. Thomas doubted—yes, for good reason—but when he recognized Jesus before him he surrendered his doubt—and so humbly. I pray that when we are confronted with the image of Christ before us—be in a pope or stranger or a beloved friend—we too will surrender our doubt, our cynicism, our guards in order to believe in the goodness of the other. “We have to put our hearts out,” commented Catholic blogger Fran Rossi Szpylczyn in her recent reflection on the Pope and her own hesitation to hope for this new papacy. “We have to take the risk. That is what faith and belief demand from us.” That is what faith and belief demand from us—that we all may be a bit more like Believing Thomas.
“Resignation: that’s what American Catholics are feeling about our faith. We are resigned to the fact that so much in the Roman Catholic Church is broken and won’t be fixed anytime soon. So if the pope can resign, we can, too. We should give up Catholicism en masse, if only for a time.”
A few days ago writer Paul Elie joined the chorus of voices offering commentary on the Catholic Church surrounding the resignation of the now-Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. As the above quote indicates, Elie’s op-ed, “Give Up Your Pew for Lent,” plays with the double-meaning of the term “resignation” to make a case for a temporary, protest exodus from the Catholic Church. While Benedict resigned—that is, gave up his office—Elie notes that many American Catholics experience another form of resignation—that is, an acceptance of the inevitable unpleasant reality of their church. From this, he exhorts Catholics to vacate parishes in an effort express to church leaders the resignation they feel, and to spend time reconsidering their resignation. Perhaps some time away and the experience of other faith communities can even dispel their resignation.
There is much to say in response to Elie’s piece. My friend Dan over at datinggod.org has already articulated well how Elie’s proposal betrays our theological conceptions of church and Eucharist, and misplaces the power of ecclesial change in the hands of those who leave the Church rather than those who articulate their criticisms with the tradition. To this, I would add my concern for Elie’s general characterization of American Catholics—Are we really all so “resigned”?
In my mind, “resignation” connotes passivity, a disposition of disinterest, acquiescence. To characterize the temperament of American Catholics—particularly those troubled by Catholicism’s interfaith relations or leaders’ handling of the clergy abuse crisis, to cite some issues listed by Elie—is to depict a gross misrepresentation of American Catholics that overlooks some of the most engaged and faithful practitioners in the Church today. Surely, many dissatisfied Catholics might be characterized appropriately as “resigned,” but to say that this represents the “what American Catholics are feeling,” is an overstatement that overlooks the complex reality of lived Catholicism today.
Furthermore, many of the Catholics I know who are most committed to the types of ecclesial changes underwriting Elie’s op-ed are—undoubtedly—the most engaged and least “resigned” Catholics I know. They have not resigned to bitterness and complaint about the Catholicism; they are deeply hopeful and actively engaged in actualizing a Church grounded in the Gospel.
They are Catholic like those who wrote for the recent publication, Hungering and Thirsting For Justice, co-edited by Lacey Louwagie and my friend Kate Ward, or the colleagues and friends alongside whom I wrote in the collection, From the Pews in the Back: Young Women and Catholicism. These and so many other Catholics are anything but “resigned,” and most would adamantly disagree with Elie’s charge that resigning—that is, giving up on one’s place in the pew—is a good way to engage Catholicism.
What’s more, many of the Catholics I know who have resigned—who have left Catholicism—rarely if ever do so in a state of emotional resignation. They wrestle with the Church and the Catholic tradition, and often experience an incredible amount of conflict about their decision to seek God in another faith community. The kind of easy departure that Elie presents in his op-ed betrays the genuine strife that many Catholics experience as they struggle to understand their place inside—or outside—the Church. The idea of “giving up one’s pew for Lent” seems rather trite in view of the genuine struggles of these faithful friends.
That many American Catholics–on any side of the aisle–are unhappy about the realities of Catholicism is true. That we all feel so resigned is an overgeneralization, I think. It is a misrepresentation of American Catholicism’s complex realities. And, that we ought to resign from our pews, wherever we sit, is no solution for the resignation that some folks do actually feel.
A couple years ago Roger Haight S.J., one of Catholicism’s leading theologians, visited the Paulist Catholic Center here in Boston to offer a three-day lecture series. At the beginning of one Q&A session, an audience member stood in a huff and proceeded to deliver a lengthy, rather aggressive monologue directed at Haight. Those familiar with the controversies surrounding his work might assume that this man took the public lecture as an occasion to echo the harsh words of Haight’s magisterial critics. Quite the opposite, in fact. The audience member argued that the disciplinary measures against Haight were another example of the reactionary shift in church leadership since Vatican II. The Second Vatican Council, he explained, had offered a vision of hope for Catholics that has only been mired by the Church hierarchy ever since.
This is a message I heard repeatedly during the last three and a half years as a staff member at the Paulist Center. One of the major hubs in Boston for Catholics seeking a community of vibrant worship and lefty social justice commitments, the Paulist Center is hospitable to many folks who wish the Church at large looked a little (or a lot) different than it does today. Despite my familiarity with this audience member’s perspective, my shared dissatisfaction with the treatment of Roger Haight and his work, and my own related concerns about the current status of Catholicism, I found myself cringing as I sat in the pew just a few feet away from this man.
When the event concluded I headed to dinner with a group of young adults where I facilitated a discussion about Haight’s talk. As always, I was struck by the earnestness, intelligence, and eloquence of my peers as they reflected on spirituality and our lives as Catholics. These young adults echoed, in content, what that vocal audience member had proclaimed earlier: They, too, where saddened and frustrated to know that our brilliant and kind lecturer had endured so much strife from church leaders. They, too, worry about what our church does and does not look like today.
What was absent from their reflections that night—and most nights—was the aggressiveness and bitterness that made me cringe when I heard very similar concerns from the older audience member earlier that evening. I rarely experience the same bitterness among younger “progressive” Catholics that I witness so often among older members of the community. And I’ve been trying to figure out why for a long time. Have we young adults simply not lived with the church long enough to accrue the degree of anger that we witness in older Catholics? Is it just a matter of time until we also find ourselves taking the mic for a few safe moments to diffuse some of that frustration we’ve been harboring inside? Maybe. Maybe that’s one reason why that man made me so uncomfortable: I recognized much of my own anger in him, and faced with this mirror, I found myself wondering: Has my Catholic faith fated me to a life of bitterness and resentment? Is this what my disappointment and frustration is bound to become? This kind of anger, however sincere and justified, is not what I want for this man, my community, or my life.
I believe these are some of the pressing spiritual questions among many Catholics today. My years in Catholic young adult ministry have shown me that I am not alone in seeking a hospitable space where I can process my frustrations about the Church with a supportive community. This blog is one such space, to be sure. At the same time, there are these moments when there is a temptation to indulge this disappointment and anger in unhealthy ways. We attend to our wounds in ways that cause them to fester rather than heal. With the best of intentions, we proclaim our anger so loudly and so often that we come to associate only words of resentment with Catholicism. When we listen to ourselves we only hear how miserable it is to be a Catholic today.
How do we respond to the pain in a way that brings healing and life? Because Christian work ought to be healing work, I am convinced that all Christians—especially ministers—need to deal seriously and carefully with church-related pain, whether it belongs to others or to oneself. Yet I do not think simply offering a microphone is always the best response; it is rarely a good response if it is the sole response. I suggest this because I experienced a temptation in communities full of genuinely hurt Catholics to join the chorus of anger when it doesn’t quite reflect the complexity of one’s situation of own faith—of one’s own pain. In the safety of like-minded folks such as that audience member, I have found myself spouting dismissive comments about the Church only to realize minutes later that my own words don’t reflect the reality of my life as a Catholic—as a Catholic who is sad and frustrated, but also enlivened and hopeful. Again, admittedly, there are times when I have rather snide things to say about the Church that need to be named in order to be processed healthily. But, when faced with such words, I think I too rarely ask myself and others: Is that all you need to say? Can I help you process this more?
As I have expressed elsewhere on the blog, I do not think the necessary result of this healing process will be a long, carefree life within the traditional boundaries of the Catholic Church. Whatever the concrete results of processing the pain of Catholic life, I believe that healing, life-giving work is the work to which we must faithfully give ourselves. As much as the concrete results of healing are often unknown and always particular to an individual’s own struggles, I am quite sure that a life bounded by bitterness and resentment is likely not what God wants for us.
Over the years, the frank and hopeful insights of the young adults at the Paulist Center have taught me this. These peers afforded me opportunities for honest speech in the context of a larger community of healing, for which I was immensely grateful as I concluded my time on staff there last week. And the healing continues…
I’ve been running.
Had you asked me about running six months ago, I would have sighed, frowned, and said something like, “Yeah, I go for a jog occasionally…” (Grumble, grumble, grumble). Like some of you, I imagine, running was something I did from time to time because one ought to run. One ought to for her health. One ought to, perhaps, so she can still claim some bit of lingering athletic ability during her mid-twenties.
As I ran I couldn’t escape the physical and mental confrontation of pain, however. “This hurts,” I thought between the weight and wear of deep, heavy breaths. And then I wondered, “Why is this so painful for me? How do all these other people run so much further and faster through all this pain?!” The mental battle prompted by the pain was ultimately the bigger obstacle, the higher hurdle. Running entailed a confrontation with myself—my own vulnerability, my inability, my pain—that I wanted to run from. And running from it meant not running.
For the last couple months, though, I kept running.
Ms. Jenkins was one of my favorite high school teachers. In addition to introducing me to feminism, she taught me how to live through pain. (Perhaps this lesson pairing is no coincidence). One day she stopped her history lesson and disclosed to us a great impending truth about our own future histories: “Some day you will love someone so much that when it ends, you will wake up in the morning, lay in bed, and you won’t want to get up because it will feel like the world has ended. You will feel like that. It will hurt that much. But you must get out of bed,” she said. “You must get out of bed that day, and the next day, and the next day. And overtime you will notice that the pain shifts. And one day while brushing your teeth it will occur to you that the pain has shifted so much that you actually believe you will be okay. You will realize that somewhere between the end of the world and brushing your teeth, things got better.”
I’ve recited this wisdom to myself and my grieving friends about a hundred times. I’ve done that because, after a few of these personal Armageddons, I know that Ms. Jenkins was right. Even so, there has been a shift overtime in my understanding of the process that she described to us that day. I used to think this was merely a story about the inevitable dissolution of pain across time: If one just continues through life for long enough, one will eventually live without that pain. Time heals; this kind of pain disappears. And while heartache may very well be a kind of pain that quantitatively lessens over days and months and years, I think Ms. Jenkins also disclosed something about the possibilities of relating to one’s pain: Sometimes we have the choice to run from it, to stay in bed—or to run with it, to live into it.
Like running, living into this sort of pain entails a confrontation with my own vulnerability. And it is overwhelming at times to attend to it—to live while paying attention to my own fragility. But freaking out and avoiding the reality of my pain and my vulnerability to it—the alternative—does not foster any sort of transformation, any sort of healing. I’ve come to think that there will always be pain, to varying degrees, and I will always, always be affected by it. But I can live well with it. Through it.
When I kept running, I learned to breathe through the pain. I learned to embrace the sense of vulnerability I feel amidst it. That pain has lessened, too, but that has not been the most transformative or reassuring result of this new habit. I have discovered, or perhaps engendered, a deep peace along the way.
I was recently listening to a Radiolab podcast that featured writer Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, that one). She spoke about inspiration, and how she has remained creative and productive as a writer. Earlier in her career, she had learned to talk her to inspiration–as if it were outside of her. “TELL ME YOUR NAME,” she had demanded of her book, “Eat, Pray, Love” when at the final stages of preparation before publication, the completed manuscript had no title. After yelling at it–literally–for days, she woke up one morning and there it was: the answer, the title. “I can feel the difference when something is produced purely from my own sweat and blood, and when something is given to me,” she said. A writer has to do the work, she confirmed, of course. But those moments of pure inspiration, those creative gifts that seem to originate from outside of oneself, those are the moments that interrupt the rest of the writing process and make it great.
Last summer while studying French, I learned that the word “essay” is an adaptation of the French verb, “essayer.” Plainly, “essayer” means “to try.” An essay–a try. These linguistic connections are some of the simple pleasures of language study: with the acquisition of a single foreign word, even the most native term can take on a whole new depth of meaning. An essay–a try. It made so much sense to me.
And I think it resonated with me because of the creative process that Gilbert described. When I sit down to write, I am trying–trying to write well, yes–but really, truly, I am trying to be open to that something else…that something “given” that Gilbert describes as inspiration. In that sense, I am trying not to write at all. The best stuff on the page doesn’t originate from within me. It hits me, smack in the head, while I’m mid-way through a sentence at my keyboard. I can feel that it arrives from a different place. From where?
Theologian Gordon Kaufman describes God as Creativity. I’m not sure it’s God, but I do think, whatever it is, it helps me to believe in God. There is something deeply sacramental about this experience within the writing process: in the relationship between a writer and her words, something good and beyond interrupts. Mystery interrupts what is otherwise mundane and laborious. Isn’t that precisely the experience of the world the compels me toward the Divine?
It is the end of finals here at Harvard–and the completion of my Master’s degree, at that. And this is the time of every semester when we find ourselves asking, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” All the pressure, all the essays, ALL the essays. Still, I keep trying and trying and trying–because, when I ask myself “Why do I do this? WHY do I do this?” I realize I am still waiting, crazy like Elizabeth Gilbert, for the mystery to interrupt. I want to keep waiting, to keep writing. An essay–a try.
“You’ve heard she’s going to Boston College next year?” she said, gesturing toward me, as we stood around the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard this afternoon. She was referring to my decision to start a PhD in Systematic Theology at BC in the fall.
“Yes I have heard!” said the other woman. “You’re entering the battle ground!” she exclaimed. “I’ve heard what the bishops have done to Elizabeth Johnson at Fordham.” She was referring to the recent negative statement from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops concerning the work of Prof. Johnson, one of the leading Catholic feminist theologians of our time. Although much of the theological world has dismissed the legitimacy of any and all of these claims made by the USCCB, the statement has stirred a great deal of controversy nevertheless.
“There is still hope, though!” the first woman replied. Still hope for the future of feminist theology in this church.
“Really?”said the other.
“Yes, yes, there must be! We must hope.” Hope.
Once we found our seats the event moderator introduced Dr. Kiran Martin, the founder of Asha India, an organization in Delhi committed to transforming the lives of the 1/3 of Dehli’s population living in the urban slums. Dr. Martin recounted her story: As a young medical student, she decided to visit Delhi’s urban slums; despite living in the city her whole life, she had never visited these areas in her city. There, she found herself amid a cholera outbreak and felt compelled to offer her medical services to the sick children there. Once she established regular medical services in these communities, she realized they needed housing renovations. Once those began, she realized they needed property rights. Then, she realized they needed opportunities for higher education, and so on.
What began with a single woman, offering what she could for the betterment of a community in need, has resulted in a large, holistic, and exceptionally influential NGO that works with some of the poorest of the global poor.
“Asha,” she told us, “is Hindi for ‘hope.'” She had called her life’s work, “Hope.”
If this woman, with this monumental mission, can call this work, “Hope,” then perhaps I can claim it for my small work, too. Perhaps I, too, can be one woman, merely offering what I can for the betterment of one community. Perhaps that is how hope can survive, maybe even thrive, in the day to day.