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I’ve been blogging here about “theology and vulnerability”—that is, about my heightened struggles with anxiety during the past year and my discernment about the relationship between who I am as a doctoral student in theology and as someone who struggles with mental health. In my last post I highlighted the unhealthy ways that many appear to respond to the anxiety-producing structures of the theological academy. I promised to finish up my little series with a few observations about those who cope better, and even thrive, in this environment. From them I’ve garnered some challenging lessons that I carry with me as I continue to face the difficulties of my vocational journey.
A week or so after I started my Master’s degree, I was given some of the best advice about graduate school that I have received to date. I had confessed to one of my mentors, Tom Beaudoin, that the perceived pressures and expectations of Harvard had already left me bewildered and concerned. So quickly I had felt my anxiety rise and encroach upon my love of theology, my intellectual curiosity, and my discernment about a vocational calling to theology. I sought reassurance from Tom, asking, “Will I cut it? What do they want? What should I be doing?”
He told me many things, all of which have been condensed into a single word of wisdom that has echoed in my mind for years. “Don’t apologize to anyone for how you choose to engage this experience.” It is only during the past year that I became truly attuned to the truth of his advice. Essentially, he advised me to be myself—freely, contentedly, unapologetically. He had the insight to know that if I was able to be myself, to become more comfortable with my own unique ability and style in theology—and in life more broadly—then these anxious questions and worries about external expectations would fade a bit.
While engaging the world as one’s self, one’s true self, may seem like it would be the most natural thing to do, I’ve often found it to be incredibly difficult. It is difficult, I think, because I have internalized so many other messages that promise peace and happiness in exchange for being someone other than who I really am. (e.g., “Smile less, or you won’t be taken seriously.” “Don’t write about this scholar, or that subject, because people will pigeon-hole you, tokenize you, even dismiss you without consideration.” “Wear heals when you teach. The sound and height will intimidate students so they don’t disrespect you as just another young woman.”). Many of these messages are not untrue, and many who pass them along do so with the very best intention of promoting my well-being.
Perhaps I would be taken more seriously if I smiled less, wore high-heels, and withheld or postponed my perspective about certain subjects. But I wouldn’t be me. I wouldn’t be me, and I would have a head full of worries about who I ought to be at any given moment of every single day. A head full of worries about “what ‘they’ want” and “whether I’m cutting it” and “who I should be” has much less room for theological reflection and creativity. I know from experience.
The professors and peers who seem to love life in theology, who thrive despite the pressures and demanding structures of the academy, are those who are not consumed by who they ought to be as professional or aspiring theologians. This requires an immense amount of vulnerability. To come to theology as one’s self, unapologetically, may at times mean doing what seems unorthodox or unpopular to others. Likewise, not playing by the standard rules and strategies and timelines of the academy may lead some to be less “successful” or “accomplished” by certain standards. This risks painful rejection, too. Some of us will be rejected, at times unfairly, for being our true selves. This is the tremendous risk and vulnerability of bringing one’s true self to theology—or any vocation, for that matter.
My struggles with anxiety have brought me to a point where I simply can’t proceed in theology if I do it any other way than as myself. If being myself, unapologetically, allows me a sense of integrity about what I do—if it allows me to free up the headspace to think boldly and authentically and creatively, if it allows me to be content today rather than endlessly chasing after the promise of my future status in the profession—then the professional risks are worthwhile to me.
This remains terrifying at times. There are still days when my voice shakes violently as I force myself to speak in class. There are days when I belabor paragraphs or essay titles more out of fear than interest. There are days when I hesitate, anxiously, before clicking the “publish” key and letting my words take on a virtual life of their own. I am a bit more content than I used to be, however. More frequently than in the past, I face these situations as myself. A bit more courageous, a little more unapologetic.
And surprisingly, I’ve often discovered that things are not as frightening as I imagined they would be. I’ve brought my smile, given away my high heels, and spoken up and written about what matters to me most. And it’s been hard, but a bit more satisfying.
Is theology making me sick? This is one of the recurring questions I grappled with as I came to terms with my anxiety during the past year. This question—a really troubling existential one, one that potentially calls into question a lot of what I’ve been doing with my life for the past eight years—simply could not be avoided.
One of the many early benefits of counseling was a heightened awareness of the situations that triggered my anxiety. I took note when I sat in seminars and colloquia totally absorbed in the task of mitigating an anxiety-induced catastrophe. “You will not run out of the room,” I told myself moments before my presentation began. “You will not throw-up. You will not throw-up.” I paid attention when day after day I sat at my computer, tears streaming down my face, unable to write. As I recognized patterns among the scenarios that got my head spinning and my heart racing, I simply could not deny the fact that many aspects of my life as a graduate student triggered these spells of heightened panic.
So I began to wonder: “Is theology making me sick?” And if it is, could I continue on this career path in academic theology? I always suspected that theology itself was not the central cause of my problems. I would likely bring my anxiety, with its deep roots in my personal psyche, to whatever career I pursued. Still, there are a number of reasons why I continued to wonder whether there is something about this line of work that magnifies my personal struggle.
I have reason beyond my own personal experience to question whether the theological academy is a potential hazard to mental health. Some of the responders to my last post testified to the burdens that can accompany life in the academy, regardless of whether one struggles with mental illness. One commenter, Mags Blackie, eloquently captured this when she wrote that that process of “putting on the cloak of capability is something that afflicts us all” in the academy.
Another scholar, Ann Cvetkovich, makes her case for the psychological effects of the academy in her book, Depression: A Public Feeling. Eschewing the medicalization of mental illness as a reductive and insufficient account of the complex human experience of depression and anxiety, she exhorts cultural studies scholars to identify and interrogate the social structures that lead to these psychological states on a broad scale. She identifies capitalism as a major source of mental illness, and explores the ways that scholarly life amidst the production demands of the academy spawned her struggle with bipolar depression. In an industry notorious for its relatively scarce employment opportunities and its “publish or perish” demands for those fortunate enough to get a job, one can easily spiral into a recurring state of despair or constant worry, she explains.
I have some contentions with Cvetkovich’s project (e.g., in the same way that she is weary of reducing mental health to biological factors alone, I’m weary of the purely-cultural explanations on which she seems to rely), but her book has many convincing dimensions, especially in light of how I’ve watched others live in the theological academy for a number of years. Certain structures, like that of academic theology, do seem to affect people’s psychological health. Many accept varying degrees of depression and anxiety as completely normal states of mind among graduate students and theologians. For years I’ve heard peers comfort one other with the message that it’s perfectly normal to be miserable. “We’re graduate students or academics—of course things suck!” And, to be sure, there are aspects of graduate studies that, for the average student, are extremely difficult and warrant a proportionate amount of worry and struggle. But I have learned firsthand just how unhelpful—even damaging—this habitual justification can be. When someone is struggling with more severe manifestations of anxiety and depression there is a temptation to dismiss it as entirely acceptable. Anxiety and depression are just part of this way of life.
I’ve seen how this mentality spawns a perpetual deferment of happiness that can lead to years and decades of misery. We tell ourselves: I’ll be happy when I finish comps. I’ll be happy when I publish a peer-review article. I’ll be content when I finish the dissertation. I’ll be happy when I get a tenure-track job. I’ll have peace when I secure tenure….And in the meantime, people are miserable and this too often goes unquestioned. Is theology making us sick? Or, perhaps better put: Is theology making so many of us perpetually unhappy?
I am convinced that there are certain realities about academic theology that lend themselves to the widespread discontentment that I’ve personally experienced and witness among many peers and professors. However, as I considered whether I should stay in theology amidst escalations in my anxiety and its associations with my academic work, I also began to pay more attention to those who didn’t seem so affected by the pressures and demands of academic life. If there is something about theology that contributes to my illness and renders so many others perpetually unhappy, then what is it about these other people in theology who seem content? How is it that they appear immune?
Contrary to what one might assume, contentment in the theological academy is not only for those who are “successful” by the standards of the institution’s production demands. From what I observed, it is not reserved for the frequently published and prestigiously appointed. Peers and professors of varying levels of academic “accomplishment” and “success” aren’t paralyzed by the structures of this line of work. This raised some other important questions for me: Am I really just the passive product of a harsh system? Or have I been making myself sick?
During the past year I lived in the tension of these questions, and I’ve learned a few things in the process. This post is already quite long, however, so I’ll reserve those thoughts for my next post….
Amid these long days curled over my laptop and yellow-paged library books, I have been stepping out into the fresh air for a walk on the Labyrinth. The white-stoned, circular meditation walk rests on the edge of a grassy lawn across from the entrance of Andover, Harvard’s theology library. The Labyrinth is warm from many hours under the sun, so I often take off my shoes to feel the heat radiating from the stone. Sometimes my shoes feel as confining as the walls of the wooden study carol where I have been writing my final papers all week. The labyrinth winds back and forth from beginning to end, and no matter how many times I walk it, I find myself feeling directionless there; that’s part of what makes it effective, I think. All I can do is look down at the path carved out in the stone, place one foot in front of the other, and follow the path in front of me.
During my second week at Harvard, I sat down for dinner with one of my mentors and I confessed my excitement and anxiety about the year ahead. I had no doubt that I did not want to be anywhere but HDS; I already loved my classes and professors, and my peers were brilliant and fascinating. Still, I worried that I could not live up to the opportunity. What if I’m what this place expects? What if they don’t like my ideas, or my approach? “Just give yourself to this process!” he reassured me. “This is amazing! I’m so excited for you! Just give yourself to this process…” I’ve repeated these words a thousand times this year.
On the days when I am particularly anxious, I look up in the midst of my labyrinth walk, and I am startled, “Have I moved at all?” This is a ridiculous question, of course. I’ve been walking for the last five minutes. Yet, really and truly, there are moments when I look up at all the turns of this winding circular path and I wonder this. I don’t have the patience for it. I ache for a reminder of progress! But all that’s there is another corner to pivot—a corner that looks just like the one I passed five paces ago. I want a reminder of progress! And then—I remind myself that that is not the point.
People often ask me if I picture myself doing something other than theology in the future. Typically, I reply with something like, “Well, I’m old enough to know that life cannot be planned. So, I try to remain open. But right now, I really see myself moving in the direction of theology.” For some reason I do not tell them about the moment earlier this year when I was sitting at my kitchen table with my roommate, Sarah. It was one of those anxious days, one when I was doubting myself again. She asked me that question about the possibility of doing something else, and I started to cry when I told her the complete truth, saying, “I don’t know what else I could possibly do…” It is not that I could not find employment, and even satisfaction, in any number of other careers. No. The truth is that I feel so deeply that this is what I am called to do, for myself and for my community, that even on the hard days I cannot see myself working toward anything else. And sometimes the calling frightens me. But it is always there, and it is so much mine that I can’t imagine leaving it.
The panicked, directionless moments are so often an occasion for reminding myself that I am moving, and that I’m exactly where I need to be. “Just give yourself to this process,” I tell myself. “One step at a time. One step. One step,” I tell myself again. When I confront my doubt with the truth of my call, I remember all the moments of epiphany this year—all the moments when I have felt more free than I ever have before—more myself, and more with God, and more with and for my people than I could have ever imagined.
The stone is warm under the soles of my feet, and I lean forward to take another step—
“‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ gave way–here is the heart of the story–to ‘But into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Jesus handed himself over to the God who was not there. And found God there. In trusting the One who was not there, Jesus was resurrected…” –James Carroll, from Practicing Catholic
Sometimes, this is what it feels like to be a Catholic–like handing myself over to nothing. Handing myself over, but with hope for some future resurrection.
In his autobiography, James Carroll writes the lines quoted above amidst a story about one of his mentors, American poet Allen Tate. As a young seminarian Carroll visited Tate at his home, finding upon his arrival that one of Tate’s infant children choked and died in his crib only a week earlier. Tate’s Catholic priest refused the infant a Catholic funeral, as the child died unbaptized and because, according to Tate, the child’s father was a “bad” Catholic. The young Carroll was dismayed by the circumstances, and did his best to respond to his mentor with compassion and the message of a loving and unceasingly welcoming God.
In this quote, Carroll is telling his friend who God is–who Jesus is. I can only imagine that Tate, this grieving father, could relate to Carroll’s description of Jesus, for Tate was also a human encountering the absence of God and the difficulty of handing oneself over the to this very real experience of despair.
When I read stories like Tate’s I am angered by the cruelties committed in the name of Catholicism. I face these representations of the Church, and I think, “God is not there.” –Yet, Catholicism is my faith?
I also read about men and women like Carroll, though, and I remember why I still believe in Catholicism’s resurrection. I am challenged to believe that God even brings resurrection to places and people that seem to be without God. I am reminded that I still experience the same strange paradox of Jesus’ experience–and Tate’s experience: I have handed myself over to the God who was not always there–not always in Catholicism. Yet I still find God there, in Catholicism.
It is comforting to know this strange reality belongs to more than just me.
Socrates often called himself a “mino,” a midwife; it was one of his favorite metaphors for the teacher. He believed that teaching was not a matter of bestowing information upon a student, but rather coaching one through the process of giving birth to the knowledge that is already within oneself. I think there is something to this pedagogy. Even when one encounters “new” information, real learning and radical comprehension requires that one situate it within the complications of his/her greater intellectual framework. Surely, that is an active and arduous process.
I feel as if I have been in labor for the past four months, trying earnestly to birth the nascent knowledge of my time at Harvard Divinity School. There have been times in the last few weeks when I have reached out desperately for the hand of a partner, my mind amid intellectual exhaustion, my fingers tired from pushing, pushing the keys of this tiny white keyboard.
“I don’t know if I can do this….” I had to keep pushing. It had never before been that hard to process, to write, to read again and again and again!
“Push!” my midwives insisted. “Keep pushing!” they encouraged. “We see this precious child within you! We see it coming! Push!”
With a sigh of relief and satisfaction, the infant arrived: ideas I had not entirely known I possessed, or at least commanded enough to reproduce in the tangible form of written word. “It is a miracle!” I always observe with delight whenever I create something of which I can manage to be proud. “What a miracle!”
I have never birthed a human being, but I think I have a little glimpse into the patience such a strenuous labor would require, and perhaps a tiny insight into the pride experienced when holding the infant in her arms after working and waiting for so long. “It is a little me,” she sighs, “This is my creation!” Starring down at an essay composed of so much of me, these are my words, too.
In the process of juggling the heavy chalice and coarse white napkin during my first occasion of serving as a Eucharist Minister, I managed to spill the sweet, red, consecrated wine—the Blood of Christ. It spilled all over my shaking hands. It formed a tiny puddle atop of the burnt red tile of the Mission Church floor. I shook with panic and embarrassment, but could not manage any productive move in response to what I had done. I had been careless with the gift of the Eucharist. I had spilled the Blood of Christ. And everyone watched me.
I was amidst an intimate evening liturgy with the Jesuit community and a small collection of guests from our university community. There were maybe thirty of us in attendance. Everyone could see me as I fumbled around with our Faith. This was at the heart of my momentary, paralyzing anxiety. My panic did not stem from a burden of personal shame about carelessly handling the Eucharist—I was confident this mistake was not unforgivable in God’s eyes. It was the gaze of my fellow Christians that terrified me. I knew how much the Eucharist means in our tradition, and I feared being judged a sloppy, unfit Catholic because of this incident. In my struggle to participate and serve the community, I had committed a grave liturgical sin, and everyone watched me do it.
Sometimes I think this is what it is like, being a theologian, or a minister, or simply just a Christian in our world today. We publicly take up a faith, a claim to a community, an allegiance to particular authorities (however ambiguous or ambivalent that may be), and everyone is watching us do it—fellow Christians, religious skeptics, curious inquirers. Everyone is watching.
And sometimes all I can do is stand there before everyone, the Blood of Christ dripping from my fingers, all too keenly aware that I am not the appearance of what a good Christian should be.
Seeing the shock and embarrassment in my frozen expression, Father Ravizza rescued me. This kind, gentle man stepped out of the communion line, came forward and leaned in close to me. “I spilled,” I said in a whispered confession. “It’s okay,” he replied. “Let’s do this…” He removed the white napkin from my clinched fingers, unfolded it and covered the small red puddle on the floor. He hurried over to the side altar for another napkin, and before I knew it he was at my side again, placing a clean cloth into my hand. He did not tell me to sit down. He did not replace me with another more competent minister. “Go ahead,” he said, nudging me back to the patient people in the communion line. “The Blood of Christ,” I began again…
When I struggle with the public imperfections of my Christian life, with the guilt of not being the community member I wish I was, or the person that I should be, I return to this moment for a reminder of redemption. Jesus will step out of the communion line to clean up this mess with me. And Jesus will tell me to “Go ahead,” again.