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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….
“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.
I embarked on a new adventure with the start of the school year: I am now a “TA,” or Teaching Assistant, for an undergraduate theology class at Boston College. After a couple weeks on the job I have greater insight into some of teaching’s challenges, but I also have a greater sense of the immense joy that teaching can bring. For instance, the comments of our students fascinate me, leaving my mind spinning with thoughts every time I depart from a class discussion or grading session.
Since early last week I’ve been circling around an observation one student voiced in class. We had spent the hour unpacking the first chapter of Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith, which includes his argument that doubt is an essential component of faith. The professor asked whether religious communities are typically places where doubt is welcome, and unsurprisingly, most students replied in the negative. It was the phrasing of one student’s response that struck me in particular. She explained that she grew up Catholic and never felt like she could express her doubts about faith and God. Because she felt that her sincere doubts were unwelcome in the community, she often felt quite lonely.
This immediately stirred a mix of emotions in me. I empathized with this student, remembering the acute spiritual loneliness I experienced when I showed up to my first theology class as a freshman in college. Somehow I had also internalized this message that I was strange, even bad, because I couldn’t shake the personal doubts and intellectual questions that I brought to Catholicism. I was sad to hear that, all these years later, another young adult sits in a theology class feeling like I did, as if very little separated her experience of Catholicism and mine.
Meanwhile, I was hopeful and excited for this student. It was precisely the study of theology that dissolved so much of my spiritual loneliness. In theology I found a space where inquiry brought people together—a stark contrast to the feeling of isolation that doubt had engendered previously. Consequently, theology was from the first a space of immense vulnerability. The theological classroom was a space where I disclosed and engaged my “ultimate concern” in life—that which, according to Tillich, is the site of our finite encounter with the infinite. To question and doubt that which is most dear to us necessitates risk, and I was fortunate to experience the theological classroom as a safe space for such risk.
As the years passed, however, I have increasingly doubted whether theology is actually a safe space to explore and question what matters to me most. There are many reasons for this. It is due in part to the appropriate loss of naivety that has accompanied my advancement in the theological academy. Theology does not appear as romantic as it used to, and that’s probably a good thing. However, over the past year I’ve concluded that I’m often afraid to risk my questions and ideas in theology for a host of reasons that aren’t so good. Some of these inhibitions are purely internal to my psyche. Some are external. In the end, they are all inhabitations—factors that have, overtime, restricted my ability pursue my theological vocation courageously and with my whole heart.
In the next few days and weeks I plan to share about these inhibitions through some reflections on theology, fear, and vulnerability here on the blog. For many who have been a part of my everyday life during the past year, many of the forthcoming reflections will be familiar. I’ve decided to share them with everyone else here on the blog in light of what this student reminded me of earlier this week. One of the great lessons of my theological formation is that we are not alone as creatures in this world. When I look back on the past nine years I have never regretted the times when I reached out of the loneliness I experienced to be vulnerable and share openly about my struggles, doubts, and questions. So far, this vulnerability has been received with the confirmation that we are, in fact, not alone.
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.
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…
“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.
You have not danced so badly, my dear,
Trying to hold hands with the Beautiful One.
You have waltzed with great style,
My sweet, crushed angel,
To have ever neared God’s Heart at all.
Our Partner is notoriously difficult to follow,
And even His best musicians are not always easy to hear.
So what if the music has stopped for a while.
If the price of admission to the Divine
Is out of reach tonight…
For He will not be able to resist your longing
You have not danced so badly, my dear,
Trying to kiss the Beautiful One.
You have actually waltzed with tremendous style,
O my sweet,
O my sweet, crushed angel.
My friend Chuck and I meet once a week to study for the GRE. We know we wouldn’t glance at a single analogy this summer without the accountability. Even then, our plans to plow through a few more drills during our time together are inevitably amended for the sake of rousing discussion about theology and our vocations as educator-artist-theologians.
Last week we were musing about good theology–about the nature of it, the courage and creativity of it. I confessed to him how badly I crave to write something honest and beautiful like our favorite scholars and theologians. Like Foucault, or Simone Weil.
“There are these rare moments of ecstasy when I’m playing with my band–” Chuck told me. He is a musician, and you would know it by hearing him mention a few words on the subject; you can hear it in the reverent tone of his voice. “These moments of beauty and ecstasy–I think they’re like the beauty of theology you’re talking about.” I nodded, encouraging him. “When I’m with my band I can’t force that, you know? It’s a combination of too many things–it’s the way the musicians are playing together that night, it’s the space, it’s the crowd and their chemistry with us.”
Remembering the rush of a great concert, I affirmed, “Yes, that’s what I want, and I know it is about more than just me. When I write I am working so hard, but God doesn’t always show up, ya know? That energy and beauty doesn’t always come.” I paused, and then confided to him, “We’ve been working on these applications to doctoral programs, Chuck, and I feel like there is so much riding on this performance. It’s like a show with an audience full of the most brilliant musicians, all of them scrutinizing you, expecting to witness greatness…”
“I’ve been at shows when the ecstasy didn’t come. When the performance never reached that perfection,” he told me. “But you know, I could tell how much the band wanted it. And sometimes that’s enough for a great show. It’s not the ultimate; it not ecstasy, but sometimes it’s enough for audience to just witness that hunger within you.”
Hafiz says that even when we do not dance so badly, and even when we waltz with tremendous style, God does not always appear there on the dance floor. This does not mean that God is not watching the beautiful dance, I am sure. “So what?” Hafiz says, writing so affectionately of this angel as she dances. So what? So what? Perhaps the performance can be beautiful, even as her partner still pauses at the edge of the dance floor.
Perhaps I can create something beautiful, whether or not perfection takes me for a waltz today…