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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….
“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 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.