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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….
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 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.
“I haven’t written on the blog in so long,” I told my partner a few weeks ago. “I feel bad about it. But it just wasn’t coming to me–and lately, when the words come, I simply can’t get myself to sit still and write them. I don’t know what’s wrong with me!”
“No reason to feel bad about it,” he said, matter-a-factly. “Even God took a break.” Even God took a break.
Indeed, at the conclusion of the first creation narrative in Genesis 1, God takes a break–a seventh day sabbath. Surely, God’s break warrants my own respite from the creation process, right? This was consoling for a time…until the guilt began to encroach upon my psyche again. “God took a break after doing something,” I told myself. “I haven’t done any writing at all lately! And what’s more, God didn’t just create something. God created something ‘very good‘!” This logic only brings me right back to where I began.
This swirling mess of self-justification and degradation so often frames my daily reflection on life–not just my blogging life. If I’m not bemoaning my lazy writing practice, then it’s my inability to keep up with my growing email inbox or to-do lists, or my desire to work harder or fast or better, or harder and faster and better. The more I indulge this mindset, the more I find myself trapped in a world of insatiable demands. This cannot be the “very good” world that God created…right?
“I feel like I’m drowning,” I recently said this to someone on a particularly overwhelming day of tasks. It’s something I have said a hundred times before on a hundred other days like that one, but on that day the figurative image flashed before me: my arms flailing about, splashing water everywhere, grasping for air. Suddenly, I said to the drowning image of me, “Don’t you know that once you stop, you will float?”
It takes great courage to float–to believe that our survival does not depend on our own capacity to sustain ourselves. Such a risk stands in opposition to the myth of the self-made man that dominates the “American dream.” That is a dream of insatiable demands. But that’s not the “very good” world I want to live-into anyways.
The great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The world was brought into being in the six days of creation, yet its survival depends upon the holiness of the seventh day.” I’m trying to live like this–to live out the belief that my creation, my own hard work, will not alone sustain my survival. Sometimes, we all need to rest–to float–until the gentle current pulls us into another space of creativity again.
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…
When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.” Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.” The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes… (Matthew 8:5-8)
There are many things about this section of scripture that make me squeamish. In principle, I dislike charges of absolute authority, even as they are ascribed to the human incarnation of an omnipotent God. I am especially uncomfortable with authority analogies related to the military, or any other institutions that employ violence as a means of enforcement, for that matter. There is something about the centurion’s claim of unworthiness that gets me, too. Perhaps I’ve seen too many well-intentioned Christians transform “humility” into unproductive guilt.
Despite all this, I cling to that declaration: But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.
This man knew the power of a word.
Jesus responded to the centurion, saying, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would!” I’d like to believe that “Go” was the word with all that power. I want to believe that because it is often the smallest words that heal me. Last semester I took a seminar that required students to circulate written reflections on the assigned readings before class. While reading the first reflection paper of the semester, written by male student, I was touched by the care with which he employed one little word. “When one does this, she experiences that…” Every non-specific pronoun he utilized in the essay was gendered female—a stark contrast to the ubiquitous male-gendered pronouns that filled the theological texts we studied all semester. With that little word—“she”—this colleague extended a powerful message: language so often excludes people of your gender, and I am invested in changing that. This gesture brought a little bit of healing.
Big words and long phrases have power, too. I keep a stack of blank note cards next to my bed; you will find me frantically reaching for them while reading Nouwen, Teresa of Avila, and Foucault when I have come across a line or a paragraph too precious to forget. I scribble them down and pin them to the bulletin board hanging on my bedroom wall where they remind me that so many others out there share the truths that I have unearthed in this short life. These are healing words because they remind me that I am not alone in my search for sense and meaning in my strange encounter with this world.
When I think of being “Christlike,” I dream of bringing words that heal. This is how I make sense of a life of so many books and computer screens. I am searching for the Word. The Word that heals.