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“Do we care about mental illness?”
The title of E. Lawrence’s June blog post at WIT: Women in Theology caught my attention. There, E. argued that there are formidable barriers to serious theological conversation about mental illness in the Catholic academy. The post identified two in particular. First, she explained the stigmatization of mental illness due to its association with U.S. bourgeois culture and its comfort-seeking, self-indulgent, and self-medicating practices. Next, she highlighted the apprehension many theologians have concerning psychological notions of the human person.
Although I know relatively little about theological treatments of mental illness, I felt compelled to comment when I finished reading the post. I rarely participate in online discussion in this way, but it seemed to me that the point I wanted to raise was pertinent, perhaps even important. So I logged in, clicked the comment box, and constructed a sentence or two. And then I stopped. After an extended pause, I deleted those sentences. I read E.’s post again. Eyeing the comment box once more, I resigned, closed the browser, and folded my laptop screen.
In that almost-comment I had intended to suggest another barrier to theological conversation about mental illness: the mental illness experienced by theologians, themselves. While E. had rightly acknowledged that many in academic theology experience mental illness, she had not identified this as a barrier. It seemed to be an obvious one to me. It seemed obvious because I have a mental illness.
E. explained that “mental illness” is, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.” It was almost a year ago now that I received a diagnosis of anxiety from my psychologist. The event of getting an official diagnosis was really a non-event for me, in large part because I was too preoccupied with managing the actual experience of the illness. Anxiety, which had taken hold of my life years before, seemed increasingly to take over my life altogether.
How might a theologian’s personal experience of mental illness inhibit theological conversation about topic? My struggle to offer a comment in this virtual discussion was case in point. I wanted to suggest that some theologians don’t talk about mental illness because such an undertaking would necessitate coming to terms with his/her own mental illness—something that is difficult for many. At the time I had begun to wonder whether my career aspirations in academic theology magnified this difficulty for me. In a profession that is so overtly associated with a sharp, strong intellect—a strong mind—it is frightening to admit to myself and to others that my mind is sick.
I couldn’t bring myself to identify this barrier in response to E.’s post because I was simply so uncomfortable with how much of an obstacle mental illness has been for own identity as an aspiring theologian. It has taken me many months—and a whole lot of therapy—to come to terms with the fact that I’m a human being who struggles with a mental illness. I’m an aspiring academic whose mind is weak in this particular way. I struggled a great deal to integrate this illness into my personal, professional, and spiritual identity. I still do and must continue to do so, for even as this illness is far less paralyzing than it used be, I know I will probably always be a person with anxiety. A “cure” for me comes not by way of irradiating this dimension of my mind, but by accepting it as a component of who I am and learning to live with it in healthier ways.
Earlier this week I recalled how my early encounters with academic theology led me to view it as a space for vulnerability and courage. It was a place where people risked exploring and interrogating what matters to them most. I admitted that overtime I had come to doubt whether this was really true, and consequently I had put up guards in the classroom and academy. I wanted to come across as a capable, strong theological mind rather than the human being that I am. I am a human being who, like everyone, is weak sometimes. When my anxiety escalated this year, my illness demanded that I accept myself as, well, myself. I could no longer maintain the pretense of an unshakable mind.
The difficult work of intensive counseling and the immeasurable support of family and friends has transformed my everyday life over the course of this year. This process has been—and remains—exhausting. But it has also brought many blessings. One has been the opportunity to begin again in theology. I have reached the conviction that I want to live into my theological vocation with my weaknesses—not in spite of them. For, as Tillich reminded me last week, until I bring all of who I am to theology, it’s not quite theology: How can we reflect upon that which is the Ground of Who We Are if we do not bring all of Who We Are to the task?
Anxious as I may be, I am garnering the “courage to be” me in academic theology. I’m beginning, again.
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.
A couple years ago Roger Haight S.J., one of Catholicism’s leading theologians, visited the Paulist Catholic Center here in Boston to offer a three-day lecture series. At the beginning of one Q&A session, an audience member stood in a huff and proceeded to deliver a lengthy, rather aggressive monologue directed at Haight. Those familiar with the controversies surrounding his work might assume that this man took the public lecture as an occasion to echo the harsh words of Haight’s magisterial critics. Quite the opposite, in fact. The audience member argued that the disciplinary measures against Haight were another example of the reactionary shift in church leadership since Vatican II. The Second Vatican Council, he explained, had offered a vision of hope for Catholics that has only been mired by the Church hierarchy ever since.
This is a message I heard repeatedly during the last three and a half years as a staff member at the Paulist Center. One of the major hubs in Boston for Catholics seeking a community of vibrant worship and lefty social justice commitments, the Paulist Center is hospitable to many folks who wish the Church at large looked a little (or a lot) different than it does today. Despite my familiarity with this audience member’s perspective, my shared dissatisfaction with the treatment of Roger Haight and his work, and my own related concerns about the current status of Catholicism, I found myself cringing as I sat in the pew just a few feet away from this man.
When the event concluded I headed to dinner with a group of young adults where I facilitated a discussion about Haight’s talk. As always, I was struck by the earnestness, intelligence, and eloquence of my peers as they reflected on spirituality and our lives as Catholics. These young adults echoed, in content, what that vocal audience member had proclaimed earlier: They, too, where saddened and frustrated to know that our brilliant and kind lecturer had endured so much strife from church leaders. They, too, worry about what our church does and does not look like today.
What was absent from their reflections that night—and most nights—was the aggressiveness and bitterness that made me cringe when I heard very similar concerns from the older audience member earlier that evening. I rarely experience the same bitterness among younger “progressive” Catholics that I witness so often among older members of the community. And I’ve been trying to figure out why for a long time. Have we young adults simply not lived with the church long enough to accrue the degree of anger that we witness in older Catholics? Is it just a matter of time until we also find ourselves taking the mic for a few safe moments to diffuse some of that frustration we’ve been harboring inside? Maybe. Maybe that’s one reason why that man made me so uncomfortable: I recognized much of my own anger in him, and faced with this mirror, I found myself wondering: Has my Catholic faith fated me to a life of bitterness and resentment? Is this what my disappointment and frustration is bound to become? This kind of anger, however sincere and justified, is not what I want for this man, my community, or my life.
I believe these are some of the pressing spiritual questions among many Catholics today. My years in Catholic young adult ministry have shown me that I am not alone in seeking a hospitable space where I can process my frustrations about the Church with a supportive community. This blog is one such space, to be sure. At the same time, there are these moments when there is a temptation to indulge this disappointment and anger in unhealthy ways. We attend to our wounds in ways that cause them to fester rather than heal. With the best of intentions, we proclaim our anger so loudly and so often that we come to associate only words of resentment with Catholicism. When we listen to ourselves we only hear how miserable it is to be a Catholic today.
How do we respond to the pain in a way that brings healing and life? Because Christian work ought to be healing work, I am convinced that all Christians—especially ministers—need to deal seriously and carefully with church-related pain, whether it belongs to others or to oneself. Yet I do not think simply offering a microphone is always the best response; it is rarely a good response if it is the sole response. I suggest this because I experienced a temptation in communities full of genuinely hurt Catholics to join the chorus of anger when it doesn’t quite reflect the complexity of one’s situation of own faith—of one’s own pain. In the safety of like-minded folks such as that audience member, I have found myself spouting dismissive comments about the Church only to realize minutes later that my own words don’t reflect the reality of my life as a Catholic—as a Catholic who is sad and frustrated, but also enlivened and hopeful. Again, admittedly, there are times when I have rather snide things to say about the Church that need to be named in order to be processed healthily. But, when faced with such words, I think I too rarely ask myself and others: Is that all you need to say? Can I help you process this more?
As I have expressed elsewhere on the blog, I do not think the necessary result of this healing process will be a long, carefree life within the traditional boundaries of the Catholic Church. Whatever the concrete results of processing the pain of Catholic life, I believe that healing, life-giving work is the work to which we must faithfully give ourselves. As much as the concrete results of healing are often unknown and always particular to an individual’s own struggles, I am quite sure that a life bounded by bitterness and resentment is likely not what God wants for us.
Over the years, the frank and hopeful insights of the young adults at the Paulist Center have taught me this. These peers afforded me opportunities for honest speech in the context of a larger community of healing, for which I was immensely grateful as I concluded my time on staff there last week. And the healing continues…
I’ve been running.
Had you asked me about running six months ago, I would have sighed, frowned, and said something like, “Yeah, I go for a jog occasionally…” (Grumble, grumble, grumble). Like some of you, I imagine, running was something I did from time to time because one ought to run. One ought to for her health. One ought to, perhaps, so she can still claim some bit of lingering athletic ability during her mid-twenties.
As I ran I couldn’t escape the physical and mental confrontation of pain, however. “This hurts,” I thought between the weight and wear of deep, heavy breaths. And then I wondered, “Why is this so painful for me? How do all these other people run so much further and faster through all this pain?!” The mental battle prompted by the pain was ultimately the bigger obstacle, the higher hurdle. Running entailed a confrontation with myself—my own vulnerability, my inability, my pain—that I wanted to run from. And running from it meant not running.
For the last couple months, though, I kept running.
Ms. Jenkins was one of my favorite high school teachers. In addition to introducing me to feminism, she taught me how to live through pain. (Perhaps this lesson pairing is no coincidence). One day she stopped her history lesson and disclosed to us a great impending truth about our own future histories: “Some day you will love someone so much that when it ends, you will wake up in the morning, lay in bed, and you won’t want to get up because it will feel like the world has ended. You will feel like that. It will hurt that much. But you must get out of bed,” she said. “You must get out of bed that day, and the next day, and the next day. And overtime you will notice that the pain shifts. And one day while brushing your teeth it will occur to you that the pain has shifted so much that you actually believe you will be okay. You will realize that somewhere between the end of the world and brushing your teeth, things got better.”
I’ve recited this wisdom to myself and my grieving friends about a hundred times. I’ve done that because, after a few of these personal Armageddons, I know that Ms. Jenkins was right. Even so, there has been a shift overtime in my understanding of the process that she described to us that day. I used to think this was merely a story about the inevitable dissolution of pain across time: If one just continues through life for long enough, one will eventually live without that pain. Time heals; this kind of pain disappears. And while heartache may very well be a kind of pain that quantitatively lessens over days and months and years, I think Ms. Jenkins also disclosed something about the possibilities of relating to one’s pain: Sometimes we have the choice to run from it, to stay in bed—or to run with it, to live into it.
Like running, living into this sort of pain entails a confrontation with my own vulnerability. And it is overwhelming at times to attend to it—to live while paying attention to my own fragility. But freaking out and avoiding the reality of my pain and my vulnerability to it—the alternative—does not foster any sort of transformation, any sort of healing. I’ve come to think that there will always be pain, to varying degrees, and I will always, always be affected by it. But I can live well with it. Through it.
When I kept running, I learned to breathe through the pain. I learned to embrace the sense of vulnerability I feel amidst it. That pain has lessened, too, but that has not been the most transformative or reassuring result of this new habit. I have discovered, or perhaps engendered, a deep peace along the way.
I was recently listening to a Radiolab podcast that featured writer Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, that one). She spoke about inspiration, and how she has remained creative and productive as a writer. Earlier in her career, she had learned to talk her to inspiration–as if it were outside of her. “TELL ME YOUR NAME,” she had demanded of her book, “Eat, Pray, Love” when at the final stages of preparation before publication, the completed manuscript had no title. After yelling at it–literally–for days, she woke up one morning and there it was: the answer, the title. “I can feel the difference when something is produced purely from my own sweat and blood, and when something is given to me,” she said. A writer has to do the work, she confirmed, of course. But those moments of pure inspiration, those creative gifts that seem to originate from outside of oneself, those are the moments that interrupt the rest of the writing process and make it great.
Last summer while studying French, I learned that the word “essay” is an adaptation of the French verb, “essayer.” Plainly, “essayer” means “to try.” An essay–a try. These linguistic connections are some of the simple pleasures of language study: with the acquisition of a single foreign word, even the most native term can take on a whole new depth of meaning. An essay–a try. It made so much sense to me.
And I think it resonated with me because of the creative process that Gilbert described. When I sit down to write, I am trying–trying to write well, yes–but really, truly, I am trying to be open to that something else…that something “given” that Gilbert describes as inspiration. In that sense, I am trying not to write at all. The best stuff on the page doesn’t originate from within me. It hits me, smack in the head, while I’m mid-way through a sentence at my keyboard. I can feel that it arrives from a different place. From where?
Theologian Gordon Kaufman describes God as Creativity. I’m not sure it’s God, but I do think, whatever it is, it helps me to believe in God. There is something deeply sacramental about this experience within the writing process: in the relationship between a writer and her words, something good and beyond interrupts. Mystery interrupts what is otherwise mundane and laborious. Isn’t that precisely the experience of the world the compels me toward the Divine?
It is the end of finals here at Harvard–and the completion of my Master’s degree, at that. And this is the time of every semester when we find ourselves asking, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” All the pressure, all the essays, ALL the essays. Still, I keep trying and trying and trying–because, when I ask myself “Why do I do this? WHY do I do this?” I realize I am still waiting, crazy like Elizabeth Gilbert, for the mystery to interrupt. I want to keep waiting, to keep writing. An essay–a try.
“Can you believe that we are looking into the tails of galaxies? That’s what they are, right?” I walked a few paces ahead of Sarah and Ty as I listened to them marvel at the sky. We trudged through the damp vineyard, our boots belching as they moved in and out of the thick mud. It was almost easier to navigate our path by sound than by sight that night. The moon had somehow disappeared; perhaps she hid behind those ubiquitous clouds that brand our Pacific Northwest winters. Whatever the case, it made for fantastic stargazing. Millions of miles away, they glisten far brighter than any distant city lights we could still make out.
“Sometimes when I look up at the stars, I stop thinking. It’s just—too big.”
I grinned as I eavesdropped on their wonder-filled exclamations. It occurred to me that anything anyone ever says about the beauty of the stars usually sounds trite to me. But as my mind wondered off, I realized that this wasn’t really the case this time: the sky did look absolutely incredible from where we stood. And it was just too big. There was something about the stars that night that was more beautiful than I could grasp—too beautiful, more incredible than I had remembered them ever seeming before.
It had been nearly a year since I spent any significant amount of time back in the Seattle area. Between full-time studies and summer school, and a handful of part-time jobs to juggle at any given time, there was not much vacation in the last year. Not much time for stargazing. So I wondered if the stars looked brighter because it had been so long since I looked at them from outside the buzzing Northeastern urbanscape I now call home.
And then, I wondered if it had simply been so long since I looked up at them from anywhere. Just as distance makes the heart grow fonder, perhaps my leave from stargazing afforded this momentary, cosmic bedazzlement. Maybe the stars weren’t really that beautiful; they were simply more striking that night because they were more foreign than before. Simple enough.
Then, I wondered whether they are always this breath taking, yet I just shrug off the wonder of the stars as a justification for my own narrow-sightedness. What if they are always shining like this, and I just don’t raise my gaze high enough to see them? Maybe the stars are this brilliant in Boston too, I thought to myself, and I just haven’t been looking up as often.
Our muddy path opened up to a look-out with a few benches. Shivering a bit as the nighttime breeze encircled us, I sat down on the damp wood and reclined onto my back. My shoulders relaxed and opened against the hard surface beneath me. And it was silent for sometime. And I stopped wondering why all of us were staring up at the most amazing scene of stars.