Monday, February 9, 2015

blather, continued

Returning briefly to the matter of my therapist - he and I entered an energetic debate on the meaning of trust and vulnerability; I was astonished to hear that he had a different opinion. (I suspect that when I see him next I am going to find out that the difference is to be explained as "mortification," which I am not looking forward to hearing but may need to hear anyway.) Meanwhile I went home to dig out my best tools to understand how I'd come to my own definition, and evaluate my understanding and our debate. I went to the internet. I re-watched (several times now) Brene Brown's magnificent talks for TED, which I have definitely mentioned here before (I believe I was originally led to them by the invaluable Pamela Tsigidnos of Silent Sorority), and which I urge you again to watch - even if you have watched them already. Begin here:

This time, I realized there were more (non-TED) videos of Brene on YouTube. I watched this one:

And again. And again.

My synopsis below will be of no use unless you watch it; watch it first, or quit reading (if anyone is).

She says...when we become UNCOMFORTABLE with VULNERABILITY, JOY leads to FOREBODING. Or words to that effect.

I have a zillion thoughts. What about when it isn't joy, but just the foreboding? What about fear? Does that go in another box? And what could be the solution to this joy-brings-foreboding problem? She said gratitude. That sounded trite, to me. The solution is obviously detachment - my practice of asceticism is not a brilliant success, but the ideas of asceticism are my native language. So, you look at your child sleeping in his crib, you love him to an overwhelming degree, you feel the inkling of terror that he could ever be taken away - and you tell yourself, He isn't mine. He was never mine. All that I am and all that I have could be whisked away in an instant, and I must hold it lightly; for the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

But she went on to say that she spoke to a man who had spent his whole life trying to take things lightly, never becoming too attached, and when his wife died, said that he regretted all of that - because none of his attempts to hold onto things lightly lessened the grief he endured; they only meant that he had missed a chance to live life fully in the first place.

That fellow's approach (which is apparently wrong) is about like my running recipe for avoiding a morbid conviction that all that I hold dear is about to be ripped away by a malicious God (Who in His apparent malice is only acting for my good, of course, good being defined as something that looks very bad but is still officially called good - my theology is mathematically perfect). It's the malicious God, or love nothing too much.

I concluded, of course, that my grief with infertility (and everything else I've ever struggled with) indicated a failure to embrace proper detachment. After all, I've done some spiritual reading here and there. Detachment is a legit spiritual practice.

But she seems to say that's not the answer. She says that the route to take is GRATITUDE. What does that even MEAN? If I'm grateful for something, it will never be taken away? Or, I won't care when I lose it? Or it won't hurt? Or pain will no longer be a bad thing? None of that even makes SENSE. Detachment actually adds up as an answer - with the small problem that for me, so far, with the biggest things (the ones that would hurt the most to lose), detachment has proved toxic to an emotionally healthy life in the time when I haven't lost the things yet. How could gratitude fix that? And why would I bother to try to construct a new spiritual understanding on the basis of a YouTube video?

And then I thought about this. What if...what if the point of all blessings is not that they're contingent? At a concert at my parish a few months ago, I was reflecting on one of the hymns; I no longer remember the hymn or the words, but I remember mulling over some less-familiar phrasing of the very-familiar idea that God doesn't give us more than we can handle (I Corinthians 10:13 - about which Mother Teresa famously said, "I just wish He didn't trust me so much"). This phrasing was something along the lines of - "EITHER He will spare us suffering, OR He will give us the strength to bear it." This is very obvious, yes? These are the two things we always pray for (one, the other, or both), at the core of all petitions.

But sometimes a slightly different phrasing opens things to a whole new light. What if...instead of it being the case that I (like everyone) am given occasional material or spiritual blessings in life (a wonderful day, the love of a friend, health, good news at work, a blessing for a family member, a fantastic memory to share with my husband), and that I am to be detached from all of them (to mortify my desire for any good short of God Himself), and therefore my greatest good would be that all of them would be taken away and I would learn to deal with that, but that, what with the effects of free will and sin in the world and God not orchestrating every single circumstance by hand, SOME of them will not be taken away from me, but that's random, and I should be grateful for the non-difficulties that remain to me, but not too dependent on or attached to or proud of them, and grateful for all the things that are taken away, so that I can learn to depend on and desire God only...

that's my usual view. Not the one I necessarily act from out of habit in the small and unexamined things of each day. Nor does it really tally with the loving God I tell OTHER people about who ask me who this God person is. But in my heart of hearts, that's the reality I know, created and maintained by the only God I know. (Whom you wouldn't like. I don't.)

But what if...what if, actually, it works the opposite of that? What if all the blessings in my life, the good things - God PREPARED those for me. What if when a small moment seems just so perfectly ordained to make me happy, it's not because I finally mortified my selfishness enough to - for one second - be happy with something just the way it is. Rather, it's because Someone who is omniscient and omnipotent allowed it to be that I should be right there at the right moment to experience and celebrate something that was just fitted to bring joy to my particular strange little soul, because He loves me so much He wants me to be HAPPY?

And then, the other times. The times when the precious thing was ripped away, when my most cherished dreams were dashed, when the love and support I needed in difficult times were a gaping chasm, when a person I love met me with meanness and anger rather than tenderness. There's no denying those times, and any theology, or philosophy, that tries to sweep them under the rug is a lie and a failure. Indeed, I think it's those times we need theology FOR. (After all, it's only a screwed-up soul like mine, having wandered through years of bitterness and grief, that experiences a moment of lightness and love and peers into the heavens to demand, "God, WHY?") So, what of them? Well, maybe THEY, and not the un-stolen blessings, are the exceptions. Maybe God would prefer to give us blessings and joy - but He knows that we need privation to learn and grow. (Is this not the attitude of a loving parent toward a child?) And so sometimes, He allows it that the precious thing - the thing we NEED - is taken away, and in those times, He gives us the strength to endure, so that we experience another kind of blessing - a more painful one, but one necessary even for the joys to be joys, because suffering is the seed-bed of our capacity for virtue and love, which ultimately are the source of the greatest joy of all.

And I know I've said this here before, but my picture of God giving us the strength to endure trials has been wrong a long time, too. The image I want to latch onto is that of the supremely gifted athlete crossing the finish line amidst an ecstatically cheering throng - exhausted, covered in sweat and dirt and maybe blood, having trained and suffered through endless preparation, near death of thirst, but victorious, and acclaimed as such by every person on the planet.

That is ridiculous, of course.

After all, we know what GREAT victory out of GREAT trial looks like. It looks like a shredded skeleton of a man hanging dead off a cross on a hill outside the city that was covered with the bones of centuries of unburied, unloved, forgotten criminals. Abandoned by almost everyone He knew. Ridiculed and taunted by the few onlookers who bothered. Regarded as the wretchedest of sinners. Beaten and stripped and scorned and humiliated. So why do I expect a crown of laurels and a crowd of well-wishers? What book have I been reading?

The truth is that I want the trial to be JUST painful enough to make for a good story, and the victory to be close enough and pleasant enough and public enough to make the trial, well, not all that bad, all things considered. What kind of a trial is that? The truth is that when God says He'll give us the strength we need, what He really means is that, in the most difficult trials, we'll have just enough strength to TRY to get up under the weight of the cross, unable actually to do so without assistance; we'll have enough strength to stagger and stumble brokenly and still end up, over and over, face-down in the dirt. But we'll still be breathing, still trying to move forward. Under the worst of circumstances, that's actually an extraordinary amount of strength. But it's ugly and it doesn't prompt the admiration of the crowds. Even our fellow Christians will walk away from that spectacle, because they don't want to see the unpleasantness and they sure don't want to believe that's what enduring trials could look like when it's their turn. (And how often am I guilty of walking away from the painful spectacle, and the sufferer who needs my compassion, so I don't have to contemplate the implications for me? EVERY DAY.)

Most of our sufferings aren't going to be face-down-in-the-dirt types - not for most people. But that will happen to everyone at some point; it's going to happen to some people a lot. (And lest there be any confusion: I know I am not a soul who has been called to suffer exceptionally, not to date.) And the thing is to love enough to know that that's coming and love just as fiercely, anyway. Not the hopefulness of someone whose life always turns up roses; the hopefulness of Pawel at the end of Sophia House (or, for a more pop-culture reference, Walt at the end of Gran Torino). It's all going to be OK. But that doesn't mean what you want it to. And it was all worth it.

I don't know how to do that yet.

Monday, February 2, 2015

infertility conversations

The "blather" will return when I finish making sense of reality.  (Insert uncontrollable, slightly maniacal laughter.) 

In the meantime, I've had a couple of interesting conversations.  The most recent one was very short (so far).  I've met some lovely new people through volunteering at my church lately.  One is an employee of the parish, a delightful person, and she has been married three years.  No kids.  Very Catholic.  I think I add up all these little things unconsciously (the same way I notice abdomen-adjacent gestures and slight weight gains before other people - this is my brain, knowing life is still difficult, and that I need to be forewarned about stressful conversations and calm myself down and practice my "That's so nice for you!" face so that I don't have an unfortunate episode in front of a stranger on a particularly bad day).  But that doesn't mean I say anything. 

Because...well, I find it hard to say why.  Because occasionally I've known that someone was DEFINITELY A MEMBER OF MY TRIBE and been all excited to have someone to share the knowing comments with, and decided not to assault her with my bitterness-enthusiasm (yes that's a thing.  In my life, anyway), and instead made some casual reference that brought me out of the IF closet, so she could say, "Oh, you too?" and then she didn' maybe I was too I tried again...nothing...and eventually I realized: this person does not want to talk to me about this.  Maybe I called it wrong and they're not infertile, they're just...married and celibate?  Or, maybe she doesn't experience it the same way I do.  Maybe this woman has not gone through the "infertility journey," she was just born without a uterus, and she is not picking up on my wee hints because they don't resonate with her (though surely she, too, has been asked when she's planning to have kids seventy million times?).  Maybe she doesn't like to talk about difficult and unpleasant things AT ALL, so she's not looking for an ally, she's looking to be left alone.  Or maybe I brought it up at a time when, if she talks about it, she will cry, and she doesn't want to have to deal with her messed-up mascara at work.  Or maybe she likes to have allies, but she is not interested in one of those people being ME.  (It's a free country.  And don't I envy any woman who has so many options in that arena that she can be picky!) 

And after a few rounds of that, I stopped.  I don't assume that I'm wrong about whether a couple is having trouble conceiving; I figure I'm right 90% of the time.  (And that has been borne out by eventual confirmation, after the fact.)  But that 10% could be dangerous territory; some people are TTA because of other health or life issues, and those are not my business, not from a new acquaintance.  Some people experience the passage of time differently; they might start noticing the lack of a pregnancy at about 18 months married, where I noticed it in the first month, and the second month, and the third month, and the fourth month...but then, I had my first surgery for endometriosis before I was even engaged, and I knew I had reason to worry.  Other people may not have reason to worry.  Or they may have reason, but not worry, anyway.  Some people whom I am sizing up are already (newly) pregnant; I just don't know yet.  Some may be less on the Catholic bandwagon than I've guessed, and I will learn this when they tentatively begin a conversation about embracing the Church's teaching on openness to life.  (Mystery solved.)  Some have miscarried four times already and that is none of my business, and I am no more entitled to pry it out of them by launching into "Don't you just hate people asking you when you're going to get pregnant already?" than some idiot stranger is entitled to pry "I can't, thank you," out of me by asking, "When are you planning to have kids?" 

With this litany (all of it true), I am reassuring myself that I did the right thing, with my new acquaintance.  I figured that at three years married and childless, and very Catholic, she is one of my tribe.  But I didn't say anything.  And as blunt as I may think I am, I do not actually introduce myself (even to other folks at Church), "Hi, I'm the misfit!  I volunteer with the youth group, and I can't have children.  What's your name?"  Even I would be alarmed by a woman who introduced herself that way.  (OK, let's be honest: I would be alarmed, and then the next time I saw her I would ask her out for drinks and stay up all night comparing stories about the best awful comments we've received.) 

But three years in is a very hard patch of the IF journey (as I've only to look back at my own blog to remember).  And though I am not the picture of serenity on this topic (and probably never will be), I've crossed over into a place of far less misery about it.  I genuinely believe it's my job to help those who are coming after; after all, I owe a great deal to those already-graduated ladies who helped me keep the last shreds of sanity.  And I said - nothing.  (In my defense - sort of - she's never seemed particularly sad or upset.) 

But when she and another friend and I went jogging yesterday, I did share a story (which I am just about to share with you) about some nitwit asking when I was going to have a baby.  And then I stepped out of the room, and she asked our other friend whether I'd likely be OK with discussing IF.  Friend #2 said yes, of course, and then let me know.  So all of that went well - but I immediately felt bad for making her reach out to me.  People shouldn't have to do the work to find support when they are suffering.  I should be there offering it.  To people in general - let alone to infertile women.  Let alone to infertile women I have already spotted.  But, hey, maybe I was right to say just a little.  Maybe people don't want a mountain of IF sharing dumped on them by a new friend.  Maybe. 

So I figured I would send her an email (to start with) so that we don't have to have the "hey I heard that you wanted to talk about..." conversation with other people around.  (I think that's right.  I often prefer email for serious topics, so I can pretend to be normal, and delete my initial, crazy message.)  But I haven't done it yet.  This morning I was doing my itty bit of daily prayer (that I was supposed to finish last night) and I stopped to ponder: in the ten million words I have stored up to throw at unwise people who broach this topic with me, what does she actually need to hear?  What did I need to hear?  The list I came up with was surprisingly short.  You tell me if I've missed anything. 

(1) Tell me all about it.  Where have you been so far?  How has that been for you? 
(2) This is awful.  No one should have to deal with it, neither the small indignities nor the grand spiritual crisis.  Everyone else who has to go through it feels terrible about it, too, and it's not something you can just shrug off and do gracefully; it's painful and it will burden the healthiest person very heavily.  And I'm sorry. 
(3) You're not crazy.  We've all had those thoughts, too.  Stealing babies?  Forcibly sterilizing women who take their blessings for granted?  Setting fire to the baby showers of women who proclaim their impending delivery with explanations of how God has favored them?  Throwing her glass of wine in the face of the friend in her second trimester who says she "just cannot go on without at least half a glass of wine, I mean, the baby will obviously be fine, right?"?  Tearing your husband's face off if he accuses you of overthinking TTC?  Beating a cashier to death with the 20 pregnancy tests you're buying if he has the audacity to look at you cross-eyed?  These are images engraved in my mind.  You are not the first.  You are not the millionth.  You're not the ten millionth...welcome to the club. 
(4) God has not willed this suffering for you; He is not punishing you and He does not hate you.  Sickness and suffering are the result of sin in the world, which He allows, but never wanted.  But these things don't catch Him by surprise, either.  He did not have a beautiful plan for your life that this privation has thwarted.  Defects of nature cannot thwart His plans; your life will be beautiful and meaningful and precious the way that it is to be, not the way that you imagined it would be.  You are irreplaceable and the world needs you to show up for life, scars and all. 
(5) Statistics (and my observation) say you will probably conceive or adopt (or both) given time and if it's what you really want.  But I can say from experience (and observing better people) that even if you never have a baby, life can still be good.  To the degree possible - namely, not very much - don't let the pursuit of the baby take over. 
(6) Call me and tell me when people are driving you crazy.  You cannot bore me.  Go ahead and try. 
(7) Do you need anything concretely?  Such as...have you selected a doctor?  Do you know what you want to do and not do treatment-wise?  Are you looking for a therapist?  Other women to talk to?  Want to learn more about the adoption process?  I have forgotten more about IF than I ever wanted to know.  Tell me if you need information.  But that's usually the least of what people need. 
(8) You don't have to do any treatment just because someone else did.  Or skip it because someone else (including me) skipped it.  You don't have to do anything at all, or you can do everything.  But take care of yourself, because none of the professionals "helping" you are going to make that a priority. 

I have fifty million stories, but she does not need them.  And I have to concentrate, really hard, to try to remember what helped me.  (Very very few of the things I heard, as it turns out.  Unfortunate, but true.  So now, I have a chance to make the next turn of the wheel better.  God willing!) 

And here's the story I told yesterday, that apparently inspired this new friend to ask our other friend whether she should ask me about IF.  My husband's work "holiday" party was just a few weekends ago.  There I met the wife of one of his coworkers for the first time.  She is very sweet.  English is not her first language (and I think that doesn't matter to what comes next, but maybe somehow a language barrier explains this).  She said something about not getting to visit his office so often now that she has a baby, and I congratulated her (like a non-bitter person!  Points for me!).  And she asked, "Do you have a baby?"  I think asking that question in those words is Not a Thing, but here, perhaps - language barrier.  Reminding myself not to add unnecessary words to the answer (as I am wont to do), I said, "No, I don't." 

At this point I think the language barrier stops being relevant.  She asked, "Do you want a baby?"  I decided avoidance of oversharing was a better goal than accuracy, and I said, "Well, we'll see."  And here I erred; the correct answer is, OF COURSE, "I beg your pardon!"  I pride myself for being fast on my feet, but truly, that's when my personal life is not in question.  And since I had not adequately discouraged her, she rejoined: "Oh, you really should have one.  Babies are wonderful..."  I think more details followed, but at this point I excused myself to find a beverage (or another person to talk to), a skill I finally have practiced enough to remember to use it. 

I had two more encounters with her that evening, in which (of course) she took the opportunity to follow up on her earlier comments, lest I should have missed her wisdom the first time(s).  I know this story is one of a thousand thousand stories so many other women could tell (and top).  But in my retellings of it, I have been focusing on the point that really galled me: I missed the precious, precious opportunity to respond, "No, actually.  I was born a man."  If I could do accents, I would throw in Robin Williams: "I don't work with the boys.  I used to be one."  People deserve - really, they have a right to have us provide this gift to them! - lessons that they will remember.  I let her down. 

I'll do better next time.