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.


  1. I am just loving your blog. Detachment is something that I struggle with in the way you have presented it before. I share some similar feelings and mindset and after reading this post, I feel guilty about detaching sometimes, especially when it comes to infertility. I don't want pregnancy or inability to become pregnant to impact my marriage, but when it gets to that time in my cycle, I am a maniac and I can't even help it! Right now things are more in perspective for me as my husband is deploying and is across the country training before he leaves.

    Things are always changing and evolving, including our feelings. IF is such a personal journey, and I am so thankful strong women like you share your story, which in turn helps me share mine.

    1. Hey! I'm glad to see your blog, and I wanted to comment, but I have to do so with some sort of google+ thing that I'm not entirely comfortable with. (It wants my birthday...? No, internet.) And I don't see how to email you - I guess I am too old to figure out all this new internet stuff :). But I will be reading along!

  2. So much to digest here...will be contemplating all weekend. Thanks for sharing so many deep thoughts! xx

  3. Schloss ich natürlich, dass meine Trauer mit Unfruchtbarkeit (und alles, was ich je gekämpft) zeigte eine fehlende Übermittlung der Ablösung zu umarmen. Immerhin habe ich eine geistliche Lesung hier und da getan. Detachment ist ein legit spirituelle Praxis.

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    1. waere auf Deutsch, oder? Oder vielleicht iat das mehr . Beides ist schwierig! Gute Reise.

    2. Noch mal...

      "Detachment" waere "Gelassenheit" auf Deutsch, oder? Oder vielleicht ist das mehr "Abandonment." Besides ist schwierig! Gute Reise.

  4. I too have been struggling with the question of mortification, which I have then knotted with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. It is intimidating to comment since you have such detail and prose, but I want to send hugs and thank you for posting so many things I relate to. I'm still wrangling with articulating it all (which is why I always super appreciate your blog!), but my life jacket has been that Jesus did come to suffer with me and to overcome it for me. On Good Friday it occurred to me that putting my wounds into the wounds of Christ would be a good prayer exercise. I'm thinking that giving it all back to him is an acceptance and detachment and mortification combined. My surrender is then included in his victory, which is joy and reason for thanksgiving. I'm finding interesting thoughts from St. Faustina on the Divine Mercy to be helpful this week. Thanks again! Dawn