Pulling out of the pit:
The problem with email, just as with physical mail (or social media), is you never know what is lurking there. It could be encouraging, it could be overwhelming. Most likely it is stuff to be dealt with, thought about, absorbed and processed. If you are feeling unmoored, it whips you into the wind, higher and farther from your center. So you avoid it, trying to gather strength and courage before the Pandora’s box is opened. But avoidance just allows the piles to grow, until they loom towering in the corner, frightening by their very mass. So you distract yourself, “just for a little while.” Soon your distractions become your life, hours dedicated to not feeling, not noticing. There is a sense of control in the distractions, the victory experienced winning a game, achieving the next level. When one interest wanes, there are many more enticing options to replace it. Real relationships pale. In a virtual world I master my challenges, I defeat my opponents. In a Netflix binge, I experience all the drama of life without anything really touching my soul.
Meanwhile, the monster in the corner grows. I ignore it, it is full of the mundane and sobering. I prefer the invitation of beautiful graphics and adrenaline-laced adventure. Yet it irks, like the princess’s pea under the mattress, still felt no matter how much is piled atop it. Unwanted awareness persists; in that pile lie problems that grow worse the longer they remain unaddressed. Bills must be paid before the utilities are shut off. Issues must be discussed, decisions must be made. There is maintenance needed to prevent future emergencies. There is cleaning and laundry, the reign of entropy snowballing into chaos. Groceries have dwindled, living on fast food and delivery services is causing havoc within my checkbook and my body. Depression, no longer a mere sadness, sinks deep into my soul. Sleep is elusive, true rest impossible. The struggle to get out of bed is a complicated dance of motivational tricks, shame and Herculean will.
I stagger through days, logging hours in binge-watching and games. The distractions no longer entice, they are merely tools for survival. I wait, hoping for a surge of circumstance and inspiration to tackle the everyday. The shouting in my head hunches me forward; I cannot refute the name-calling: “Lazy!” “Shame!” “Worthless!” I am contributing nothing to the planet. The best I can hope for is not to be a burden for someone else to bear. I long for oblivion, just to escape the self-condemnation. I curl into my isolation, not wanting to draw attention, hiding from both my self-censure and the judgement I’m certain I deserve from others. It is all I can do to turn my back against the black maw inviting death as relief.
In stories, this is where the prince rides in. Rescue, inspiration, a realization that raises my eyes and has me leaping from the pit in triumph. But what if there is no rescuer? What if the coat of despair remains, from days to months to years? What if it sinks into my very skin, until it feels normal, a terrible kind of comfortable? What if I accept this as reality, and look with pity at those who feel joy and hope? What if I judge them as naive?
In Ignatian spirituality, the concepts of desolation and consolation are matters of position. Are you moving away from God or toward Him?
(As I was double-checking the spelling of these concepts, I came upon the following lists by Margaret Silf. It amazes me how closely they describe what I had just written.)
- Turns us in on ourselves
- Drives us down the spiral ever deeper into our own negative feelings
- Cuts us off from community
- Makes us want to give up on the things that used to be important to us
- Takes over our whole consciousness and crowds out our distant vision
- Covers up all our landmarks [the signs of our journey with God so far]
- Drains us of energy
- Directs our focus outside and beyond ourselves
- Lifts our hearts so that we can see the joys and sorrows of other people
- Bonds us more closely to our human community
- Generates new inspiration and ideas
- Restores balance and refreshes our inner vision
- Shows us where God is active in our lives and where God is leading us
- Releases new energy in us
I am brought back to the realization that my overwhelming depression was felt just as keenly by a 16th century Basque soldier-turned-priest. Ignatius was well aware of his own shortcomings but he learned he had a choice in the direction he traveled. With a vivid imagination and a rich fantasy life, he first noticed the difference between his fantasies of romantic chivalry and those brought forth through his reading on the lives of Jesus and various saints. I recognize Ignatius’ reported feelings of emptiness and dissatisfaction following his fantasies. And I am intrigued by his description of his emotions at the end of his spiritual dreaming: “a deep peace, a quiet happiness.” (A Biography of St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556): The Founder of the Jesuits by Traub and Mooney)
Ignatius became convinced of his own belovedness. He not only saw value in his feelings and in his imagination, he recognized God’s leading through them. How often was I told in my early Christian years not to trust my feelings, to discount my imagination, to live according to Biblical principles and “correct” theology? Further, how often was it modeled to me to disdain those in error, to separate myself from any whiff of unrighteousness?
Sigh. No wonder I struggle to tolerate my own imperfection. How could I learn to practice grace when all I saw was denial, excuse or total contempt for failure?
What would life be like if failure was instead met with compassion, empathy, forgiveness, and encouragement? Can I reverse the way I treat my own and others’ failure?
As a child, my parents’ disappointment was something I avoided at great cost. I learned to reveal only my success and hid my failures beneath a complicated dance of lies and misdirection. As a young Christian, I transferred that fear of parental disapproval to God. Everywhere, it seemed, vulnerability invited criticism, censure and condemnation. As a wife and mom, I’ve responded to my family’s shortcomings with everything from a martyred sigh to outraged disapproval. Is it any wonder my children become paralyzed with anxiety about their own performances?
How have we as a church, how have I, gotten so far from Jesus’ central message of love? Do we have this reputation of being judgmental because we have not embraced our own forgiveness? Are we still trying to earn what Jesus has freely given? Is our unbelief centered in refusing to receive our own belovedness?