January 24, 2019 § 2 Comments
There’s a word that crops up frequently these days when one person praises another. That word: intentional. How many times have I heard one friend praise another with, “She’s so intentional,” or, “He seems so intentional about us.” Many, many times. Indeed, I’m fairly certain I’ve used it countless times myself.
But it wasn’t until recently, when I noticed the word tossed around over and over again in the course of a single evening, that I paused and wondered, what’s really so good about being intentional?
Why was intentionality, rather than any other virtue – say, courage, charity, humility, or faith – pointed at repeatedly?
According to a cursory look at Google trend data, which measures the prevalence of a word or phrase searched over time, the phrase “be intentional” has increased in use by threefold since 2004. While some of the related search items suggest a legal context to the phrase, others, including “be intentional quotes” and “what does it mean to be intentional”, suggest a cultural understanding. And this makes me wonder even more: is intentionality perhaps a kind of modern virtue?
Recently, I’ve enjoyed Judith Shulevitz’s lovely book, The Sabbath World. In it, she delves into the history of time, in part, how the rise in productivity thanks to the industrial revolution has shaped our modern understanding of time. Until the industrial revolution, people structured their days according to what is called task orientation: measurement by an activity rather than a clock. For example, “You nurse a baby until she’s full, whether that takes ten minutes or forty,” writes Shulevitz. In modern society, however, we structure our days around the atomic clock. You work for a certain number of hours, and are paid accordingly. You’re paid overtime if you work late. A pre-industrial, task orientated society required longer, more grueling hours to finish a day’s work, and many hoped that the rise in standardized production measured by the atomic clock would lead to increased productivity and therefore more leisure.
Unfortunately, as Shulevitz points out, while we are more productive, we are also more rushed than ever.
Why? Working off the theory of Swedish economist Staffan Linder, Shulevitz points out that the increased productivity thanks to industrialization caused each hour of work to increase in value as well. This, in turn, increased the value of hours spent not working. “Non-work time has a higher ‘opportunity cost’,” writes Shulevitz, “each minute not spent completing one’s work assignments equals more money squandered.”
How does this pertain to being intentional? While reading Shulevitz, it struck me: could we admire individuals who are intentional precisely because of the unconscious, high value we place on each hour of time? Is our exact measurement of each passing hour and the opportunity cost of that hour if spent not working, making us feel even more pressured to “spend our time well?” I doubt pre-industrial workers in a task oriented society thought about intentionality – they merely thought about doing what they needed to survive, however long that took.
Of course, all this begs a more important question: is intentionality a good thing? Should we adopt it as a modern virtue? Certainly, it could be good at keeping us from straying into bad things, as well as prompting us to be good stewards of our time. But, I wonder if there is a dark side to this pervasive word.
Recently, I suffered through a long and severe illness that kept me nearly bedridden for several months. During this truthfully horrific experience, I felt my days expand from the hourly divided regimen I kept while working full time into a protracted and diffuse duration that slid languidly by. I was far from intentional. I was messy. I left emails unanswered for months. I only talked to close friends and family. I didn’t worry about the growing pile of medical bills on my desk. In those days, when I wasn’t sure if I would ever be a healthy young woman again, there was nothing more important for me to do than sit on the living room couch with a steaming mug of hot tea, curled up beside my mother. It was horrible, but there was a sliver of bliss in the center of it that I hope to retain now that I am (thankfully!) climbing toward health again.
I’m not saying that I want to return to the task orientation of a pre-industrial society – certainly I enjoy the luxuries that the industrial world has brought, not in the least medication for my disease! But the indulgence of wasting time, of disregarding the opportunity cost of an hour, of assuming that there will be an abundance of time to do all of the things that are truly worthwhile (say, reading a good book outside in the sun or cooking a homemade meal with friends), this is something I crave, and I fear that it is antithetical to the supposed virtue of intentionality, which needlessly pressures us to “make every hour count.”
Instead, I want to be a bit thoughtless with my time. I want to be a bit like Martha’s sister, Mary, who sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to him speak rather than help her busy and distracted sister finish the housework. I want to be a little bit recklessly unintentional.
October 19, 2018 § Leave a comment
On a Thursday afternoon I drive north from Dallas, snaking my way through the tangle of concrete dividers, oversize billboards, and fast food restaurants that beleaguer both sides of the highway until I reach the flat plains of Oklahoma and, at last, the dry grasslands of southern Kansas. The grey sky intermittently spits on the windshield. To the west, pale blues and blush pinks smear the horizon. I listen to the wipers rub the glass and drink scalding coffee purchased at a McDonald’s in the middle of nowhere.
What is it about long, quiet road trips, sailing over the flat land, that allows space for thoughts, little scraps of consciousness, to drift into attention? I sip my coffee as the spare country flies past, and think about — what? God, a little. And a memory from the week before, when I awoke in a frigid Colorado campsite to see the mountains encircling the valley crowned with snow. And this time last year, of course, when I first felt the unusual intimations of what would, a few months later, blossom into a full-out illness: Lyme Disease.
I think about how happy I am to be alive, how thankful I am for my health, even as I continue to recover (compared to earlier this year, I am a new woman with only lingering discomfort in my hands, an occasional pinch of pain along my spine). I wonder about the wildness of a world where microscopic bacteria can invade my tissues and make my life a living hell, which in turn causes me to consider God’s place in this beautiful yet dangerous creation. I think about how much I love the book of Job because it acknowledges our human frailty and the ultimate absurdity of our attempts to understand God’s ways — how much more I trust Scripture because of Job’s place in it! Then, I am thinking about suffering, and how reading about Christ’s compassion toward the sick and debilitated while I myself was laid low evoked in me an unadulterated desire for Him to move in me with such healing power.
Lofty thoughts, I suppose, if they were a little more fully-formed. Really, though, they are nothing more than fleeting speculations mixed with a sense of awe at my littleness in the vast expanse of amber and chestnut land extending on all sides, the drizzling rain, the stormy grey clouds, and the God who made it, calling it not just good, but very good.
Good, but certainly not safe. Or perhaps safe in some ways — in the ways that matter (I am thinking here of the lilies of the field). I make my way forward along the dusky road (metaphysical and actual, as the sun sets and I near Wichita). I ease forward with dim understanding, my flakes of consciousness amassing to so much more.
September 20, 2018 § 1 Comment
For the past few years, I’ve accumulated a variety of potted plants. Sea green aloe vera. Flat-leafed jade. Spindly fire sticks. Some were gifts from friends; others, clippings from the cacti in our backyard; and still others, splurges bought at Home Depot and the local nursery when my soul was hungry for something green.
I am fairly good at tending them — so far, I’ve only killed one, and that from overwatering. Lately, though, I’ve realized that almost every single one of them needs repotting. They’ve outgrown their old pots, heavy leaves drooping over the lips onto my windowsill, long stems jutting up, up toward the window and the sky. Some of them are three times the sizes of the pots they call home.
It’s high time for repotting.
It is still hot in Texas in September. Sweating, I haul a large pot from the tangled mass of unused pots in our backyard, along with a bag of fresh dirt and rocks to line the bottom. First up: my zz plant, also known as a Zamioculcas Zamiifolia. It lives in a tiny, round, grey clay pot, five thick stalks covered in glossy flat leaves. Sturdy. Healthy. An easy first go.
Easy, I think, until I attempt to remove it. The plant won’t budge, and soon I know why. When I finally manage to pry the zz plant from its pot, I realize the whole bottom half of the pot is thick with fat roots wound tightly around each other in a massive ball. Finally freed, the roots hang down a bit too much like ropy worms than I would like, the roots nearly as long as the plant is tall. There was hardly any dirt in that pot at all, I realize. Mostly, it was just roots growing steadily in closed darkness.
A longing stirs in me as I stare at the zz plant held in my hand, white roots dangling above its new pot half-filled with fresh dirt. I feel my own limitations, the constraint of my own tight space pressing against my metaphorical thick ball of roots. How many of you, like me, need a new pot? Space to spread our roots, to sink deeply in rich soil, to stretch ourselves toward the sun? How many of us are cramped deep in dark spaces?
Like the zz plant, we grow substantially, faithfully within our limitations. Like the zz plant, when we’re set in our big, new pots, we will be ready, ready to prosper, flourish, ready to thrive. In the meantime, we grow quietly.
I set the roots of the zz plant deep within its new pot, giving them room to lengthen, to widen. I imagine the plant is happy because it can suddenly breathe deeply again after its many years of constraint. I wonder what it is like to have space to be fully what it was meant to be. I set the zz plant in a prominent spot in my room, a green reminder of what’s to come.
May 7, 2018 § 1 Comment
As some of you know, I’ve taken a hiatus from the world of writing since the beginning of the year. This wasn’t planned. If ever you think you know the trajectory of your life, think again. Someone once told me: Life usually turns out far better and far worse than you imagined it would. Since last October, when I first felt the dull edge of pain that would blossom into what I now call my “weird” illness, I’ve found this to be true.
My life took a turn: pain in my neck, my back, and my hands so excruciating I couldn’t use the mouse for my computer, sometimes couldn’t turn my head, most of the time wore heating pads stuck to my spine. Fatigue so extreme, I would go out to dinner with friends only to leave early because I feared I would be too weak to drive myself home. Strange muscle pain I described to my many doctors as, “burning in my arms and legs.” Aching in my knees and elbows. An inability to get enough air into my lungs. There is much more I could write about what’s happened; maybe sometime I will.
For now there is this: hope. Hope in the fact that today I can sit at my computer and type this blog post. Hope in the form of doctors who think they’ve landed on a diagnosis at last (could it be Lyme Disease? it seems likely). Hope in the fact that my energy ever so slowly has returned, the pain ever so slowly abated, that though my recovery may be long, there can be full recovery.
Also: in the midst of this, physical manifestations of God’s mercy. Maybe some day I will write about that, too. Suffice it to say, the far better part has been true also.
In the meantime, I’ve been meaning to share on this blog some of the stories I wrote before taking my hiatus.
And second, I wrote a few stories about classical music in the Dallas area. The Dallas Symphony Chorus celebrated their 40th anniversary this year and a new choral ensemble, Verdigris, appeared on the music scene. If you’re a Dallasite, I recommend them both to you! And even if you’re not, the stories of their successes and differing approaches to art inspired and intrigued me quite a bit…maybe they will you as well.
August 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
Well, here I am.
Finally, another blog post.
Last week, I turned 26, and a birthday seems as good a reason as any to sidle back to this small (and lately, neglected) corner of the Internet to set down a few of the thoughts bouncing around in my head. After all, what’s the point in having a blog if you don’t use it as an excuse to formulate some of those fleeting ideas that strike you on the drive to work, in the shower late at night, over a beer with a friend, during an overpriced yoga class when you should be focussing but, let’s face it, can’t.
So, here I am.
Last year, I wrote about turning 25. This year, instead of writing about turning 26 (really, it was uneventful in a good way), I’ll share some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately. These ideas have helped me navigate some unfamiliar territories — a new job, the usual relationship drama, my own inner neurosis that have plagued me forever and probably always will (don’t lie, you know you have them, too!).
Maybe these ideas will help you, too. Or maybe not. Maybe they’re kind of interesting. Or maybe you’d rather read something that’s definitely interesting, like that time a few months ago when I got lost in the Himalayas in the dark. Either way, here’s to another year of trying to make it through this weird, confusing, often difficult, but definitely beautiful, world.
A friend once told me that all of life is simply a series of decisions. While I suppose that’s rather reductive, I think he’s onto something. In a given day, we’re required to make a number of decisions, from slightly inconsequential decisions about where to eat lunch to more important decisions about who to date, where to work, and what to believe. Decisions are mandatory, and learning how to make a decision well is a surprisingly useful skill.
But if you’re like me, choices can be paralyzing. Not necessarily whether to eat that second piece of cheesecake (the answer is always, yes, definitely eat it), but whether to live here or there, whether to take this job or that job, whether to befriend this person or that person. What makes these decisions so challenging is not that one choice is the boring but morally correct choice and the other the exciting but morally wrong choice — that’s a different scenario. Rather, both choices offer potentially good outcomes, and choosing one over the other necessarily cuts off a potentially good thing from happening.
In other words, as another friend pointed out, we can expect an element of sorrow in every choice we make, because making a choice by necessity requires losing out on something good.
Why is knowing this helpful? By accepting disappointment and sorrow as a given in every decision we make, we’re empowered to act. We can enjoy the fruit of our decisions while simultaneously realizing that something is lost — and that’s sad. It’s not how it’s meant to be, even if it is that way on this side of heaven.
on going slow
I spent the summer working in a bookstore, and you wouldn’t believe the number of titles piling up on our shelves that are all about slowing down in an age of distraction, in an age of busyness (or maybe you would believe it; busyness is rather endemic in America, after all). All of these books offer something valuable — tips and tricks for leading a less hectic, more meaningful life. But I would like to take the idea of slowing down a bit further.
Often, we find ourselves in situations we don’t like. Maybe it’s a relational situation. Maybe it’s a difficult job. Maybe it’s being fed up with the same old miserable problems day after day. Often, our response to challenging situations like these is to violently end them by lashing out, quitting, or simply shutting down. Sometimes, of course, this needs to happen. But other times, a more prudent, slower response is better.
Lately, I’ve been reading Jesus’ parables (and an excellent book about them: Tell It Slant by Eugene Peterson). Jesus’ parable of the fig tree struck me in particular. The fig tree isn’t growing or producing fruit, and it’s owner wants to cut it down in anger and despondency. Instead, however, he decides to give it one more year, puts a bit of manure on it, and waits. Adding the manure is banal. It’s a bit gross. It requires patience to see what happens. But that little bit of manure may make all the difference in a tree that’s barren and a tree that’s ripe with fat, sweet figs.
In the same way, making small adjustments to disagreeable situations and waiting with patience to see what happens is often wiser than shutting something down. Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe the same problems will bother you next year. Or maybe, just maybe, that little adjustment was all you needed.
Maybe, you need to go slow.
If you got this far, maybe you’re interested in some of the other things I’ve written lately. I frequently write for The Well, a nonprofit in Oak Cliff that helps those who struggle with mental illness. Here are several of my latest pieces, including one on how pets help the mentally ill and another on the importance of community for the mentally ill.
June 23, 2017 § 2 Comments
All traveling, be it an hour drive to a nearby state park or an overnight flight across the pond, requires taking risks, and traveling to a developing world country requires an especially long list of them. At the top: the risk that you may return home with a little bit of that country hidden away in your gut, in the form of a hungry parasite, perhaps, or an angry bacteria, or a mysterious and terrifying virus that conjures images of doctors wearing hazmat suits while tending to you in a sealed hospital bed.
Less than twenty-four hours after my flight home from South Asia, the symptoms began. Stomach cramping. Bloating. Grumbling. And — ahem, I know it’s gross — some of that pesky traveler’s diarrhea.
I didn’t think too much of it at first. After all, my stomach was adjusting to Western food after two months of rice, lentils, curry, and paneer. Plus, I’d been sick in India. This bout of unpleasantness was probably the lingering remnants of the illness I’d experienced on the banks of the Ganges, dirtiest and most holy of rivers. But a week later, I was still suffering, so I did what you’re supposed to do: I went to the doctor.
I was driving through the busy streets of Dallas when my doctor called. I’d been waiting for his call. I’d undergone a number of tests and was waiting for him to tell me the results. I wasn’t worried. After all, the symptoms were mild. When I’d met with him earlier that week, we’d amicably swapped stories about South Asia while he listened to my colon with his cold, silver stethoscope. The atmosphere was light. I wasn’t feeling great, but I wasn’t feeling terrible either. This upset stomach was just something to nip in the bud. I’d never been seriously ill before; I couldn’t be that sick now.
I pulled off the side of the road and answered my phone.
When my doctor told me the name of the mean bacteria swimming around my gut, it sounded like gibberish to me, like Greek, or Latin, which, of course, it was.
“It’s a serious thing,” he said seriously. I had never heard him sound so serious before. In the span of five minutes, he used the word death more than five times.
“Whatever you do, don’t take an antidiarrheal. It can lead to your death.”
“Whatever you do, don’t drink alcohol while on these antibiotics. It can lead to your death.”
“This bacteria is life threatening.”
“This bacteria is hard to kill.”
I was reminded of those TV commercials for the latest pharmaceutical drugs, where a mysterious man with a low, soothing voice speeds through a list of side effects while a beautiful woman and her equally beautiful golden retriever walk breezily along a sandy beach: side effects may include loss of sight, uncontrollable vomiting, temporary paralysis, oh, and DEATH.
I scribbled everything down on a yellow sticky pad. I asked him the few questions that came to my mind, knowing I would have a million more as soon as I hung up the phone. I hung up the phone and started to cry. I thought: surely I didn’t travel all the way to Mount Everest and back only to die in the suburbs of Dallas. How absurd. How horrifying. How totally unfair.
This is the way of the world: one moment, you’re healthy and carefree; the next, you’re not. Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind: so it goes. Joan Didion: life changes in the instant. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: all of life is a preparation for death.
“He said taking an anti-diahreal could lead to my death!” I later explained to my family and friends. “I have diarrhea! Don’t you think I’ve taken an antidiarrheal? Don’t you know I’ve already taken three antidiarrheals this week?!”
I talked about diarrhea a lot over the next month and a half. After a while, it seemed like a normal topic of conversation to me. Of course, every once in a while, a stranger would give me a sideways glance that said, “I don’t care if it could kill you. What makes you think you can talk to me about diarrhea?”
Earlier that week, I’d ordered E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India with the intention of learning more about the country I’d recently visited. But when I picked it up in the reserve section of the library and brought it home that day, I found I couldn’t look at it. I couldn’t even read the summary on the back of the jacket. Not that I held India responsible for the bacteria producing nasty toxins in my gut. In fact, I still loved India as much then as I did when I was jetting around the country on its fabulously exotic trains. I still planned to return someday. I knew who was responsible: the brutal nature of the natural world. I just didn’t want to be around anything that reminded me of what was happening on my insides.
I wanted to lie in bed all day and watch Woodie Allen films, which were the perfect mix of melancholy and humor. I wanted to take long walks around my neighborhood and soak up the sunshine. I wanted to observe every fat white magnolia blossom and run my hands through the faint mist of every front yard sprinkler. I didn’t want to look up my bacteria on webMD. I wanted to communicate the gravity of my situation to my family and friends, and at the same time, I wanted to remain lighthearted and optimistic. More than anything, I wanted the sharp cramps in my gut to go away. I ferociously, stubbornly wanted to be healthy again.
Now that I’m on the other side of sickness, in the tranquil forgetfulness of health, I wonder if I was being dramatic. It’s a question I can afford to ask now.
But when I woke in the morning to my stomach cramping, when, after the first round of antibiotics, my stomach was still cramping, when the fear that I would suffer from this bacteria chronically, for the rest of my life, ate away at my spirits as much as the toxins ate away at my gut, I didn’t feel dramatic. I felt reasonable when I asked for prayers for healing. I felt smart when I stepped down from various work commitments so I could focus on getting well. But now, in the glow of health, it seems odd that I ever thought I might not get better.
We forget ourselves so easily. I forget what it felt like to run up against that hard fact of life: that I am my body, and without my health, my body doesn’t exist and neither do I. It gives a whole new meaning to the concept of resurrection.
When I was sick, everything in my life became urgent. This is the silver lining to every illness: what matters to you becomes razor sharp.
Don’t get me wrong, all illness is bad, being sick is awful, death is not something we were ever meant for. That said: paradoxically, we receive something even in the worst of circumstances.
I don’t want to go to my grave without doing this! Or this! Or that!
I acted out of that urgency. I wrote an old friend to explain how I really felt, a feeling I’d been afraid to voice for years. I took a good hard look at my life right now and decided it would be good, no matter what. I sent spontaneous, thoughtful text messages to friends. I walked around my neighborhood and cried for how beautiful it looks in late spring. I took long hot showers. I bought myself a brand new yoga mat. I read what I wanted to read.
Some of this left me emotionally tired, but in the best way. I suppose it’s good that we don’t experience this kind of urgency all the time, that sometimes we’re complacent and forgetful about what matters.
The weight of constant awareness is exhausting.
Six weeks later, I got the call: I was bacteria free.
I knew it was coming. I had already felt the change in my body: no more cramps in the morning, no more — ahem — diarrhea at night, no more grumbling and bloating after I ate. When friends and family members and well-meaning acquaintances asked me how I was doing, I said, “I’ve never been better!” I always took my health for granted, I said, but health is the best thing we’ve got. You feel so alive after recovering from illness.
But the ghost of that angry bacteria remained with me. One afternoon, I felt a sharp pain in my side, and my mind flashed with fear: could it be back? Could some little microscopic bit have remained, multiplied, and colonized, heaven forbid? It hadn’t, thank God, and for at least that moment, I let go of the fear.
October 5, 2016 § 5 Comments
For me, the true horror of depression lies in its rootlessness.
The black tar of melancholy appears suddenly from some unseen place, seemingly causeless. One moment, your day is bright and shiny. The next, you’re awash in a wave of blue. Something sinister, sticky, and horribly familiar rises from the bottom of your gut, threatening to envelope you in an obsidian shadow, and as much as you try to articulate the overpowering sensation gradually swallowing you whole, you cannot.
When you get a bacterial infection in your thumb from a manicure gone wrong, you know that you should visit your doctor for some sound medical advice. And when that bacterial infection spreads to your pointer finger a week later, you know that it’s because you didn’t take your doctor’s advice to apply that topical anti-bacterial ointment three times daily. In fact, you didn’t even buy that topical anti-bacterial ointment because it cost $50 and wasn’t covered by your crummy insurance policy.
But with depression, it’s often different. With depression, you’re often unsure what’s causing the suffering, let alone how to handle it. Sure, there are medications, like Zoloft and Prozac, but these merely treat the symptoms, rebalancing the chemicals in your brain so that you feel better. They don’t address the root cause because the root cause is often entrenched deep in your mysterious self. It’s not easily isolated. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem to exist at all. Moreover, medications are for severe forms of depression, not the milder forms which temporarily afflict high numbers of adolescents and adults today.
This milder, but nonetheless real, kind of depression has emerged in my life several times in different ways, like a creature always appearing in a new mask, taking me by surprise just as I think I’ve beaten him.
In high school, it took the form of long walks at night while the darkness wrestled like storm-tossed waters in my belly. It was crying in the middle of rehearsal for a play and my director looking at me confused. It was a record playing over and over in my head saying, I will never be happy, things will never be okay.
In college, it was standing gloveless on a snowy, silent, moonlit field, letting the frigid wind freeze my slender fingers. It was refusing party invitations, preferring my own unhappy company to the unbearable camaraderie of others. It was thinking about my future and seeing nothing but a black hole, ready to suck me into nonexistence.
In my early twenties (since I am 25 now, it feels like I can write about my early twenties), and on my bad days, I pictured depression as this black-clothed, red-eyed demon barreling like a tornado down the highway after me. I saw myself driving a red pickup, stepping on the gas, speeding away from him as fast as my little engine could. And with every puff of wind, every mile covered, the demon grew taller, stronger, and more insane. He became a swirling cloud of shadowy fire, and eventually, I knew I’d run out of gas.
For a long time, I felt ashamed of these periodic dark moods. After all, aren’t all high schoolers angsty? Doesn’t every college student feel sad from time to time? Isn’t life in your early twenties supposed to be challenging? I told myself my dark moods were nothing unusual. I told myself I was selfish. After all, I was white and upper middle class. Think of all the people less fortunate. I should be happy. Anything less, and I was ungrateful.
Of course, all that denial, all that dampening of my true feelings only made things worse.
I am now in a happy moment of my life, a time in which I don’t have to look for the silver lining — everywhere I look the world is aglow in silver and gold — which makes it strange to look back on difficult times and write about them. On the one hand, it is easier to write about them through the distance of time. On the other hand, it feels immensely vulnerable, and even weirdly dishonest, given my current equanimity. But I find myself wanting to write about my periodic bouts of depression anyway, because like all things that happen to us, they played an essential role in who I am and what I believe today, and I’m trying to understand what, exactly, that role is. Writing always helps me do that.
Most religious traditions claim that suffering, be it physical, emotional, existential, or what, can be a source of great spiritual transformation. For Buddhists, reaching enlightenment involves recognizing that suffering is merely a part of normal life. For Hindus, suffering is the result of karma, so if you want to be healthy and happy in your next life, you’d better act well in this one. In my own religious heritage, Protestant Christianity, suffering is the unfortunate result of sin, but the all-powerful, loving God uses this suffering to bring mankind closer to him.
For most of my life, the idea that God uses suffering for good has been anathema to me. That’s great if he does, but if he’s all-powerful, wouldn’t it be even better if he simply got rid of the suffering altogether? In fact, doesn’t it prove he isn’t so good after all, since he has the power to end suffering, but doesn’t? In philosophy, this conflict between an omnipotent, good God and the existence of suffering in the world is called the problem of evil, and for a long time, the problem of evil was one of the main reasons I could not and never would call myself a Christian.
The thing is, though, when you’re actually suffering, when your depressive tenor reaches an all-time low, you don’t care too much about the contradictory nature of God. All you care about is receiving some sort of relief, some sort of balm. And when all else fails, you turn to God, even a God you’re not convinced exists, in a last ditch effort for help.
Or at least, that’s the way it was for me.
One evening several years ago, I sat on a twin-sized bed, a book lying open on my lap. But I wasn’t reading. I was staring out the window, my emotions churning and disoriented. I felt so poorly, like I would never be able to read another word, let alone get out of bed, that I decided to temporarily suspend my disbelief in God and ask him, please, to ease the pain.
Amazingly, something happened.
As I stared out that window into a cold, snowy night, an image appeared in my mind, an image of a strong, firm hand reaching through my bruised ribcage to cup its soft, steady palm around my wounded heart. And as my heart rested against that warm hand, settled into it, unclenched its tension, a sense of peace settled around me, and I entered a momentary solace, a temporary reprieve.
In the morning, the melancholy descended upon me again. But I carried with me the memory of that comforting hand, using it to wield off despair. I was still suspicious of God and of prayer, still unsure whether I’d received an actual answer or simply conjured the image I needed. And yet, I guarded the memory of that hand, of that fleeting peace, reminding myself of it whenever the shadows slunk too close, threatening to cave me in.
This experience nudged me toward a deeper investigation into my religious heritage, but it did not convince me of the existence of God, nor did it resolve in my mind the seemingly unresolvable problem of evil.
So, maybe God comforted me in a moment of despair. But if he were a good God, there wouldn’t be any despair to begin with, any need to comfort me at all. He would have done away with all that suffering long ago, maybe never allowed it to exist in the first place.
It wasn’t until my investigation led me to the story of Jesus that a realization clicked into place.
Of course, I knew the story. Growing up, I’d heard it in church services, talked about it at my evangelical high school, and even studied it from a literary perspective in college.
Yet, I’d never let the words soak into my skin. I’d never imagined what it must have been like for Jesus when Pontius Pilate handed him over to be flogged, the wild whip stripping away the skin on his back until he was nothing but mashed red meat, the crown of thorns smashed onto his beaten and blood-drenched forehead, the nails hammered forcefully into the palms of his shivering hands. They say in order to breath during crucifixion you must lift your whole body up by your hands, and I see Jesus’ palms torn open by nails digging sideways through flesh and bone.
And then Mary, his mother, comes to stand below him, with Jesus’ beloved friend John at her side. And they look up at Jesus with tears in their eyes, and how deeply Jesus must have wanted to be let down from that instrument of torture to be with them. And then Jesus cries out to God, but God has forsaken him. And how lonely and abandoned he must have felt. How much he must have suffered. Really, in those last moments of his life, he experienced all the various kinds of suffering that exist in the world.
Which, of course, means he was and is acutely aware of every kind of depression, from the occasional down day to the severest mood swings.
Christians often describe Jesus as a compassionate God, and as I began to reflect on the story of Jesus’ death, I began to think he must be. Consider the word compassion. It comes from two Latin roots: com, which means “together”, and pati, which means “to suffer.” These roots combined mean “to suffer with.” To be compassionate, then, is to share in the suffering of another.
And isn’t this exactly what Jesus did, what he’s still doing today? He knows intimately what it feels like to suffer – be it from depression, from physical illness, from grief, from poverty – he knows what all that’s like because he knows what it was like to die on the cross. And he cries with us because he knows our pain. He cries for us because he knows what it’s like to suffer. In fact, he went to the cross to be able to enter into our suffering with us, to take our suffering onto himself, to let us participate more fully in his divine life.
This suffering with us, this entering into our pain, this compassion is what allowed me, for the first time, to trust God, to believe he wasn’t at best, indifferent, or at worst, malicious, but instead, fully aware of my tendency toward melancholy and fully wanting to bare that burden with me.
Of course, there’s still evil, there’s still suffering, there was and is and always will be, and this is a conundrum, a difficulty that philosophers and theologians continue to debate and struggle over, but if I were to believe in a god, in any god, it would be the God who tackled the problem of evil head on by jumping deep into the middle of the most painful experience of all. As the philosopher Peter Kreeft put it, the only way we get God off the hook for all the suffering in the world is for him to hang on the hook. Then, and only then, can we trust him to understand, trust him to comfort.
I prayed once more that year, a unique prayer said in another moment of blue.
Again, I stood in my small room, looking out the window at the nighttime snowdrifts. Again, my insides were steaming with boiling black sap. What I wanted more than anything was another moment’s reprieve – like that night when it felt as if God reached through my chest to massage my poor heart. And I didn’t want it to be fleeting. I wanted to know with solid assurance that what I felt was real, that I wasn’t making it up in my head, that God actually appeared to me, and would appear again.
And so I suspended my disbelief once more and asked, if God existed, really, truly existed, that he make me turn to him again and again until I saw his face, even if what made me turn to him was depression and that meant letting me descend into the deepest, most severe darkness I’d ever experienced. If that’s what it took, let it be.
In that moment, I intuited what I now believe: that the presence of God is often strongest and most apparent in our deepest fears, and it is often through pain that what is hidden becomes abruptly illuminated. Jesus said those who mourn are blessed, a counterintuitive, bitter truth I began to understand just a little through my own invisible, blood-red wounds.
He’s always standing solidly in the center of our struggles, holding our hands, knowing, knowing what it’s like, realizing that we don’t always understand, and inviting us to trust him and walk a little further all the same.