March 6, 2017 § Leave a comment
“Why are you going?”
It is a question I should expect from my friend. After all, she is the kind of friend who wants to know the Why’s, not just the Who’s, What’s, When’s, and Where’s. She wants to know the meanings underneath it all. She wants to know the deeper truths.
But I don’t know. When she asks, “Why are you going?” I don’t have an answer. Or at least, I don’t have the kind of answer I usually have for an international trip — I’ve always dreamed of seeing such-and-such place; I’m volunteering for such-and-such charity; I’m writing about it for such-and-such publication. I tell my friend, “Well, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” and of course, it is.
When the opportunity to travel with another friend you haven’t seen in years to a country that’s far far away, a remote country that happens to be the home of Mount Everest, the home of those giants the Himalayas, of course you go. You hesitate long enough to make sure you have enough money in your bank account, and then you reply with a resounding, “I’m in.”
But when you are on a plane flying between Singapore and Kathmandu, when you are exhausted from two full days of travel, when you are wondering what Nepal will be like and feeling a little bit scared of it all, your mind wanders back to your other friend’s question, which you could not answer adequately four weeks ago, and you ask yourself again, “Why are you going?”
Nepal is 25 percent Buddhist, according to the Nepalese driver who picks me up at the airport and ferries me to my hotel through the smog-filled streets of Kathmandu. In fact, the Buddha himself was born in Nepal in a region called Lumbini. My driver has a silver Buddhist prayer wheel fixed to the dashboard of his van. He points to it and tells me, unlike the large prayer wheels in the city and up on the mountains, his silver model does not spin.
I knew about the prevalence of Buddhism in Nepal and so, in preparation for the trip, I brushed up on this ancient religion. While reading, I came across the term Bardo. It is a Tibetan word which means “intermediate state”, and, according to Buddhist teaching, it refers to the state of existence between one’s death and one’s rebirth, a time supposed to be especially ripe for spiritual transformation. Some also use the term loosely to refer to other spiritually ripe periods in life, such as when one is suffering from an illness or spending time deep in meditation. All these are moments when a person experiences something shocking and new, which can teach him something about the truth of the world, transform his mind, or move him from one way of thinking into another, clearer way.
Now, I certainly don’t want to be that naive Westerner hijacking the serious Buddhist phrase, but I will say this: the term struck me. I wonder if the idea of a Bardo — a transitional time in one’s life that opens a space for realization — might be akin to travel, especially travel to a country quite different from one’s own. Couldn’t travel be a kind of “Bardo”, a kind of transformationally potent moment?
The sudden shift in environment; the new smells, the noises, the tastes; the different, indistinguishable languages; the motorcycles stacked with pallets of bananas; the rickshaws with their rickety, faded gold and green seats; the children laughing incoherently beneath their parents who cook momos, little brown dumplings, on the side of the road — all of it sharpens the senses, makes you more alert to yourselves, to others and, perhaps, to God.
Could this be a reason to travel? To simulate an experience similar to the Buddhist Bardo?
I am just beginning this journey, so I don’t know. I don’t know if waking this morning to the sounds of crows cawing and dogs barking and motorcycle horns blaring, to the smell of a faint whisp of smog and sweet incense smoke through my open window, I don’t know if that could stimulate a kind of Bardo, but I wonder if it might.
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.
September 29, 2016 § 4 Comments
A friend of mine recently introduced me to The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle, a trilogy of prayer manuals that are a modern reworking of fixed-hour prayer. With roots in Judaism and early Christianity, fixed-hour prayer is one of the oldest Christian spiritual practices. While it has evolved over the centuries, it is essentially the practice of praying (often by chanting) certain predetermined prayers at certain predetermined times of the day.
Since learning about The Divine Hours, I’ve realized I’m a bit late to the game. Now, I come across the books everywhere: on friends’ bookshelves, tossed around in various conversations, and even in the occasional artsy Instagram post.
Isn’t that how it often is? Something can be right in front of your face, and you don’t notice it until you need it.
On a late summer morning, my friend and I settled ourselves beneath a blanket, mugs of steaming coffee in our hands, and chanted together the prayers and passages allotted for the day. It was an unusual thing to do in her modern apartment, our monotone voices joining a legacy of petitioners extending far into the past. While at first, the chanting felt strange on my lips, uncomfortable even, in its sincerity and unconventionality, soon, I settled into the mantra, our low voices soothing to my soul, the simple act of singing words of thanks, of request, of remembrance, of praise good in and of themselves.
The prayers set me firm in my body for the day, but more than that, I liked what Tickle wrote in her introduction: “The Divine Hours are prayers of praise offered as a sacrifice of thanksgiving and faith to God…The fact that the creature grows strong and his or her faith more sinewy and efficacious as a result of keeping the hours is a by-product (albeit a desirable one) of that practice and not its purpose.”
In a world in which there is so much pressure for everything from the work we do to the prayers we pray to have immediate material efficacy, it was a relief to simply enter into a practice with no other goal than to see and acknowledge what is good.
A passage that continuously appears throughout The Divine Hours, and one that draws my eye again and again, is this verse from Psalm 55: In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday, I will complain and lament, and he will hear my voice. My friend pointed it out to me on that first day, and each time it reappears, I think: yes, that passage is for me.
Because isn’t that what I do all day long, complain and lament, both to others and to God? And isn’t that a picture of grace, that these complaints and laments do not fall on deaf ears, that however big or small my daily trials, they are always heard, they are always acknowledged.
This, I think, is why I’m coming to love The Divine Hours. This continuous, all day, everyday, looking for God. This turning every complaint and lament, every hope and exultation, every thought, small and large, up to the sky in habit-forming rhythm. This basic movement of the lips and of the heart.
August 26, 2016 § 4 Comments
A few days before my 25th birthday, several of my older friends admitted that on their 25th birthdays, they’d woken up feeling rather like someone had punched them in the face. They were no longer in their early twenties. They were 25 now. They needed to get their lives together. They needed to grow up.
These were honest, innocent admissions, not meant to bother me, the one nearing this momentous occasion in her life, but they gave me pause.
At 24, I’d already experienced my fair share of difficulty: rough moves, disappointing jobs, and unexpected grief. I did not need the additional hardship of simply turning one age to another. Yet, as much as I tried not to give in to this myth of the quarter life crisis, I found myself waking up on my 25th birthday with the stark realization that where I was in life was not at all where I wanted to be.
I wanted so much more.
Not that my life lacked for good things. Quite the contrary. I have traveled some, taking to heart the advice I once read that when you are young, you should travel cheap and far and wide. I am full to the brim with deep, lasting friendships, for which I am ever more grateful day by day. I am perfectly healthy (well, except for that recent bacterial infection from a manicure — a first world problem if there ever was one).
And yet, I am not satisfied.
I want. So much. More.
What is this urge, this deep desire within me?
I wake with it in the morning. It ceases momentarily while I sit at my computer to write (this is, I’ve come to believe, one of the reasons I love writing). Then it is back as I drive across the city, as I work in coffee shops, as I walk my dog in the evening, as I fall asleep at night.
It is an urge to get up and go, a sense that if I sit here, alone, for too long, the whole world will pass me by. It is a sharp desire to rise and flee. It is a vague longing within the center of my chest. As I told a friend lately, I feel like a deep cavern of need.
I could write down a list of all of the particular things I want at this moment. Actually, being the overly-organized person I am, I already have. This list includes normal things any 20-something-year-old wants, both within reason (money for monthly yoga classes so I can stay in-shape) and without (an upscale flat in Paris where I can live with several obscure, but exceedingly rich and brilliant artists).
But I’m not convinced that any of these things will actually fulfill my cavern of need. I think my cavern of need is like an ever-growing pit: the more you fill it in, the larger it grows.
Half of me thinks I should cultivate contentment: don’t let your greediness for more taint the good things you already have!
But another part of me thinks I should press into this neediness: the world is full of so many lovely things, and we ought to be greedy for all of them.
I guess this life is full of contradictions. I guess both things can be true at once. This is the beginning of something I’m learning in my 25th year.
July 6, 2016 § 4 Comments
Every so often, usually in the late afternoon when I’m a bit tired and would rather like a latte or a nap, a small voice in my head wakes up and this is what it says: “You, Elizabeth Hamilton, you are a failure. You have tried, and you have failed. You don’t have what it’s got.”
When this happens, I usually try my best to ignore the voice, and when that doesn’t work, I usually try my best to reason with it. “No, no,” I say, “I’m not a failure. Look at all I’ve accomplished! Look at all of the good things in my life! Why would you say such a thing about me!?”
Yet, despite my best efforts, the voice in my head usually wins. Oh, occasionally I manage to pile enough of my accomplishments and a litany of good things in my life on top of the voice to muffle its insults, but the effort always leaves me emotionally drained and wondering if that voice might be correct after all. Maybe I am a failure. Maybe I don’t have what it’s got.
I know I’m not the only one out there with this voice in her head, and that’s got me thinking: why, exactly, do we think we’re failing? And why is failure such a bad thing?
And here is what I’m learning, here is what I’m glimpsing through the fog: failure isn’t such a bad thing, and though we’ve all failed in some ways at some things and succeeded in some ways at others, we ourselves are not failures, at least, not in the way the small voice thinks.
When we fail at something, it hurts, yes, but it is within that space of disappointment and even despair that, if we’re willing, we can begin to understand greater truths about ourselves and the world in which we live.
I have failed and succeeded at a number of things in my short life. Yet while each failure rocked me to the core, split me open, broke me down, I found myself opening up.
I found myself learning through failure what it was that I truly wanted, which turned out to be quite different than what I thought. I found myself developing empathy for others in similarly shattered situations, and out of this empathy came the greatest gift of all: love. Not love in a wishy-washy, I love M&M’s sort of way, but a deep, abiding love that sees the humanity in others and wills their good.
And so, the voice in my head is wrong to call me a failure. Because what is failure without a definition of success? The two are wrapped together, opposing concepts known only as one.
To the voice in my head, success is immediate, and usually involves a vague notion of prestige and money and power. But with a little consideration, I’m seeing a new vision for success, one that finds fulfillment even in the center of disappointment, one that lets setbacks split me open so that a never-ending flow of warmth and light spills forth, one that realizes how you and I and everyone else are at our best when we are softened, and that softening comes most generously through the bump of a fall.
*Photos from my recent trip to Iceland.
June 13, 2016 § 3 Comments
Over the past few weeks, since returning from a long-anticipated trip to Iceland, many of my friends and family have asked how it was and what was my favorite part. To which I usually reply by sharing the story of the glacier.
Funny enough, when I think about the most enjoyable parts of the trip, my encounter with the glacier isn’t one. Most of the trip was just plain fun. Get three good friends together in a car driving around an island chalk full of stunning vistas and waterfalls and weird volcanic rocks, and of course it’s going to be fun. In fact, barring the usual annoyance of long layovers in crowded airports and jet lag, the trip was seven days of bliss — except, for me at least, the encounter with the glacier.
It was the near the end of the second day of the trip, and as we drove along the Ring Road, the nearly-deserted route which circles the island, we began to see white tendrils of glacier slipping out between the surrounding black-green mountains. They were part of the Vatnajökull Glacier, the largest glacier in Iceland and one of the largest in Europe. On a whim, we meandered down a gravel road, crossed a rickety wooden bridge, and wound our way toward it. Incidentally, this is how we discovered many incredible sites in Iceland: by following the curve of a gravel road to see where it led.
This road happened to end at the edge of the glacier.
We got out of the car. We were in the middle of nowhere. It was freezing and silent expect for a faint crackling: the sound of the glacier melting.
A narrow, rocky path ran adjacent to the glacier, overlooking the striated walls of ice jutting high into the overcast sky, brown pools of frigid water below. We walked along the climbing path for some time, until the height made me dizzy. I let my friends go on, content to stop where I was, leaning against the cold stone wall, staring out at the massive glacier. Soon, I was completely alone.
In trying to describe the way it felt to sit there by myself in the silent cold, overlooking what appeared to be a massive block of ice, but was really only the tiniest finger of a glacier that expanded far beyond my sight, I always fall short.
I say that it made me feel small. I say that it astonished me to contemplate how old that glacier must be. I say that because it was so old, it made me realize my life is just a tiny blip in comparison, inconsequential really, and certainly not the center of anything. I say that it made me feel vulnerable, and helpless, and fragile, and needy. I say that because the glacier was so cold and so big, colder and bigger than anything I’d ever seen before, it felt otherworldly, and because it felt otherworldly, it made me afraid.
It made me think about god, not as a squishy, found-in-a-Hallmark-card god who answers prayers and is always there, but as something far more expansive and mysterious than anything I had ever thought of or experienced before. It made me think of the fear of god, the fear of the wildness, the otherness.
Later, at the evening’s hostel, I would write these observations about what the glacier made me feel in my travel journal: danger, mystery, that cold wind off the glacier, darkness, where is god?, ancient, left out of the equation, alone, what it evoked based on its inner being, the birth of the world, didn’t make me feel good.
A few days later, when talking about our experience at the glacier, one of my friends would observe that it’s no wonder the Nordic gods are depicted the way they are, so fierce and foreboding — their myths reflect the lands which surround us.
I suppose we all have moments like the one I had at the glacier. In fact, if I’m honest, I’ve definitely experienced something like this before. These are moments when a thing outside of ourselves reaches through us and wrenches us open to the reality of an existence other than, an existence which lies beyond.
It is not necessarily a pleasant feeling, but it is a powerful one. It is one that sticks with you long after a return flight home.
May 5, 2016 § 2 Comments
When you are shrouded, how does one go? Who am I, that which beget me? Love which holds the universe fastened together,
where do I pass and are you mindful? Why, if you are?
That such intricacies exist which we do not know: a caterpillar chewing a green leaf, a frog dying in a pond alone, baby chicks hatching in a needled nest, me by myself drinking coffee. Such personalities! Such extravagance, and I’m more interested in what’s for dinner.
Expand our hearts so that we might see — the universe within us, and without. Show us your radiance in it all, in an early morning sunbeam and the minuscule growth of a fingernail.
These images, pasted together, amount to a glimpse, but still you remain hidden behind layers and layers of starry black cloth. It doesn’t end here. There is more to be given, and received. Fold us into your shadowy veil.
*Photos from my recent trip to Texas Hill Country.