Thursday, April 23, 2020

Sister Stress and Brother Blues

Are you a wildcat or an antelope? That is, in times of stress, are you more likely to react with fight or with flight? I can get feisty and I can walk out ... but I think, in general, I'm more of a rabbit: I freeze. I play dead, like an opossum. I'm like an ostrich, burying my head in the sand of endless rounds of computer solitaire. When I get really anxious, I tend to get paralyzed. I procrastinate. My good habits start to slide. I'm less careful about what I eat, and I don't want to exercise. I can't focus on reading, my prayer life feels sterile, and sleep is less restful.

I'm very much aware of my prevailing reaction to stress, these days, because, you know, there's this pandemic going on. I stay away from social media and keep my consumption of the news to a minimum, but I'm not totally isolated, and the anxiety does reach into the hermitage. Add an extra special ingredient, like the spectacular demise of my 34-year-old stove (it's OK!  the cabinets didn't catch on fire, and the new stove was delivered this morning), as well as the less dramatic mixture of everyday challenges, and let's just say I've been thinking more than usual about coping with stress.

The most important thing, I find, is to pull my ostrich head out of the sand and face my anxiety head on. I don't mean to trade "freeze" for "fight," though. For me, the best way is a sort of split awareness, dividing my mind between my "inner child" and my "inner mother." When my inner child is cowering under the covers, inner mother can take her by the hand, give her a hug, and help her to face the monsters. Sometimes, that just means shining a flashlight under the bed to show nothing's there, or fixing the curtains so they don't cast scary shadows in the moonlight. Some monsters are real, but even then, a closer look may show them to be more bark (roar?) than bite. Some are terrible but remote and improbable, some are imminent threats that if I were to look at bravely, I might find that I could make a plan to deal with easily. But even in the worst-case scenario, "inner mother" needs to respond both to the outward situation and to the emotional needs of her "inner child." 

I think I'm probably not the only one who tends to think that being a grown-up demands a hard-headed practicality, with no room for childish emotion. But we are all a mixture of heart and head, and really healthy functioning demands attention to both. Ignoring our uncomfortable feelings -- whether anxiety or grief or unrequited love or the overwhelming urge to go buy a pack of cigarettes (20+ years now, thank God) -- doesn't make them go away. Ignoring an unhappy child doesn't make her happy, it just makes her act out her emotions in some less appropriate way ... and the exact same thing is true of us grown-ups, when we try to shut up or shut out the clamor of our unwelcome feelings. Our feelings end up influencing our actions one way or another; better to acknowledge them and deal with them directly.

So for me, what does mothering my inner child look like?

First of all, if I find myself restless, jumpy, irritable, etc. (like a fussy kid), I need to stop and pay attention, and ask myself, gently, what's going on? There may be more than one thing going on, and the ones that come up first might turn out to be distractions from something bigger and harder ... take the time and compassion to look deep. 

Second, for me, especially if the stressor is too big or too outside of my control for me to take much effective action against, I need to spend more time on my knees in direct, personal, contemplative prayer. I spend plenty of time in formal, liturgical prayer, plenty of time in wordy prayer, but it takes a different kind of attention to feel myself basking in God's motherly warmth and wrapped in the shelter of God's wings. 

Third, soothe my senses: play some music, take extra care over meal preparation, get up and move and stretch, take a hot shower, pet the cat. Once I have acknowledged the bad feelings, and their source, it's OK to lighten the mood with undemanding literature or my collection of old Pogo comic books, or whatever.

Fourth, connect with nature. I'm very, very lucky to live in the woods, with a view of an ever-changing tidal river, next to a park with lots of hiking trails. But this counted even when I worked in downtown D.C., and used to take my lunch in one of the many tiny green spots carved out where the diagonal avenues cross the square grid of streets. Just to walk out the door, with a pair of binoculars and my phone with its collection of nature apps -- it's like magic.

Fifth, having paid enough compassionate attention to my inner child to calm her down some, I can face thinking through the specific stressors, identify best- and worst-case scenarios, brainstorm options and imagine alternate outcomes, and if possible, think of some little concrete step I can take to make the situation better. Then take it. 

Sixth, since a lot of stress has to do with feeling powerless over a situation, it can be surprisingly helpful to take positive action on something entirely unrelated, to restore my sense of competence and mastery. Yesterday, it was snake-proofing the chicken coop, since I finally came to the conclusion that that's why I have been getting fewer eggs lately. That job was particularly affirming to my sense of competence, but something as simple as folding and putting away a basketful of laundry that's been sitting there waiting for two days, or sorting through a messy tangle of chargers and cords that's been bugging me every time I look at it, can make more difference to my state of mind than I would expect.

The bottom line is really stress management, which sounds like an overused self-help catchphrase -- but what it really means is to manage my stress, instead of trying to avoid and ignore the discomfort. Different techniques may work for different people. Antelopes and wildcats might respond better to other approaches, but for this little rabbit, these are things that help me to unfreeze when life starts to get me down.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

O Death, where is thy Sting?

When I was 18 years old, a friend of mine died. This was one of the most significant incidents in my life, before or since. Or rather, not his death itself, but the "parting of the veil" that I was given some three months later, when I returned home from my freshman year of college and found out about his death. I wish I could tell you how it was. I don't remember anything about it, really, other than the message. I'm sure it was not a sleeping dream, but a waking "vision", or rather a "knowing". And it was totally convincing, deeply moving, life-changing. And this was it, all of it: Wilson, my friend, was at peace. He understood everything, everything made sense, and everything was OK. Does "OK" sound underwhelming? But really, it's profound. EVERYTHING is OK. Everything makes sense, from the other side, and everything is fine.

I promise to post separately, soon, a short account of my history of depression, PTSD, healing and faith. I'll come back and edit this with a link to that post. Meanwhile, I'll just say that at age 18, I was a complete basket case. And while I was not close to Wilson, I felt a kinship with him. I felt that he, too, was crazy.  Unhappily crazy. Confused, like me. Nothing made sense to me, or to Wilson. And Wilson died drunk, breaking the law. He and a friend (I wish I knew what became of Tomás) got drunk one night and climbed the locked fence to a local swimming pool. Wilson drowned. Was he in a state of grace? Man, how could he have been, by any kind of conventional understanding of that phrase? He was drunk, totally trashed, not even in any state to think, to discern ... how could a young man in that state of mind make any kind of a meaningful act of faith or contrition?

How little we understand! How little we understand about sin, and grace, and what drives us to sin, and how to heal. How little we understand about why people sin against us, and even less do we understand random natural disasters like this coronavirus plague. I don't know Wilson's story. I have some understanding -- much more than I did back then -- about why I was so miserable myself, but I don't know what drove Wilson to self-destruction. But what I know, with rock-solid, unshakable conviction, is that everything makes sense (from somewhere, from the other side), and everything is OK.

Death is not a problem. Pain is not bad. Suffering is not wrong. Christ Himself suffered, and died, on the cross, so how can it be wrong? This is a paradox, and I cannot begin to explain it, but I feel it deeply to be true. I don't like pain and fear and suffering, I don't want it, and I will duck if you take a swing at me ... but suffering and death are not, somehow, somewhere deep within the mystery, inherently wrong. I hesitate even to post this, because it's one thing to say that my own suffering has been redemptive, but how many people will feel that I am dismissing their pain? But it's not even what I mean. I don't mean, "I'm stronger where I was broken." I don't mean, as the Easter Vigil liturgy says, "oh happy fault of Adam, that merited such a wonderful Redeemer." I mean that pain, death, and even sin, are not flaws in God's world -- the world of our totally loving God -- at all.

I just don't have the words. Far more eloquent was the 14th-century anchoress Julian of Norwich, who wrote in her Revelations of Divine Love, that God told her: "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." Her world was outwardly even less well than our COVID-shocked world of 2020. In her lifetime, Norwich lost perhaps 1/3 of its population to the Black Death, and on top of that were repeated severe famines. Julian's series of visions, or "shewings", came when she herself lay on what she and everyone around her believed would be her own deathbed. England was at a Hundred Years' War with France, with all the killing, and all the crippling taxation and conscription, that that suggests. There were two feuding Popes. Still one Church -- no Martin Luther yet, and no John Calvin, but people were burned at the stake for reading the Bible in English, or for cross-dressing (not cross-gender - or not only - but cross-social class). And yet, the dependence of the populace on the Church was shaken, and not only by its inability to influence God to halt the disasters. Since priests attended the dying, they died in even greater proportions than the general population, and so increasing numbers of people died unshriven; i.e., without the last religious rites that would ease the way into Heaven. That was terrible to a 14th-century mind in a way that we moderns, again plague-deprived of the sacraments, cannot easily imagine. The rich could pay for Masses and prayers to ease their sinful souls through Purgatory, but there was no such hope for the common people. The foundations of religious and secular authority alike were rocked. The Plague had so decimated the population, in Norwich and all across Europe, that the whole dysfunctional system of feudalism and serfdom was thrown into chaos. Peasant uprisings challenged, and were violently put down by, the equally shaken upper classes. There was no such thing as "germ theory," of course, but never a shortage of conspiracy theories, fueling another whole subset of violence, especially against Jewish people. It was a terrible, terrible, terrible time.

And yet..........

"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

This is the paradox, the paradox of the Incarnation and of the Crucifixion and of the Resurrection. Julian saw paradox, that sin is terrible, and yet that sin is not a thing. This is not a faith of "if you behave yourselves like good little boys and girls, you will get into Heaven, but if you mess up you're going to Hell!" Listen to what St. Paul says to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:55-57): "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."

Do I need to unpack that? "The sting of death is sin" -- nothing too unusual here ... but then, "and the strength of sin is the law."  And what does that mean? No, I'm not going to turn this blog post into a book-length manuscript ... I'm just going to invite you to meditate on these verses, slowly, as if you had never heard them before. "But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."  The Lord of Love.

And to frame this, a final quote from Mother Julian:
Wouldst thou learn thy Lord's meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was His meaning. Who shewed it thee? Love. What shewed He thee? Love. Wherefore shewed it He? For Love. Hold thee therein and thou shalt learn and know more in the same. But thou shalt never know nor learn therein other thing without end. Thus was I learned that Love was our Lord's meaning.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Only say the Word

Daffodil & iris
leaves in lieu
of palms
This past Sunday (Palm Sunday), in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and watching Mass live-streamed from the monastery, I was particularly struck by the words the congregation says right before (in normal times) going up to receive Communion: "Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. But only say the word, and my soul shall be healed."

The reference is Matthew 8:8, in which a Roman centurion approaches Jesus, asking Him to heal his gravely ill servant. Jesus agrees to go with him, but the centurion says, "Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant shall be healed." Jesus is stopped in His tracks by the man's humble faith, and He says (in effect): "Wow ... this outsider, this man who has no part in our religion at all, has more faith than anyone I've met so far. You're right! I don't need to go with you in person. Because of your faith, your servant will be healed."

I love the Eucharist. I love it passionately! It is so small, so unimpressive, so simple and humble. THIS is GOD, yes, that God, the God of all creation, the infinite, infinitely powerful, infinitely transcendant, infinitely knowing, the ground of all life, of all being, the source and foundation of all that exists ... that is what this little boring wafer is. God Almighty took on Himself the human condition, became incarnate in Christ Jesus the man. And now He incarnates daily, over and over again, all over the world, all that is God in this simple little wafer. He makes Himself food for us, literal food for our physical bodies, and commingles His infinite Godness with our finite humanness. Day after day after day, and why? Because God LOVES us! God loves us passionately, compassionately, deeply, and wants us to know Him and love Him and be re-made by Him, too.

But this pandemic is depriving us of the Eucharist, just when, maybe, we're feeling the most need of it. Today is Holy Thursday, and I'll be watching the Mass of the Lord's Supper online. You know that road-blues lyric: "can't squeeze sugar from the phone?" No, you can't squeeze the Sacrament from YouTube, either. And it's kind of a desolate feeling! But I am going to turn this around, and take it as a reminder that God doesn't have to visit me in person, in the flesh, to fill me with His grace, and to commingle His infinite Godness with my finite humanness.... Where my humble faith meets God's loving Word, He can only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.

On Holy Thursday night, I will miss spending time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the Abbot's Chapel, as is the tradition. But instead, this year, I will go out for a midnight walk, and adore God in the sky, in His gift, like the luminous sign of a communion wafer, the just-past-full moon.

Image by Epic Images from Pixabay

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Spring Cleaning vs. the Noonday Demon

So how's it going so far in your social isolation? Are you feeling nourished by the peace and quiet of solitude? Does it feel restorative? Is it giving you the chance to re-think your life and prepare to return to a new normal, a different, healthier, happier normal, once the crisis is past? If so, congratulations! That's wonderful. Run with it! This post isn't for you, although reading it might give you more understanding of others who aren't doing so well.

This post is for the folks who are still in their pajamas at noon, binging on scary news and Candy Crush, bored, irritable, anxious, simultaneously restless and listless. Are there projects you thought you were waiting for a break like this to tackle, but now you can't bring yourself even to look at them? Do you lack the energy and motivation even to keep up your existing good habits? Do you feel disgusted with yourself, with your environment, with the news, with other people? Yeah, oh yeah, I KNOW that feeling. In fact, probably we've all experienced it from time to time -- but it's a particular occupational hazard of hermit-monks.

The desert fathers and mothers called this syndrome acedia, or more charmingly, the "noonday demon." They talked a lot about it, and they offer some excellent advice for combatting this very destructive demon. So what's the prescription? The two most important ingredients are:

a) stay put -- there's no geographical cure!
b) manual labor.

We don't have a lot of choice about the first part nowadays, since we're all sheltering in place. But I think the urge to do anything but this, anywhere but here, with anyone but these people, is pretty familiar.

But it's the second part, manual labor, that I want to recommend here. Particularly, spring cleaning. You know, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, à la Marie Kondo. It's life-changing, not only because of how it transforms your living space and your relationship with your possessions -- both of which are pretty wonderful. It's also a surprisingly effective cure for the noonday demon.

I know, I know, the whole point of acedia is that you don't have the energy or the motivation to get off the couch, so how can you tackle spring cleaning? Here's how: pick just one very small job, and do it now. Look around you and see: one baseboard that needs to be dusted, or some clothes picked up off the floor, or a trash can that needs emptying. It sounds pointless, doesn't it? But it's not, because like many demons, acedia is not as tough as it likes to appear. The thing is, MOST of your willpower goes toward breaking out of inertia. Once you drag your behind up out of that chair, grumbling and scowling get the rag from the cupboard, and wipe that one baseboard ... well, hell, you might as well do the rest of them now. And before you know it, you're straightening up the shelves and tabletops so you can dust those, too, and you find that your mind has changed. At least a little bit.

And if it doesn't work, at least there's a clean baseboard in the house. And an hour or two hours from now, try again. And again. You will be training your brain that that demon can be faced, even if it's still a big bully. With repeated attacks, inertia will get weaker. At some point -- and I'm not going to lie to you, for me it took a few straight WEEKS of moaning and groaning and gritting my teeth and house-cleaning before this switch flipped, a few months ago -- at some point, you're going to see a difference, and you're going to start to feel energized, not just for chores but for LIFE, and that's when you'll know you've won. Not the war, no, but this battle. The most important one, because it's this one that will show you that the noonday demon is a fraud, a paper tiger. "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you." (James 4:7-8)

At least, that's how it worked for me. But don't just take my word for it. For further reading:
And if this all seems kind of light and trite, in such a time of worldwide disaster ... I know. But I don't know anything about how to bring a pandemic under control. I can only write what I know about, which is a little bit about how to stay sane, and even happy, in solitude.

Keep the faith, my friends. This, too, shall pass.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Just say "No" to Rumination, Resentment, and Regret

Today is the feast of St. Francis of Paola, a 15th-century Italian hermit who founded the Order of Minims. He has very strong words for us in today's Office of Readings, on the subject of nursing a grudge:

    "Put aside hatred and hostility. See to it that you refrain from harsh words. But if you do speak them, do not be ashamed to apply the remedy from the same lips that inflicted the wounds. In this way you will show each other mercy and not keep alive the memories of past wrongs. Remembering grievances works great damage. It is accompanied by anger, fosters sin, and brings a hatred for justice. It is a rusty arrow spreading poison in the soul. It destroys virtue and is a cancer in the mind. It thwarts prayer and mangles the petitions we make to God. It drives out love and is a nail driven into the soul, an evil that never sleeps, a sin that never fades away, a kind of daily death. 
    Be lovers of peace, the most precious treasure that anyone can desire." 

But it's one thing to know that we should forgive and forget, and quite another to actually do it. Here are some tips on how to let go of resentment.

Note: If you try any of them, please comment at the end of this post on how it worked for you. Likewise, if you have more suggestions on the same topic, please offer them below. I've learned some things in my life, but I'm also hoping that the comments section of this blog will become a forum for other people to multiply the wisdom. While you're at it, if you would click the "subscribe" button under the title, that will help the blog to become established and grow. So here are some ideas to start with:

  1. Acknowledge your own role in the conflict. A guilty conscience is a damned uncomfortable thing, and sometimes we try to hide from it by putting more of the blame than is fair on the other guy. This is really two steps: admitting your guilt to yourself, and apologizing to the other person.
  2. Examine your shadow self. I have noticed that very often, the things that disproportionately piss me off in another person are the very things I can't stand in myself. If you find yourself getting angrier or more irritated than a given situation seems to warrant, think about whether this might be a contributing factor.
  3. Question your assumptions about motive. Don't assume that another person's behavior is motivated by the same thing that would motivate you to behave that way. I really recommend getting to understand various different personality type frameworks. The very popular 5 Love Languages, by Gary Chapman, is particularly relevant here. Example: your "love language" is quality time, and your spouse's is receiving gifts ... if your spouse is working overtime in order to express his sense of your preciousness by buying you jewelry, and you get all upset thinking he must be off having an affair and trying to cover his guilt with expensive trinkets, how tragic would that be? 
  4. What else is going on? Are you hungry? lonely? getting enough sleep? stressed about something unrelated? In my case, I find that I'm ridiculously sensitive to the weather. If it's dark and grey for two or three days in a row, I get into a funk. But my mind tends to want to blame my mood on something other than a lack of sunlight, so I might find myself stewing on something I or someone else has done to upset me, and blowing it all out of proportion, before it dawns on me that that thing is just an excuse for my mood, not its cause.
  5. Distract yourself. Read an absorbing novel, watch a movie, or delve into some task requiring concentration. Give your thoughts a break, and when you return to the troublesome topic you may find it's lost some of its force.
  6. Move, and change your scenery. Even if it's just getting up from my chair in the living room and walking into the kitchen to wash the dishes left over from breakfast, that shift can help to break the spell of rumination and resentment. Better yet is to grab my binoculars and go bird-watching, or get out and weed and water the garden. Or turn on some lively music and work off the angry energy by dancing around the house -- great exercise, too.
  7. Plan to prevent a repeat. Sometimes it's a feeling of powerlessness that turns anger at ourselves or others into a persistent poison. So think about whether there are ways you can break a negative pattern. Trace the chain of events that led up to the injury, and look for something you could do in the future to defuse a conflict before it reaches a point of hurtfulness. Or if it's yourself you're mad at, back up and look for what we Catholics call "the near occasion of sin," the point where your willpower started to slip but before it was totally shot, and make that milder sense of temptation your new "red flag" for the future. If a job or relationship is just really toxic for you, do something concrete toward finding an exit strategy.
  8. Talk to someone. If you don't have a friend you can really trust to keep a secret, seriously consider talking to a professional counselor, or a priest under the seal of the confessional. Someone outside the relationship might be able to give you a very different perspective on what's going on.
Do you have any other tips and strategies for avoiding rumination, resentment, and regret? Please share them in the comments below!