On the Necessity of Following One’s Still, Small Voice

July 30, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Posted in Philosophical Problems, Spirituality and Religion | 1 Comment

Changing one’s life — addressing the most thorny issues of a given existence — would be a lot easier if you could just follow a handful of strict rules unwaveringly. Or, better yet, if others would enforce good behavior. Sometimes change does work this way, of course: Kicking a chemical addiction is the most obvious example, since you cannot use at all when you’re in recovery.

So often, though, our problems stem from relationships — whether to things or to people — that we need to modify, but can’t eliminate. People who have problems with overeating do eventually have to learn to eat responsibly, for example. Even radical gastric surgery leaves most people with enough latitude to fail. For many people, sex, too, must be controlled. If you’re in a poisonous sexual relationship, you can cut off a given lover. Most of us aren’t called to chastity, though, and eventually we must learn to moderate this most primal urge without denying it entirely.

We know in our hearts what we need to do. To put it in Christian terms (which I prefer to the language of psychotherapy), we know where our sin lies. In his Mere Christianity, a brilliant explication of fundamental Christian beliefs, C.S. Lewis points out that living a blameless life is not a matter of following clear-cut rules. Even the Ten Commandments require a surprising amount of interpretation. (That interpretation remains abstract to me, since I have never had any potentially legitimate occasion to kill anyone.) How much more difficult, then, is the fundamental Christian requirement that we love God and our neighbors as ourselves. I am sure I’m not the only person who has little idea what loving God entails, and the difficulty of figuring out who counts as our neighbor provides the subject of many a sermon in my parish church. The law, religion, and ethics will always disappoint when we try to apply these blunt tools to our muddy, intricate lives.

The solution is simple, but it isn’t easy. It’s our duty to discern in our hearts what is right, and to act accordingly. As Kierkegaard was fond of pointing out, right behavior may look radically different in different people — for one man, it might mean marrying a woman he loves, while another might be called to abstain from marrying. Social norms are not a reliable measure of what each of us needs to do (though, of course, any decision to violate laws — or, to a lesser extent, conventions — requires the highest possible level of self-scrutiny combined with willingness to accept the consequences).

It is incredibly hard to behave well even 60 percent of the time, I think. Every day we make hundreds of tiny decisions — to put off a boring task or a potentially uncomfortable confrontation, to refrain from eating nasty food, to maintain even the most minimal spiritual discipline — and, sad to say, I’m often not conscious I’m making a decision. When I am aware of what I’m doing — procrastinating, say — I still often talk my gullible self into all sorts of self-indulgent behavior. I do have some ingrained good habits — I am unfailingly prompt, and am disciplined about emptying out my email in-box regularly — but those good habits live under a deep, cold drift of accumulated tendencies to laxness.

More later.

Love to all.


In Which I Free-Associate about the Wisdom of St. Augustine

March 1, 2010 at 5:09 am | Posted in Philosophical Problems, Spirituality and Religion | Leave a comment

St. Augustine

Here's my man St. A, looking sheepish, if not repentant.

Even before I began my convoluted path to conversion, I adored St. Augustine. When I first read him as an undergraduate, I was struck by his deft parries of common arguments against the existence of God. It’s a bit like reading Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics in that he prepares the ground for serious philosophical work by setting to rest a series of persistent, fruitless claims. (Naturally people still pull out the same hoary old objections because they presume to know what Christians believe without having read a single sentence of Christian theology.)

I even went so far as to devote the longest chapter in my dissertation to detailed analysis of his famous defense of nuns who had been raped during the Gothic sack of Rome, since he essentially established the definition of rape that prevails today among feminists and non-feminists alike.

St. Augustine also gave me an opportunity for one of my few witty comebacks: When I was in grad school, every now and then someone would criticize me for devoting so much attention to an “ancient white male,” and I would get the smug pleasure of reminding them that Augustine was a native of North Africa and thus almost certainly black (the racial map in 400 A.D. was different enough from ours to render that distinction meaningless, but it’s always fun to tweak the earnest.)

I recently started re-reading his deservedly famous Confessions. This volume is typically considered to be the first autobiography, and it’s amazingly rich. I particularly recommend Book VIII, “The Birthpangs of Conversion,” in which St. Augustine utters one of the most famous short Christian prayers: “Give me chastity, but not yet.” Aside from being intrinsically funny, I love this prayer because it captures the essence of the struggle to surrender to God’s will. That is, we long to turn ourselves over to God body, mind and soul but can’t quite let go of our favorite sins.

It took me 90 minutes to write the above introduction, which has robbed me of the time to unpack a couple of quick quotes. I’ll return to these, then:

“Let [critics of Christianity] rejoice and delight in finding you who are beyond discovery rather than fail to find you by supposing you to be discoverable”

And a favorite of mine: “For you have imposed order, and so it is that the punishment of every disordered mind is its own disorder.”

Paragraph of tangential chatter — feel free to skip:

The Prolegomena only rates four stars on Amazon.com, compared to five for Hegel’s Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit and Volume I of the Hong and Hong translation of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. Fair enough. I’d like to meet the guy who’s too erudite to splurge on a fifth star for Volume II. Come on, give Kierkegaard a little credit — he wrote the whole tome by hand in eight months.

Kierkegaard is in good company, though: the latest edition of J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words scores an anemic four, and the most recent edition sports a truly hideous cover design. Let’s see how Friedrich Schlegel is holding up.

Oh, my. No reviews. Not even of Lucinde, which is pretty spicy stuff.

Love to all.

On the Sin of Self-Consciousness

February 6, 2010 at 7:33 am | Posted in Goal Progress, Philosophical Problems, Sociability, Spirituality and Religion | Leave a comment

Snake and Apple

For me, self-absorption is the most destructive sin springing from a mood disorder.

I decided recently that it’s selfish to obsess about what others think and feel. This seems counter-intuitive at first. After all, if I’m constantly monitoring others’ reactions, am I not extraordinarily kind and sensitive?

Perhaps not. The following reasons persuade me that such sensitivity is actually another form of self-absorption.

First, my motive for knowing others’ opinions of me is entirely selfish. I don’t actually care how others feel; I’m not even certain that I attribute much agency or emotion to them. Certainly I don’t imagine that they might have drives and sorrows that I can only guess at. Nope, when I want to know what people think, my interest is limited to what they think about me. I’m overstating the case here — I am not a psychopath, and thus feel compassion for friends, family, and lovers. But even though I’ve figured out that I am not the heroine of a Georgette Heyer novel (not even the willful and mannish Lady Serena Carlow of Bath Tangle), I still place myself firmly at the center of the known world.

Specifically, in conversation I act as if people desperately need to find me bewitching, when they’d probably much prefer that I be drawn to them. I have to make a conscious effort to put people at ease, for example, and I’m reluctant to give them the satisfaction of knowing that I dote upon them.

As if that weren’t enough, when I’m ostensibly concerned about others, I’m paying little attention to them. Instead, I’m busily monitoring my reactions to them. I don’t ask questions — my yardstick for others’ inner lives is what I think about them.

Finally, there’s this piece of indirect evidence: In Christianity (or, at least, in the Catholic and Episcopalian traditions) self-reliance is a sin. To the extent that rely on your own perceptions and impulses, you have turned away from God. Christianity doesn’t place a Buddhist-style emphasis on compassion; instead, you should aim to know God’s will. This isn’t easy, since it entails communicating with someone who is by definition not perceptible though the senses. (My friend Al once saw an application for a tenure-track job that asked in all seriousness, “When did you last walk with God?” St. Augustine frowns from heaven upon that search committee.) Much of the paradoxical duty of Christianity rests in finding that “still, small voice,” which is neither internal nor located in the material world.

I’m familiar with the old philosophical argument that we are radically isolated from the natural world, let alone from others. I wonder if that’s really true, though. I’m not prepared to provide evidence to support my position, but I am intuitively inclined to think that we can commune profoundly with others, and that it’s not just a duty, but a relief.

I’m not sure what all of this means, but I have been thinking about it during recent social interactions. I try to devote myself to the other person by understanding that I comprise only a small part of their inner lives, and that they need more than to be charmed and entertained by me.

So, thought of the day.

While we’re on the subject of Me, Glorious Me, I should mention that though I’m making decent progress towards becoming The Perfect Mental Patient, I am still tormented by my many shortcomings and tempted to make dozens of resolutions for improvement. I know that if I take on several more projects I will end up discouraged, but I find it hard to resign myself to such slow improvement. My faults seem so urgent, you see. Nonetheless, I have been walking, praying, and socializing dutifully, and all three are contributing to my happiness.

Links, Including an Insightful Realization from If You’re Going Through Hell Keep Going

October 22, 2009 at 5:05 am | Posted in In the News, Links, Philosophical Problems, Sociability, Spirituality and Religion, Wellness | Leave a comment

The author of the blog above writes: “I think my moods have reverted back to the way they were in Junior High and High School – medium to low functioning, and petrified to be around people.” Oh, so true. It’s as if all of the social lessons I learned late in high school and during my undergraduate — which, let’s face it, weren’t many — have melted away, leaving me the same bundle of exposed nerves that I was at about age 13, the age of my first serious depression.

Another excellent post about social functioning comes from Knowledge Is Necessity, John McManamy’s comprehensive blog and website reviewed earlier in this space. He gives a great description of how difficult it is to control the social impression we make, and of how our hypomania, or just what feels normal can send people “backing for the exits.” Well put.

Also on Knowlege Is Necessity: a review of Judy Eron’s What Goes Up: Surviving the Manic Episode of a Loved One, a shocking memoir about the possible consequences of going off of a mood stabilizer.

I continue to be impressed with the excellent writing on Farewell Prozac. In his latest post, the author gives an intimate description, both of the lingering effects of the drug, and of his returning symptoms. Last night a friend remarked that some people need to take antidepressants all of their lives, and others should come off of them, and that it’s nearly impossible to know in advance which you are. I agree with that remark. Here’s hoping that the author of Farewell Prozac is one of the latter.

If You’re Going Through Hell Keep Going notes that antidepressant sales are up. Surprisingly, this is not because of increased diagnoses, which is what I assumed. Rather, people are taking them longer. I don’t know quite what to make of that, except to pass on my shrink’s observation that there are three elements to wellness with a mental illness: meds, social support, and spiritual development. In countries where antidepressants simply aren’t available, people rely more on the last two, and tend to do as well if not better than people in highly medicated Western countries. And certainly if I lived in a country with closer ties to extended family and a more structured approach to spirituality, I would feel more comfortable trying the high-wire-without-a-net act of going med-free. As it is, going off is not an option I would consider seriously, despite the most excellent support of my immediate family and of the most excellent congregation at St. Philip’s.

And that’s a good place to leave it. Happy Thursday, and the usual love to all.

Biblical quotes, an Installment in an Occasional Feature: 1 Corinthians 10.13

October 10, 2009 at 3:54 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Philosophical Problems, Spirituality and Religion | Leave a comment

I admit that I'm fascinated by images of crucifixion, not because I'm morbid or sadistic (no, really), but because I believe they represent the demanding nature of Christianity.

I admit that I'm fascinated by images of crucifixion, not because I'm morbid or sadistic (no, really), but because I believe they represent the demanding nature of Christianity.

This has always puzzled me a bit, and struck me as a bit fatuous:

God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you might be able to endure it.

I feel that I’ve been tested beyond my strength often and often. Surely some of my darker thoughts prove that I’ve gone beyond my strength. Is that really the case, though? As I was typing this out, I thought that just because God provides the way out doesn’t mean we have to take it. It’s the whole bit about free will and sin. If sin is turning away from God and towards one’s own will, then perhaps — just perhaps — my darkest days came when I was turning away from God and relying on my own will.

Now I want to make it absolutely clear that I gain nothing by wallowing in the fact that I’ve sinned. As you all know, Christian or not, Christianity holds that none of us can avoid sin, since we’re fallen creatures and live in a fallen world. So meditation on this quote need not remind me of my vile sinning nature. Rather, it should serve as motivation to discern God’s will and turn myself over to it.

This is incredibly difficult, as any Christian will tell you. I’m still very much where St. Augustine was when he was tormented by his ability to discern God’s will and his inability to follow it. Sin is multifarious, is delightful at times, and holds us with chains that we’ve forged link by link over a lifetime. Turning towards God’s will presents us with challenges in just about every aspect of our lives, from our finances to our resistance to tithing to our shyness and distaste when it comes to engaging with the poor. It can often seem overwhelming to imagine striving to live a truly Christian life.

So, yes, following God’s will. If I could just do so, perhaps I could find that elusive way out of at least some of my suffering.

Charity and Worth

September 28, 2009 at 7:40 pm | Posted in Philosophical Problems, Sociability, Spirituality and Religion | Leave a comment

As I was driving home from my nearest pretentious natural foods store, I reflected that maybe I do deserve to earn what I make.

You see, ever since I got my current job, I’ve been hounded by the sense that I’m not worth nearly what they pay me. After all, I’m bipolar, and therefore a bad employee, right? Never mind that I’ve developed specialized skills in the two years that I’ve been there, or that I really do bring a special creative flair to my position; I have been haunted by the feeling that a jealous god will snatch it all away because I’m not good enough to have it.

And maybe it will be wrested from me; I can’t know that. But this evening I began to entertain the thought that, yeah, I work hard, and I’m not overpaid now, I’ve been underpaid before. I work for a company that really values its workers and treats them well, and to be honest, after being an academic for so long, I expect to be smacked around, shit on, and then paid poorly to work part time with no benefits. For two years now, it has puzzled me to be treated like I deserve, not just a generous salary, but excellent health and disability insurance, and respect and reasonable accommodations for my disability.

What got me thinking along these lines? Well, I gave money to a hobo outside the pretentious grocery store, and talked to him for a few minutes. Yes, it reminded me of how tremendously lucky I am – I couldn’t help but be conscious of the difference between us: me with my bulging Trader Joe’s grocery bags, he, largely toothless, begging for scraps. And yes, I thought as I usually do that there but for the grace of God go I. I could so easily be homeless. I’ve seen in my bipolar support group how quickly that can happen. But for once, instead of feeling unworthy, I felt moved to share, and I did. I gave him three bills without checking to see what they were first (it’s not like I was carrying 100s, or even 20s, so this was no great act of courage).

Now, normally when I’m moved to do something kind, I avoid doing it, not because I think the other person is probably unworthy (i.e., will spend it on crystal meth), but rather because I dread having the human interaction. I dread a lot of different kinds of social interactions, and being cast in the role of Lady Bountiful is definitely tough one to swallow. But in this case I followed the quick movement of my heart, and damned if it didn’t benefit me tremendously. We spoke briefly — for less than five minutes — but it was something of a human interaction for both of us. Since the closest I’ve come today to a friendly exchange is discussing automatic email notices with my supervisor, I probably needed it as much as he did. And afterward, like I say, I felt strangely worthy of my salary. It’s not that I earned it in that moment, precisely — it’s just that I realized that when I allow my heart to think for me, I am capable of kindness. Also, I’m no more worth my salary than he’s worth $7 — but I’m also no less worth it.

So I decided how much to pledge to my church for the coming year, knowing that they work very, very hard for the hungry and homeless in this town. And, yeah, it’s more than I feel like I can afford. But part of recognizing the element of luck in our circumstances is being willing to give away some of what I have.

Love to all, and a shout out to anyone who’s feeling depressed or grieved tonight. You’re in my prayers.

New Occasional Feature: Bible Passages I Read When I’m Chasing a Mood Lift

September 21, 2009 at 3:44 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Dealing with Depression, Spirituality and Religion, Wellness | Leave a comment

…So skip this one if you get hives at the very suggestion of brief Biblical passages.

Romans 5:3-4: “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

I’ve always loved this quote, even before I became a devoted Episcopalian, because there’s nothing mystical about the process described. While I’m not sure that I rejoice in my suffering, I certainly try to understand that I derive some benefit from it.

More on that in the next post, which will consider that eternal question: would I rather be bipolar or “normal”?

Spiritual Practices to Combat Mental Illness

September 4, 2009 at 12:14 am | Posted in Spirituality and Religion | Leave a comment

Walking the labyrinth is a well-known form of devotion in the Episcopalian church.

Walking the labyrinth is a well-known form of devotion in the Episcopalian church.

For some reason, people assume that I’m an atheist unless I tell them otherwise. I may have a certain look or air, since I was one for much of my young life. Now I’m an Episcopalian, which, at different times, I’ve thought of as everything from Pope-Free Catholicism to Unitarianism With Free Commemorative Communion Bonus. But seriously, folks, as strange as it may seem to say it, I am a Christian. That’s one reason why today I’m bringing you a list of spiritual practices that help to ward off mental illness. Also, I read somewhere once (“somewhere” is my favorite source to cite) that spiritual practice is one of five building blocks of mental health. Sad to say, I can’t name the other four offhand.

1. Repetitive liturgical prayer — the Rosary, for example — doesn’t require a lot of mental sharpness, but does gradually sink in and comfort you. I find that it helps me to concentrate if I read a short passage from Scripture or one of the church fathers before saying each Hail Mary. For the duration of the Hail Mary I mull over the reading. I concentrate on saying each Our Father slowly and letting each phrase sink in, especially the bits about “Thy will be done” and “Give us this day our daily bread.” (Hint: this is great for gratitude for material blessings, but of course it also refers to Christ’s words, and to grace).

2. Try reciting the Jesus prayer (long form: “Lord Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” short form: “Lord, have mercy.”) or some other mantra when you catch your inner self babbling along in a negative vein. My favorite is “Be still, and know that I am God.” Almost any short prayer or memorized line of Scripture will do. For years this practice, known as continual prayer, totally puzzled me — why recite the same damn prayer over and over again? According to an excellent guide to the spiritual life, Marjorie J. Thompson’s Soul Feast, the point is to replace the contents of the mindless drone layer your brain — the part that is singing “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” or “Jingle Bell Rock” right now — with a short prayer. Not a bad idea, particularly if your brain, like mine, sets particularly pernicious negative thoughts to the tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and serenades me with them for hours at a time. (Here is a good review of Thompson’s book, which I can’t recommend enough.)

3. Try your hand at writing a psalm. I know that my last post may have left you gasping for more Hopkins, so I’ll give you his take on one. There’s also a lovely one by Paul Celan, translated from the German by your humble narrator. It goes a little something like this:

No one molded us again from earth and clay,
no one spoke of our dust.
No one.

You have been praised, no one.
We wanted to bloom
for your sake.

We were,
we are, we will remain
a nothing, blooming:
the nothing-, the
no one rose.

soul-clear pistil
stamen heaven-ravished
red corona
of crimson-word we sang
over, o over
the thorn.

Then there are my own psalms. As with the above, you may use them as you like as long as you provide credit and a link:

It is no accomplishment to have made me —
careless breath on a handful of clay.
My own unfolding thrills and frightens me.
I am a night-blooming cereus, white burst of petals
pistil and stamens tender green,
plush with fine hair, pollen-glazed
bursting from unpromising pulp and thorns
a burning blossom, sun-scorched, shivering with ants.
I thrust into a void,
reflexively, ceaselessly.

And this:

It is good that God hides his face from us.
If he were present, we would not need him so
and we might be inclined to take a bold breath and ask
what he meant by Auschwitz
and why there is a platypus.
The surveillance camera’s hard red eye
exacts more strict obedience
than the guard nodding off
before his wall of monitors.
Absent, God appears to us in each leaf-stroke
caught by the Impressionist’s eye.
His silver fish flash from every bumper.

So, yes, write a psalm or two, and include your doubts, fears, and rage.

4. Make a collage of religious imagery that appeals to you, since scissors and Elmer’s glue are very healing. Personally, with the exception of Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross, I have patience with very little beyond Renaissance painters. You may feel differently. Try stealing from Titian, though. He rocks.

5. Go to your usual worship services no matter how crappy you feel. Listen, look and feel.

6. Express compassion for someone else who is suffering, either by listening, or, if you are feeling shy, by intercessory prayer.

7. If you feel uninspired, pray for inspiration and belief. For me, this is where reading St. Augustine really helps. I have a little book of prayers and sayings of his, Early Will I Seek You, and it often uplifts me. Come on, how could you not love a guy who wrote both “[M]ay I wholly burn towards thee, wholly be on fire toward thee, wholly love thee, as though set on fire by thee,” and the much more famous, “Lord, give me chastity — but not yet.”

8. Express compassion for yourself. Imagine the scene that makes you happiest and gives you the greatest feeling of security — for me, it’s being in a little hut on a desert island in the rain — and just dwell in it for awhile.

9. If you belong to a church, ask the congregation to pray for you when you are hospitalized or very ill. When you’re in the hospital, also ask for a chaplain to give you Holy Communion, or for visits by lay Eucharistic ministers if your church provides that service.

More and more I believe that if you have even the vaguest spiritual stirrings, you should church-shop until you find a community that fits you. It’s very common to speak as if “organized religion” were somehow inferior to personal devotions (or, rather, the conviction that one is, after all, a nice enough person without heavenly intervention, since a lot of people who call themselves “spiritual” don’t actually have any spiritual practices); I disagree. I think that community is central to sustaining and challenging your beliefs, and to supporting you in tough times. If you’re bipolar, there will be tough times; you need all the support you can muster up.

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