The Personalist Project

The necessity of suffering

Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?

John Keats, Keat’s letters

A week or so ago, we had an unpleasant encounter with a former friend in a church parking lot. It was a case of us trying to establish and maintain boundaries that she didn't want and saw as scandalous and wounding and unchristian. Such moments are always fraught for me. I get tense and vulnerable and unsure of myself.

This time, I felt okay. We had stood our ground and stayed clear. We were stiff, but not rude. 

Immediately after, we made a stop at the grocery store. Jules dropped me off and went to get gas. Knowing the encounter or something like it might be repeated, I gave myself a pep talk as I went through the doors, "Walk tall, Katie."

Sure enough, there she was in produce—emotional and blaming. It was awkward. But I managed not to get too drawn in and not to say anything I would regret later. I moved on to my shopping, feeling distracted, but not unduly rattled. I told myself, "It's okay that you didn't handle that perfectly. You don't have to be perfect."

Approaching dairy, I noticed a white-haired man I didn't recognize standing in the center of the aisle, facing me and smiling broadly. I gave a somewhat confused smile in return and kept going my way. But he made a point of stepping toward me. He had something he wanted to say: "It's so great to see a tall person walking tall!"

It was a sweet and gentle reassurance straight from God—like the hug a loving father might give a small, timid child—as if He were wanting me know: "You're ok. You're on track. Don't worry what others think. I see you walking tall, and it gives me pleasure."

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Last month our friends lost their beloved 20-year-old daughter (and granddaughter, and niece, and cousin, and friend), Evie. Her uncle, Fr. Paul Donnelly, had some memorable words on the occasion, which I wrote about here (skip the rest of the post if you like, but don't miss his words!). We weren't able to travel the 500 miles for Evie's memorial Mass, but my friend Monica was there and told me something Evie's uncle, Lawrence Donnelly, said. I'm not sure if it's a direct quote, but here it is:

Life presents two competing truths: 1. that each of us is a speck on a rock swirling through an endless cosmos, and 2. that each of us is a unique, never-before, never-again, unrepeatable human person.

The first one is true, as far as it goes (except, I guess, the part about the "endless" cosmos). The second is also true, and far more important. But it can be tougher to hang onto, most especially when you're in the throes of depression, as I'm told Evie was.

I used to think self-harm, along with depression and addiction, were fairly rare. I thought people who took their own lives were generally those who'd experienced some dramatic tragedy, lost perspective and despaired. Maybe it was even in my mind that victims of suicide, depression and addiction just weren't trying hard enough to fight their demons.

I don't believe any of those things anymore, for the very sad reason that they've all hit too close to home. For example, when my sister Rosie, who tells her story here and here, faced life-threatening depression, I had to leave a lot of preconceptions behind. And a few years earlier, Steve Gershom (a.k.a. my brother Joey), wrote about how he finally, and very reluctantly, decided to try medication for his depression;

Now, when the pills are working [...], it’s like someone turned the volume down on the poisonous thoughts, or took the hooks out of them. When a sad thought occurs to me, I can decide not to think about it, although it might grumble in the background a little; it doesn’t tackle me, eat me alive; it doesn’t grow another head for every one I chop off. Is this how most people are, most of the time?

That's how I am, most of the time. That's my normal. But I didn't realize it wasn't everyone's till I read my brother's words. I had no idea.

When I wrote about Evie last week, other people confided their own surprising (to me) struggles. I never would have guessed some of them were dealing with such things. One friend, Julianne, told her story in a comment she left on my first post about Evie. She writes:

I struggled with depression as a 20 something year old--was extremely close to committing suicide/had the bottle of pills in my hand. Why I was spared? I don't know. When the brain chemicals tank, there are no good feelings happening in the brain, everything is dark--every thought is dark...the emotional pain is so great that it is like someone being in a building on fire and jumping out of the window to get away from the heat (think of 9/11 and the twin towers). those people were not choosing to commit suicide, they were desperately trying to get away from the heat.... 

But each case is different--even when it's one and the same person who's suffering. Julianne again:

In my early 20's, I was working through childhood trauma causing the depression. However, just 2 years ago, I experienced a severe depression from seasonal affective disorder. I was suicidal with no reason to be other than my brain chemicals tanked from lack of sun and vitamin D.

"Seasonal Affective Disorder"--just the kind of thing my younger self would have been over-quick to dismiss and explain away as someone trying to make excuses for not trying hard enough! Julianne continues:

I was suicidal, had no emotional reasons to be--happily married, happy to be a mom to my kids...but without the right chemicals working in my brain, I almost had to call a suicide hotline. As a 51 year old at that time--I struggled mightily with the dark thoughts. I knew they weren't real, but that was because I had been down this road before. Even though I knew what I was feeling was not based on reality and only on brain chemistry, it was still extremely difficult for me to keep myself alive. 

Often it's not so easy to diagnose. Sometimes it seems to be a tangle of genetics, addictions, brain chemistry, unwise life choices--which nobody's immune to--and tragedy. You can see how easily each of these could feed off the others. Sometimes the very meds people take to protect them from self-harm have self-harm as a side effect. It's a fog, a soup, a labyrinth.

As John Janaro describes it in his blog, Never Give Up:

When you see us, we may be "fine," but we are "walking on the surface" and the surface is an eggshell already full of cracks and always in danger of breaking under our feet. We have developed our survival skills, however, so that we have our eyes on the nearest secure spots and we have learned how to jump to them before the next crack sucks us down.
You don't see any of this.

I guess what I'm hoping is that people who were as clueless and quick to judge as I was will read this post and reconsider. And that people in the dark, navigating the broken eggshells, will feel less alone.

Rest in peace, Evie.

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Objective truth is available to anyone with the requisite time, training, and rational capacity for grasping it.

Subjective truth is very different. No one can have it unless the subject chooses to reveal it, and not always even then. Human persons are such complicated creatures, prone to illusion and denial; affected by events, dynamics, and influences beyond our conscious awareness. Accessing our own interior reality, never mind someone else's, is often a difficult and delicate operation, requiring much time and patience; discipline, skill, and prayer.

The deeper and more complex—or personal or painful or precious—the truth in question is, the less likely we are to disclose it, except to a person whose trustworthiness has been tried over time—someone who has consistently shown us profound love and respect, tenderness and compassion.

Imagine I have had a mystical experience (I wish it were so!!). Jesus has appeared to me and told me that He loves me and has chosen me for a very particular mission—one that will involve great suffering as well as deep consolations. Am I likely to discuss it with my atheistic colleague, who habitually mocks religious belief? Will I share my experience with my chronically jealous and gossipy neighbor? Do I tell my gruff, dismissive parish priest? Do I phone the local TV station to report a supernatural event? Or won't I rather keep it to myself or reveal it only to my spiritual director, who knows my soul intimately?

Suppose I was sexually molested as a child. (I wasn't.) Is this something I am likely to share with an acquaintance known for mocking "victimhood" and scoffing at the idea that there's any such thing as "a rape culture"? If I found in myself a persistent and deep-seated homosexual tendency causing me a lot of confusion and alienation from family and friends, who frequently denounce homosexuality as an abomination in the sight of God, what would I do? Wouldn't I be on the lookout for someone I can really talk to? A "safe person for me", in the going phraseology? Or someone with a reputation for deep compassion and wisdom on this issue?

I know people—lots really—I used to be one of them—who have so concentrated their moral and intellectual attention on the defense of objective truth that they seem to have forgotten that it's only one kind of truth, and that, at least in certain respects, it's not the most important kind. They don't seem to understand that their constant focus, even insistence, on objectivity creates a sort of "hostile climate" for sincere subjective exchange. Scoffing at the very idea of "not-judging"—as if it's tantamount to relativism—is like displaying a giant, neon "Not safe! Do not share anything personal!" sign on your forehead.

Such people not infrequently also develop a tendency to misunderstand or deny their own inner reality, in so far as it doesn't line up with the objective ideal. For instance, if they have been taught that the appropriate response to an offense is sorrow, not anger, they will say, "I'm not angry, I'm grieved," even if in fact they are furious.  And the more they lose touch with their own subjectivity—not to mention that of others—the more inclined they will be to identify subjectivity with subjectivism and double down on objectivity, creating a vicious cycle of personal alienation.

It's sad and tragic and diabolical. 

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My nephew Sammy rang the bell last week. 

The bell in question is the one installed in the oncology ward of the hospital and rung by patients who have completed chemotherapy. Sammy has been under the care of a paediatric oncologist from the age of four, undergoing round after round of treatments over the last three years. He's lost and regrown his hair, struggled to regain weight and strength, even as the chemo changed the way once-favourite foods tasted, spent more days out of Kindergarten than in, undergone surgery to install--and later remove--an IV port in his chest, endured needle poke after poke, and been hospitalised for normal childhood infections that his chemo-treated body had little defence against. 

Ringing the bell is a declaration of freedom from the endless rounds of treatment that have been such a large part of Sammy's life--and the life of his family--so it is fitting, I think, that he rang his bell on the Fourth of July. 

Family members tell me that when Sammy was told to ring the bell, he was tentative at first. He had to be encouraged to swing the clapper hard enough to make the bell ring out--harder, louder, Sammy! Celebrate!

I don't know if Sammy remembers life before chemo. I wonder if life without it will seem strange or will just be...normal, but lighter, easier. He isn't going straight to his new normal. First he heads off with his family on a Make-A-Wish trip to Disney World to celebrate and be feted through the park with a supercharged "Genie Pass." 

But after the celebrating and excitement end, the reward for spending almost half his life fighting cancer is...the ordinary. 

To be ordinary.

To run around all summer like other kids. To complete a school year without lengthy absences. To be Sammy-with-the-big-smile or Sammy-who-likes-trucks rather than Sammy-the-one-who-has-cancer. 

Ordinary can sound like a pejorative. "He's just an ordinary guy." But it isn't pejorative or "less than" at all. 

Ordinary is a gift. 

After the fast and the feast, Ordinary time is the pages of the calendar that lie empty so that we can fill them with our choices. Ordinary is the ground staying under our feet while we decide which path to take next. 

Ordinary is where we discover our need for the discipline we fostered by fasting. It is when we fulfill the promises of the feast by extending generousity to others. 

Penance and praise both mark us. But it is only in ordinary time that we find out what shape that mark has taken, how deep an impression it made. 

Sammy has rung his bell and finished his "fast." The well-deserved feast is upon him. His life will be marked by these extraordinary experiences. But, for him, being "ordinary" may be the most extraordinary experience of all. 

Photo credit: Sammy ringing the bell by Adam Parker

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I stood by a table spread with photo albums and memorabilia at my grandfather's funeral luncheon last week, puzzling out connections, names, stories, and memories with a cousin and a woman I'd never met before, a neighbor of my Opa's, I think. My mother had found some old documents from Opa's youth among his things--immigration papers from his journey from the Netherlands to Canada,  a list of all his luggage on that trip, travel permits, educational certificates (all in Dutch), journal entries from his time in a German work camp, his original passport. My mother translated them as well as she could, but for a few she had to email a cousin and elderly uncle in the Netherlands for help providing context and translations. Oom Ben (my great-uncle and my Opa's youngest brother) sent back a brief recollection of the different directions the family went during and after the war. 

It was interesting reading Oom Ben's recollections, his memories of his older brothers, including my Opa, whom he called "Geert" but who was known as "Gerald" after his move to Canada. Oom Ben told the story of how "Geert" obtained permission to leave the work camp to visit his brother in another camp in another part of the country. The camp commandant told him that he could go, but there would be "big trouble" if he wasn't back by the end of the weekend. My Opa caught a train and made the trip. When his family scolded him for doing something so dangerous, Opa said, "But I made it and am here." As far as we know, he was back in camp at the appointed time. 

Aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors, children and grandchildren--everyone who grieves my Opa has different memories, different recollections of him. Standing by that photo album, I realized we were putting our memories and knowledge and stories together like a puzzle to see a larger picture of the man we'd lost. 

A larger picture, a more complete picture--but did that make our individual fragments less true in comparison? None of us knew all of what Opa had lived and thought and done. We never do know everything about our loved ones--we never can. We are limited by finite time and unequal means of communication. The core of the person, the subject, is incommunicable, a reflection that can easily become discouraging. 

But does incommunicability prevent us from being able to ever truly say we know another? Can we say we love, when we don't know every facet of the beloved? 

Is knowing and loving another impossible?

I don't think so. I heard many new stories of Opa, but they expanded rather than contradicted what I knew of him. Each story confirmed his character and fleshed out his history, giving depth and color to my own memories of him. We all knew Opa in different ways, within the context of different relationships--but we did all know and love him. 

We love. And we know in part--but each part, even if through a glass darkly, is enough to say, "I know you." For every interaction--every word, action, movement, and act of the will--comes in and through and from our subjectivity. We are visible in our choices--the ones we make and the ones we avoid. We may know each other in a limited fashion, but we can know each other truly. The whole is in every part. 

Someday, I hope to greet my Opa again, in the land where Light illuminates all that is hidden. I will see him then more wholly himself than he has ever been, more completely than I ever have. And I will know him for my Opa, and recognizing him by the pieces of life we shared with one another, I will know him in the revelation of the complete picture--the whole person. 

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