when reasons fail

Reasons fail spectacularly when the subject is depression. Last week, a well-meaning journalist or two (no, I can’t remember which) offered Kate Spade’s separation from her husband as a ‘reason’ for her mental health struggles.

It would be great if depression and anxiety worked that way. Find the cause, fix the problem, job done. But they don’t work that way. Depression is depression and not just a grumpy mood (sort of like mine today), because it doesn’t obey reason. By that, I just mean that depression happens whether or not it’s warranted. I remember reading somewhere that suicides are more common in spring (no, again, I don’t remember: humour me, I’m having a bad day). Why? Because the new life that comes in spring is so incongruous with the cold, dark winter inside that it pushes people over the edge. The world looks beautiful, and that makes everything feel worse. See how that doesn’t make sense? (That is, unless you’re depressed. If you’re depressed, I am sorry; I know you understand this all too well.) Anxiety, though that’s not the main demon that haunts me, also eludes logic. We’re all anxious from time to time, about stuff that seems anxiety-producing for most people. That’s not disordered anxiety–it’s typical. So we might be tempted to think that an anxiety disorder is just like that, only worse. I suspect, however, that it is not only different in intensity but also in form. And although I don’t suffer from an anxiety disorder, I’m pretty sure that logic doesn’t cure it.

That’s not to say that bad things, painful things, frightening things, that happen in our lives do not contribute to depression (and anxiety and the rest). I’m a pretty functional person most days. By that, I mean that I can do the usual sorts of daily tasks at home and at work with the same amount of cheerfulness and grumbling as the average person. I try to be cheerful more than I grumble; sometimes I fail. This basically even keel is thanks in large part to some chemical help my brain gets so that it can stay focused on the task in hand. When things go wrong (sometimes even small things), though, distraction increases and despair looms. Then I don’t move between cheerfulness and grumbling: I go straight to complete despondency. Everything is going wrong, I am a total and complete failure, and the world would be a better place without me in it.

Hey, presto. I am no longer that even-keeled, basically functioning person. Now I am languishing under the boulder of depression, completely paralysed emotionally and psychologically. And I cannot shift that boulder, no matter how much I try to convince myself that there is no reason that it should be there. Reason has left me, and I am bereft. As long as the boulder sits there, I’m not going to get anything done. (Okay, sometimes I can do laundry, but that doesn’t get my articles written or my teaching prepped.) And I know from others’ accounts of their experiences with the world-ending psychological catastrophe known as depression that mine is nowhere near as bad as it gets.

The thing is, it isn’t the stress that caused my depression. Well-managed depression is like  a fault line that runs through someone’s mind. (There’s a lot to be said about mind/body/soul in depression, and Kathryn Greene-McCreight treats the subject very well in Darkness Is My Only Companion.) Most days, the landscape looks like solid ground. But on some days a small bump can trigger a massive tectonic shift. Coping mechanisms crumble, and the mind comes crashing down. My mind comes crashing down. And in the rubble, it’s hard to tell whether there is even an ‘up’, never mind figuring out which way it is. There, in the rubble, it can seem like the world has already ended. Suicide just brings into force the perception that’s already there. That perception is depression’s doing, and reason doesn’t really come into it.

When I reflect on my own psychological earthquakes, I think the only reason I am still around is the psalms. I’m serious. When I was a teenager, my inner life was a mess. (My outer life, too, but that’s a different story.) I have no idea how I stumbled into the psalms. I wasn’t a pious person. But boy did the psalmists know how to lament. They could say, ‘life totally sucks’ (my teenage lament) in the most beautiful ways. So for years (no exaggeration), I would conclude every journal entry with one psalmist’s question to himself: ‘Why are you downcast, O my soul? And why so disquieted within me?’ And I would add his encouragement to that depressed self: ‘Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance and my God.’ In the psalms, I found my ‘up’.

That’s not to say that religious practice can save everyone; on my worst days I would forget that there even were psalms. But for the most part, the psalmists have been my companions in despair: just the right company for my recurring misery. And I am very grateful for them.

Deo gratias.

 

 

 

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Wonder Woman

rs-wonder-woman-dc030a5f-1b81-44bc-b7ca-ac7bab2ef991I’ve now watched this film three times: once on the big screen, and twice at home. Tonight, my 7-year-old daughter chose it. I know, it’s probably not ideal for her age group. But she has older siblings, and she’s seen it already. For at least a week after she first saw it, she pressed me to explain on a daily basis why I hadn’t named her Diana. And she’s not a girly girl: usually she wants to be Captain America. So I couldn’t say no.

It occurred to me this time through that the ‘wonder’ about Wonder Woman is twofold (at least). Of course, Diana is a wonder. She stops bullets and deflects bombs. She’s amazing with a sword. She vanquishes the god of war. And she does it all exquisitely: she’s stunningly beautiful. She’s wonderful.

She is also full of wonder. Little Diana is wide-eyed at the myths her mother tells her. She wants to fight like the rest of the Amazons, little knowing what will come of her training. When she sends Antiope flying across the field, she is amazed at her own strength. Even her meeting with Steve Trevor fresh from the healing pool is a scene in which she seems full of wonder. I could go on–so much about her time in London is characterised by wonder.

For Diana, the most unbelievable thing, it seems to me, is the way in which human beings are able to compartmentalise, to seal themselves off from the suffering of others far away, or to turn a blind eye to the wounded and needy right in front of them. She passes soldiers returning from battle–missing a leg, unable to walk, bleeding, staring vacantly past her. And all she can think is, ‘How can I make this stop?’ When she encounters the woman (totally out of place, of course) in the trench (really!), she cannot walk away. She cannot believe that anyone would–which is a different facet of that same wonder, I think. So she crosses no-man’s-land. (So much about this is a historian’s nightmare. I know, because I am married to one.) She saves a village and then has a fresh  experience of wonder when it starts to snow.

I know why I couldn’t say no to my 7-year-old when she suggested that we watch Wonder Woman. Like my 7-year-old, she is full of wonder; like my 11-year-old, she is sure that she can defeat the baddies–and so she does. But she does it without swagger. She does it because it needs doing. She does it with a sense of amazement and hope that I find refreshing. She never loses that sense of wonder. And maybe that–even more than an ass-kicking superhero–is what we most need from Wonder Woman. I know I do.

 

 

 

the other front

This morning I was struck, looking out at the children during Mass at my kids’ primary school: my future is in their hands. Oh, I know, it’s the sort of thing we say. Like we know we are mortal. But it doesn’t really sink in until something presses it on us. (For me, it was the death of my mother that did it.) In fact, it is such a banal thing to say that Whitney Houston recorded a song about it. Today, though, that ‘banal truth’ (as David Foster Wallace might describe it) hit me in a different place. A deeper place.

I’ve long worried about the evaporation of childhood. Academic work starts earlier. And homework, and stress about school. Kids watch more TV and are protected from the dangers of tree-climbing. My generation thinks that childhood in the 1970’s may not have been as safe, but we survived it–and thrived. So I am not alone in the concern for childhood. Nor am I alone in the concern that part of what shapes childhood for our kids has little to do with safety and everything to do with what’s convenient for us. Screens keep kids occupied as easily and certainly as Mary Poppins. I know (#guilty).

And I wonder whether, at least for me, a part of the desire to keep my kids safe and healthy is a desire to keep things in order. Nothing disrupts my work like a kid off school. Yesterday, I let my 11-year-old stay home because he was so stressed out by school, knowing that I’d be sacrificing a day of work. We had a great walk in the woods and more time alone together than we have had in years. We both enjoyed it–and a funny thing happened. I slipped in the mud, and realised suddenly that he was fully my equal in terms of agility and speed. And he thought he was looking after me as much as I was looking after him. We have changed. I’ll miss the deadline I thought I would meet, though I judge the loss to be worth it. The unexpected sick days, though, can inspire grumbling and worse. Who thinks that missing work because a child is off school ill, or because of bad weather, is worth it? Maybe I’m just selfish that way.

That experience yesterday probably set me up for the awakening I had this morning, that conviction that my future is in the hands of all those children at Mass in the school hall. We worry about what sort of future we are creating for them. But we should be equally concerned about what sort of future they will create for us. God willing, I will still be around when they are running the world. And I will be vulnerable, as they are vulnerable now. I hope they don’t just give me a screen and hope I’ll leave them alone for a bit to get on with their work. If they do, I’ll have no one to blame but myself.

Work, work, work. I love my work, actually, and am grateful for the opportunity to do it. As a moral theologian, I work in a space cleared for me by feminists in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I’ve expressed my gratitude for them in previous posts. And there is still work to in that space. Part of the reason I do not jump on the ‘it was all better in the 1970’s’ bandwagon is that it wasn’t. Not for women, anyway. I don’t mean not being welcomed into the workplace, either, though that is part of it. I mean the sick feeling I got when I watched an old James Bond film (with the young Sean Connery). The portrayal and treatment of women in those films horrified me. Never mind that there isn’t the graphic and grisly presentation of fighting: those films are deeply violent, unconsciously so…which makes it worse. I’m not going back to that, and I am deeply grateful to the women in Hollywood who have led the #MeToo movement. I dream of a future in which my daughter will never, ever use that hashtag.

There is, however, another front in this war we women have been fighting. A less glamorous and more dangerous front. One of the things that we have lost in the fighting is the value of childhood, of home, of motherhood–by which I mean the form of radically available parenting that doesn’t regard a sick child as an interruption in the work. In ‘mothering’, tending to the sick child is the work. (Obviously this form of family life was never the universal that some of us like to think. But it is still true that growing up with parents who were still married to each other is a privilege. So it is worth considering as a desirable form of life, even if it isn’t for everybody.)

The ‘other front’ is the battle for the honorable craft of caring for children. To fight for it doesn’t mean asking for a regression to the 1970’s, but for a true recognition that those who are children now are creating their future and ours. Teachers cannot raise our kids for us, though my kids’ primary school does a smashing job of making kind and generous-hearted young people. We are losing childhood and motherhood together, and it is a terrible loss. Not because we should all return to a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ society, but because losing childhood and motherhood means losing a space in which we used to do a lot of growing together. I remembered that space yesterday: every day my children change, and I change. I want to help guide that change, and I want them to guide my changing self, too.

So I fight the battle for being a mom. (Or, I guess, a mum, since that’s what my kids call me.) When the world says, let him watch TV and finish that review, I have to say, no thank you. I’m going for a walk. I know there are mothers out there who do this every day and never think twice about giving their entire lives for their children. Their CV will never, ever reflect the world-changing work they do. And I thank them, because my future is in their kids’ hands, too.

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Getting through it

Life seems to be going haywire. No, not life, exactly, but the world. Sometimes I wonder whether I am just getting older. Maybe the world seems to be going off the rails to me just as it has done to every previous generation as they get older, and the next generation rises. Still, it seems very unhealthy to me, unsustainably so. There cannot be such extensive, almost limitless, uncertainty, so much speed and pressure. Who can live like this?

I asked my students, a few weeks ago, how many of them knew someone (or had themselves) suffered from mental illness. Nearly everyone. That’s worrying. If mental illness is so prevalent, maybe we ought to be spending as much time seeking causes and preventing it as we do devising new therapies–especially drug therapies. And I say this as someone who has taken medication for depression for nearly two decades. Maybe, just maybe, something out there is making us sick.

Having said that, though, I worry about the medicalisation of everything. So little deviation from the norm of health and well-being is allowed now, very little suffering is permitted. Not that suffering is a good thing–it’s just that it is an essential and inescapable feature of human life. We have begun to regard suffering as unnatural, an unwelcome intrusion into our life of health and happiness.

The trouble is that health and happiness are never guaranteed. in the world there is beauty and joy and wonder. At the same time, there is poverty, pain, disaster and loss, and sickness and blight. And sometimes the only way out of suffering is through it. In such situations, patience, it seems to me, is the only way forward. Patience and humility seem to be the central lost traits in our human life. Where do we learn patience and humility, and grow in them, in a world that is driven by efficiency and achievement?

We have forgotten how the world changes: little by little, one small act of kindness at a time. Very few are the big acts that do obvious good. And the people to whom the tasks of Big Change fall are not necessarily to be envied. Frodo Baggins did manage–with lots of help–to get the One Ring to Mount Doom, and by luck it ended up in the fire. But the achievement broke Frodo, changed him, so that he no longer ‘fit’ in his world. ‘We saved the Shire,’ said Sam. ‘But not for me,’ said Frodo. Not for me. And so it is, sometimes, that people to whom the world-saving falls do somehow find themselves no longer fit for the world made different.

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Maybe I am wrong. But I think that more and more people are being taught to desire the Big Things, when what we need, and what the world really needs are people who faithfully do the small things. That’s really the way forward: patience and humility. And Frodo Baggins is not, in the final analysis, the hero of the tale. The hero of the story is the patient and humble Samwise Gamgee, who carried Frodo when he could go no farther. Sam carried on, when Frodo could not. And so the world was saved, not by the wise elves or the powerful wizard, or even the servant-healer-king, though these each had their part to play. the world was saved by the smallest and least of all, and the burden borne in large part by the lowliest of all, who received it as a privilege and a gift.

The world seems very short of Samwise Gamgees today. Everyone wants to be Aragon, or Gandalf, or perhaps Elrond or Galadriel. Maybe even Frodo Baggins. But Sam Gamgee? The servant? Less so, it seems to me, less so. Patience and humility look so small and dull in the world of bright, shining achievements. ‘Nice guys,’ so the saying goes, ‘finish last.’ Maybe so, maybe so. But it has also been said that many who are first shall be last, and the last first. Let it be so.

Deo gratias.

NB This post is dedicated to Bishop Daniel E. Flores, Amigo de Frodo.

the weight of the world

I just finished lecturing on food in my ethics class. Food is a big problem, both for those who don’t have enough and for those who have plenty. The ways in which it is problematic for those who don’t have enough are well known, and well documented. Charities raise funds to fight world hunger; the UN has pledged to eradicate world hunger by 2030. So far, hunger is winning: from 2015 to 2016 the number of hungry people in the world increased by 5%. Have we forgotten about world hunger with all the crises of various kinds happening around the world? I wonder how much the 2016 US presidential election and the Brexit campaign (and the aftermath of both) have distracted us all from the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable.

The other food problem I spoke about today, though, was obesity. In the past three decades rates of obesity among adults and children have risen across the globe. Those increases bring in their train an increase in hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes. This subject causes uncomfortable squirming amongst the college-age set (and probably the rest of us as well). We have been busy pushing back–and rightly so–against the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to conform our bodies to an unrealistic ideal. I grew up in Southern California, spending my summer days on its beautiful beaches, and lifeguard towerlearning to hate my body with a deep and abiding passion. I push back as hard as I can, for the sake of my daughters. I’m not sure my body-loathing will ever go away, but I’ll be damned if I let my girls grow up hating theirs.

Addressing the health crisis might well make for trimmer citizens. But I’d like to uncouple the body’s health from the body’s image. Good luck with that, says the other half of my brain: plenty of people have been trying to do that for years. Everyone who has been trying to do that ought to keep on trying, and the rest of us ought to join in, because this matters for the whole world. If we are ever going to tackle this problem, the very first thing we need to do is de-stigmatize obesity. The reason for the tension I felt in the classroom today? The phenomenon of fat-shaming. To begin with, that’s got to stop. Right now.

As a society, we have had some practice at de-stigmatizing. Alcoholism and mental illness are two diseases that, like obesity, are noncommunicable. But we no longer lay the blame for the illness squarely at the feet of the sufferer. It’s complicated. Getting better is hard work, but it isn’t self-flagellation. Some of us have health issues, and we need treatment and support to recover. Obesity is no different, except that we haven’t yet had the conversion that we have had with alcoholism and mental illness (which is still underway in both cases). We need to stop thinking of obesity as just ‘getting fat’ and begin to think of it as a complex phenomenon rather than something people inflict on themselves.

We also need to address the rise in obesity in the developing world. This global health crisis is being driven in part by the expansion of fast, processed food and sugary postobondrinks into new markets in the developing world. As US consumers drink less soda pop, new consumers need to be found to keep profits up. Fast food chains are popping up all over the world, and changing the way people see food. Packaged foods compete with healthier local food, and seem to be winning. The results of this corporate growth are devastating: rates of obesity are soaring in the developing world, and the health systems in developing nations are often having to address both malnutrition and obesity-related conditions.

I fear that the wealthy are preying on the poor. So it has always been, has it not? Did Amos not write of the Israelites, ‘they sell the just man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals’? I fear that we don’t see it that way, if we see it at all.

Here’s what I would like to see: no more advertising ’empty calories’ as if it were food. Back in the 1970’s, the Marlborough man disappeared. Tobacco companies were banned from advertising, because smoking is bad for you. We know just as surely that processed food and sugary drinks contribute to obesity. Sure, not everyone who ever has a Coke or a McDonald’s cheeseburger becomes morbidly obese. But not everyone who ever smokes a cigarette gets cancer. Not everyone who ever has a drink becomes an alcoholic, yet we are warned about the health risks, and TV advertising is regulated or banned.

If we know about the health risks, and we surely do, then are we not negligent if we fail to inform consumers? The real risk here is doing nothing and seeing the global health crisis escalate. The alcohol and tobacco industries have survived taxation, regulation, and advertising bans. So would Coca-Cola and McDonald’s and all the rest.  Isn’t the health of the world worth it?

 

the wrong job

Days like today, I feel like I am in the wrong job. Academics, I think, argue for things that matter in a scholarly way. So, for example, the point I am trying to make about liberation theology and theological reflection on intellectual disability matters because it contributes some clever new thing to the way we think about ethics or doctrine.

It might. It probably does. But that isn’t where my arguments naturally run. Left to their own devices (they’re incredibly resistant to my control), the arguments I tend to make all end up at the same place. Whatever it is that I am arguing for, in the end, matters because it shapes our discipleship. That is, it contributes to our understanding of what following Jesus entails.

This never seems very satisfying, when I am faced with the prospect of presenting my research in a resolutely academic setting. (And British universities are resolutely academic.) Because, you see, if you think that I am right…if I my argument has convinced you, you should not just say, ‘Oh, I see. Interesting–I never saw it quite that way before.’ Nope. If I am right, then you don’t just need to change the way you think, if you’re a Christian, you need to change the way you live. (Unless you happen to be Jean Vanier or you live with the poor already, in the case of the paper I am writing now.)

How do I say that the intersection of theological reflection on intellectual disability and liberation theology puts the preferential option for the poor squarely at the heart of what it means to be Christians–in an academic way? It always ends up sounding more hortatory than conclusive. If I try to say it in that ‘and so we see that…’ academic way, it also sounds pretty arrogant.

But what I have found in my exploration of the intersection of these two discourses, through the writings of Gustavo Gutierrez and Jean Vanier, is just that: the preferential option for the poor is not vital only for the poor in Latin America or in L’Arche communities. The poor are those to whom the good news is announced, not to those of us who help the poor (or argue that we really ought to do x or y with respect to the poor). It means that we are not actually hearing the good news properly unless we are hearing it with the ears of the poor. See? That’s not an academic conclusion, that’s a call to change your life.

It isn’t as impossible as it seems, though. If you have children, you have the poor with you always. Read what Jesus says about children: the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. Hear the good news with the ears of your child. I have four children, and I find this incredibly challenging.

Or, if you’re me, you stay in the wrong job. Remaining in the academic world keeps me perpetually poor in spirit, as I worry and wonder whether I am actually suited to this world. I doubt anyone really thinks I have anything much to say. But I stay, and keep confusing exhortation for academic argument, flubbing my lines, and loitering on the margins of the academic world, hoping that from here I can overhear at least a word or two of what the Lord is saying to the poor.

Slow theology: John Swinton and Matthias Scheeben

Everything else seems to have a ‘slow’ version–why not theology? I feel as though ‘slow’ is just the way I do theology, more by necessity than by choice. Reading and writing happen slowly, and my ideas unfold over time. Sometimes I think I’ve got a giant percolator for a mind, one in which life experience accumulates (like coffee grounds) and then everything I read goes through it. Then, of course, experience filters through the whole mess of reading and previous experience, and so on. No wonder I read so slowly and write more slowly still. Mind you, I am not saying that this is a better way. It certainly isn’t, if what you want is to ascend. I’m not ascending; I’m barely treading water.

becoming friends of timeSince this is my mode of theological and intellectual operation, I found myself delighting in John Swinton’s recent book, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship. He calls out modern culture of efficiency into question, and suggests that God has given us the gift of time for love, not for achievement. In God’s time, humility and gentleness trump speed and efficiency. (Check out the symposium on Syndicate! ) It was in reading John’s book that I began to think seriously about the possibility of slow theology. There is a methodological slowness in doing theology as an intellectual practice that fits with my own (often frustrating) experience of academic-theological work, and gentleness is at the heart of it.

In a way, it is gentleness that appeals to me in the work of a no-longer-widely-read dogmatic theologian, Matthias Scheeben. My attempts to read my way into Scheeben’s work were revitalised by Bruce Marshall, who wrote a perceptive and hortatory essay suggesting that ‘Scheeben teaches us the virtues theologians need.’ These virtues, together, shape a practice of theology that takes time. ‘Dogmatic theology,’ Scheeben shows us, ‘must discipline itself to be about God in a specific way, one that draws us into the mysteries revealed only in Christ.’ Scheeben’s deep attentiveness to these mysteries shows through clearly in his (aptly titled) The Mysteries of Christianity. It’s a book that an mysteriesacademic theologian would have difficulty publishing today, I expect. His erudition (which Marshall describes as staggering) is balanced with an equally profound piety. Scheeben’s study of the mysteries of God, revealed in Christ, is a discipline at once ‘intellectual’ and ‘spiritual.’

Another aspect of Scheeben’s study reveals the second of the virtues Marshall identifies:

Scheeben does not lord over the past and judge it, as if the modern mind were in a superior position to know divine truths. Nor does he equate genuinely dogmatic theology with rigorous adherence to a past master, no matter how much we may learn from him. His use of the thirteenth-century scholastics, for example, is remarkably catholic. He does not play them off against one another, or adhere to a particular school, but makes constructive use of all of them, usually in mutually reinforcing ways. 

Although Marshall doesn’t name it ‘gentleness,’ the respect Scheeben shows to his interlocutors is just that: gentle. Much scholarship advances in less constructive and more critical ways, as if the only way to make an argument is to show where others have gone wrong. (I suspect that Scheeben would not have had much time for snarky comments on Facebook, but that might just be a little bit of hero-worship.)

The virtue that perfects the others, on my reading, is humility. Indeed, Marshall finds this to be ‘the most striking feature of Scheeben’s theological writing.’ In particular, Scheeben sustains this attitude ‘before the divine mysteries he seeks to understand.’ Scheeben’s attention to these mysteries shapes his engagement with his interlocutors and his understanding of the character of the theological task. His piety (which is an aspect of the first virtue) and gentleness (which is the essence of the second) are bound up inextricably with his profound humility before the mystery of God.

Scheeben wasn’t a slow theologian in the sense that his writing took a long time. (Neither is John Swinton, by that measure.) As Marshall points out, the foundations of his theological work were already mostly laid ‘by the time Scheeben published the Mysteries…at the age of thirty.’ But his attention to thescheeben divine mysteries had been formed by a theological culture marked, as Marshall puts it, by ‘breadth and sympathy.’ Scheeben might have been a fast learner, building a knowledge base in his twenties that I can’t hope to match if I keep at it until I am eighty. He was, however, measured in his judgements and not dismissive, never rash.

If there is any advantage in the glacial speed of my own theological work, it may be that I have no fast-track through my intellectual process: the knowledge I acquire drips slowly through the ‘grounds.’ This means that I have to say things like ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Let me think about that.’ And so, I lose arguments frequently, and do not seek them out. There’s no virtue in losing, of course. But there is some healing that comes with the realisation that winning–which tends to come by being the strongest and the fastest–isn’t everything. There is more to be said, much more, about the possibility of slow theology. But I’ll just have to let it brew.