Monthly Archives: August 2012

That God exists and that He is good, I have no doubt. But I don’t know what His goodness means.

Some time ago, my old friend R. left the Church. She left because, she said, the pressure of trying to make her everyday experience, all things manifold and strange and painful and joyful and contradictory, fit within the structure of Catholicism, was making her crazy. So she stopped trying to make it fit. I don’t know if she’s happier now, but I suspect she’s closer to sanity than she was before.

That’s not a recommendation for leaving the Church. I don’t think that the thing she left behind was Catholicism, per se; I think it was neurotic guilt over Catholicism. Somebody said1 that whoever runs away from what is hateful is running towards Christ, even if the thing they are running away from is (apparently) Christ too.

So the girl who leaves Catholicism because the only Catholicism she knows is her father’s ultra-conservative, more-Catholic-than-the-Magisterium brand, a Catholicism that is only a mask for misogyny, puritanism, sexual confusion, and the desire for control2 — isn’t she right to run? Won’t she be more likely to find Christ elsewhere, at least for a time; a Christ that won’t call her a whore for wearing pants?3

But isn’t it possible to do what R. did — to run away from what is hateful, untenable, crazy-making — but without leaving? It is good to run from what is toxic. But it is better still to run away from toxic people and toxic ideas while remaining connected to the lifelines of the Church, those streams of cool, healing water that flow ceaselessly from the Sacraments. Healing water that, better than anything else, can wash all the toxicity away.

Towards the end of my four-month ordeal of intense, 24/7 depression, I stopped trying to make sense of it. I stopped asking why God allowed me to experience such pain, and what it meant — whether he was inflicting it on me somehow (whom God loves, he also disciplines) or just allowing it, whether it was a punishment or a purgation or just an inevitability, whether it was my fault or somebody else’s; what I was meant to learn from it, and whether I was failing or succeeding in learning that lesson.

When I stopped trying to figure it out, it wasn’t a decision so much as a submission. I suppose I could have decided to set my teeth and keep wrestling, to try to wring some answer from the Lord. I could have devised some theorem as to how my daily experience — from waking up crying, to choking out the words of a Rosary on the way home from work, to collapsing exhausted by sadness but still unable to sleep at the end of the day — fit with the God of Psalm 23, the God who provides rest and cool water and oil, the God who restores and comforts.

But I couldn’t do it. Whenever I piously told myself that God rescues us from all our troubles, I knew I was lying. Where was God in Auschwitz? Where was God for the 5th-grader who, when I was a teacher, showed me the bruises on legs and throat that his father had given him — showed me casually and with a strange smile, because he didn’t know that normal fathers don’t do this? Where was God for me?

I couldn’t make it fit. And this was a mercy: because belief in a God who never lets his children suffer is belief in a lie. If we believe in such a God, the atheists are right to mock us for it.

The overthrow of a tyrant is a great and dangerous time in the life of a nation. Great, because there is a chance that the next regime will be better than the last. Dangerous, because there is a chance that the next regime will be much, much worse. As with a tyrant, so with an idea or an idol; as with a nation, so with a man.

When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walks through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he says, I will return unto my house from which I came out. And when he comes, he finds it swept and in order. Then he goes, and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first.4

I am grateful that my false god is dead. I was tired of being disappointed in him, making excuses for him, calling it mercy when all I felt was abandonment, calling it presence when all I felt was absence.

But for the moment I find myself in a power vacuum. I am cautious of all my ideas of God, for fear of setting up another false idol. I want no more tyrants. I want the King to return…

Show me, Lord, finally:

Who are you?

What are you like?

So I cling to the Sacraments, to the Mass, to the word of God, to the wise and holy men and women in my life. I read, and I pray, and I seek counsel, and I wait.

1 Anyone know what quotation I’m thinking of, or who said it?
2 I’m not talking about my R.’s father here. Unfortunately, I am talking about several other real people.
3 Yeah, no joke. That isn’t Catholicism, that’s insanity.
4 Matthew 12:43-45.

Back when I was in college and as crazy as a bedbug — a bedbug on a steady diet of caffeine, nicotine, and Nietzsche — I decided I was the phoniest bastard in the history of the universe and I wasn’t going to stand it anymore.

I lie constantly, I told myself, and not only in words: I lie with my face, my tone of voice, my gestures, and even the way I walk. That raised eyebrow? It was calculated to make you think I’m sophisticated. The way I laughed? Designed to make you think I’m boisterous and cynical.

So to remedy the situation I wrote down on my fingers — one per finger — all the ways I could think of that I lied. That way, every time I saw my hands, I would be reminded to CUT IT OUT.

Please, you don’t need to tell me how insane this is. You have to understand, I was doing the best I could, 19 years old and so full of neurosis you could probably see it swirling around when you looked in my eyes.

My friend M. saw my fingers all marked after dinner and asked what that was all about. “It’s to remind me of all the ways I lie,” I said, solemnly, careful to hold my eyebrows still, keep my voice flat, and not move my mouth in an insincere way. “Oh my God,” she muttered, amazed and disgusted. I brushed her off (she didn’t understand) and went off to wander back to the dorm, practicing authenticity with every step.

It is not hard to understand why, during this time, I found social contact even more difficult than usual. It was a beautiful double bind I had put myself in: I was desperate to fit in, but fitting in seemed to require consciously adapting things that were foreign to me — or that most foreign, artificial thing of all, the thing all the Normals recommended, called Being Yourself.

Looking back, I get to laugh, maybe shudder a little at how close I might have come to actual psychosis, and thank God I’m not there anymore. I don’t remember how long it took me to give up the project. I do remember the feeling of my own limbs and facial muscles settling around me like lead, the strange mummy-like feeling of trying to control every inch of my body every minute.

I thought that if I just cut off all the artificial parts, the Real Me (which must be buried underneath) would emerge. I was trying to cast off every mask, but the more I held still to let my own face surface, the less it felt like I had a face at all.

There was no eureka moment when I realized what I had got wrong, but I was thinking about all this yesterday on the way home from work, probably because I’m hosting a poker game tonight. I know how I’ll be at the game: probably drink and swear a little more than usual, probably act a little more arrogant than I feel, probably use some turns of phrase that aren’t strictly natural to me.

But I won’t feel bad about it. Because I’ve discovered that this is how it is with people, maybe especially men. This is how we work. A stag party has as rigorous a code of etiquette as a black tie dinner. The rules aren’t written down anywhere, but they function the same way etiquette always functions: they provide a field in which to speak, to interact, to dance the intricate dance of human contact.1

A field, actually, in which relationship is possible. If etiquette is a mask, it is a mask that allows us to reveal our truest selves — but prudently, slowly, a little bit at a time, in a human way. How many people do you know who sit around the dinner table and reveal deep truths about their souls? Do you really want to live inside a Russian novel all the time — or is a little small talk okay now and then?

Buckle down, I’d tell my 19-year-old self, and learn the rules. Swallow your pride, forget yourself a little, and play the game. You want radical honesty and authenticity? Then walk around naked. Or you could just choose an outfit that expresses who you want to be, not who you are — we don’t find ourselves, Fr. T once told me, we build ourselves — and wait until the man grows to fit the clothes.

It might happen sooner than you think.

1 Not that I’d say these things to my poker buddies, or anyway not in the middle of a game. F★ck no. Who’s big blind?

“You’re gonna have to call in a prescription for more adderal,” says an instant message from my friend S. “My head is all fuzzy.”

Oops, that wasn’t for me. S. hastily explains that he was trying to chat his wife, but got the wrong window. He’s been diagnosed with ADHD for ages, he says, and the last couple of weeks has been trying to cope with it without the meds, but it’s not working. “No worries,” I chat back. “I used to be very anti-meds until fluoxetine1 pretty much saved my life.” One revelation deserves another.

Earlier today I was thinking about my friendship with S., which is one of those rare (for me) friendships that just happens, born of little besides cigarettes and Radiohead. We couldn’t be more opposite in a lot of ways — he keeps posting facebook rants about, for example, the bigotry of that Chick-Fil-A guy, and how super-duper Obama is — but for some reason he’s easy to be with, and our disagreements sometimes make for good conversation. I congratulate myself on how much he would have intimidated me if I had met him five or ten years ago, with his tattoo-covered forearms, athlete’s crew-cut, and penchant for casual swearing.

His ADHD doesn’t surprise me, any more than my depression surprises him. It’s almost a plus, in my book. Not because chemical imbalances make people deeper somehow, but maybe the other way around: it does seem to be true that the more wires you have, the more likely it is that some of them will get crossed, short-circuited. I get along well with people who have lots of wires, especially if the wires are in disarray.

My brain mystifies me. One of the unexpected side effects of Prozac: I don’t seem to mind spiders any more. What kind of sense does that make? I’ve never been terrified of them, but they’ve always made me feel creepy. Now I look at them and see something intricate and well-conceived, like a clever piece of clockwork. Did I hate them because they reminded me of my own creeping, spidery thoughts, the ones that used to sneak up on me from between the folds of some innocent reflection? Did the Prozac fill in some crack in my brain, some microfissure where evil thoughts (whether of spiders or of self-loathing) used to be able to find purchase?

No idea, none. As I drive home from work today, I think of a passage I just read in Sheed where he discusses the differing states of the Blessed: how, in Heaven, we’ll all be as happy as we can be, we’ll all be full to capacity; but that our capacities will differ depending on how much our hearts were stretched, enlarged, by our time on earth. The difference, he says, matters more than we can imagine now. Yet we’ll all be perfectly happy.

I briefly wonder whether the meds have stunted my growth somehow, and whether this era’s tendency to over-medicate is producing a generation of moral dwarfs. The man who couldn’t stand to see the butterfly struggle, and slit open the cocoon to give the insect an easier time crawling out, stole the butterfly’s chance to be strengthened through struggle. Have I given up my chance at being strengthened?

Oh, maybe, maybe. I don’t care very much, because I’m strong already, and getting stronger. So I tell these thoughts to be quiet, and miraculously, they do — it’s a new ability of mine, almost a superpower, this ability to shut down a train of thought when it’s heading for a cliff. Besides, my life isn’t without struggle.

And I remind myself for the hundredth time that most people aren’t sane because they’ve managed to overcome an army of invisible demons. They’re sane because they never had to.

1 I’m okay with the idea of meds now, but maybe not quite okay enough to be able to type “Prozac” without a little embarrassment.

“What on earth am I doing?” is what I completely fail to think, as I position my hand so that when the portly-but-attractive bartender (has he been giving me the eye, or is it my imagination?) puts my glass back down on the counter, his fingers will make contact with mine.

It works — can’t have been by accident, he could easily have avoided the touch — and I also fail to feel guilty, despite the fact that my friend M., seated next to me, is in the middle of a college reminiscence that I have not been quite paying attention to. I refocus.

M. is not really my friend. I’ve met him once before, several years ago and for maybe five minutes. I knew his wife L. in high school, but she’s not really my friend either: we’ve lived in the same town for two years and only run into each other a couple of times, and not even on purpose. But L. invited me to a barbecue at their house the other weekend.

At first I thought I was being set up with some girl or other. People do this to me every once in a while, because I am single and not unattractive, and besides I have a good job and even a motorcycle and am somehow not married yet. But then I realized I was being set up with her husband, so to speak; I hear through the grapevine that their marriage is not all smooth sailing these days, and I suspect that her efforts to get him some “guy time” (her words) might be part of some plot to save them by saving him.

As the barbecue goes on, I start to think it might be a good plan. Does he have anybody to see, anywhere to be but with his wife and four kids? It’s clear that he loves them all, but what man can spend all his time with women and children and not go a little bonkers?

Just because a man’s straight doesn’t mean he stops needing men. On the contrary. This is something my straight friends have taught me: they enjoy and even need each other so much that I wonder how I got along in comparative isolation for so long.

Of course I don’t know any of this about M. It’s purely speculative, and incredibly presumptuous besides.

I stay for three or four hours, chat with M. and his wife, play with his kids (his five-year-old son knows Karate! Instant bond: we trade techniques and are pals in 10 minutes flat), eat burgers and drink beers. M. and I share a smoke before I leave — he quit four years ago but is more than happy to indulge when he gets the chance — and exchange phone numbers.

Yesterday I text M. on a whim and ask if he wants to meet for a drink today after work. He agrees, which brings us to the bar tonight. I’m only on my second drink, but this is one of those high-class gourmet-beer joints where the alcohol content tends towards the double digits, and I am a lightweight anyway. This brings us back to the bartender, too, who I wouldn’t have even noticed if he hadn’t interjected something into our conversation five minutes ago.

I certainly wouldn’t have noticed that the bartender’s got The Look, or that he’s paying me more attention than is strictly warranted by the duties of his position. But what on earth? Where do I think this is going to go? Is this what normal people mean by flirting? Is this wrong, or is it just harmless fun? But I’m not thinking about any of this, not much, because I have been drinking.

Meanwhile I am, frankly, enjoying M.’s company. We have some things in common: a love of classical music, a disinclination towards team sports; a background, however slight, in martial arts. He is easy to talk to.

As the beer flows, the conversation steers, by unnoticeable degrees, towards more personal things. We go from drinking stories to how he met his wife to, suddenly, questions of faith. He’s an agnostic now, he says; something has been draining away for the last six years, and now he’s not sure what’s left. It doesn’t make things any easier with his wife.

We’ve both got to get home, but we stand talking outside for a bit first, and share another smoke. Then I think, duh, and invite him to adoration with me on Tuesday morning. He is eager and tentative at the same time, so I press the point, busting his balls a little bit, and put it in my calendar: “Call M. to go to adoration. DO IT.”

Back at home I am recuperating, waiting for the fog to clear. I flop on the couch, going over the events of the evening, congratulating myself for actually doing some evangelizing for once, thinking fondly of what a great guy I am; then wincing suddenly as I remember flirting with the bartender, not two minutes before talking about faith and doubt and Providence and Adoration. Like some kind of expert.

Lord, I’m a narcissist. But I meant what I said about Adoration, meant every word when I was telling M. how much my daily half hour of prayer has changed my life. I think of Dostoevsky:

Beauty! I can’t bear the thought that man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of Madonna and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What’s still more awful is that man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and his heart may be on fire with the ideal, genuinely on fire, just as in his days of youth and innocence. Yes, man is broad, too broad. I’d have him narrower.1

Me too, Dmitri, me too. It’s terribly confusing work, being human. But I think it’s going to work out.

1 The Brothers Karamazov, Part I, Book III, Chapter 3. More context here. Oh man what a good book.

In transit again, this time outside Kung Fu. I like sitting in my car and typing away. Maybe this could be a start of one of those famous Neurotic Writers’ Habits, like how Graham Greene would sit watching license plates until he saw the right number combination, and then he could write. Maybe eventually I won’t be able to write except in my car. Then again, who wants to be Graham Greene? Brrrrr.1

It’s been over 8 months since I started Kung Fu. This has been a year of sticking to things, notably KF and this blog. Sal says the first thing he ever followed through on was his Kenpo training, staying the course until he made shodan. Now it’s a permanent part of his life. I hope Kung Fu is a permanent part of mine.

It’s also the longest I’ve stuck to any specifically physical pursuit. I’ve gone to the gym on and off since I was maybe 15, but never for more than a couple months; and back then what inspired (or goaded) me were the Men’s Health magazines I pored over at the library. I wonder how much damage those rags do to the minds and hearts of men everywhere. They certainly didn’t do me any good, filling me with envy and unhappiness that spilled over into lust before I realized what was happening.

I used to swim sometimes, and that was pretty good, but it was lonesome; the only thing it had in common with sports was the physical exertion, but it lacked in all other ways, which is to say, most of the important ways. That must be why it didn’t stick.

Kung Fu is different, because it’s not about sculpting myself into a god — although it does feel great to see how abs have appeared out of the formless void of my gut, how my legs have hardened and bulged, all without my particularly thinking about it — but about striving, running the race, learning to move with grace and strength and confidence; and, maybe best of all, doing all these things in the company of others.

Walking into the school today I will say my habitual Hail Mary, a guard against the anxiety that dogs me whenever I’m around more than two other people, and a quick prayer to St. Joseph to look out for me, to silently cheer me on and to infuse my heart with strength, like a good father does. I’ve felt his encouragement more than once, in the middle of a particularly taxing stance, or at the end of the twentieth Temple Punch.

I feel a greater sense of community here than I have at any parish. Does that say more about me, or about the state of the Church? Probably both; or maybe it’s just easier, more natural,2 to feel community with people when you suffer physically with them, when you sweat and groan and laugh together.

But even this takes time. I’m rarely comfortable with people I’ve known for less than a year, or maybe less than five years. Still, I’m more at ease than I was my first class, when I was so nervous and eager to be liked that my smile started hurting. People here are not like the people you meet in most places. They bend over backwards to welcome you, shout encouragement, give you high fives; until you internalize it so you can do it for everyone else.

If it sounds like a class full of little league coaches — well okay, so it’s a chance to be seven years old again, only with significantly less terror and confusion.3

D’oh, it’s time. I’m here an hour early to stretch with the other early birds, because I’ve made an informal promise to myself to get the splits before I turn 30, which leaves me just less than a year. St. J, put your hand on my shoulder — right there, thanks — I’m going in.

1 Not that I don’t love Greene. I just would never, never, never EVER want to be him. Skill and depth and beauty of vision he certainly had, but what an incredibly dismal man.
2 Which is not to say “better”. Natural is the opposite of supernatural, and the supernatural never comes, well, naturally.
3 My main emotional memory of being very young is one of never knowing what the hell was going on.

I’m sitting in the parking lot of the shrink’s office. This is why I got a laptop: I am so often in transit that if I waited until I was settled at my desk, I’d never get any writing done.

I think the woman two spaces away is in the same boat. She’s parked in her car, running the AC and eating something with a plastic fork. Poor thing, poor both of us. I’ll write for ten minutes more, smoke a cig, and then go get (as my father would say) my brain drained.

I avoid the waiting rooms of shrinks, strange places because everybody knows why everybody else is there. Not really, of course, since there are as many varieties of mental illness as physical. It’s like the waiting room of a proctologist: it’s not your fault if your smelly parts aren’t working right, it’s not even your fault that you have smelly parts, but everybody is kinda embarrassed anyway.

It took me so long to finally see this shrink, and there were so many roadblocks in the way, that Fr. T and I began to suspect either divine or demonic displeasure. I mainly suspected the latter, or actually neither, since I’ve been trying not to spiritualize every. Single. Thing in my life, and get used to the idea that sometimes sh★t just happens; that maybe there’s a supernatural reason for it and maybe there ain’t, but it usually doesn’t do much good to wonder.

You just try to figure out the best thing to do and then do it.1 If there’s a lesson, it’ll come anyway. We’re children and God’s the teacher, right? So nobody expects kindergartners to see the point behind phonics exercises. If you got the point already, you could’ve designed the lesson yourself.

I dunno what we’ll talk about today. I have some ideas; we could talk about my family and how it’s not my fault I’m so nuts, and maybe I will believe it this time. We could talk about why, if a particular love is hopeless and known to be hopeless, it should nevertheless persist and ache and anguish;2 and what to do when it does. We’ll see.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what William Lynch says about hope: that it is not, after all, an interior resource, not something you generate on your own; anyone who’s been in the throes of a serious depression knows this to be true, and the idea that one should be able to generate hope only drives the nails deeper.

Hope is, instead, the belief that help is available from the outside.

So I hope in my shrink, I hope in my friends, I hope in my family and all of my so-many loved ones, and the so-many who love me. I try to get the hang of hoping in God, but I have to admit that I don’t know what that means, and ask his pardon if all I can muster is hope in the people I can see and touch and hug. I know they can help me, because they have.

What God has to do with it, precisely, I don’t know; but since I don’t know, and since wondering about it makes me crazier, I conclude that he doesn’t mind if I don’t know yet.

1 Like Screwtape says: “He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.”
2 “Ache and anguish” is from this particularly penetrating sentence of Faulkner’s, which often floats into my head: “life is always premature, which is why it aches and anguishes.” From somewhere in The Town.