Tag Archives: hope

I own a punching bag full of women’s clothing.

If I ever told that to my therapist, she’d probably get that hungry look. But there’s nothing symbolic about it, I swear. The guy who used to own the bag, a schoolmate of mine in college, went to the basement of the girls’ dorm at the end of the semester, collected everything from the box of castoffs, and stuffed it all in.

I guess he didn’t have any sand. Or he hates women. Whatever.

I’ve had the thing for nine years without really using it. In my previous house, I hung it from an eye bolt that was already sticking out of the garage ceiling. If it hadn’t already been there, I wouldn’t have bothered. And then, since it was a fairly thin bolt, a few good kicks were enough to break it, so that was the end of that.

But I’ve got a competition coming up and I want to learn to do a spinning back kick the way Sihing B. does, like a cat lashing out with its paw, quick as lightning; so I finally hung it up in the basement.

Hanging the thing was its own ritual, and I wanted to do it right. I laid out the steps: ask the internet how to do it, check for the right tools, buy what you don’t have, and then get to it. I tend to cut corners whenever I’m doing anything technical. I want to do things the quick way instead of the right way, and I’ll often make do with the wrong tool because the right one’s all the way upstairs.

Something in me protests against paying attention to details. Details are unfair; desire should be enough.

This way of doing things doesn’t usually end well. I’m not quite convinced that it’s necessary to spray the bolt with loosening agent, and it probably won’t work anyway, and even if it did, who wants to wait? So I give it a cursory spray, wait ten seconds, tug at the bolt, and strip the !@#$ thing. The ten minutes to wait for the spray to penetrate would have been worth the untold time it’ll take to deal with the stripped bolt, but I gambled, and I lost.

This makes me angry. But oddly, I’m not angry at myself for being impatient. Instead, I’m angry at the universe, for not being the sort of place where eagerness and good intentions are enough. I want the universe to be merciful; I want it to say, “Very good, Joey, you tried; so I’m going to go ahead and let that bolt turn for you.” I want the punching bag to be hung just because I’ve willed it into place.

But Christians aren’t pantheists. God made the universe, but he allows it to run according to its own rules. If you don’t do things right, they either don’t get done at all, or they end up worse than they were before.

I’ve quoted this bit of William Lynch before, but it’s one of those paragraphs that changed my life. Listen:

People who do not attend to detail are poor in hope. They do not believe that anything will come of detail. They rather expect that the pattern will form of itself, without the detail. This is contempt, which is the opposite of hope. The mentally ill frequently find it extremely difficult to have hope in language, in talk, in the use of one word after another, in actually saying to the doctor, step by step, word by word, what they think or feel.1

We love to paint our lives in broad strokes and bold colors. There’s comfort in saying I’m depressed or I’m defective or I’m broken or I’m different. Believing these things about ourselves — believing that change is too big a thing to be possible — relieves us from the responsibility of taking steps, actual small detailed tiny real steps, towards getting better. Like walking all the way upstairs to get the philips head screwdriver instead of the flat one. Like waiting an extra ten minutes for the spray to penetrate.2

Like going to your computer for five minutes to order Clean Of Heart, even if it takes you six weeks after it arrives to actually open it and start. Like emailing your mother to tell her, no, you’re NOT fine, actually, even if you don’t know where the conversation will go after that. Like going to Confession one more time, even though you’ve fallen into the same stupid pattern every stupid week for the last six stupid months.

What is hope is also humility. It is arrogance, as well as contempt, to believe that the atoms of the world will arrange themselves just because we decided they’d look better that way.

If we can’t even bring ourselves to submit to the laws of nature, how can we ever hope to submit to nature’s Lord?

1 From Images of Hope. I forgot to write down what page, so you’ll have to read the whole thing. Oh wellsies.
2 Yup, that’s it, that’s my only excuse for this post’s title! I hope you like it.

I just finished reading Pope Francis’ big interview. I’m not planning to comment on the Pope’s liberalism or conservativism or whatever. He’s profoundly orthodox and profoundly human, and I’m very glad for both.

Since most people are not going to have time to read the whole thing, here is my collection of favorite excerpts. I tried to stay away from the bits that touch on hot-button issues and which, consequently, you’ll see all over facebook for the next few days.

I’ve divided them roughly into topics, which involved some chopping, so each paragraph comes from a different segment of the original; but mostly they are at least in the same order.

The People

…when I took possession of the papal apartment, inside myself I distinctly heard a “no”. The papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace is not luxurious. It is old, tastefully decorated and large, but not luxurious. But in the end it is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight. People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.

This is how it is with Mary: If you want to know who she is, you ask theologians; if you want to know how to love her, you have to ask the people. In turn, Mary loved Jesus with the heart of the people, as we read in the Magnificat. We should not even think, therefore, that “thinking with the church” means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.

I see the holiness in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces because they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity. This is for me the common sanctity. I often associate sanctity with patience: not only patience as hypomone (ὑπομονή), taking charge of the events and circumstances of life, but also as a constancy in going forward, day by day.

The Human

Belonging to a people has a strong theological value. In the history of salvation God has saved a people. There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.

When does a formulation of thought cease to be valid? When it loses sight of the human or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself.

The Small and the Great

I was always struck by a saying that describes the vision of Ignatius: non coerceri a maximo, sed contineri a minimo divinum est (not to be limited by the greatest and yet to be contained in the tiniest — this is the divine).

This virtue of the large and small is magnanimity. Thanks to magnanimity, we can always look at the horizon from the position where we are. That means being able to do the little things of every day with a big heart open to God and to others. That means being able to appreciate the small things inside large horizons, those of the kingdom of God.

Fruitfulness

You see, when I perceive negative behavior in ministers of the church or in consecrated men or women, the first thing that comes to mind is: “Here’s an unfruitful bachelor” or “Here’s a spinster.” They are neither fathers nor mothers, in the sense that they have not been able to give spiritual life. Instead, for example, when I read the life of the Salesian missionaries who went to Patagonia, I read a story of the fullness of life, of fruitfulness.

Another example from recent days that I saw got the attention of newspapers: the phone call I made to a young man who wrote me a letter. I called him because that letter was so beautiful, so simple. For me this was an act of generativity. I realized that he was a young man who is growing, that he saw in me a father, and that the letter tells something of his life to that father. The father cannot say, “I do not care.” This type of fruitfulness is so good for me.

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?” We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

“Religious men and women are prophets,” says the pope. “They are those who have chosen a following of Jesus that imitates his life in obedience to the Father, poverty, community life and chastity. In this sense, the vows cannot end up being caricatures; otherwise, for example, community life becomes hell, and chastity becomes a way of life for unfruitful bachelors.

The One Needful Thing

The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you.

The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus.

The Living God

God is certainly in the past because we can see the footprints. And God is also in the future as a promise. But the “concrete” God, so to speak, is today. For this reason, complaining never helps us find God. The complaints of today about how “barbaric” the world is — these complaints sometimes end up giving birth within the church to desires to establish order in the sense of pure conservation, as a defense. No: God is to be encountered in the world of today.

Finding God in all things is not an “empirical eureka.” When we desire to encounter God, we would like to verify him immediately by an empirical method. But you cannot meet God this way. God is found in the gentle breeze perceived by Elijah. The senses that find God are the ones St. Ignatius called spiritual senses. Ignatius asks us to open our spiritual sensitivity to encounter God beyond a purely empirical approach. A contemplative attitude is necessary: it is the feeling that you are moving along the good path of understanding and affection toward things and situations. Profound peace, spiritual consolation, love of God and love of all things in God — this is the sign that you are on this right path.

In this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions — that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself.

God is always a surprise, so you never know where and how you will find him. You are not setting the time and place of the encounter with him. You must, therefore, discern the encounter. Discernment is essential.

If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing.

…the need for those who work in the world of culture to be inserted into the context in which they operate and on which they reflect. There is always the lurking danger of living in a laboratory…Laboratories are useful, but reflection for us must always start from experience.

God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths.

Hope

I do not like to use the word optimism because that is about a psychological attitude. I like to use the word hope instead, according to what we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11, that I mentioned before.

Above all, I also know that the Lord remembers me. I can forget about him, but I know that he never, ever forgets me…It is this memory that makes me his son and that makes me a father, too.

Gosh, William Lynch just gets better and better:

The sick [i.e. the mentally ill] deeply fear that they are not human. They interpret an endless variety of problems and distresses as nonhuman.

I remember I used to feel that it would be a relief to have the kind of problems that “normal” people had: in high school, worrying about girls; in college, about grades; later, about money. These things seemed to me standard problems, problems you could talk about. And it’s true — I heard people talking about them all the time.

But I was consumed with things that I couldn’t talk about — things that, it seemed to me, it was shameful even to feel, because they were not within the range of the normal, the human.

This is why, when I find myself stuck in a traffic jam, I sometimes can’t stop grinning: how enjoyable it is to be having a normal human problem! I imagine it’s how someone from Haiti might feel when he has to buy creamy peanut butter because THEY’RE OUT OF CHUNKY.

When people are mentally ill they excommunicate themselves or are excommunicated by human society…let us imagine the mentally ill as living the life of excommunicates from our humanity, from the human race.

For many men with SSA, this feeling is manifested specifically as a (real or perceived) excommunication from the world of his fellow men, rather than from humanity at large. If the mentally ill person feels that he is outside of the realm of the human, the man with SSA often feels that he is outside the realm of the masculine: that there is an essential difference between him and other men.

I say “an essential difference” because it doesn’t feel like something that can be overcome: the very fact of having to overcome it in the first place seems to place one outside of the realm of the masculine. So, seen in those terms, it’s an insoluble problem. One feels that, even if he somehow attains the masculinity he thinks he lacks, he’ll still be forever marked — because he didn’t have it from the beginning.

(As if anybody is born knowing how to be a man!)

I remember the look on my friend M.’s face when, from the middle of my own personal Golgotha, I explained this to him for the first time — I used the phrase “insurmountable chasm” (who doesn’t get histrionic when they’re in the Pit?) to describe the distance I sometimes felt between me and other men. And, wow, I could tell he got it because of — God bless him for his empathy — the way the blood drained from his face. He hadn’t really understood, before.

For the sake of the sick, therefore, we must be concerned to enlarge the concept of the human so that it can include everything in them.

Walker Percy, somewhere in Lost In the Cosmos, has the image of a man riding a subway, feeling lost and isolated and alienated. But luckily, he is reading a novel about a man who feels lost, isolated, and alienated. Since the man in the novel feels as he does, the feelings become endurable — because they are something human after all.

What to take from all of this? Our job as Christians, it seems to me, is to “enlarge the concept of the human” to include those struggling with SSA. This is done, not by pretending that SSA is not a problem, but by acknowledging that it is a human problem — which means something that can be talked about, sympathized with, understood.

More specifically, this means — for both the sick and the well — acknowledging that the feelings of inferiority suffered by men with SSA exist precisely because they are men. Every man wants to be a man, wants to love and be loved by other men, sometimes feels inadequate as a man.

For the man with SSA, this desire takes on an extra intensity. But the important thing to remember is that the desire arises, not despite his manhood, but because of it.

I’ve got no words for you today, so I give you the words of Fr. William F. Lynch. These are excerpts from Images of Hope, which I have been reading on and off since about March. It was one of the very few things that helped at all when things were darkest.

It contains some of the most breathtakingly dead-on observations about depression I’ve ever seen, and no small amount of powerful weapons for doing battle with it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a passage and said: Wow, he gets it. I never met anybody else who got it.

So I’ll present them without further comment. I hope you’ll get the book if you like what you see. In my copy, each of these passages has a big star, or heavy underlines, or DOUBLE underlines, or all three.

People who do not attend to detail are poor in hope. They do not believe that anything will come of detail. They rather expect that the pattern will form of itself, without the detail. This is contempt, which is the opposite of hope. The mentally ill frequently find it extremely difficult to have hope in language, in talk, in the use of one word after another, in actually saying to the doctor, step by step, word by word, what they think or feel.

Hope is related to help in such a way that you cannot talk about one without talking about the other. Hope is truly on the inside of us, but hope is an interior sense that there is help on the outside of us.

The image of the absolutely self-sufficient man is a mockery of physiological and psychological fact.

I know at least one therapist who abandoned the treatment of a particular schizophrenic in despair, only to find that his acknowledgment of despair had cured the patient! In acknowledging some of his own hopelessness he had himself rejoined the human race and had thereby helped to relieve the patient of an impossible burden, the burden of having nothing but beautiful feelings.

I propose that the sick person is really helpless, and that there is nothing more human than to be helpless. He is helpless. For he is operating within his own closed system of fantasy and feeling, unable, as a result, even to see or imagine what is on the outside. He needs another’s imagination that will begin to work with his own, and then the two can do it together. He must put on another’s imagination in order to rediscover his own.

This is agony, so to melt one’s thoughts, wishes, feelings, and self into those of others that one completely loses the taste of self. If we can say it without raising any moral implications for the sick, I think tha this is the psychic parallel of the terror of the loss of the soul. It is not the loss of the soul; in fact, the sickness may ironically turn out to be salvation, but it causes reverberations similar to the terror of this loss.

Christianity has regularly been interpreted as a great source of inhibition and as an enemy to wishing and willing. If this interpretation were correct, we would have to acknowledge that Christianity itself is one of the prime sources of mental illness. But it is not true; only those who will always refuse to wish will, in order to legalize their position, invoke a counterfeit Christianity that calls their refusal health or virtue. If Christianity were such, it would be the perfect system for taking away hope, piously pronouncing that if we remained thus hopeless until death, it would intervene at that moment to reward in death the hope that was never allowed to function in life.

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.

It’s amazing how telling people about your SSA changes your perspective on the matter.

I just reconnected with my old friend J. I called because he had just broken off his engagement and I thought he might be a mess about it. Turned out he was more or less okay; eventually the conversation turned, like they usually do with J. (even when he is not engaged, he tends to have marriage on the brain) to my romantic prospects. “Anybody in your life right now?” he wanted to know.

“Meh,” I thought, and said: “Yeah, not really. I’m gay, J.”

Pause. “I’m — not sure if you’re joking or not right now.”

“No, it’s true,” I laugh, “no joking here. I’m gay.” Man, this is easier than it used to be.

So we talked about that for a little while and then went on to other stuff. That “meh,” as a prelude to telling what used to be my Deep Dark Secret, felt good. Experience has shown me over and over that my SSA just doesn’t matter to the people that I consider friends.

A recent email from a reader1 made me think back to an earlier time and an earlier attitude. The reader, who also has SSA, was considering telling a relative about it, but he wasn’t sure if he should. He said he had to consider his motives carefully, and whether he would only be telling his relative out of a desire for consolation.

I don’t know this reader’s whole story, and I can’t judge his situation. I don’t blame him for feeling as he does, because I remember feeling that way. Besides, the reason he gave for not telling is probably only one of seventy, each of which needs consideration. In other words, I pray that neither he nor anybody else takes what I am about to say as a judgment on them.

But of all the reasons to tell or not to tell, I think this is a very bad one.

One of the first people I ever told was my friend Hilda in college. I remember standing with her in a secluded corner of the campus, wrestling with the decision, knowing she was watching me wrestle without knowing what I was wrestling with. I remember saying, with the intense gravity that characterized almost every second of my life at that time: “It’s just that I wouldn’t want to burden you with this.”

“Steve,” she said. “Don’t you know that you would be giving me a gift?”

You men and women with SSA, if you are wondering whether this knowledge will be a burden to your friends, think of this: how did you feel the last time a friend of yours told you about something awful they were going through? Did you wish he hadn’t? Or did you feel honored? Was it a burden or a gift?

Or maybe you don’t have friends who confide in you. Are you glad that nobody burdens you with the knowledge of what they carry? Or do you wish they would?

Many of us grew up carrying heavy things all by ourselves, usually out of emotional necessity: we just weren’t able to believe that people wouldn’t run away screaming or retching. We were so disgusted with ourselves that we thought everybody else would be, too.

But carrying heavy things by ourselves can habituate us to the notion that we are charged with a unique and terrible cross, that it is our job to suffer in a special way, that suffering is even our calling. Many of us, probably without realizing it, even come to believe that God wants us to suffer, actively desires it.

Not true. Not true, not true, not true. Whatever God is like, He’s not like that. Carefully read Lamentations 3: “The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to anyone who seeks help from him…He does not willingly bring suffering or grief to anyone.”

Jesus didn’t tell the woman with the hemorrhage that it was her job to suffer, and he didn’t tell it to the thousands of other people who came to him all day long for healing. What makes us any different?

I’m not saying to run out and tell everybody everything all the time. Sometimes it’s not their business, and sometimes your motives might really be bad. But consider this: asking help is an act of trust and an act of love; it can sometimes be a greater act of love than giving help. And wanting help, wanting consolation — that’s not bad. That’s human. That’s good.

I don’t know about you, but I need all the help I can get.

1 I did ask the reader in question whether it was okay to write this post. I hope he’s not regretting saying yes.

It’s not the despair…I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.1

Seems like nearly everybody knows about my SSA these days. My landlord knows, for goodness’ sake. My landlord, H., also happens to be a coworker and an old friend, and someone who’s been through a lot himself — even before I knew some of the details, I always thought he had the look. I asked to use his office once so I could use the landline for a radio interview, and when he got inquisitive, I ended up telling him about the blog.

H. met my revelation with compassion and understanding, which is the reaction I’ve come to expect from Catholics. But a few days later, he had advice, too: “You need to take care of this,” he told me. “You need to make your life about taking care of this. There are guys who are experts. There are studies.” He had googled around, and wanted to know: had I ever heard of NARTH? Had I ever heard of Joe Nicolosi?

The thing about talking to men about your problems is that they, we, like to fix things, and sometimes that’s not what you need to hear. I knew he said what he said because he hated to see me suffer — I was in the thick of the roommate situation at the time — but the conversation upset me so much that, when I went back to my desk, I couldn’t see my code through the tears, and had to retreat to the bathroom till I could calm down.

Because I used to think that way. Then I stopped thinking that way. Then I didn’t know what to think, so I tried to quit thinking. There was a space of about two years, after attending Journey Into Manhood in ’08, when I did just what H. suggested. I read books, went to groups, forced myself to play basketball, made a habit of hanging out with Da Boys every chance I got.

Did that work? Was that good? I have no idea. I do think it’s largely responsible for the fact that I’m now comfortable with men, more or less — anyway it doesn’t usually make me feel all strung out and artificial and terrified to be in a group of guys, the way it used to, and I have a better sense of the rhythm of conversation.2 I’m glad about that.

But I wonder what else it did to me. It’s good to do things that scare you, if they’re good things; but doing things because they scare you looks an awful lot like masochism. It also looks like a lack of self-acceptance. How good did I have to get at socialization, or at basketball, before I decided I was good enough to just live my life?

I understand why ex-gays get vilified. If they’re wrong, if change is impossible, then they’re holding out false hope, and encouraging self-torture in men who are already prone to it. But if they’re right — and if you don’t follow that avenue, if you don’t do everything you can to get healed, get changed, get “fixed” — then you feel like a slacker, a slug. You feel like the double amputee who decided to just quit, just be a victim, instead of becoming a sprinter.

I wish somebody could tell me that it’s possible for me to get married one day, have kids, share a bed with somebody. Or, maybe even better, I wish somebody could tell me that that will never ever happen. It would be easier to hope if I knew there was something real to hope for. And if I could stop hoping — what a relief.

1 From the very excellent and exceedingly tragical comedy Clockwise, with John Cleese.
2 Several years ago, I mentioned in passing to Fr. T. that, when I was growing up, my family didn’t chat around the dinner table. Everybody got a book and we ate in silence, everybody reading. The way his eyes bugged out made me notice for the first time that there was maybe something a little weird about that, and that maybe possibly not all of my social difficulties were entirely my fault.