Tag Archives: William Lynch

“It wasn’t that I thought you would freak out.” I’ve just, unthinkably!, told Ryan G. that I’m attracted to him, and now I am explaining why I didn’t tell him before. “I just thought you might start to…I don’t know…”

“Keep my distance?” Ryan says it with a grimace, like it is the stupidest idea in the world. Not that I am stupid for thinking that it might happen, but that he would have to be an idiot to do it.

“Well, you know,” I say. “Not that you would want to keep your distance, but you might decide that it wouldn’t be good for me to see too much of you, because maybe I’ll get worse.”

He grimaces again: another stupid idea, but I’m glad he thinks it’s stupid, even if I don’t understand why yet. “No, I’m not going to do that,” he says. “I’m not going to have any kind of agenda in hanging out with you, or not hanging out with you. I’m just going to hang out with you because I like hanging out with you, and if you like hanging out with me, then we’ll keep hanging out.”

This conversation is not going how I thought. For someone who I’m pretty sure has never had an openly gay friend before, Ryan is proceeding with a surprising amount of confidence, plunging surefooted as a mountain goat into what I thought was a dark landscape full of cliffs. If he were confused and disoriented, I would be, too. Instead, the matter-of-fact way he’s laying it all out makes me wonder why I was so worried.

“It’d be different if you were a girl,” he says. Keep going, I’m thinking, tell me more! Because I had imagined that every time I hugged him he’d be watching to see if I held on a fraction of a second too long, every time I looked at him he’d be checking to make sure I didn’t look into his eyes too deeply, or too creepily, or something, I don’t know. But it turns out that those are my anxieties, not his. “Why would it be different?” I ask.

“Because when a guy and a girl spend a lot of time together, the natural thing that happens is that they are going to be more attracted to each other,” he says, “because men and women are supposed to be attracted to each other.”

I chew on this for a minute. “I think I get you,” I say. “You mean the more you do a thing, the closer it gets to being the thing it’s supposed to be.” He nods. “And we’re supposed to be friends,” I say. He nods again. “So the more time we spend together, the better friends we are,” I conclude. He nods one more time, smiling because I’ve got it now.

I’m still not sure. He thinks friendship is like a shoe that you have to break in, and that you break it in by wearing it. But I am thinking it is like a car engine: I’m imagining it low on oil, some idiot sitting in the driver’s seat on a cold New England morning and revving and revving the accelerator, not bothering to let it warm up first, redlining it before it’s even left the driveway, bits and pieces flaking off and jamming up the works until the whole things seizes to a shrieking halt.

Is that what I’m doing? Yeah, Ryan, between two straight men, friendship is the thing that naturally happens, and the more time they spend together, the closer they get to that natural thing. But is that how it is when one of the men is gay?

I want to see through to the truth of this, but I can’t, because I’m too much inside myself. William Lynch says, of the mentally ill, that they are ill because their imaginations have stopped working correctly. They can no longer picture a world that is not dominated by their fears and regrets; they are locked in the darkness of their own solipsism. That is how it is with me, now. I can see my own perspective, but no other.

So the only way out is the imagination of a friend, someone who sees what I cannot see, sits outside the cave of my skull and yells in a description of the view from outside.

I see myself briefly from Ryan’s perspective. Feelings are not facts, goes the mantra, so I imagine the view from outside of my own buzzing mosquito-net of a brain. Forget who I am to myself: who am I to Ryan? I am his friend. We laugh together, drink together, work out together, watch TV together, and make hilarious jokes about horrendous problems together.

Privately, inside my mosquito net, things are different. I am anxious about Ryan, and sometimes jealous, and a little confused. I am tempted to think that these things are the whole reality of our friendship.

But are these things real, even inside my own skull? In fact, I realize, these things buzz louder when Ryan is not here. When we are in the same room, those thoughts — if they surface at all — seem like the most stupid nonsense. Instead of seeming like the whole reality, these things barely seem real at all.

Which, in the end, they are not. As we practice friendship, the unreal bits — the anxiety, the suspicion, the jealousy — begin to fall away, like rust. Eventually the only thing left is the steel structure underneath, the framework that was there all along.

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.

On my 17th visit to my therapist, marking nearly a year with her, she asks me, What do you think has changed?

I could truthfully answer:

No longer frantic and empty
Like a cat
Tied to a stick
That’s driven into
Frozen winter sh★t1

But I don’t listen to Radiohead very often anymore, and that’s part of the point. The question doesn’t really have to do with the ways in which I feel differently, but with what I’ve been doing differently. So I answer that I live my life now as if living my life were a skill, something that has to be learned and practiced consciously.

Because it is. It would be absurd to imagine that playing the piano, or doing Kung Fu, or coding in PHP, was supposed to be automatic. It would be ridiculous to tell yourself that, because you weren’t born knowing differential calculus, there must be something wrong with you.

But that’s exactly what I’m sometimes tempted to tell myself about living life and being happy, even though living life — a balancing act between action and passivity, relationship and independence, grieving and celebrating, surviving and enjoying, all requiring billions of on-the-fly adjustments and split-second decisions and, probably most importantly, failure after failure — is exponentially more complicated than any of those other things.

It’s true that some people do seem to have a natural talent for living, the way some people have a natural talent for dancing: while we’re mouthing a frantic onetwothreeonetwothree and focusing on not stepping on our partner’s feet, they’re the ones grooving along like they were on living rails, whirling off into arabesques and syncopations without seeming to think about anything at all.

Maybe it’s because they worked very, very hard for very, very long. Or maybe it’s because they were born with rhythm. Or maybe they grew up listening to Bach and Strauss and Glenn Miller and the Beach Boys, so it all seeped into their blood. Or maybe they are on some damn good rhythm-enhancing drugs.

But I can’t know those things. All I can know is what I do and how well it works, or doesn’t, for me. So I make a point of things like:

  • Planning out my Sunday morning so I don’t get to Sunday night without talking to at least one or two people that I love
  • Switching the radio if I’m feeling raw and something too melancholy comes on
  • Calling a friend before I start feeling abandoned and lonesome
  • Working out on a regular schedule, whether I want to or not

And so on. I do this stuff because I’ve found out that nothing else does the trick, and with the knowledge that I have friends who can spend seven hours by themselves watching The X-Files, fall asleep on the courch eating fried pork rinds, sleep for ten hours, and wake up not feeling substantially worse about themselves; whereas if I did those things, it’d take a week of recovery before I could stop feeling like crying.

That’s just how it is. I dunno if it’ll always be that way, and I’m certain that it’s better than it used to be. Some of these things do become second nature. You build momentum and it carries you; when you’re moving along at a good clip, you keep doing what you’re doing; when you come to a screeching halt, you look at how you got there, and you start methodically doing the opposite.

1 It’s from Fitter, Happier, off OK Computer, which yeah, is the best album of its decade, but definitely isn’t suitable for one’s daily bread.

Jesus turned to her and said, “Mary”. She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!”

What is lonelier than not being seen, not being known?

It is said that the Holy Spirit is the look of love that passes between the Father and the Son. Think of the look of love: think of how unafraid it is, how it sees every bit of us, and delights in what it sees. Think of the certainty that it produces, the certainty that we are understood.

It is this look that kindles in us our selfhood, gives us confidence to live, gives us ground to stand on.1

Some of us grew up unseen. Our parents, maybe, saw only the reflection of their own failures — or were too consumed with their own hurts to see us at all. Or our schoolmates looked and saw only our differences and kept their distance, as if our social leprosy was catching. Or, somehow, nobody saw us at all; we didn’t fit into any group, were outside of every plan. We were spare parts.

What happens when we are not given the look of love? We become afraid. We will go to any lengths to draw this look out of others, but we despair at the same time, because we know that the look is worth nothing unless it is given without our asking.

For this reason, this moment in the Gospel — at the empty tomb, when the risen Jesus calls Mary by name, and finally she recognizes him — is, for me, the essence of Easter. We are surrounded every day by Jesus, Jesus, Jesus:

…For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.2

He is all around us, but we cannot recognize him, because we have no self to recognize him with, until he calls our name, sees us. This seeing gives us a self, selves us; and once selved, we can respond to him, call him by his name — the name we have for him.

Mary calls him Rabboni, teacher: we might call him Master, or Friend, or Lover; we might call him My Hope, or My Expected One, or My Joy. It is out of our experience of God that we name God.3

When he calls us by name, we know our name; and once we know our own name, we can name him. By his light we see light.

O Lord! You know how incapable we are of celebrating Easter. You know how incomplete we are, how we do not have the wherewithal to name you unless you name us first.

Fill us with your name, which is our name; which is Joy. You see what fruit we will bear when we are whole, when we are alive. You see what life will brim from us then.

But first we must be selved, and nobody else can do it. Name us, Jesus, be our name!

1 This idea is from Fr. William Lynch’s Images of Hope.
2 This is from As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme, by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
3 This is from Archbishop Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray.

Good Friday 2008, I’m three thousand miles from home, I still don’t really speak Spanish, and — surprise — I’ve taken my propensity for emotional entanglement right with me to Peru.

This time it’s one of the brothers who belongs to the order I’m staying with. Brother P. and I are drawn to each other like old friends, or ancient enemies: whenever we spend time together we wound each other, but we can’t keep away.

People talk about “living in the past” as if it were a figure of speech; but the past, if it’s potent enough, rises up to obscure everything in front of us, so that we’re not talking to the people around us at all, but to our abusive fathers, our bullying schoolmates, our lost loves. We remake our neighbors into the images of those who have hurt us. We are ghosts, haunting the scenes of our hurt.

What face am I superimposing on Brother P., and what face is he superimposing on me? Am I his controlling mother or his cruel childhood friend? Is he my father? Or just my worst self?

I’m not often in sync with the liturgy — I’m chipper during Lent, gloomy on Christmas — but Holy Week seems to be the exception. In the days leading up to Good Friday, all the distemper in me rises to the surface, and every enemy I thought I’d conquered murmurs, I am still here. It could be spiritual attack. It could be some mystery of participation in the Passion, my spirit drawn to play a part it doesn’t understand: This is your hour, whispers my soul to its tormentors, when darkness reigns.

Or it could be coincidence and good old-fashioned mental illness. I’ve got no way of knowing, and it doesn’t help to guess.

Brother P. finds me wandering the grounds, disconsolate. He wants to know what’s wrong, and I tell him I don’t know, but that I feel just awful, and burst into tears. It’s an even bet whether he’ll roll his eyes in disgust or decide that my pain is worth reckoning with.

He chooses the latter way. We walk to the chapel, where he takes me inside. “Tell him about it,” he says to me. Him is Jesus, and I look up to the fresco behind the altar — a larger-than-life scene bathed in blue and white light, the risen Son ascending victorious to the Father through a world of soft cloud.

“Not like that,” says Brother P. He turns, redirecting me towards the large crucifix on the wall. This Jesus is as big as I am, and he hangs low on the wall, uncomfortably close to me. He drips blood, his skin welted and torn. His eyes stare in agony or disbelief, his hands are claws. It is a different Jesus.

“Like that,” says Brother P., very softly. “Tell him like that.”

He leaves me there, and I begin to tell Jesus about it. He knows it all already — for he himself knew what was in man — but I tell him anyway, this Jesus who not only knows it but feels it as well. I can see in his eyes that he does.

Dear Jesus, this is the enemy’s hour, when darkness reigns. We who suffer, and our suffering seems to us meaningless, and vain, and poorly done; we who struggle, pinned and wriggling, under our crosses; we who fight daily battles whose import we cannot understand; be with us, help us to be with you. You whose spirit intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings, hear the words we do not know how to form. Speak them for us from the cross, to the Father that you, like us, can no longer see or feel.

Lead us to the unimaginable resurrection.

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.

Grave harm has been wrought…by teaching that a man must find the will of God, never his own, in all things. Where we are within reality and there are ten reality choices, it is man’s choice that is absolute, that makes the choice right. There is then no need to be on the perpetual alert to find the one haunting, threatening, objective good thing to do. God wants us to wish. In our wishes is His will.1

It’s easy to see Providence at work in some parts of my life, in the way I’ve just fallen into things. When I graduated from college, I got my first teaching job almost by accident, after reluctantly agreeing to attend a high school reunion.

The job turned out to be the perfect mixture of challenge and protection: a chance to revisit my high school years, heal some of those wounds, and at the same time grow in responsibility and maturity. It all hurt like hell, of course, but growth usually does.

After three years it became clear that my time there was done. After being allowed to wriggle for a little while in uncertainty, I was given a very clear sign about the next step. The same pattern continued for several years. I would come to the end of one thing, and find that the next thing dropped right into my lap, as from the hand of a loving God.

None of the big decisions — teaching at my old high school, moving out of my parents’ house, traveling to Peru, teaching again in Arizona — seemed inevitable at first, and none came without deliberation and prayer and advice. But at the end of each period of discernment, I always felt clear about what to do: the One Right Thing, the Will of God.

Then, in 2010, Providence ran out.

At the end of a year of teaching in Arizona, one of the most challenging years of my life, I couldn’t find the One Thing. Should I continue teaching, even though it was hard, and work out my salvation that way, or did my One Path lie elsewhere? Was I meant to stay rooted in a hard land like Ruth, or to set out like Abraham into unknown territory? Both seemed difficult, both seemed good, and I was utterly stuck.

Because I believed in the existence of the One Thing, it seemed to me that all other things must lead to misery, or at least to the knowledge that I had missed the best path, that there existed some perfect choice and that I had failed to make it. God had a Best Thing in mind for me, but He wouldn’t tell me what it was; and if I couldn’t figure it out, it would be nothing but pathless wandering from then on.

To say that God has a singular, perfect plan for you, and that all you have to do is find it and follow it, sounds a lot like trust. It sounds like the sort of thing a good parent would do: set out the best possible future for you, and make sure you end up there.

But that image implies another. What if you can’t find the plan? What if the parent is terrifyingly vague about what His plan actually is? Suddenly he’s not a good parent at all, but one who’s waiting for you to screw it all up, so that after you’ve made the Wrong Decision he can leap out and blame you for it, saying: You should have known better, and now you’re going to pay.

That’s not a good parent. That’s a cruel, vindictive control freak. But how many of us see God that way?

At the bottom of my belief in the One Right Thing was a terrible fear that I would choose one of the many, many Wrong Things,2 fear that I would make an irreparable mistake, fear that I could get to some point outside of the mercy of God.

When I finally chose to leave teaching, it was exactly that: a choice. Maybe it was the first real choice I ever made, in the sense that, for the first time, I decided what I wanted to do — not what would be least disastrous, not what would be most safe, not what would force God to keep loving me and taking care of me — but what I wanted.

And I found that to do what you desire can be an act of trust. God gave us desires, and our desires can be3 a mode of His will, are the means by which His will is acted out. But that will is not a static thing, and it embraces all the parts of who we are, not only the careful, restrained parts.

To desire, and to act on desire, is to trust in the goodness of God, and in a kind of Providence that, terrifyingly or thrillingly, expects us to do what we want.4

1 William F. Lynch, SJ, Images of Hope, p. 143.
2 Like this guy.
3 Yes, but nota bene: can be, not “always are.”
4 Here is a poem by Richard Wilbur on the same theme as this post. I’ve known this poem for ten years and I’m still not sure whether he’s saying the same thing as I am here or something completely different, and I’m not sure I agree with him. But it’s a hell of a poem.