I’ve been flat on my back for a couple of days with the flu. I think I’m almost better, but it’s been a rough couple of days, mentally and physically. Isolation has never been good for me, and last night I hit a kind of crescendo of mental anguish as I was trying to fall asleep.

There’s a great episode in Season 3 of The Magicians where Quentin comes face to face with a doppelgänger of himself that turns out to be an outward manifestation of all his depressive instincts. This thing (is it a demonic shapeshifter, or just a kind of magical mirage? We don’t know) has victimized others before Quentin, following them around and droning their worst fears at them until they find the nearest tall building and jump off. It has access to all of Quentin’s private thoughts, and it puts the worst possible spin on everything. It makes everything sound believable.

Anyway, the writers really knew what they were doing, and at least one of them must have some serious experience with some serious depression. Usually when TV shows try to portray “battle of wills involving inner turmoil” they do some funny camera tricks and the actor makes screamy symbolic faces, but it isn’t very convincing. This was.

Jason Ralph’s a good actor, and his face mirrored the way it feels to be cornered by a very determined depressive mood. You squirm, you bob and weave, you call on all your mental resources, you pull out every trick you can think of, but it’s always two inches behind you, snapping at your heels. Quentin blusters to his doppelgänger, “You and I both know that I’ve got a black belt, so come at me!” But it is bluster. Somehow, after two decades of intermittent tangling with depression, I haven’t mastered it yet. I just know how to keep it contained, but sometimes it still gets the upper hand.

I’ve been reading Francis de Sales again, a book called Finding God’s Will For You that my sister gave me ages ago. His psychological insight, from 500 years in the past, always sounds fresh and always goes right to the heart of the matter. He talks a lot about the will of God, and what it means to accept it, to conform ourselves to it. Here’s de Sales on accepting suffering:

The soul makes this act of resignation among so many troubles and amid such opposition and repugnance that it scarcely perceives that it makes it. At least it thinks it is done so feebly as not to be done sincerely or properly…Such acquiescence is neither tender nor sweet and hardly perceptible to the senses, although it is true, strong, invincible, and most loving.

St. Francis de Sales. In Finding God’s Will For You, chapter 4.

Most of us are familiar with the idea that we can make use of suffering somehow by “offering it up”. I don’t understand how this works or what it means (though I did write a whole post once on how it works and what it means), but I do accept and believe two key things:

  1. By accepting suffering, some good (never mind what!) is accomplished.
  2. We can choose (never mind how!) the recipient of this good.

De Sales supplements this idea by making us understand that not only is this acquiescence possible and profitable, but it is extremely undramatic. It doesn’t feel like a mammoth, triumphant effort of the will. It’s done “feebly” and amid “repugnance”, it’s “hardly perceptible to the senses”. Just the tiniest nod, the slightest fiat, and God shouts, GOOD ENOUGH! and runs with it.

I don’t know why I believe these things so strongly. They are certainly embedded deeply in the Catholic tradition, and for once that seems to be good enough for me. I know that it’s a tremendous comfort to be able to say, in the dentist’s chair or in one’s own bed in a horribly wakeful moment, “I accept this suffering on behalf of _____.” Would I submit to have a tooth pulled if I knew that it would contribute in some substantial and irreplaceable way to the happiness of the dear friend going through a bad breakup? Yes, I would.

Will it stop the extraction from hurting? Nope, nope, nope.

9 Comments on “Extraction”

  1. Bruce says:

    Very, very good–so good that I wish you would write more.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement! I hope it doesn’t take another flu to get me to write the next post.

  2. Josee Turner says:

    Amen! I will remember this. God bless you.

  3. hogtowner says:

    Hi, Steve/Joey –

    Good to see you back!

    This particular issue has been one that I’ve found difficult (no surprise!) But I do think that some of the spiritual literature regarding it seems too passive. Of course, the very word “passive” (like “passion”) both come from one of the Latin words for “suffer” which is “patior”. The common element here is that it means we are not in control. It doesn’t refer to stuff we do – it’s what happens *to* us. Henri Nouwen wrote about this in his Daybreak diary. At the end of the day, we aren’t masters of our existence, and there is a lot that is beyond our control. Personality characteristics, tendencies to anxiety and depression, even our political tendencies – have more of an innate, biological character than we’re often willing to admit. Some people just have a more suffering kind of temperament (fair to say Henri Nouwen was one of them), and it isn’t fair.

    I guess I have a problem with terms like “resignation”. It feeds into what I call the “anti-prosperity” gospel or what the earlier spiritual writers called quietism. It sounds like giving up. Whatever you may think of Jordan Peterson, he came up with an interesting twist on the idea of “taking up one’s cross” by stating that it involves a willing, dynamic taking on of the suffering inherent to existence.

    Furthermore, I tend to look at the example of St. John of the Cross, who wrote a *lot* about redemptive suffering. What he did was quite instructive. His response to being jailed unjustly and abused by his fellow churchmen included doing quite a remarkable jail-break. I don’t think offering it up and looking for ways to improve a situation are mutually exclusive.

    I also really, really like what you said about how inconspicuous and hidden the act of offering is. And the connection to others that it involves: a real act of solidarity in our miserably chilly society.

    Please, keep writing here!

    1. I agree — “resignation” doesn’t have a great connotation as it’s currently used. I like the way you put it: that taking up one’s cross can (or should?) be both willing and dynamic. At least sometimes. Honestly, in some cases the most I can muster is just to submit.

      1. Bruce says:

        By writing about it, friend, you are not exactly “submitting.”

  4. B says:

    Interesting. I do think sometimes one “resigns” oneself to suffering in that the suffering is an accepted reality. Much like being cold or hot, just accepting and not griping can be all one can do. Then there is submission which acknowledges God’s ultimate dominion over us and our suffering and the graces it produces. It is the small ‘fiat’ you wrote above. Lastly there is the embracing of the cross, the clinging to the trial with the steadfast hope good will come of it. Each has its place and reflects perhaps the spiritual maturity in a given circumstance. Not sure, but it’s good to contemplate, I think.

  5. Sue says:

    Please keep writing! This was good!

    1. Thank you! I’m really hoping to get back to it when grad school slows down a bit…

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