Learn About Ferguson: An Invitation

As a white Christian from the West Coast, I honestly thought we lived in a post-racial world.
And then, just over a month ago, a white police officer shot an unarmed black teen in the streets of a sleepy Missouri town, and the town — along with my perceptions of race in the U.S. — has since been turned inside out.

I first read about the Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown on BBC, and then started scanning twitter accounts of protesters, including community leader Antonio French. Then, Huffington Post and other sources gave accounts of journalists arrested, and I saw the pictures. Then, more details from the autopsy were released, eyewitnesses shared stories that Brown’s hands were up, and the chilling truth came out that his body — only partially covered — lay in the street for four hours, while his family was kept away with caution tape and police threats.
I watched videos and and saw photos of the police officer who threatened to kill protesters with his gun raised, of the woman pastor shot with rubber bullets as she prayed, of tear gas and sound bombs and riot gear and tanks.

Some of you may feel overwhelmed by the amount of articles, videos, tweets, and pictures that have appeared on the web regarding Ferguson, MO in the last 32 days. It is my hope that the links I share with you today will help you begin exploring the situation for yourself, and that you will join me in prayer and action against injustice.

A few news articles to start your research:

[there isn’t anything from ABC, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, etc. on here, but I’m not dismissing them as sources. Please do browse around those sites, but consider also looking at other perspectives like thisweekinblackness, twitter searches for #ferguson and @antoniofrench, and my favorite for less-biased American news coverage: BBC]
And try googling Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, John Crawford III, and Dante Parker, all men killed by police since July, 2014

The first headline I saw on Fox News regarding Ferguson was a report that Darren Wilson (the office who shot Brown) was severely beaten and had a shattered orbital bone. I had gone to Fox, CNN, MSNBC, etc. to try to broaden my understanding of the events in Ferguson, but this story on Fox struck me as less-than-credible because its source was an anonymous friend of the police. Since then, CNN and HuffPo have decried these injury reports as false; there was no x-ray showing a break, and several photos of a beaten face in articles that were floating around were not of Wilson at all.

Here is a quick video summarizing the unsympathetic — even antagonistic — response of some media to those grieving and protesting in Ferguson (warning: language)

Here are a few analysis articles I recommend:

As the protests went on, men and women wrote dozens of wise and eloquent articles analyzing and grieving the situation in Ferguson.

— by Richard Beck at experimentaltheology
— the “It’s Time to Listen” series at Christianity Today
— Lisa Sharon Harper’s guest post on rachelheldevans
— heartbreaking and important, a piece I found via Sarahbessey

I also strongly recommend Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil’s sermon from August 17th, which you can find here: http://www.seattlequest.org/view/sermons

Some Questions

How quick are we to dismiss the other viewpoints, to find solace in the media source that aligns with our first impressions, to refuse to hear the outrage and pain of our black brothers and sisters because our experience with law enforcement has always been positive?
How quick are we to make excuses for the police officers who have killed citizens without a trial, to say their jobs are stressful and we cannot be so quick to judge what they do in a high-pressure situation?
Can we not extend at least the same grace to the men and women of color if they respond with anything less than complete compliance?
What if, like the man (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVaU8qm2LhQ) Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil cites in her sermon, people are victims of blatant injustice on the part of law enforcement?

Will you take a moment and grieve with me that far less money that has poured in to support the family of Mike Brown than for the the officer who is on paid leave after killing this boy?

“Listen, your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”

The Church

Our God cares deeply for those who suffer violence, for those who are oppressed, and for victims of rage and hatred.
Did not Jesus say in his first sermon recorded in the Gospel of Luke,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Woe to us if we say we are his disciples and do not obey what he commands.

The African American denominational leadership for the Evangelical Covenant Church wrote a letter regarding Ferguson, to which the ECC president responded, and both of which you can read here: http://www.covchurch.org/news/2014/08/23/ecc-leaders-official-statements-on-ferguson/
The situation in Ferguson is important, and I invite you to join me in listening and learning about the ongoing racial oppression and flaws in the police system in the U.S. — these things that lead to death.
We must lay open the pain, and we must pursue the gospel.

The Problem with Moderation

In conclusion, today I read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and was struck by how fitting much of what he wrote is for our situation today, 51 years later.
“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

And so, to my white moderate sisters and brothers, I ask you to walk with me toward a deeper understanding. I cannot claim I understand it all right now, but I am walking that way; I am pursuing mercy, justice, and humility. I am reading perspectives that challenge my white privilege, and I am meditating on the teachings of Jesus.

May we pray that we will learn the truth and put it into practice.
May we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

You can donate to the National Urban League here: https://org2.salsalabs.com/o/5666/p/salsa/donation/common/public/?donate_page_KEY=7889&track=NULhomepagenv


He Descended Into Hell

Some days, there is a heaviness.
Some days, silence seems like the only appropriate option.

Faced with the suffering of women and children in India, in Nigeria, in Syria, in impoverished U.S. neighborhoods; faced with a friend’s loss of a loved one, or overwhelming anxiety, or difficulties at work; faced with the fact that all these little children grow into teens who hurt each other, and these teens grow into adults with deep emotional and physical scars; I feel the weight of these days when You offer no answer.

Frederick Buechner writes that the gospel begins with silence, with truth in silence; then, there is news–the bad news, the tragedy that strips us bare; only after this silence and this tragedy can there be good news, can we be clothed and healed. And anyone who ignores the silence or the tragedy is only telling part of the story.

In his chapter on the gospel as tragedy in Telling the Truth, Buechner uses the Shakespearean tragedy King Lear to illustrate his argument. He talks about the poor naked wretches, and all of us who are weary and heavy laden, and Jesus hanging on the cross. He glosses Jesus’ prayer, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) as follows:

“My God, where the Hell are you, meaning If thou art our Father who art in Heaven, be thou also our Father who art in Hell because Hell is where the action is, where I am and the cross is. It is where the pitiless storm is. It is where men labor and are heavy laden under the burden of their own lives without you.” (39)

I have been in a sober state since reading this. Last night I sat up in bed reading Lamentations, breathing out prayers for those who are suffering. There is a holiness in bearing witness to the suffering. We cannot fix it; sometimes we can do a little to stop the bleeding, and we can always give up a few luxuries to ensure someone else does not go to bed hungry. But we cannot fix it, and we cannot end it, this poverty—material, mental, spiritual, and emotional—that stalks the earth, looking for someone to devour. Tragedy is in the news; it is in the truth. It comes first.

And so, first and foremost, we need to listen to the tragic news and we need to see those who are living tragedies. For we are all living tragedies sometimes; and we are all of us poor naked wretches, even the wealthiest and most beautiful.
And so, sometimes the best thing we can do is sit in the dust, “to bear the yoke in youth, to sit alone in silence” (Lamentations 3:27-28a)

Buechner’s interpretation of Jesus’ prayer from the cross brought two articles to mind that I highly recommend:



When We Were on Fire

I recently watched the Baz Luhrmann’s film Mouline Rouge!, and was struck by the kind of love the character Christian displays throughout the film. He is infatuated with Satine, filled with what C.S. Lewis calls eros, and this passionate love quickly becomes jealous, irrational, and emotional.

This is Christian’s first experience with love, and he is young and naive. I wonder if there is a connection between youth and this kind of passionate, overwhelming love. Many young men I know had an eros experience in their teens or early 20s. Inevitably, the relationships ended (or never came to pass), but the pain of that out-of-control emotional love prompted them attempt to squelch their vulnerability, to never feel that terribly again. Thus, many of these men refrained from dating altogether for a long time, or they began a series of shallow, sexual relationships.

The kind of love that makes us lose ourselves in another is terrifying. We sit before a Force that we cannot control, and suddenly we feel small. We are sure our happiness lies in the hands of Another, and this is a kind of powerlessness. It is not so difficult for me to imagine that God is love in this way, for the overwhelming joy and hope found in God’s presence usually has–for me–a shadow of dread. Who is this God, transcendent and omnipotent, all-knowing and almighty? Great and Terrible, a Consuming Fire. This One I love has the power to heal all my wounds or to crush me completely.

Noah Gundersen sings of this connection between a moment of eros and a spiritual experience:
Was it something special
Or just another way out
Like the credits to a movie
Or seeing Jesus in the time of doubt

In Christian teaching, it is common to separate eros from agape, and to favor a love that is willed or chosen over one that a person falls into. And yet, Frederick Buecher questions this teaching, writing this:
“The first stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love. The middle stage is to believe that there are many kinds of love and that the Greeks had a different word for each of them. The last stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love…
To lose yourself in another’s arms, or in another’s company, or in suffering for all men who suffer, including the ones who inflict suffering upon you–to lose yourself in such ways is to find yourself. Is what it’s all about. Is what love is.
Of all powers, love is the most powerful and the most powerless. It is the most powerful because it alone can conquer that final and most impregnable stronghold which is the human heart. It is the most powerless because it can do nothing except by consent.
To say that love is God is romantic idealism. To say that God is love is either the last straw or the ultimate truth.”
–“Love,” Wishful Thinking, (Harper, 1993), 64-65.

What I love about Buechner’s definition is that it reincorporates the mysterious and felt elements of love that we (in our “maturity”) often dismiss in our teaching of love as a verb. “Love is a choice,” we say, “It is not an emotion.”
And yet, ask anyone who has been in love; ask anyone who has been hit with the Love of Christ; you will probably find there is more to the story.
Sometimes, love is in your gut. Sometimes, it’s goosebumps and tears in your eyes. Sometimes it’s being so caught up that you want to dance and cry and write a poem–even, or perhaps especially, if you cannot dance, and you do not cry, and you are not a poet.

If passion is suffering, being in love is foolishness. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). In our rationalism and realism and attempts to justify our faith historically and scientifically, many of us have grown uncomfortable with the Mystery and with the Laughter. Perhaps all of us, not just the young and naive, have a deep craving to hear a song reminding us we are loved “until the end of time.”

-My title is stolen from a recently-published book (which I have not read) by Addie Zierman. It struck me as unbelievably poetic.

-The lines from Noah Gundersen come from the song “Liberator,” and they are also an example of the rhetorical device chiasmus

Purpose and Voice

Successful blogs have a clear purpose and a clear voice.
The purpose of this blog, The Learned Life, is to share what I have been reading and learning. But recently I have felt torn between wanting to write about the field of English Literature (which I study as a graduate student) and about the Christian faith (which as I study as a laywoman). I have realized that for me the learned life has both an intellectual and a spiritual component, and so this blog will reflect that.

Wisdom is the combination of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

In the future, you will see posts about my classes and studies as well as posts about the theological or biblical texts I read. Like the Jesuits, I believe education should address the entire person, mind and soul. We must not only concern ourselves with what we learn, but with who we become as we learn, ideally becoming people concerned with spreading justice and compassion throughout our families, communities, and the world.


As far as having a clear voice, my inclination has been to quote the authors I’m reading and to share links to their writing. Compared to other authors, my words seem inadequate. But, although of course I will give credit to sources I use, I want this blog to be a platform for my own voice as a writer. Thus, for now, I am going to refrain from giving lists of links to other online articles or quoting chunks of text that other people have written. I have, however, updated the “Blogs I Follow” section, and so if you are interested in what I read most often online, I encourage you to check out those sites.

In other news, I am starting a new bi-weekly Saturday series called Tastes; the first installment will go up tomorrow. In these posts, I will give a glimpse of what I’ve been reading, watching, and/or listening to, as well as one intellectual issue and one spiritual issue over which I have been mulling.

The Academics, part one

My last two posts have been rather melancholy; I am glad I wrote them, but I will be making a turn here to focus more on what I am reading (the goal of this blog) than what I am feeling. If anything can remind you not to take yourself so seriously, it’s a 16-year-old giving you a daffodil and a hand-stamped card that says, “You seem upset lately; cheer up, I hope you feel better soon!”

As of 4.5 hours ago, I am officially on spring break. I took a Latin reading proficiency exam this morning. The passages I translated were about birds, tortoises, and the goddess Juno, and I will find out whether or not I passed in a week or so.

Below is a list of what I have read for one of my classes (Post-1945 American Novel) over the past month. I do not recommend any of them for pleasure-reading. Perhaps, after reading the list, it will not be difficult to imagine that a raincloud mood has been over my mind over the past few weeks.

I now have a heightened appreciation for an attempt to study the “Classics,” that is, books held up as the pinnacle of goodness, truth, and beauty in Western Civilization. The 20th Century marks a shift in Literary Studies from asking, “What is good literature?” to asking “What is literature?” Scholars’ theories about this second question sound so brilliant, it is easy to miss the fact that the question itself is far less meaningful than the first one.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955 (France) and 1958 (U.S.)
Upon finishing this novel, I felt like I had awakened from a nightmare. Our discussion in class was quite redemptive, and I can now appreciate Nabokov’s experiment with aesthetics and ethics (Can there be a beautiful book about an ugly thing? How can we write about horrific events?); in a way, it is a book about the Holocaust and about the dehumanizing effects of materialism. In another–more overt–way, it is about pedophilia.

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith, 1955
This book was entertaining, even hilarious at times. Highsmith writes a complex and endearing character, Tom Ripley. But he is a psychopath and a murderer; the author’s ability to make readers cheer for him paves the way for shows like Dexter and novels/films like American Psycho, not to mention the works of Quentin Tarantino. Highsmith certainly had her own demons, and she manipulates readers into liking a violent and narcissistic man. In a way, this demonstrates her skill; in a way, I better understand why so many people used to go to the Colosseum.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957
This book about men dropping off the economic grid to take several road trips across America is an icon of 60s American culture. It also demonstrates misogyny, not to mention irresponsibility. However, I admire the attempt to escape the mindset of materialism. One way to read this novel is as a metaphor for the Buddhist spiritual journey: the characters seek an absence of desire, embodied in their time on the road, which is like a meditative state during which who they are and what they need does not matter–there is only the road; when they stop, the desires and needs come crashing back in the forms of jail, starvation, sex, drugs, and a desperate search for “It” (i.e. meaning). This books shows characters dreaming of a life free from the cares of money, a house, and possessions; in the 50+ years since it was published, we seem to have lost all characters who want such a thing. Of course, the parent inside all of us cautions, such a dream is unreasonable–they should grow up. Yes, they should. But growing up entails more than earning a lot of money.

Rabbit, Run, John Updike, 1960
Apparently, Updike wrote this book to demonstrate what actually happens when a man follows Kerouac’s dream and drops out. This man, Rabbit, happens to be married. But he leaves his pregnant wife, has an affair, and spends two months attempting to find a life with more meaning. He is perhaps the most frustrating character I have encountered in literature–completely un-self-conscious and delusional about religion, society, and women. Also, after reading this book, I had a nightmare in which John Updike attacked me. Yes.

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath, 1963 (UK), 1971 (U.S.)
The story of a high-achieving, intelligent young woman’s descent into depression and suicide attempts, this book is a memoir of Plath’s own experiences, only slightly fictionalized (Plath committed suicide a month after the book’s UK publication). There’s an attempted rape, electroshock therapy, blood, and babies in jars. Circa The Feminine Mystique, Plath gives voice to feelings of desperation among women who longed for something more than an identity as wife/mother. Plath decided her only option was suicide. I am trying to say something about this that sums up the dislike, awe, and pity I feel about Plath’s book without sounding condescending…I am glad women authors today can write about something besides depression and bleeding.

Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion, 1970
Joan Didion is famous for her nonfiction. A collection of her essays from the 1960s, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, is one of my favorite books, and I also enjoyed her memoir about the year after her husband’s death, A Year of Magical Thinking. However, this novel was one of the most depressing pieces I have ever encountered. Didion skillfully shows the complexity of her characters’ situations as well as the decadence of 1960s Hollywood. However, the vivid descriptions of physical and verbal abuse, a traumatic illegal abortion, substance abuse, marital troubles, loss of family members, and superficiality caused me to ask the question I have asked after finishing every novel for this class: “Why?”
Why was this written?
Why are we studying it?
Why did I just spend x amount of hours reading it?

To be fair, these novels portray the problems and struggles of the times in which they were written. However, this reflects the shift from prescriptive to descriptive thought in the field of English Literature. Is all that matters the fact that it is someone’s story? If this were the case, nonfiction would be far more valuable than fiction. No, fact and description cannot be the primary purpose of literature. More on this tomorrow.

Answers: Living Fully

“I miss you madly and it’s raining on the coast.”
–Yellowcard, “Rivertown Blues”
“This Southern air is in my lungs; it’s in every word I’ve sung.”
–Yellowcard, “Southern Air”

It’s funny what a line of poetry can do to a person.
I was driving around campus, trying to find a parking space, when all of a sudden I found myself covered in goosebumps, struck by the beauty of the rhyme.
Ryan Key singing lyrics over an electric violin and (incredible) drums doesn’t sound like Rilke or Wordsworth (and I will admit, my poetry education has been sparse), but it is poetry.

As my previous post displayed, sometimes I am steeped in difficult realizations about my character, my insecurities and flaws; I am overshadowed by unhappiness, crippled with worries, and disturbed by my failures.
Anyone else?
In the midst of these times, I am searching for a way out.

“Gratitude is inclusive. As psychoanalyst Eric Erikson once noted, there are only two choices: integration and acceptance of our whole life-story, or despair.”
–Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust

It is absolutely absurd how life goes up and down. As Stephanie May wrote so eloquently earlier this month (http://thelipstickgospel.com/2014/02/18/falling-back-in-love-with-yourself/), in times of insecurity and self-loathing, we must choose whether or not to make peace with one person we cannot get away from. Do we believe our value depends on our actions, our thoughts, or our feelings? Do we believe someone else’s opinion defines our worth? If so, it is only a matter of time before we fall into the belief that we are never going to be good enough, that our failure is inevitable.
Sooner or later, we all hit that point.
We can distract ourselves with food, tv, sleep, drugs, alcohol, parties, music, work, or working out. But, we cannot escape from ourselves, or from the One who knows all things, forever. Sooner or later, sitting up in bed when the house is dead quiet, or driving on the 210 freeway at 70 mph with the radio turned off, the deafening silence breaks over us like a wave; all of the distraction fades to the background and we face ourselves, flaws and all, in a gut- and heart-wrenching stillness.
Fleeing from an oppressive mistress, thirsting and starving in the desert with her only child, Hagar said, “You are the God who sees me.”

I have wrestled with writing this post for weeks. I have begun to move past the insecurity and sadness that was clouding my mind when I wrote the last post, but, as I attempt to articulate either an “answer” or instructions for “living fully,” as my title promises, I cannot.
Here is what I know: there is no answer to suffering; there is only a response.

Do we even want an answer, an explanation? I don’t. What I want is a response, a plan to follow, something that will work. I am not asking, “Why is this happening?” but rather, “What do I do now?” I want a way out of the darkness of the valley of the shadow, I want a path paved with hope, and I want a hand to hold as I climb toward the light of the dawn.

“The human race is filled with passion…poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
Dead Poet Society

As one of my professors reminds all of the freshmen who take his class, the word “passion” originated from the Latin word for suffering (e.g. The Passion of the Christ). Thus, to love or to live with passion is to suffer.
C.S. Lewis puts it another way, writing in The Four Loves, “To love is to be vulnerable.” For, as Brene Brown points out in her incredible TedTalk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o), human cannot selectively numb. When we are open to the overflowing happiness of love or service, authenticity and kindness, honesty and curiosity and wonder, we are also open to the entire spectrum of human emotion, including sadness, jealousy, anger, fear, and discontent. If we decide we cannot bear the shadows along with the light, we lose both; when we numb ourselves through substances and distractions, we find our lives are gray and shallow. Boredom, ennui, and irritation loom around every corner. Mediocrity hovers on the brink of meaninglessness and depression, but the idea of reaching for something deeper, for the authenticity that requires looking at our true selves (and knowing the eyes of Another, the Perfect One, are on us) seems impossibly terrifying.

But there is a way.
For me, the escape route begins with gentleness.
I begin to experience love and beauty: my brother offers to buy me dinner, I drink coffee with cream at a dear friend’s apartment, I see the starry night sky over Malibu, I hear a beautiful song lyric.
The gentleness of God is His attribute that, when revealed, can make me weep like a child.
There is a doxology repeated throughout the Old Testament (ironically, these books are often stereotyped as stories about a God of justice whose love is absent until the New Testament): “The Lord is compassionate and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love.

For me, the next step on the escape route is gratitude.
Gently, God has been lavishing gifts on me, and I begin to notice and to give thanks. I start realizing these may not be coincidences, and I dare to look for more evidence that God loves me; not in a general, He-loves-all-people way, but the intimate I-know-everything-about-you way of a best friend, a parent, a lover, a sister.
When I heard the Yellowcard lyrics, pieces of the gentle weekend preceeding that moment fell into place. I remembered a dozen little gifts I had received, experiences of things I adore. I heard the still, small Voice whisper, “But you see beauty.”
This is the response, not from you or from me, but from God. As we cry, Jesus, it hurts; Jesus, this is too difficult for me; Jesus, I cannot help anyone, not even myself; God responds, “But you…”
He tells us who we are.

Here is what I know: the love of God is overwhelmingly broad, but it is also intensely personal.
Until we recognize this, until we know God’s love through experience, not just in theory, we remain steeped in insecurity and guilt. Knowing we are loved and are the recipients of numberless gifts changes us; we want others to know this love, and we begin to care for them not out of obligation, but out of deep joy and gratitude. Compare this with the “should” that peppers our speech, the guilt that says we should be happy, we should help other people, we should do more. “Should” means we do not know it; we do not know we are loved, accepted, valuable, capable of helping others, formed for a purpose.

Look for the gentleness and for the gifts, for they will lead you to gratitude, and Jesus says, Seek and you will find.
Read the words below; they are poems written for us, the beloved.

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise…
I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.

Isaiah 43:18-21, 25

O afflicted one, storm-tossed, and not comforted,
I am about to set your stones in antimony,
and lay your foundations with sapphires.
I will make your pinnacles of rubies, your gates of jewels,
and all your wall of precious stones.
All your children shall be taught by the Lord,
and great shall be the prosperity of your children.
In righteousness you shall be established;
you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear;
and from terror, for it shall not come near you.
If anyone stirs up strife, it is not from me;
whoever stirs up strife with you shall fall because of you.
See it is I who have created the smith who blows the fire of coals,
and produces a weapon fit for its purpose…
No weapon that is fashioned against you shall prosper,
and you shall confute every tongue
that rises against you in judgment.
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord
and their vindication from me, says the Lord.

Isaiah 54:11-17

Questions on (Un)Happiness: I have climbed the craig and walked in the mire, so now can I get what I want?

Here I am a week and a half after all that lovely processing, and still I feel like I am reeling from the transitions. Not knowing what is going to happen is my least favorite thing in the world. But I want to keep writing through this as I sort it out. I began writing a post last week, but it lapsed into a description of some women I admire, and I then abandoned the post entirely and wrote letters to the women instead.

I thought about these women, and read my books, and felt wave after wave of heavy emotion flood over my spirit. And now, I have some questions.

Question #1 Is life going to get harder or easier, better or worse?

It is so easy to have the mindset that once we arrive at the next step, life will be easier. Once we graduate or marry or get that job, have a few children, buy a house, add enough to the retirement fund, go on that trip, etc. etc. then we will have arrived, that is, we will be happy. But with the graduation comes the uncertain future, with the marriage comes the adjustment of living and becoming one with another person; the job brings stress and desire for further advancement or a different path; the children bring all kinds of worries and troubles of their own, and now our hearts are tangled up with more people and we carry their problems around with us; the house’s roof needs replacing and the kitchen needs a remodel and the property taxes are too high; the money is never enough, and vacation after vacation ends in the let-down of back-to-the-grind Mondays.
And everyone is going to die, every single person we love, and also us, you and me. Sorry if that’s morbid, but let’s not kid ourselves here: we will lose everything we accumulate or become attached to in this life. Won’t we?

Question #2 How can I be happy?

Difficult circumstances are not only to be more painful in the moment than good times, but they also stick with us more vividly. It is easier to remember the bad things that have happened to us, the terrifying moments, the mean words spoken, the pain; it takes work to recall the beautiful, loving, joyful moments. I find myself less aware of those happy times until after they have ended, whereas when I am suffering I am acutely aware all the while that it hurts. So already it seems that–unless I live an unusually charmed life–the odds are in the favor of unhappiness overshadowing happiness

I read this quote from a marriage book about how marriage isn’t to make you happy, it’s to make you holy. It reminded me of that sinking feeling I always get when I read John Piper. That sinking feeling is guilt; it is the we are lowly worms theology, we are worthy of damnation theology, and so we should be content with misery because God didn’t have to save us in the first place and is this not better than burning in hellfire? etc. And yet, one of the first things I learned from the catechism (I am appealing to orthodoxy here) is that the “chief end” of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. I know through experience that there is a solemnity that comes over us when we encounter the Divine–even a fear; even if God loves us more than we can imagine, he also loves all those people we run around ignoring and betraying and lying to and judging and cutting off in traffic and wishing to be dead. If we face any kind of true Goodness and Perfection, we realize how different–how apart and other–such a thing or Being is from us (which is what holiness means). In the face of the Right, we see ourselves horribly wrong, and not just if we’re murderers. But is that the mindset we are supposed to live in?

What I meant to get into here was the question of happiness, and my point is that some theology mixed with self-loathing and insecurity can set us down the path of “I’m not actually supposed to be happy; I’m supposed to be holy (i.e. guilty and ashamed until I pull myself together and start getting it right).” This becomes an explanation for our misery. But I don’t think that’s the answer. Jesus said he came so our joy could be full and complete, and Paul says God’s peace is beyond understanding, and the famous “Beatitudes” of Christ say “blessed are the…” which is actually “happy are the…” Literally, the Greek word means happy, and not an abstract joy, either; it is the word for happiness based on positive circumstances.

So I have been thinking about this “full” and “complete” business, words Jesus uses to describe life and joy if we’re walking his way; and I have been thinking about the “happy are the…” lines, especially, “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Brennan Manning writes (in a book that may actually save my life if it doesn’t kill me first, Ruthless Trust) that the basic premise of biblical trust is “the conviction that God wants us to grow, to unfold, and to experience fullness of life. However, this kind of trust is acquired only gradually and often through a series of crises and trials” (p. 9). All of these words seem to be saying that the only way to be happy is to be miserable first. Is that the truth?

Does this seem a little shallow?

Maybe you really are a better person than I am. But I am fairly certain that you want to be happy, that if pressed, in your heart of hearts, if someone asked you what your goal in life is, you would answer like Beyonce: “To be happy.”

I mean, what is the point of all this if we are depressed the whole time? And so many of us are depressed. Our generation is–as Brene Brown points out in her incredible TedTalk on vulnerability–the most medicated, overweight, and addicted generation in American history. We are numbing ourselves to pain; we cannot bear to feel the feelings because they threaten to swallow us up. We cannot bear to look at ourselves honestly; we are drowning in self pity and we are struggling to keep our masks on–even as we complain about how fake, insecure, and full of complaints other people are.

I am reading Brennan Manning’s Ruthless Trust and wondering what it would mean to know that God’s love goes beyond the good and bad things that happen to me; what if I could trust him in my times of unhappiness–to say like Job, that if I accept good from God’s hands I must accept bad also. How many of us have heard that “becoming a Christian doesn’t mean your life will be perfect” and believed the words in our heads, but have sunk to our knees in anguish close to despair when the raw tragedies of life land on our shoulders?
Somewhere along the way, the gap between “Jesus loves me” and “Though he slay me, yet I will trust in him” must be filled. 
The question is this: how?

A Note: The tragedies of life can be objectively large like a cancer diagnosis, the loss of a loved one, or unemployment; or, they can be smaller, more personal, like a breakup, a difficult season at work or school, moving to a new city, or an emotional dark cloud over our heads like loneliness, depression, moodiness, or anger. I am not trying to paint my struggles as more dramatic than they are, but as the saying goes: to the man who has the toothache, it is the most terrible pain in the world. Each soul knows its own suffering (and suffering, as defined by Elisabeth Elliot, is having something you don’t want or wanting something you don’t have). And so, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a heavy load.”

Films Watched Since Last Post:
Take the Lead (2006)
Blue Jasmine (2013)
Blackboard Jungle (1955)
Step Up (2006)
Dallas Buyers’ Club (2013)
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Schindler’s List (1993)

Books Currently Reading:
Is Reality Secular? Mary Poplin
The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, Syrie James
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, J.D. Salinger
Ruthless Trust, Brennan Manning
The Program Era, Mark McGurl
Reading Degree Zero, Roland Barthes

Transition as Twister: I am the Wicked Witch of the East with a house on my head

Over the past three weeks I’ve flitted across nine of these United States (Washington, Michigan, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and California).
I’m currently in the Honnold/Mudd Library (of the Claremont Colleges), having procrastinated on sporcle.com (the geography quizzes are my DOC…I can now name all the countries of Africa) for at least an hour, loathing myself. And all the college students said, “Amen.”

It’s my last semester of formal study for the foreseeable future. This semester, the to-do list looks something like this (in no particular order):
-Get real A’s in both classes. The grading scale in graduate school equates A, A-, B+, and B- with the traditional A, B, C, and D, respectively; those with any intention of applying for a Ph.D. program, take note.
-Pass the Latin exam. Otherwise, no degree for me. My frugal choice to study on my own instead of taking a class means my success depends on self-discipline. Lord, have mercy.
-Make school a priority while also working at my part-time job as much as possible. I have heretofore found it impossible to both work my max of 20 hours per week while also completing my reading in a manner which befits a graduate scholar of English literature.
-Get a real job for post-grad life. With graduation looming, so are my loans, three close friends’ weddings over the summer, not to mention living expenses. WHERE I’ll be living depends on the job, but hopefully Claremont or Seattle.

I began the semester by reading Minima Moralia by Theodor Adorno (for the class, “Style of Theory”) and Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (for the class “American Novel post-1945). I also discovered the fantasy and fairy tale section of the library (directions to which read like something out of a fairy tale: on the seventh level of the stacks, in the most southeastern corner, there are six shelves of wonder), and so I also read Lois Lowry’s The Giver and C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
For those of you who have yet to read (or hear of) Adorno (like I was until last week), he is a mastermind. A German Jew exiled during WWII, he wrote Minima Moralia as an attempt to grapple with questions about life after the Third Reich. What does philosophy–the search for truth, meaning, and humanity–look like after the atrocities committed by the Nazis? It was Adorno who famously asked if there can be poetry after Auschwitz. Heavily influenced by Marx and Hegel, Adorno confronts not only the dehumanizing effects of Fascism, but also of Capitalism’s attempt to commodify everything. A bourgeois intellectual himself, he attempts to justify his existence as distinct from the proletariat against the language and practices of Nazi Germany. Embittered at life in Los Angeles and the anti-intellectual snobbery of Americans, he insists that the simple speech so prized in this country is stupid–that complex thought requires complex speech, and anything less is conformity to the language of commerce and thus dehumanizing. Throughout the book, which is utterly and completely worth the time it takes to read (Adorno refuses to allow you to read quickly. Reading for comprehension, I had to slow to the speed at which I would read aloud–and did, in fact, read much of it aloud), Adorno writes some of the most striking, witty, brilliant, and radical lines, including the famous, “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime.”

The discipline of reading slowly is not something easily attained. And yet, one cannot grapple with important ideas without it. That’s why I laced my reading of Minima Moralia with children’s books instead of pushing through without paying close attention. While all of this sounds rather noble and competent, I’ve also, unfortunately, filled my days with watching movies.
Perhaps some of you know that the easiest way to live as a nomad is to remain as numb as possible. What I mean is, moving around the country is a recipe for heartbreak, and the easiest solution is to limit attachment to anyone. Me, I love people in Seattle, Claremont, Azusa, Arizona, a U.S. Air Force base, and London. Leaving any and all of them is enough to break your heart. I understand, now, the appeal of living in one city from childhood until death: most of your people remain close.
When I studied abroad for a semester in England, I remember one young woman from my university arguing for not making any English friends; she said she would feel too guilty for leaving them when she returned to the States. Me, I spent a lot of time with a Northern Irish girl I met who’s made of the other half of my soul, and spent six months crying over losing her when I returned to Seattle.
So, after the latest transition, I’ve been numbing with sleep and movies. But I agree with Brene Brown that you cannot selectively numb. We medicate and self-medicate with all kinds of substances, sensations, and distractions, but we find ourselves emptier for it. In The Giver, SPOILER ALERT the people have lived without pain for so long that to encounter even a few experiences of it sends Rosemary into despair and suicide. And yet, Jonas knows with ever fiber of his being that a life of color, love, sunshine, and searing pain is preferable to the gray sameness of his community END SPOILERS. And so it is with me, the one with “all the feels” as my brother James would say.

And I’m going to write here as I work through the transition and the slow, important readings, if only because unexpressed grief, pain, and loneliness are the most damaging. There is a reason for the teaching, “Weep with those who weep; rejoice with those who rejoice.” There is a reason why the “Talking Cure” actually worked sometimes, and why freshman girls tell each other everything. Sharing pain and joy with others is the only way to live well. Sharing stories is what humans do. Without these practices, everything is meaningless, money, and despair.
If that sounds overdramatic, blame Adorno; he’ll start with something like, “It’s now considered rude to ask how someone’s health is” and conclude with, “And then they started incinerating an entire race.” And it’s not ridiculous. Our small refusals to acknowledge one another’s humanity grow into genocide. That is how the world is–look around. Those who lead oppressive regimes and commit atrocities are not of an alien species. Read the Eichmann Trials: they are men and women “following orders.”

Other Works read over the last week (only the first two in full; bits and pieces of the rest):
“The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson
“Hiroshima,” John Hersey
The War Complex: World War II in Our Time, Marianna Torgovnick
Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, Michael Walzer
Letters to a Young Poet, Ranier Maria Rilke
Ruthless Trust, Brennan Manning
Isaiah, Psalms, Proverbs, Philippians

Holocaust Films watched in the last week:
Night and Fog (1955)
Life is Beautiful (1997)
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)
Schindler’s List (1993)

Other Films watched in the last week (Dimitte me, quia peccavi. I told you I was in my numbing phase):
Catch Me if you Can (2002)
Skyfall (2012)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Silver Linings Playbook (2013)
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
All About Eve (1950)

Quote of the week:
“In the abstract conception of universal wrong, all concrete responsibility vanishes.”–Theador Adorno, Minima Moralia
I offer the above as my explanation as to why we are–as a culture–obsessed with television shows full of bad characters. If everyone is bad, we are absolved from guilt.
Adorno goes on to say this (in Part One, entry 4, “Final Serenity”):
“The blackguard presents himself as a victim of injustice: if only you knew, young man, what life is like. But those conspicuous midway through life by an exceptional kindness are usually drawing advances on such serenity. He who is not malign does not live serenely but with a peculiar chaste hardness and intolerance. Lacking appropriate objects, his love can scarcely express itself except by hatred for the inappropriate, in which he admittedly comes to resemble what he hates [notice how the chaste and intolerant characters on television eventually prove themselves either hypocrites or hateful, or both]. The bourgeois, however, is tolerant. His love of people as they are stems from his hatred of what they might be.”

Step One: Stop Reading

I spent most of the month of August reading and thinking about reading.  I was craving some time alone and some time outside; neither of those desires are typical for me.  I would come home from work, drop my keys and phone on the bed, and go outside with a book, a journal, and a pen.

I spent a lot of time watching the leaves blow in the wind, or staring at the sky.  I read a post by Shauna Niequist on Storyline, and I remembered something Frederick Buechner wrote about the difference between being lazy and slothful—that people who spend time watching bumblebees may actually be doing something quite important.*  For Buechner, the sin of slothfulness more closely corresponds to the zombie-like busyness many of us slip into: going through the motions of life instead of actually living.

I was feeling pretty good about myself.  After all, I was really living the contemplative life.  And I finished five books in three weeks!  And then, just as I was deciding what books to read during the last ten days of summer, I had this thought: maybe I should stop reading.

Ok, that was strange. 

The first time I heard of taking a break from reading, I was in an undergraduate class reading Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.  She writes about the benefits of living a week without reading.  When I read her suggestion, however, I completely ignored it.  STOP reading for a week?  I was trying to stop watching TV so I could read MORE. 

But this time, when I thought of taking a week away from reading, I felt differently about it.  My three months away from academia were nearly over, and I was still feeling like I wanted a break.  I decided to try it.

And so, immediately after creating a blog to track my thoughts about what I read, I’m here to say that for me the first step was to stop reading.  And I am not simply talking about books; I stopped reading online articles, and I (nearly) stopped reading my facebook newsfeed.  Magazines, memes, mail—anything that was not necessary to keep my job went unread for a week. (Ok, I did flip through and Us Weekly on day six, but that was 70% accident.)

There were two beautiful things that happened to me during this time. 

The first is that my mom and sister came to visit me, and we spent four days going on adventures.  Setting aside my reading for a week allowed me to be fully engaged in the experiences we shared (including a trip to Disneyland and to Thousand Steps Beach in Laguna). 

The second is that I went to a class on Mindfulness taught by Dr. Jeremy Hunter.  He practices Zen meditation and teaches a class on self-management at CGU.  Hunter describes life as a series of moments, each moment consisting of three things: a physical sensation, an emotional response, and a thought or story behind it all.  Mindfulness is about recognizing that none of these three things defines you as a person–not even your thoughts.  Meditation is a matter of recognizing we are in a rushing river of experience and information so that we can step out of this river and watch it.  When we do this, we begin to distinguish what our true identity and place is.  I would call this prayer: stepping away from daily life and connecting with the God who is our source–reminding ourselves that possessions, emotions, hormones, illnesses, successes, griefs, relationships, and worries do not define us.

By the end of my week without reading, my mind was much clearer than it has been in quite some time.  I realized that too often I take on the arguments and problems of the literature I encounter, and it weighs on me.  Maybe for you it’s not what you read; it’s what you watch, listen to, or the people you work with.  We all take in elements of our environments each day, and we often start slipping into the mindset that they define us.  It takes courage to sit in silence, breathe, and focus on letting go of all of those elements.  It takes courage to believe there may be something deeper, and to be alone without distractions long enough to search for it.

As I have eased back into the lifestyle of heavy reading that is part of being an English M.A. student, I have been attempting to make time in my schedule to experience life outside my studies the way I did when my mom and sister were here, and also to take a few minutes each day and be mindful through prayer.

I would encourage you to do the same; step out of the river that is stressing you out, that is starting to define you, and engage with life in a different way, free from distraction.  You could go for a walk without headphones in, drive home from work with the music off, go somewhere beautiful and enjoy it with a loved one, or take ten minutes to focus only on your breathing.  Whatever you do, I hope you feel the refreshment and clarity I did after my week without reading.


*You can read Shauna Niequist’s post here: http://storylineblog.com/2013/08/28/why-you-should-waste-some-time-today/

And Frederick Buechner’s chapter, “Sloth” can be found in his book Wishful Thinking: a Seeker’s ABC

Why I am trying to move away from the introvert/extrovert debate

Introvert/extrovert articles have been all over the place lately, but why are we so quick to throw ourselves into a two-category, us-vs.-them personality box? I love personality tests and the books and articles about the variables that make up who we are (see the list at the end of this post for what I’ve been reading lately on the subject). But I have found the best ones have many different categories and always emphasize that people are too complex to perfectly fit in them.

Not all writers are introverts. There are incredibly shy extroverts. Some of the most sociable people you know are introverts. An inability to spend much time alone may mean we’re hiding from ourselves with distractions and busyness, not necessarily extroverted. I am an off-the-charts extrovert and I also love to read and write and have been called an “old soul” countless times; I’m the child of an incredibly social introvert and a shy extrovert. And perhaps I’m feeling defensive because it’s trendy to be an introvert right now. But this attempt to stop stereotyping seems to be churning out quite a few lists of detailed points with which to stereotype.

Should you understand whether or not hours of mingling stress you out or recharge you–and the same for hours of alone time? Absolutely; it’s good for your soul. We should seek to know when we feel off-balance and find tools to remedy that, because our lives invariably consist of a mixture of some time alone and some time with other people. But isn’t everyone is a walking contradiction in one way or another when it comes to personality types?
Does our obsession with the introvert/extrovert debate help or hinder us as we try to see each person as a complex, unique individual, worthy of notice?

Reading inspiration for this post:
StrengthsFinder 2.0 (http://www.amazon.com/StrengthsFinder-2-0-Tom-Rath/dp/159562015X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1377285460&sr=8-1&keywords=strengthsfinder+2.0)