Reflections on Illness and Naming
What you will read below is a time capsule—containing some of some of my earlier writing. It is a continuation of previous reflections.
In the first volume of Marcel Proust’s, In Search of Lost Time, one of the characters introduced is the up-and-coming socialite, M. Swann. He often visited the Proust’s country home in Combray when the former was a child. It was on such a visit to his home that M. Swann responds to an off-color attempt by another character, Proust’s Aunt Flora, to tell him that “she had read [a] note about [him] in the [paper].”
Aunt Flora responds to M. Swann’s discussion of a particularly good first-person journal account and his subsequent juxtaposition of this journal to the “tedious journals we feel bound to read morning and evening.”
“I don’t agree with you: there are some days when I find reading the papers very pleasant indeed,” my aunt Flora broke in… […]
“I don’t deny it,” answered Swann in some bewilderment. “The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day, whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance.”
Imagine, “Only three or four books.”
The Paris Review noted “the first half of Proust’s fairy tale, In Search of Lost Time,” among a list of what Vladamir Nabakov considered to be the best literature; I may have to agree with Nabakov. How true, yet how unfortunate, is M. Swann’s observation? “Only three or four books.”
I feel so small and unfortunate at this seemingly solid number. My melancholy at this great delimiting truth of the life of the mind, that we can only have so many core-texts throughout our entire lives, is both understandable and foolish. I have yet to uncover what implications this nugget of wisdom has for my life. But I thought about other things in connection with this, too.
I was reminded of the real problem of information saturation and then, of a related problem… Oxford defines infomania as “the compulsive desire to check or accumulate news and information, typically via mobile phone or computer.” I was made aware of this after I read an interesting article in the Los Angeles Times discussing this issue.
From the article,
“Psychologists have done studies on the negative effects of multitasking and decision fatigue, but the long-term consequences of this kind of information overload is unknown. In a survey done a few months ago by the digital mapping and analytics company Esri UK, 61% of respondents called “the need to read and keep track of information from too many sources” a serious concern in their daily lives and 45% said that “the stress of data overload has affected either their sleep or relationships with family or colleagues.” Fully a third of respondents reported that they had difficulty absorbing the content from all the emails, social media posts, news and documents they encountered.”
Suffice it to say that this past year has been my year of “infomania.” And, as some of my friends will recall, I posted about my “decision” on Facebook—that I’d leave my account untouched for a few weeks while I prepared for my spring quarter final exams at UCLA. I find it pitiful, and needless to say somewhat amusing, that I only managed to rack up two days and some-odd hours off the site.
I chalk it up to being a contrarian that I was able to delete both my Snapchat and Instagram accounts with ease, but have wavered significantly with the time-vortexes that are Facebook and Twitter, which seem to be declining in popularity. Indeed, Wired ominously warns of Twitter’s risk of “becoming the Bing of social media.” The Washington Post says that teens are leaving Facebook because it is allegedly “meaningless.” Unpopular as they may be, these sites consume too much time in my life to be healthy. But I suppose this is more of personal marginalia than a cry for help; it’s not truly problematic. As any broken person, if it was truly an uncontrollable problem I wouldn’t be talking about it in public. Well, at least I wouldn’t be.
What I’ve been convicted of recently is the lack of time in my life to just stop doing things. I’m reminded of Adorno’s critique of the culture industry and his call to spend my bourgeois “leisure time” cultivating myself. I’m also reminded of the prude, Jean, in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and his incessantly Sartrean calls for personal responsibility. Like Beranger, Jean’s conversation partner, those calls inevitably fall on deaf ears for me. I don’t want to do anything, not even sit still and not do anything. I’m so burned out that I can’t be burned out correctly.
Furthermore, I was reminded of a video produced by the YouTube channel, “The School of Life.” The video is entitled, “In Praise of The Quiet Life.” It reminds us that “busy lives do turn out to have high incidental costs that we often ignore.” For example, “we have very little control over our time once we reach a certain position within society.” Indeed, “we may be able to shut down a factory in India…but what we can not do is admit that we’re really tired, and just want to spend the afternoon reading on the sofa.”
I do, too. If M. Swann is right, would I meaningfully count the Bible as one of my three or four books? Yes, I would. But not in the sense that Swann is talking about… I think he means a real engagement—a genuine life-defining, character setting, existentially contextual collection of texts that go with you everywhere, at all times. This has certainly been true in my walk with God, but not as much recently—and this is very troubling.
It’s not that I feel at a distance from God, but I’m going through the up-end of a bout of acedia (spiritual sloth), and thankfully I see the end of the tunnel. I don’t know what my books are, and I’m really tired. Everything is so loud around me, and I’m ready for a break. The noise of the city and the necessary infomania of post-industrial bourgeois life have distorted my understanding of the everyday and the ordinary. I’m in want of the normal patterns and currents of the devotional life that is found when we are covenanted to Christ.
2016 has been a challenging year for me, but this past month has been a gift to me. If ever I could say that I saw God in the face of my friends, and one in particular (thank you Mitch), this is the time where such an assessment would be appropriate. Never have I ever had so much demanded of me, and never have I ever so terrifyingly sabotaged my own sanctification by making myself so crazy busy. The support of brothers and sisters in Christ in the midst of the trauma of the everyday and before the face of the ugliness of failed-urbanity is the only way I could’ve made it through this year without falling apart.
I didn’t set out to write an elegy to spiritual friendship, but I always seem to end up there. I’m saturated with information, I’m overworked and sickly, and I’m flat-out tired. I should have planned summer to be a time of rest for me, but of course, I’m taking an 8-week intensive German language class because of the language requirement of the graduate schools I’m interested in applying to. I’m thankful, however, that I’ll get a break after that point—at least to some extent.
But then, there’s a weird knot I have in my stomach… Do I really want the quiet life? Do I disagree with Proust? Can I have more than four books? I don’t know. But maybe not knowing, and accepting the ambiguity of things at such an uncertain period of my life, is part of what it means to let go and trust God, while living in the moment and engaging in the community in which Christ has placed me. Maybe healing begins where my suffering is less obvious and more mournful, less intense but more passionate. Perhaps we can start a serious conversation about healing the wounds in our lives when we confess what it is that is truly wounding us.
What are the books in your life?
“I’ll join with black despair against my soul, / And to myself become an enemy.” – Richard III
“I’m glad Jesus came / Glory to His name / Oh what a Friend is He / He so freely gave / His own life to save / From bonds of sin set free.” – Iris Dement, “I’ve Got that Old Time Religion in My Heart”
I’ve been a student at UCLA for the past three years and in September, I’ll begin my senior year. Since the spring, I have been working on my honors thesis. However, recently I learned that I will no longer be able to pursue this project (for reasons I’d rather not discuss). Hearing this news was not particularly pleasant—in fact I was heartbroken. The weight of crushing disappointment can wear off quickly, though, and in this case, it did. But one mustn’t forget that disappointment is rarely ever a loner. Accelerated disappointment is a compounding malady—it often intensifies preexisting trauma and grief.
A few months ago, at the completion of a wellness program, I finally decided to stop taking all anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. This included the medication I had been taking to treat my Fibromyalgia. My prayer was that the pain wouldn’t return—unfortunately it did, but thankfully not to the extent that I experienced before.
Perhaps more worrying to me—more than the return of physical pain—is the fact that I’ve clearly perceived the person I am without medication. The beauty of mood-altering medications for me was that they masked the unpleasantness that occupies my engagement with virtually everyone and everything other than myself—there’s a special sort of unpleasantness reserved for myself.
My life since then has been a psychological war against bitterness and resentment. I sought, as Sandra McCracken cried out in “Forgiveness,” after “grace to be someone other than this.” I needed, and still need, God “to explain forgiveness,” to me once again. I thought so much about not getting burned out, but I can’t seem to satiate my own conscience unless I am masochistically flaming the ashes of my burned-out wick.
But I’m at a moment in my life in which an abundance of options is causing severe paralysis. The future isn’t as clear as it was, and the world is grayer. Smiles are more difficult to muster up, and I don’t wish to speak as much or as often. Words often fail me, and I am again weak. I am again suffering, yet I am healing.
Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. — Exodus 24:9–11 (ESV)
We will feast with the Lord when he returns for his children. Today, even when we can stomach no food and no drink, we wait with eager anticipation for the Lord to begin his wedding feast. The Nicene Creed succinctly tells this old story:
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
“We look for the resurrection of the dead,” the creed says; in the Apostles’ Creed, “the resurrection of the body.” Our glorified bodies will feast with the Lord and the King shall return for his bride, even as she withers away.
At the intersection of physical pain, psychological trauma, and uncertainty about the future is a grace that sustains me in the midst of my deepest fears and most profound regrets about my past. The wellspring of my own strength, as I have come to realize, is not organic as a first principle, but comes from God. I can be towards-the-world only because the body and blood of God’s Son are tethered to the very corpuscles of my inner being. God is Being-towards-me, and I can therefore be myself towards-the-world.
The realization of this is a process; it is cognitive, but in my life—in recent months—has panned out to be viscerally experiential. New trials and troubles break the thresholds of what I thought were possible, and as my suffering worsens, I heal more and more. Perhaps an even more significant discovery of leaving some of my medications behind is that I see now that healing isn’t always physically or emotionally restorative. Healing, as far as God is concerned, is so much bigger than simply feeling or being better. What I mean is, we aren’t batteries with percentage-levels indicating our sanctification or spiritual energy. We are whole people who have to be brought low in the valleys to see the beauty and richness of the heights of the mountains. But the sharpness of the picture, the shades of luxurious color, get deeper and more complex after every battle—won or lost.
God will win the war, but we may lose every single battle. We aspire to closeness with God, but it is his covenant faithfulness that will bring us home. The strength to show up is the Gift of God, it is the gift of the King. Growing in the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of the Gift, is the truest and most robust definition of Healing I have ever come to know. God is Healing all of his children as we speak, and at his return they will all be healed.
On July 5 I visited Gurre Castle, where excavation of the ruins is now in progress. The castle itself…had a beautiful location, surrounded on all sides by forest. A very large stretch still exists, and the area suggests that at one time there was more. Then there’s Lake Gurre, quite long and proportionately not all that wide, with a thick beech forest on one side and on the other a forest of smaller, more stunted trees. The lake itself is in many places overgrown with rushes. When this landscape is viewed in the afternoon light and the sun is still high enough to give the necessary sharp contours to the friendly landscape, like a melodious voice accented sharply enough not to lisp, our entire surroundings seem to whisper to us, ‘It’s good to be here.’ It is the kind of familiar, intimate impression which a lake surrounded by forest (large enough to separate and unite at the same time) can produce but the sea cannot (Journal AA: 1-2; 1835).Søren Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks, 9 (to date) vols., vol. 1 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007), 6.
So wrote famed theologian-philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in his personal journal in 1835 while visiting the (then) newly excavated ruins of the Gurre Slot (Castle, in Danish). Kierkegaard compares the “friendly landscape” to a “melodious voice accented sharply enough not to lisp.” A feat of natural musical exposition could, for Kierkegaard, only play in a pleasing manner if one were to view it “in the afternoon light,” with the sun just so. The natural beauty of the lake near the Slot burst with a near-blinding ebullience that spoke truth to grace; the surroundings whispered to him, and to all who would come and listen, “It’s good to be here.”
Sometimes we are only able to hear a melodious voice when the sun is shining just right. Other times we may not hear a voice at all; perhaps there is no sun. I have been living in a silent night, as the inhabitants of Bethlehem had been doing for so many years. The in-breaking of the faithful one is the hope I look forward to in the deafening silence of chronic pain. When there is no hope left, we will surely perish.
Pass through water, and I will be with thee, so that the flood shall not drown thee; walk amid the flames, and thou shalt not be burnt, the fire shall have no power to catch thee. – Isaiah 43:2 (Knox)
God will be with us—always forever—both in the midst of adversity and in quotidian evanescence.
Reading over my writing and reflection about suffering and healing reminds me of how things have changed and of how things have stayed the same. I’ve recently graduated from UCLA, and I’m facing some rather important decisions… What to do with the next few years, for instance. I do have some options, one will learn more as time goes on.
I’ve been sitting on nostalgia, praying that the threads and traces of my memory don’t fly away, as wind picks up the lithe strands of a worn-out shirt. It’s an irony, I’ve found, that the obsessive journal keeping of my earlier days was intended to prevent such a flight, but my memories (the memories of a historian, no less!) have fallen into desuetude. Memory is a perennial theme in my research, as it should be in the work of any cultural historian. Its siren song, however, is some variety of gnostic access to a higher modality of thinking about things; what a specter this is! What a specter this is, vis-à-vis pain, vis-à-vis healing. Memory is only useful for the chronically ill man or woman as far as it reminds us of the subject and object of our faith, the faithful one, the liberating king, Jesus Christ.
Pain is something I live with—I manage it. Compartmentalized and medicated pain-management is my new normal, once again. The hard truths I learned about myself (about which you can read more in the second chapter, above) haven’t changed. I’ve gotten older, and perhaps more kind (only perhaps) as a result of becoming weary with myself and with the world; wearier, I mean to say. Akin to Jean Paul (Richter) and his Weltschmerz, no less. While the optimism one could have perhaps found in the first series (Suffering and the Promise) is dimmer in my own personal experience today, the lessons I’ve learned from very special people such as Marva J. Dawn haven’t left me.
The experiences of grief, loss, and pain with my personal circle of friends and family over the past year or so have given me a more seasoned perspective on what it means to live as a Christian, as a pilgrim. I’ve learned that the fundamental paradox of the Christian faith for those who are chronically ill is not that of belief or disbelief, theism or atheism, nor even joy or grief. The dialectic about which I am speaking is a vibrant paradox; it is even the will to belief, enmeshed in the trenches of blood, guts, and the indwelling movement of the Spirit as we march forward in the valley of vision; the opposition must be between despair and hope.
[Despair] is fundamentally an unwillingness to hope. This unwillingness is directed toward authentic hope[:]…an expectation for the possibility of the good. [Hope] is not simply an ancillary activity of the self; rather, the task of becoming a self is essentially constituted by hope. Thus, when in despair one is unwilling to hope, one is in fact rejecting one’s task of becoming a self. [Faith] stands in opposition to despair precisely because it is a willingness to hope. An essential role of faith is to secure the ground for hope, and in this way faith secures the ground for the self.Mark Bernier, The Task of Hope in Kierkegaard, (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2015), 3.
Remember what exactly is the sickness unto death. How may we speak in such a way, to dare to suggest that hope is the spiritual cure to physical illness? In the 11th chapter of St. John’s gospel, Jesus said to Martha, “Thy brother will rise again” (Knox).
“Martha said to him, I know well enough that he will rise again at the resurrection, when the last day comes. Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection and life; he who believes in me, though he is dead, will live on, and whoever has life, and has faith in me, to all eternity cannot die. Dost though believe this? Yes, Lord, she told him, I have learned to believe that thou art the Christ; thou are the Son of the living God; it is for thy coming the world has waited” (Knox).
It is for the coming of Jesus that the whole world has waited! He has come and he has risen! The sickness unto death is neither physical illness nor suffering of the highest degree. One musician has rendered the mournful celebration of Martha’s response to the Lord in this way:
“Oh, touch my heart and bid it know / That ev’ry sorrow here / Is but a moment’s tear, / And Thou wilt make me whole again.”
The sickness unto death is despair, and what an awful thing despair is. Jesus Christ is our only hope when nothing else remains. Our only foundation is the Lord himself; the communion of the saints our partners-in-suffering. The tears of the Virgin Mother, the wounds of the Lord, the groaning of the Spirit, the darkness of Gethsemane… We end where we began: come and see what the Lord has done, for me, for you, for us all!