“Experiences too deep for deception”

I’m reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, about a psychologist’s experience in a concentration camp. I was immediately struck by this quote from Gordon Allport’s preface:

[Living in the concentration camps,] how could he find life worth preserving? A psychiatrist who personally has faced such extremity is a psychiatrist worth listening to…..Dr. Frankl’s words have a profoundly honest ring, for they rest on experiences too deep for deception.

That sums up exactly why I wanted to read this book. I want to hear why life is worth living from someone who has seen the most suffering that life can offer. I want to hear from someone who can truly understand the temptation to suicide or despair. I don’t want to hear from someone who feels hopeful because they see some good that came out of their suffering, or some lesson that they learned from it, or because they see it as some form of discipline or redemptive suffering that will make sense from the viewpoint of heaven. I want to hear from someone who was able to find meaning and joy in the middle of absolute desolation.

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I first started thinking about this when I read this beautiful article by a woman who held her dying newborn. I was really captivated by it because she did not write about the happiness that came from knowing her daughter was going to heaven, or a positive outlook that allowed her to appreciate the few hours she had with her, or because she learned a spiritual lesson from her experience; instead, she was granted the grace of feeling the joy of heaven on earth, right in the middle of her suffering.

I was flooded with peace. I was filled with the deepest joy I have ever felt. I could not understand why sorrow and grief had occupied any inch of my body before that instant. This was a different world….We were right inside the heart of God.

To me, this was an assurance that the promise of joy is true. Because of her situation, this mother’s story was “too deep for deception.” I have never felt this joy, but I believe her, because the circumstances of her witness make it reliable. As she writes:

[I]f I could share only a sliver of what it felt and breathed and loved like in that NICU room, you would never again fear any doubt of the divine or the existence of an afterlife.

Even when I’m angry at God, I still love the saints. I love their witness of holy joy in every possible circumstance of life. I love Corrie Ten Boom, because she gives us this same assurance of the joy to come: “I’ve experienced His presence in the deepest darkest hell that men can create. I have tested the promises of the Bible, and believe me, you can count on them.” I love the apostles, because, as my mother once told me, the fact that they were willing to be martyred for their faith in Jesus shows their witness can be trusted. They must have seen it with their own eyes if they were willing to die for it, and pass their faith on to others. I love Laura Fanucci, the mother whose newborn died, because she shared with us her firm reason for hope in the midst of unspeakable suffering. And I am loving Viktor Frankl, for the hope he gives me. I’ll leave you with this beautiful image of Frankl’s wife, who became a vision of heaven for him:

Tilly Frankl

My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness….A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth–that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way–an honorable way–in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.

 

 

 

Image of Tilly Frankl on her wedding day: source

How is a love marriage like an arranged marriage?

Boy, that sounds like the beginning to a stupid pun. But actually, it’s my new article at Aleteia!

The ways we’ve changed have strained our marriage, but they haven’t broken it — because, as it turns out, our marriage wasn’t built on our original compatibility; it was built, like my Pakistani friend’s [arranged marriage], on our basic good will and love for each other, and on our commitment to marriage for life.

Our marriage really isn’t that different from hers after all.

Read the rest here!

Her Grief is Real

The photo and interview series Humans of New York recently did a group of stories on pediatric cancer, and the story of Max hit me especially hard. Like many of the others, it was a story of a child who died from pediatric cancer at age 7, as told by his mother; but unlike the others, his mother was in a lesbian relationship, and her son was conceived by IVF. She originally conceived twins, and aborted one of them “because I was scared at the time.” Now that her son is dead, she knows the decision to kill his twin “will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

What was your reaction on reading this story? I’ll be honest: I was crushed by the sorrow of it, but I also judged the mother. How could she have created her children so selfishly? How could she complain about one of them dying, when she purposely killed the other one? Why did she think it was a good idea to bring up children without a father? I almost felt as if she did not have a full right to her grief, because she wasn’t a real mother.

Then I kept reading. I saw tender details, like her memories of her son, the way she appreciated the tiniest pieces of his personality, the way she was unable to tell him he was dying, and blamed herself for not having the courage to do it. She was his mother. She suffered like a mother. She was as true a mother as any heterosexual, married, biological mother could be. Her grief was real.

To be merciful is to understand someone’s life, someone’s grief, as they understand it; not as you think it should be. To be merciful is to love Max’s broken, guilty mother, because she loved her son. Jesus have mercy.

(4/5) “I think I have post traumatic stress. I have so many horrible flashbacks. Two weeks after Max was diagnosed, he asked me if I’d be his Mommy forever. I said, ‘Of course I will.’ And he asked: ‘Even when I’m ninety?’ And I told him ‘yes.’ What was I supposed to say? And there were all the times he talked to me about the future. We’d talk about college. I just couldn’t tell him. God I was such a coward. I should have told him. I just couldn’t do it. Even toward the end. The day before he lost consciousness, I read his favorite book to him. It’s called Runaway Bunny. And the little bunny keeps threatening to run away. And the Mama bunny keeps saying: ‘Wherever you go, I will find you.’ Oh God, it was such a horrible way to die. He couldn’t speak or move or swallow or see. He basically starved to death. And the whole last week I’m whispering in his ear: ‘Let go, let go. Please Max, let go.’ My seven-year-old son. I’m telling him to let go. I mean, fuck. That’s not supposed to happen! And the whole time I never told him he was dying. I was such a coward. But he knew. He knew without me telling him. Because a couple weeks before he lost his speech, he asked me: ‘Mommy, do they speak English where I’m going?’” ——————————————————–Today is the last day of our fundraiser to aid Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in their fight against pediatric cancer. Over 65,000 people have donated and we’ve raised over $2.3 million so far. Max’s tumor is the same tumor that Dr. Souweidane is working on curing. (See previous story). In fact, Max was supposed to be part of Dr. Souweidane’s first clinical trial but he passed away too soon. I promised Julie that all money raised during the telling of Max’s story would be given to Dr. Souwedaine and his colleagues to aid in their DIPG research. The gift will be given in Max’s honor. Even if it’s a small amount, please consider donating. Link in bio.

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Image belongs to Humans of  New York on Instagram; I do not own this image.

 

“I don’t know who you are, but you’re welcome to stay.”

Ima and Marta

There have been a lot of comings and goings in our house lately, and my mother, who has Alzheimer’s, can’t keep up. She walked into the living room yesterday, saw my husband playing the piano, and said “oh, are you spending the night too? Well, I don’t know who you are, but you’re welcome to stay.”

Can you imagine being so generous? I’ve heard that when Alzheimer’s strips away everything else, it leaves the core personality. My grandmother, for instance, was reduced to one word near the end, but that word was “honey.” The doctor was impressed. “I’ve heard a lot worse words from Alzheimer’s patients,” he said. “Your grandmother must have been a loving woman.”

Earlier on, when my third baby was a newborn, I was changing her diaper and she peed all over the place. As I tried to gather clean clothes and mop up, she lay there, soaking wet and wailing. My mother rushed in and picked her up anyway. She couldn’t remember the baby’s name at that point, but it didn’t matter. She was a baby who needed to be held.

It seems that my mother has forgotten almost everything but how to love. There’s a high chance that I will get Alzheimer’s myself when the time comes, and I’m scared of what the disease will reveal at my core. I hope that, as with my mother, it will be love.

Tunnel of Love

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Tunnel of Love at the Reality Theme Park: “Here…you gotta dig your own…”

Pretty perceptive for a cheapo greeting card, right?  It doesn’t matter how much you love each other, or how virtuous you are, or how Catholic you are; marriage only works if you are constantly working on it.  What spoke to your wife when you were dating may not mean much to her now, and something that still screams “romance” to you may be just kind of embarrassing for your husband.  You have to sit down and have awkward conversations, and learn to use phrases that sound stilted and artificial to you.  You have to read cheesy self-help books, and it wouldn’t hurt you to log some preventative maintenance at the marriage counselor’s, either–even if you think your problems aren’t serious enough for therapy.  (More on this in a future post.)  Over the last five years, I’ve been constantly surprised by how much work marriage is.

In Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, the tunnel isn’t something you dig so much as something you have to survive, but his descriptions ring true to me.  The song uses an amusement park as an extended metaphor for a relationship, with distorting mirrors and a “room of shadows.”

…the lights go out and it’s just the three of us
You, me, and all that stuff we’re so scared of.

The tunnel is supposed to be a place where you have your lover all to yourself, under cover of darkness, but Springsteen points out that nobody comes without baggage.  There’s all kinds of things you don’t learn about someone until you live with them (and I don’t mean anything sinister!  People are just…complicated).  Sometimes the complications help you get closer, but sometimes they get in the way, or they were never really there at all–they’re just false projections from miscommunication:

There’s a crazy mirror showing us both in 5D
I’m laughing at you, you’re laughing at me.
There’s a room of shadows that gets so dark, brother,
It’s easy for two people to lose each other….

Springsteen laments the counter-intuitive nature of a relationship, which starts out so simply but gets so complicated just at the height of intimacy:
it ought to be easy ought to be simple enough
Man meets a woman and they fall in love
But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough
And you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above
if you want to ride on down in through this tunnel of love.

I’ve always been intrigued by the line “you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above.”  It sounds cynical–how can love turn into something you just have to “live with”?–but I don’t think that’s what he means.  The “tunnel”–the experience of real intimacy and commitment, with all its difficulties–is something you can’t “rise above.”  You have to go through.  When you’ve done everything you can to solve your problems, you are still two different people, and it’s never going to be entirely simple.  You have to live with it–embrace it as part of your life, instead of resenting it or pretending it’s not there.  Let me know if you find out what’s at the other end of the tunnel!