“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.

Auschwitz_survivor_displays_tattoo_detail.jpg

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

7QT: The Joy of Reading

No automatic alt text available.

The house I grew up in

My father is a college librarian, my mother’s a writer, and we ran an internet bookstore out of our house. We also lived right down the street from the library, so I was a book-a-day kid until I hit about 12. At that point I was reading so fast that I realized I was skimming, so I slowed down to make sure I was getting everything. In fact, I was so worried about skipping things that I got neurotic about it. I started reading and re-reading so slowly that pretty soon I would get burnt out, give up, and skim ahead to the end. I started to worry that I would only be able to read a very small amount of books in my lifetime, so I better pick them carefully. What a depressing thought!

The good news is that my mental health is so good these days that even my reading is healing! Not only can I focus and stay calm long enough to read at a normal pace, but I’m enjoying it like I haven’t since I was a kid. I’m re-discovering the joys of diving into a good book, getting lost in it, not being able to put it down. I’m so happy.

What are you reading these days? Here’s a fun little list to get you started. Let me know in the comments, or link to your post!

1. What book are you reading now?

With God in Russia by Father Walter Ciszek. What an astonishing read. I’m surprised that he doesn’t talk more about the spiritual battles he went through, trying to discern God’s will and providence in all his sufferings in prison and Siberia, but it’s thrilling and inspiring anyway. (I guess the sequel,He Leadeth Me, is more of a spiritual testament–that’s on my to-read list!) This is just a basic account of what his years in Russia were like, and you can get a good picture of his character and his faith by reading between the lines. He seems like a very observant person–the entertaining and infinitely varied descriptions of the priests, prisoners, interrogators, and guards keep the simple narrative interesting. I’m especially intrigued by his description of the difference between the political prisoners and the actual criminals, and the various ways the Russians dealt with the discrepancy between the ideal of the communist state and the reality.

I’m also working my way through A Fiber Artist’s Guide to Color and Design, a really fantastic book which my husband got me for Christmas. Very simple and unpretentious, lavishly illustrated with quilts and other fiber arts, and covers everything from basic color and design theory to skills specific to quilting. There are several specific “assignments” at the end to put what you’ve learned into practice. I love designing quilts, but I don’t have a great eye for color, and this book has been wonderful so far.

2. What book did you just finish?

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown. This book was extremely helpful for me. It’s about how to stop being driven by fear and shame: how to live up to your potential and your ideals without worrying about what others think of you, or what you think you’re supposed to be like. There’s a really good section on the pressures that men and women face to live up to cultural stereotypes, but she also addresses parenting, teaching, and leadership styles that depend on fear and shame. There’s a certain amount of self help-y buzzwords and repetition, but for the most part Brown’s style is refreshing, direct, and practical. I especially appreciate her use of swear words. You can watch a quick TedTalk here to get an idea of Brown’s style and thesis.

I also just devoured Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. This is a light romantic comedy, based on The Taming of the Shrew, full of Tyler’s wit and incisive understanding of how people work. I loved Kate’s absentminded scientist father, who runs the household in a nice efficient, clueless way: they eat “meat mash” every day for supper, and he can’t understand why everyone doesn’t eat that way–a perfect balance of nutrition, and it takes all the decision-making out of cooking! Kate herself is lovingly drawn as an awkward, practical woman who doesn’t know what to do with her half-realized longings for more purpose and normality. Just a fun, quick read, but Tyler’s characters are so real and her writing is so unobtrusively effective, she’s a pleasure to read. She always make me feel like writing. (I wrote about another of her novels, A Patchwork Planet, in this post.)

3. What do you plan to read next?

Mindfulness for Dummies, which has been languishing on my Kindle for a while, and A Stitch in Time, by the actor who played Garak in Deep Space Nine–another present from my awesome husband. (I wrote a bit about the fascinating character of Garak here.) I also want to get my hands on He Leadeth Me, and I’ve heard great things about The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, which my brother gave me for Christmas.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy. I read a big chunk of it in college and loved it, and I think I finally feel emotionally healthy enough to pick up politics and history again.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. I loved Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles so much.

6. What is your current reading trend?

Mental health and politics. I keep meaning to try various science fiction and fantasy novels, but I guess I’m just not into them any more.

7. What book did you recently give up on? [I added this question.]

C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. This was helpful to me in the past, but gosh, it sure wasn’t this time around. I found all his arguments easy to answer, and I didn’t get any comfort from it. Sorry, C.S. Lewis! I still love you!

Hop over to Kelly’s to see the rest of the Seven Quick Takes!

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.

A post shared by Humans of New York (@humansofny) on

 

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

 

Only Heaven

I like to sing hymns to my babies at night: they make nice lullabies, and they’re a good shot in the arm for an exhausted mama.  Tonight I was singing “…and I will raise you up, and I will raise you up, and I will raise you up on the last day,” and I thought sure–on the very last possible day.  I’m not trying to be funny here.  Sometimes it feels like God waits until the last minute.

My mother’s Alzheimer’s is progressing terrifyingly fast, and every morning she suffers through an attack of spiritual doubt and misery.  This morning she told me “everyone keeps talking about mercy…all about mercy….”  She couldn’t finish her sentence, but I thought I caught the implication: where’s the mercy for me?  I didn’t know what to tell her.  I believe in God’s mercy on the last day, but I don’t know why, for some people, He doesn’t send it earlier.  Where is the mercy in my brilliant, wise, eloquent mother spending the last ten years of her life in confusion and humiliation?

I know I’m missing something here.  I know–I believe–that a life of hardship can have more joy and peace than just the promise of heaven.  But I don’t see it right now.

Sometimes a crumb falls
from the tables of joy,
sometimes a bone
is flung.

To some people
love is given,
to others
only heaven

–“Luck” by Langston Hughes

Self-Help Books that Really Help: Sex and Marriage

“Tobias and Sarah Awake” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfelt

Well!  Let’s start with the most embarrassing one first.

The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex by Sheila Wray Gregoire.  This book is for you if:

  • You’re a nervous virgin
  • You never really got any sex ed, except for “wait for marriage”
  • You got plenty of information on the mechanics, but you don’t understand why sex is sacred
  • You got plenty of information on why sex is sacred, but you don’t understand the mechanics
  • You have bad associations with sex, from past abuse, bad relationships, physical problems, or being brought up with the mindset that sex is necessary, but it’s kind of dirty, and we don’t talk about it
  • You’re a reasonably well-adjusted person who needs some help with any of the above, but you realllllly don’t want to have to wade through all the secular offerings at the library.

The wonderful thing about this book is that it manages to be tasteful while still being practical and explicit (where it needs to be).  Gregoire covers everything–the biology, the sacred symbolism, the basic mechanics, and the trouble-shooting–in a concise, friendly, and unembarrassing way.  Please note–Gregoire is Christian, but not Catholic, so there are a couple of ideas in here that are not quite kosher.  But for the most part, she does a wonderful job of explaining that God intended sex to be beautiful, meaningful, and fun.  This would be a good gift for a mature engaged woman.  Don’t be like Edith: (“the talk” starts at about 15:00)

Also check out Gregoire’s wonderful website and other resources at To Love, Honor and Vacuum.

Holy Sex! by Dr. Gregory Popcak.  This is a dense, thorough book.  Popcak’s style can be pretty annoying, but it’s worth pushing through.  He is that wonderful and rare thing, an orthodox and well-read Catholic who is also a respected psychotherapist.  Holy Sex is the best of both worlds: explicit without being offensive, practical but also theologically rich.  The woman’s perspective of Gregoire’s Good Girl’s Guide is irreplaceable, but this book covers a much wider range of topics, from NFP and marriage-building exercises, to solutions for specific problems and discussions about what’s acceptable in married sex, and why.  I found Popcak’s “Four Pleasure Principles” especially helpful: along with the “One Rule” that a married couple can do whatever they want, as long as both are loved and respected, and the man climaxes inside the woman, he poses four correlative requirements: that there should be continuity between your daily relationship and your sex life; that spouses should be respected as persons and not used as mere producers of pleasure; that any technique, lingerie, position, etc. should be used as a means to the end of a loving union, rather than being the focus of the whole thing; and that each spouse’s comfort zone should be respected.  Popcak gives specific case studies of many couples which illustrate these principles in detail, and give the reader useful prompts to figure out what is wrong or missing in their relationship.

The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by the amazing Simcha Fisher.  This book covers so much, it’s hard to do it justice.  There’s a lovely depiction of how NFP can really mature and deepen your relationship, not in the advertised, immediate “honeymoon effect” way, but in a more profound and gradual way.  This is extremely encouraging for someone like me, who’s just starting out.  There’s some excellent theology in here, with candid anecdotes and original, spot-on analogies that really hit home more than most discussions of theology of the body.  There are practical and specific tips for having difficult conversations about sex and marriage, because “silence is where problems grow.”  There are sympathetic and straightforward discussions of topics that are really important, but that no one else is willing to talk about, like how to deal with the frustration that builds up when a woman’s libido is only high during off-limits times, or when a woman can’t climax.  There is help to escape the anxiety, fear, and scruples that often surround family planning decisions.  There is sympathy for good Catholics who secretly wish they could just have care-free, spontaneous, happy sex like the secular world, and a reminder that, in reality, “there is no such thing.”  There are ways to deal with periods of abstinence, and prompts to use NFP as a way to grow closer, “learning to let go of struggles for fairness and equality, and learning to look instead for unity and harmony,” by “work[ing] towards a place where the woman’s problem is her husband’s problem” and vice-versa.  And when you reach the end of the encouragement and advice, when you’re ready to hear it, there’s the reminder that

love…sometimes looks like a Cross.  There you hang, trying with all your might to remember why you’re doing this, and not knowing how much longer it’s going to go on.

For Fisher, the very real cross of NFP is not something to suck up, or something to be bitter about, but an opportunity: an opportunity to turn the confusion of sex in a fallen world into a path to deeper union with your spouse.  Take your time reading this book!  There’s a lot to take in.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman.  This is set up like more of a typical self-help, popular psychology book, but don’t let that fool you; Gottman’s work is based on extensive research, observation, and counseling of real couples, and his advice is extremely practical and relevant.  He teaches you how to identify key problems that are wounding your communication, which can often turn into unconscious habits, including his “four horsemen” (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) and the aggressive “harsh start-up” to a sensitive conversation.  This book is a wonderful guide for people who are trying hard to communicate better, but not being very effective; if you can swallow your pride and teach yourself how to use the “scripts” he recommends, you can teach yourself new habits of communicating.  Gottman has specific guidelines for expressing simple “complaints” to your spouse without turning them into blaming “criticisms;” listening to a stressed-out spouse without giving hurtful advice or implied criticism; and “nurturing fondness and admiration” by doing specific exercises to build up a habit of appreciating and respecting your spouse.  I especially liked his discussion of “repair attempts” during arguments, which involve using specific scripts to structure your argument and keep it from getting out of control: “I feel blamed–can you rephrase that?…I need your support here…I’m sorry.  Let me start over again…That’s a good point…I’m getting overwhelmed, I need a break.”  Gottman makes an important point here:

Many, if not all, of these phrases probably sound phony and unnatural to you right now…But their phoniness is not a reason to reject them.  If you learned a better and more effective way to hold your tennis racket, it would feel ‘wrong’ and ‘unnatural’ initially, simply because you weren’t used to it yet.

This book taught me that you have to grit your teeth and do uncomfortable things like using scripts if you want to really improve your communication.  It taught me that self-help books in general should not be written off just because they sound cliche or cheesy, because the truth often does.  Guides like this can really improve your marriage, especially if you grew up in a family that did not have a good way of dealing with conflict.  If you learned a faulty way of communicating–and most of us did, to a greater or lesser extent–you are going to need to unlearn a lot of things and teach yourself a new way to think and talk, from the bottom up.

What are some of your favorite self-help books?  Are you reluctant to read this kind of book?  What can I do to change your mind?  More book reviews to come!  My husband pointed out that Christopher West is conspicuous by his absence.  That wasn’t intentional–I just haven’t read his stuff recently enough to review it.

—————————————————–

image via Wikimedia Commons

First World Problems?

Jeans, Denim, Torn, Ripped, Worn, Fashion, Casual

Have you ever tried to stop feeling sorry for yourself by thinking about how much worse other people have it?  Does it work for you?  When I use it to remind myself to have a sense of humor, sometimes it works; my family’s motto is “it could always be worse,” usually followed by a darkly funny memory of a time when things got really chaotic.  But if I try to pull myself out of self-pity by thinking about starving children in Africa or homeless people in the city, it usually doesn’t work.  All it does is make me feel guilty on top of everything else, and start me off on a train of thought about how crummy the WHOLE WORLD is, anyhow.

The problem with this way of thinking is that it assigns each human pain a ranking.  Upset that you live in a tiny apartment?  It’s better than a clay hut in Africa!  Upset that you live in a clay hut?  It’s better than being homeless!  Upset that you’re homeless?  Be grateful–you could be dead!  If you keep going this way, there’s probably only one person in the world who has a right to feel bad, because everyone else has at least some advantage over him to be grateful for.

I don’t think that’s how God sees it.  I think he cares about your “first world problems,” even if they’re small or silly, because He knows what it’s like.  I recently came across this encouraging quote from St. Philip Neri:

A man should not ask tribulations of God, presuming on his being able to bear them: there should be the greatest possible caution in this matter, for he who bears what God sends him daily does not do a small thing.  [emphasis mine]

This doesn’t mean it’s okay to sit there and dwell on your problems, but there’s no point in forcing yourself to feel guilty, either.  Your problems are legitimate, and God cares about them; and that in itself is encouragement to not let them swallow you up.

“The Sweet Spot of the Faith”

 

Pope Francis with a Filipino girl who asked him why children suffer.

A few words of comfort from Pope Francis, both old and new, for people walking in the dark.  From an old interview, “A Big Heart Open to God,” on seeking God in blindness and doubt:

…in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good….The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties….Often we seek as if we were blind, as one often reads in the Bible. And this is the experience of the great fathers of the faith, who are our models. We have to re-read the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11. Abraham leaves his home without knowing where he was going, by faith. All of our ancestors in the faith died seeing the good that was promised, but from a distance….

I find this so consoling!  When you are in a state of doubt and walking blindly, it’s very easy to feel that you are far away from God.  I was surprised to see Pope Francis say that people in this situation are not only on the right track, but are actually closer to God for their uncertainty.  If I understand him correctly, he’s saying that the uncertainty is a positive thing because it acknowledges the mystery of God’s plan.  By seeking and following God even when we can’t see where he’s taking us, we are making that uncertainty a cause for trusting a providence that is far larger than our range of understanding, rather than a cause for mistrusting God.  I was reminded of this passage a few days ago when I read a very recent interview, where the Pope talks about what it means to have stability in faith, even when you don’t feel God’s presence:

In some moments we are conscious of the presence of God, other times we forget about that….How to be consistent in the faith? If you do not deny feeling it, you are going to feel it very close to you, you are going to find it in your heart. Another day, it is possible that you do not feel anything. And nevertheless faith is present, right? It is necessary for one to get accustomed to the faith not being a feeling. Sometimes the Lord gives us the grace to feel it, but faith is something more. Faith is my relationship with Jesus Christ, I believe that he saved me. That is the sweet spot of the faith. Go and seek the moments of your life in which you have felt bad, where you were lost, where you did not hit the mark, and look how Christ saved you. Embrace it, that is the source of your faith. When you forget, when you feel nothing, embrace that, because that is the basis of your faith….At the end, faith is a gift, it is not a psychological attitude….

This is a good thing to remember when you’re in the lost, wandering state of uncertainty that he talks about in the first quote.  Don’t let the feelings going through your head convince you that God is not there!  “Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I fear no evil, for you are at my side.”

Finally, here’s the Pope’s tender explanation of the gaze of Christ that consoles us in the face of incomprehensible suffering (from a 2013 interview):

One man who has been a life mentor for me is Dostoevskij and his explicit and implicit question “Why do children suffer?” has always gone round in my heart. There is no explanation. This image comes to mind: at a particular point of his or her life, a child “wakes up,” doesn’t understand much and feels threatened, he or she starts asking their mum or dad questions. This is the “why” age. But when the child asks a question, he or she doesn’t wait to hear the full answer, they immediately start bombarding you with more “whys.” What they are really looking for, more than an explanation, is a reassuring look on their parent’s face. When I come across a suffering child, the only prayer that comes to mind is the “why” prayer. Why Lord? He doesn’t explain anything to me. But I can feel Him looking at me. So I can say: You know why, I don’t and You won’t tell me, but You’re looking at me and I trust You, Lord, I trust your gaze.

I can imagine that a secular person might not find this consoling at all: even the POPE doesn’t understand suffering?!  But for me it’s a relief.  My peace of heart doesn’t have to depend on me figuring out everything by myself, because let’s face it, that’s never going to happen.  Instead, I have the gaze of Christ and his Church to return to when I feel lost.  My faith doesn’t have to be constantly defended against doubt or feelings of loneliness, because it all comes down to something unshakable.