There are many magnificent quotes about this great and most humble Saint. The one above seems particularly fitting during these times, as we recognise in a special way the dignity of honest labour and essential work.
Two years ago, a friar gave me a pocket-sized book that forever changed the way I defined and sought happiness. 129 pages of plainspoken wisdom to be savoured and re-savoured.
A fuller excerpt from Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence: The Secret of Peace and Happiness, a classic containing the writings of Fr Jean Baptiste Saint-Jure and St Claude de la Colombiere:
Let me show you a good way to ask for happiness even in this world. It is a way that will oblige God to listen to you. Say to Him earnestly: Either give me so much money that my heart will be satisfied, or inspire me with such contempt for it that I no longer want it. Either free me from poverty, or make it so pleasant for me that I would not exchange it for all the wealth in the world. Either take away my suffering, or — which would be to your greater glory — change it into delight for me, and instead of causing me affliction, let it become a source of joy. You can take away the burden of my cross, or you can leave it with me without my feeling its weight. You can extinguish the fire that burns me, or you can let it burn in such a way that it refreshes me as it did the three youths in the fiery furnace. I ask you for either one thing or the other. What does it matter in what way I am happy? If I am happy through the possession of worldly goods, it is you I have to thank. If I am happy when deprived of them,it gives you greater glory and my thanks are all the greater.
St Claude de la Colombiere
Are there words that have changed your life, and changed you? (There has been no better time for new book recommendations!)
As I rifle through my happiest memories, I find many of them tinged with the sadness of absence. They are either memories of seasons long gone, or of moments shared with people no longer in my life. While precious nonetheless, these memories remain fragile, and I dare not peer too closely.
I decided to search not for a happy memory necessarily, but one that I could hold close to my heart without fear of it shattering. And then I found it.
It is a memory of hope.
It was January of 2018. I had just turned 27 and I found myself once again in a pit of despair. It became a daily routine to drag myself to the Cathedral during times of the day when I knew it would be empty. Day after day I wept and demanded that God tell me what else He wanted of me. Somewhere amidst that barren monotony, my heart grew weary enough to at last be silent. That was when I heard the still, small voice of Hope.
At this point in my life, the rest of that story is to be kept secret. You may be surprised, because over the years I may have come across as an open book in this space. But this entry isn’t about the value of my story, but the value of secrets.
Secrets have developed a bad rap; we tend to see them as antithetical to courage and authenticity, perhaps especially so in this age of social media (and of oversharing). As a millennial, surely I’m a product of this age! But in recent years, I have learned to see secrecy as an instrument of discernment. Secrets demarcate the boundary between our interior and exterior lives.
One book that was instrumental in inspiring me to hold tight to certain memories is The Love That Keeps Us Sane: Living the Little Way of St Therese of Lisieux by Fr Marc Foley:
[W]henever we expose an intimate part of ourselves, a quality of is lost. We can never look upon that part of ourselves in the same way again; our gaze has been altered and infected by the evaluations and judgments of others. It is like sharing with others how deeply we are touched by the beauty of a painting. If the people we are sharing with begin to criticize the quality of the painting, point out to us its flaws or the artist’s immature style and the like, we feel demeaned and diminished. . . . From that point on, we can never look at our beloved painting in the same way again, for our inner vision has been infected by the judgments of others. Even when we are alone with our painting, we are not alone. Because we have internalized the judgments of others, we feel that people are looking at the painting with us. As a result, we cannot allow ourselves to be touched by the beauty of the painting as we were previously, because we cannot risk being shamed again. In short, we cannot be present to it. A presence has vanished.
I found this to be true even with positive judgments! The thrill of flattery threatens to displace the promise of the original memory.
When we intuitively sense a special moment of grace, we need the discipline to water it, tend to it, watch it grow, and sit in its shade. There is great discipline in secrecy.
Because grace is still operative in memory, we need to exercise caution even in sharing the “past” experiences of our lives; some memories are meant to function as solitary haunts into which we can retreat and find refuge from the world.
Perhaps that’s what the Evangelist meant when he wrote that the Mother of Jesus “kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
The “Stay-Home Artventure Passport” was originally created for my students here in Singapore. I’ve since adapted it for everyone else who’d like a creative (and surprisingly introspective) getaway. If you’d like a soft copy of the “passport” itself, leave your email address in the comments and I’ll send it to you for free.
Next prompt: My favourite quote
The need for sleep is a constant through all seasons of life. I am thankful for the times it has been a reward for a day well-lived, and I am thankful for the times it has been a respite from the day’s struggles and failures.
That said, I have also learned to not give too much credence to a negative self-evaluation of a given day. It is like how I would tell my student to not despair over a single failure. It is but a blot of ink in a much more magnificent narrative of growth.
A beloved priest told me 5 years ago: “God is like an impressionist painter. Up close you have no idea what he’s doing, but take a step back and you’ll see a masterpiece.”
Give that critical mind a rest and just go to sleep. 🙂
Now that the daylight dies away,
By all Thy grace and love,
Thee, Maker of the world, we pray
To watch our bed above.
Let dreams depart and phantoms fly,
The offspring of the night,
Keep us, like shrines, beneath Thine eye,
Pure in our foe’s despite.
(From the Compline in the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours)
Addendum: The doodle features some of my most memorable dreams: being chased by death eaters, traversing my college campus on a flying mattress, getting warded for COVID-19, and most recently giving birth to a baby boy at home during lockdown.
The “Stay-Home Artventure Passport” was originally created for my students here in Singapore. I’ve since adapted it for everyone else who’d like a creative (and surprisingly introspective) getaway. If you’d like a soft copy of the “passport” itself, leave your email address in the comments and I’ll send it to you for free.
Next prompt: My favourite memory
Vengeance dominates the tide of social media these days. Sometimes it comes in the form of mob justice descending upon the perpetrator of a crime inadequately punished, and other times as smaller and subtler smears against those who have wronged or offended us.
The desire for revenge is rooted deep in us. We want those who hurt us to hurt, those who shamed us to be shamed. Whether we inflict the retaliatory attacks ourselves or by inciting others, the root of that thirst is one and the same. Sometimes we confuse the desire for revenge with the desire for justice, and certainly there seems to be an overlap. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that at some point the streams diverge. Justice ends (ideally) in some kind of restoration, whereas unabated revenge ends in destruction.
But too often missing from the dialogue is Mercy. Where vengeance seeks to destroy, mercy seeks to redeem. There’s no doubt that mercy presents itself as a heavy demand on the one who has been wronged. Anyone who claims it is easy does not know what they are talking about. Mercy is epitomised by a Man of Sorrows who, while nailed to the cross prays for those jeering at Him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Perhaps such radical mercy is a weight none of us can bear. But when we truly contemplate the fruits of such a mercy, perhaps we would at least desire the capacity for it.
No story of radical mercy has captivated me as much as that of Maria Goretti, an 11-year-old girl from a small town in Italy who died a most tragic death in 1902. Maria’s neighbour, 20-year-old Alessandro Serenelli, had developed some kind of a sick and vile desire for the girl. When Alessandro attempted to rape Maria, her resistance and insistence that she would rather die than yield to him propelled him into an unfathomable rage, which ended in him stabbing her no less than 14 times.
As she lay dying on the hospital bed, Maria’s last words were: “I forgive Alessandro…and I want him with me in heaven forever.”
(Those words make me tremble; they echo the dying words of the Love and Mercy himself : “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”)
Meanwhile, Alessandro was not immediately contrite. He was even reported to have said in court that Maria would not have died had she just given in to him. However, a few years into his prison sentence, Alessandro recounted a dream to the visiting Bishop in which Maria appeared to him and handed him 14 lilies, as if a symbolic reminder of her forgiveness for each stab wound inflicted. Profoundly moved, he began living a converted life.
Alessandro was released from prison in 1929, after serving 27 out of 30 years. After being rejected by several communities, he found lodging at a Capuchin Franciscan monastery, where he began living a quiet life working in their garden as a lay brother. Said Alessandro, “Maria’s forgiveness saved me.”
On Christmas of 1934, he sought his victim’s mother, Assunta Goretti, and got on his knees to beg for her forgiveness. And imagine this: that night they attended Christmas vigil Mass together at their parish, and received Holy Communion side by side. Before the stunned congregation, Alessandro asked for God’s forgiveness and for the pardon of the community. Assunta later even adopted him as her own son. She said, “Maria has forgiven you, and surely God has forgiven you. Who am I to withhold my forgiveness?”
If Maria’s mercy wasn’t miracle enough, the chain of events it precipitated surely were. An excerpt from a public letter written by Alessandro Serenelli, dated 5 May 1961:
At the age of 20, I committed a crime of passion, the memory of which still horrifies me today. Maria Goretti, now a saint, was my good angel whom God placed in my path to save me. Her words both of rebuke and forgiveness are still imprinted in my heart. She prayed for me, interceding for her killer. Thirty years in prison followed. If I had not been a minor in Italian law I would have been sentenced to life in prison. Nevertheless, I accepted the sentence I received as something I deserved. Resigned, I atoned for my sin.
Little Maria was truly my light, my protectress. With her help, I served those 27 years in prison well. When society accepted me back among its members, I tried to live honestly. With angelic charity, the sons of St. Francis, the minor Capuchins of the Marches, welcomed me among them not as a servant, but as a brother. I have lived with them for 24 years. Now I look serenely to the time in which I will be admitted to the vision of God, to embrace my dear ones once again, and to be close to my guardian angel, Maria Goretti, and her dear mother, Assunta.
May all who read this letter of mine desire to follow the blessed teaching of avoiding evil and following the good. May all believe with the faith of little children that religion with its precepts is not something one can do without. Rather, it is true comfort, and the only sure way in all of life’s circumstances—even in the most painful.
Peace and all good.
5 May 1961
Maria Goretti is one of the Catholic Church’s youngest canonised saints. She did not live to see the fruits of her mercy, and there’s no guarantee that we would see the fruits of ours in this lifetime either. But nonetheless, may the life of St. Maria Goretti, brief yet so intimately configured to the Divine Mercy of Jesus, sprout lasting fruits of mercy in our own hearts.
It was only after He had breathed His last that the Roman centurion cried out, “Truly, this man was the Son of God!”
It was only after they had killed Him that the crowds realized their folly, and went home beating their breasts.
Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, now came out of the shadows asking to bury his lifeless body.
Likewise for Nicodemus the Pharisee. Previously daring to seek Him only in the secrecy of the night, he now emerged bringing spices for His burial.
Too little too late, they must have thought. How great the silence, stillness, and terror that overtook them.
Too little too late.
But little did they know the mysterious workings of God. Because the Son of God, whose body lay motionless in the tomb, was far from defeated. While they were mourning, He was busting open the doors of hell, breaking once and for all the prison-bars of death.
We recite in passing — just four words in the Apostle’s Creed — “He descended into hell.” Do we realize what was happening? Immediately after Jesus passed from the earth, He went down into the place where the souls of those justified under the Old Law were detained. Those who had been waiting for the arrival of the Messiah in the bosom of Abraham now saw Him face to face. He preached to them the Gospel in its fullness. How sweet those words must have sounded to them!
Imagine the burst of light that tore through the darkness! And this was no ordinary light — this was the Light of the World, and the light of all mankind that the darkness cannot overcome. Imagine the terror that overcame the devils, who realized there and then that their last stronghold was futile against the Son of God.
And with that, Jesus opened the gates of heaven. He kept His promise to the thief hanging from the cross beside Him — who at the door of death had asked for the impossible — “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
All of this happened while there was great mourning on earth, and while it seemed like all hope was lost.
On the third day He rose again from the dead, and the rest is history.
For God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are His ways our ways.
We who believe in the Resurrection have no reason to despair. Not just in the face of death, but also in the troubles of our everyday life (which tend to worry us more than death). He teaches and welcomes us to leave our bundle of burdens at the foot of the Cross.
Lord, we leave this here with you tonight, and we will go to sleep. We will pick them back up in the morning, and even if it feels just as heavy as when we left them, we trust that You are at work.
Because we know that while they were mourning, You were claiming the ultimate victory. While they saw no way out, You were paving the new way.
We will keep watch, because You make all things new. We will take heart, because You have overcome the world.
The cross reveals that unless there is a Good Friday in our lives, there will never be an Easter Sunday. Unless there is a crown of thorns, there will never be a halo of light. Unless there is the scourged body, there will never be a glorified one. Death to the lower self is the condition of resurrection to the higher self. The world says to us, as it said to Him on the cross: “Come down, and we will believe!” But if He came down, He never would have saved us. It is human to come down; it is divine to hang there. A broken heart, O Saviour of the world, is love’s best cradle! Smite my own, as Moses did the rock, that Thy love may enter in!
—Venerable Fulton Sheen
I’ve been alive for just over twenty-seven years. “You’re still so young,” I’m told again and again. I think it’s implied that I still have a long way to go — many more people to meet, places to go, things to accomplish. But all the recent deaths young and old, within my immediate and not-so-immediate circles, have impressed upon me a reality universally acknowledged yet almost universally neglected: that death comes unannounced.
“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, amen.” It rolls of the tongue so effortlessly, often thoughtlessly. But seven Sundays ago I uttered those exact words while standing next to my dying aunt, and I thought about what that meant. Death was so close, so imminent, so real. My aunt was in the final leg of her earthly sojourn. This could certainly be the hour of her death.
She was still conscious, but too weak to open her eyes or to speak. In the last week of her life, though surrounded by loved ones, there were no more two-way conversations nor instructions that could be communicated. Did she fear crossing over to the other side? Did she have any parting words left unsaid? Whatever was going on in her mind and heart, none of us was privy to it. It was solely between her and God.
This was to me a stark picture of the hour of one’s death — to have to reckon with the fact that we will depart from this life on our own. Even the best and most steadfast of friends and family won’t be accompanying us. They can go no further than being present at our deathbeds, if the opportunity presented itself at all. And yes, they will pray for us, but ultimately that step into the next life is one we will take on our own. And then we will meet God face to face, with no intermediary in the form of community, clergy, words, images, statues, songs, or the liturgy. How do we feel about that prospect?
Does it sound like homecoming? A reunion with our first love? The fulfilment of all we’ve been yearning and preparing for in this life?
I will meet the God I’ve professed to love. The God whom I’ve read about, talked about, written about. To whom I’ve addressed countless petitions during the darkest episodes of my life. But at the hour of my death, will I rejoice at the thought of meeting Him face to face? Or will I be filled with the dreadful realisation that I don’t know the One whom I am about to face?
My aunt didn’t go that very weekend, and I had to fly back to Singapore. It was Holy Week. On Holy Tuesday, I wept as I prayed for her at Mass. Not because I was worried about the state of her soul, since knew she’d always been steadfastly close to Our Lord, but because of the realisation of the seeming loneliness of the hour of her death. But somehow, something or someone wordlessly impressed deep in my soul that she would go on Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ death. I kept this in my heart and continued on with the subsequent days.
When I woke up on the morning of Good Friday, I read a text from my dad which said my aunt had passed on earlier that morning. It sounds inappropriate to rejoice at any death, but the instinctive reaction was happiness. I’m not the type to neurotically keep my eyes peeled for ‘signs’, but the news presented itself as an affirmation that she’s in good hands. She had suffered with Christ throughout Holy Week (and much of her life), and has died with Him, and will rise with Him. Surely that last leg of her journey couldn’t be adequately characterised as ‘lonely’. Surely it was a special privilege of uniting herself with Christ. In a hidden, intimate way. Yes, none of us were privy to it. It was between her and her God.
All of a sudden her departure made sense. And given what I know of her and the faith so dear to her, I couldn’t but believe she would have wanted this.
At the hour of my death, I may not be a saint. There will surely be some degree of fear.
But however death comes for me – be it expected or unexpected, sudden or gradual, excruciating or pain-free – I would like death to come not as an interruption, but a culmination. I would hope that no one laments the circumstances saying, “Oh, how cruel is death, to have taken her this way/at such a time.” I hope my departure will make sense. I hope I would have, by that time, figured out how to live in a way where you’d be able to say, “Ah, this is the moment she’s been living for.”
There have been many approaches to positively reframe the way people view mental illness. One way, which I notice to be growing in popularity, is to distinguish mental illness from weakness: needing help doesn’t make you weak, needing to take psychiatric meds doesn’t make you weak, nor does needing a therapist, and so on. For instance, I learned from this Washington Post article about the power of “coming out” with mental illness that #sicknotweak has become a popular hashtag on Twitter.
But I find efforts to completely dissociate mental illness from weakness rather unsettling. While this approach may succeed in destigmatizing mental illness, doesn’t it do so at the expense of adding to the stigma surrounding weakness?
(I typically hate the practice of pedantically and uncharitably picking apart the well-intentioned, so I hope what I’m about to say doesn’t fall in that category.)
My first thought was that our implicit rejection of weakness can inadvertently marginalize those who do not have the chance to be “cured”of their particular brand of weakness (for example, permanent physical disability, intellectual disability, and degenerative diseases).
I suppose the knee-jerk response is, once again, to affirm that those conditions aren’t weaknesses. But it often takes a long time for many people to accept or believe that for themselves. I wish we could go a step further and place no pressure on anyone to feel or identify as strong when they in fact feel weak.
With mental illness becoming a part of my life to be reckoned with, there are many periods during which I do feel weak. After all, when all this first started unfolding during my college days, all I could see was personal weakness after personal weakness after personal weakness. I recently came to the conclusion that there perhaps can be great relief in a radically different approach, that is, instead of being told that you’re not weak, to be reminded that it’s okay to be weak. Only then would sufferers, family, friends, and caregivers, have common ground from which to begin the work of acceptance and change.
It’s not that weakness is something to be bragged about. But it’s not abnormal. It comes in many variations and forms, and no one is without one. We may try to distinguish between excusable weakness and inexcusable weakness — the former are those beyond our control, and the latter within our control — but is that really possible?
Yes, it’s not my fault that I have my diagnosis, but it’s never just about having a condition. Any given condition is also wrapped up in how we react to it, how we cope with it, and what we do with it — facets that are more or less within our control.
I admit that they way I reacted and failed to tackle my condition head-on during the first few years reflected personal weakness. I compare myself to the saints and see that I lack their admirable virtue of bearing pain, suffering, and anguish with grace. It’s only with this acknowledgment of personal weakness that I could begin to work on changing that. If I think that my illness renders me too weak to live well, then there’s nothing I can do about it. If I think that it’s my personal weakness that prevents me from living well with my illness, then I can eventually muster up the willpower to train my mental, emotional, and spiritual muscle such that I can still thrive under that pressure.
Perhaps in the sports arena weakness is something to be hidden, lest it be exploited by one’s opponent. But in our general foray from the start to the end of our earthly lives, the rules are different. Here, it is a given that we are all weak. We succumb under our weaknesses not when others can see them, but when we believe there is no transcending them. When we believe that they rob us dignity. That we are somehow less valuable because of our infirmities. Or that our lives aren’t worth living if we have to find a different way of living it.
What are we to do with our weaknesses, then? Besides denying and concealing it, society doesn’t really teach us many other options. The invitation to acknowledge and soak in them is not at all intuitive. But I’ve learned through a messy few years of trial and error to resist the temptation to run away from where it most hurts, or where we are most ashamed. To not be afraid to be broken down in those uncertain encounters so we can be rebuilt.
Weakness and strength can coexist. In fact, isn’t it only in weakness that we can find strength? Admitting weakness is strong. Struggling through weakness is strong. Overcoming weakness is strong. Finding a way to live with weakness is strong. Pouring yourself out for others in spite of weakness is so incredibly strong.
And if you’re a fellow Christian, consider if we have any reason to deny weakness. Do we not look at the crucifix to see Christ embodying weakness? Publicly hanging from a torture device, bloodied from head to toe, with bones out of joint, there we see the depth of His human weakness meet the pinnacle of His divine strength. Divine strength says not my will but Yours, and it also says into Your hands I commend my spirit. What appeared to be shameful weakness turned out to be the hard work of amazing, redemptive love.
Weakness and suffering cease to be senseless torment when offered up to God. We’re asked not to bury them, and instead place them into the loving hands of God. There, like the five loaves and two fishes, they will be immeasurably multiplied as gifts for His kingdom. This means they also cease to be sources of shame. We’ve heard the timeless refrain:
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weakness, in order that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
–St. Paul the Apostle (2 Cor 12:8-10)
Let’s not reject weakness, but instead allow it to spur us to be stronger: in tenacity, resilience, faith, compassion, and love.
I’ve learned that the first step towards healing is to take ownership of our pain. It doesn’t matter who or what is responsible for our pain. The wound is ours, and we decide whether to let it fester, or to begin nursing it.
We often blame people — be it others or ourselves — for the pain we experience. But at the core of it, it is often not people that we have trouble forgiving. What we can’t forgive is the fact that life has not gone according to plan.
Without realizing it, we have a pre-written script of how our lives should play out. Things that don’t usually feature in the storyboard: accidents, failures, betrayals, abandonment, humiliation, disillusionment, disability, mental illness, the list goes on.
For some reason, we keep forgetting that the universe owes us nothing, and that we have no reason to be surprised when things don’t go our way. Yet we demand to know: why me?
But demanding an answer — as if any would satisfy — keeps us stuck in anger and bitterness. With time, a part of us is paralyzed. We have denied ourselves of healing.
We’re all in the habit of burying the unpleasantness of life under heaps of work, entertainment, or other preferred modes of distraction. It often even feels like triumph. Congratulations, we tell ourselves, the past can longer touch you, and you’re free to start afresh. It is with such remarkable hubris that we participate in this delusion — the delusion that we can simply erase select parts of our lives.
What we can choose, however, is to find a way to coexist peacefully with them. And I don’t mean just to tolerate. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the things that wound us can nourish us.
If there’s one lesson depression has forced me to learn, it’s this: bury the past if you must, but return to water it. I’ve found that revisiting my buried pain isn’t scary as long as I’m armed with three things: faith, hope, and love.
First, faith in the gentle wisdom of God, and the promise that He makes all things new.
Second, the hope that there is always hope. That nothing is a lost cause — no relationship too broken to mend, no failure irredeemable, and that evil will not have the final say.
And finally, love. Because love is the gentle and merciful hand that nurses wounds. We have to love ourselves, in spite of our weaknesses, to open the door for healing. And perhaps the much taller order would be to also love the people who have hurt us. Sometimes this involves forgiving those who never asked for forgiveness, and commending them to our loving Father. Said St. Thomas the Athonite, the man who cries out against evil men, but does not pray for them, will never know the grace of God.
Leave anger and bitterness at the door. Take faith, hope, and love.
This doesn’t mean we will emerge healed, restored, and renewed overnight. But in the meantime, we would have robbed anguish and regret of their oppressive power over us. We might still feel them, but those feelings can now coexist with the joys of life.
So bury the pain if you must, but return to water it. Only then can new life will spring forth, and the same places that once harbored pain will become, instead, wellsprings of goodness and compassion.
I will leave you with the following excerpt from the journal of a Catholic priest who battled crippling depression:
To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives — the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections — that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for. Let’s not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see it in the guiding hand of a loving God.Henri Nouwen (The Inner Voice of Love)
As always, thank you for accompanying me on this journey. 🙂
This past year has taught me a precious lesson. I have, for many years, grossly misunderstood the nature of hope. And the more I longed for my imaginary version of hope, the more elusive hope became.
Hope, as it turns out, is as misunderstood as love. Like love, hope isn’t an emotion. In fact, hope doesn’t have to feel good in the least. Like love, hope is a choice and a commitment. A commitment to what? A commitment to keep choosing the path of life — in spite of feeling hopeless.
When I first started dealing with periods of severe depression in 2013, I came to believe that one does not simply choose to have hope. Those seasons of unspeakable, impenetrable internal darkness convinced me that sometimes, one is completely robbed of the capacity to have any hope at all. As such, I began taking for granted this notion that the only way to get out of those psychoemotional abysses was to hang in there and “wait it out”.
I don’t mean to say it doesn’t work. Sometimes, staying alive in itself can get so difficult that that’s all the work you can do. With your loved ones standing by your side and giving you just enough to not quit on life, and you dutifully taking your prescribed medication, the storm eventually dissipates, and you start to see the light again, and you find reason to get back on your feet.
But over the course of my last depressive episode, I noticed something rather peculiar. It started when my therapist told me, “You know, at some point, you’re going to get tired of despairing, and you’re going to want to do something.” This was after many sessions of me walking in simply because it gave me something to do, while remaining unreceptive and unwilling to acknowledge that things could get better. My first reaction to her remark was of annoyance and anger. Get TIRED of despairing? You make it sound like I’m choosing to despair. You make it sound like I know some kind of alternative to this terrible existence. But deep beneath all that maudlin angst, I knew she was on to something.
I was noticing that there comes a time when despair becomes your comfort zone. Yes, a very uncomfortable comfort zone, but a comfort zone nonetheless. It’s that zone where you’re no longer thrashing, kicking, writhing, screaming — but you’re floating in that murky, slushy, stinky cesspool of despair. Despairing, loathing, and bemoaning your existence has be come second nature, and the thought of recovery is actually scary. Despair is familiar; recovery is foreign. Not wanting to live has been your default state of being for so long that learning how to live again is intimidating.
I reflected on this further, and then I went back to my therapist and admitted to her that I was afraid of recovering. I was afraid that if I should start making some changes to my mental and physical routines, I would start to feel better, but still find myself loathing my lot and my existence, and I would have no more excuse to be less than functional. I would have to accept the terribleness of my existence, and simply deal with it.
This admission to my therapist, but mostly to myself, was an important turning point. Of course, I didn’t make an instant 180 to start making tangible progress — I continued hemming and hawing for a while — the bad cognitive and behavioral habits that develop over months of despairing are so difficult to shake off. But there came a day when I decided I would find a way to start moving again. No, not because I felt better, not because I received a sign from heaven that all issues would be resolved. Simply because I realized I had nothing to lose.
It’s funny how that works. The flip-side of despairing about virtually everything is realizing that you have nothing to lose. And suddenly, you find there’s this untapped reservoir of boldness welling up within you. Call it tragic optimism, or a just darn clever biological mechanism that kicks you in the direction of recovery, but you can choose to ride that wave, or choose to continue thrashing.
It became a psychological discipline to bat away negative thoughts, especially about myself. It doesn’t mean all of a sudden knowing what’s true and what’s false. Instead, the inner dialogue sounded a lot more like this: I know, I know, I’m useless and stupid… But I’m gonna be radically okay with it, and see how far I can go. And so I go about my my day having shelved that particular thought. I read a book, I go for the job interview, I enter into a conversation I would typically have avoided. Oh, yes, and I’m a cruel, heartless, wretched human being undeserving of love… But you know what? People seem okay with it. Let’s see how long I can go before I’m exposed. And again, I go about my day, agreeing to meet a friend, or attending a get-together instead of making excuses to stay home. Oh wait — how about the fact that I’m doomed to a lifetime of lonely misery and will never find happiness? Soon enough, I started being able to say, oh just shut up already.
Perhaps it all boils down to putting aside your pride. We despair because we are unable to accept ourselves and our lives, or we believe the world cannot accept us, or both. It’s not an easy decision to make, but when we choose radical acceptance, magic happens. Slowly but surely, I started experiencing improvements in my mood. The more I put myself out there in spite of the forces threatening to engulf me, the more the clouds began to clear. My thoughts became more realistic, my emotions more stable, and my social anxiety markedly reduced. I became less inward-focused and could start loving and caring for other people again. At the very core of it, I came to recognize the inherent good of being alive once more.
And that was how I learned that you don’t sit around waiting to feel hopeful. Often, we imagine hope to mean seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, when it’s more like digging, grasping, and clawing your way through the dirt until you see the light. Hope is hard work. To decide that you are willing to try is a huge victory over despair, a huge cause for celebration for the people who have been rooting for you, and the beginning of a scary but empowering journey.
Hope is courageous: it is letting go of the dogged notion that you need X, Y, and Z to live, and being willing to attempt forging a new path. Hope is humble: it is admitting that you don’t know everything, and that your forecast of doom and gloom is fallible. Hope is radical: it is a commitment to stop comparing yourself to others (you know, the “happy, productive, and functional” folks), and focusing on doing what you can do in a given moment.
And finally, you may or may not agree, but I believe that true, lasting hope requires faith. I know that any of my efforts to reject the voices of my inner demons would have been unsustainable without faith in a loving and merciful God. What made those psychological disciplines possible was a deeply spiritual discipline: to begin each day offering up my fears, anxieties, and regrets to God, and trusting like a child that He is already paving for me a new path my eyes cannot yet see. For hope that is seen is not hope at all. And faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance of what we do not see. This hope will not put us to shame.
I thank God for the gift of faith, and for loved ones who, having exhausted creative means to motivate me, beseech me to turn to God.
We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures. We are the sum of the Father’s love for us, and our real capacity to become the image of His Son.
–St John Paul II
Thank you for continuing to accompany me on this journey. 🙂