While they were mourning

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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.

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‘Il transporto di Cristo al sepolcro’ (1870) by Antonio Ciseri

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!

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‘Christ in Limbo’ (1442) by Fra Angelico

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.

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‘The Descent into Hell’ (1568) by Tintoretto

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

The folly of rejecting weakness

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 is 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.

Ink; “If we only knew the precious treasure hidden in infirmities, we would receive them with the same joy with which we receive the greatest benefits.” –St. Vincent de Paul

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.

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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.

“Begin again with joy”

A huge part of growing up is accepting that things won’t always go your way. An obvious statement, perhaps. It’s easy to realize, but difficult to accept.

I have made many mistakes in my life, but there always seemed to be something I could do to avoid, or at least mitigate, the damage. Rationalize it. Tell a white lie. Tell a half-truth. Apologize profusely. Make amends. There’s always…something. Likewise with things that are beyond my control — there have been times when I’d seen trouble brewing and threatening to spill out of the cauldron — deep in my subconscious I always believed I could hatch a strategy to prevent the seemingly inevitable outcome. I don’t always succeed, but I guess I had a good enough track record to fuel such delusion.

But at some point, I had to learn that I’m not the playwright, and that I’m not God. My will cannot and will not always prevail. I have the freedom to do what I choose, but I can’t expect freedom from the consequences of my actions.

Somewhere along the way, I’d somehow come to believe that all damage can be repaired. Love, compassion, grace, mercy — those are all good things — so they must always prevail, right? They must be able to erase any wrongdoing, right? I don’t mean to say I have lost faith in those things; I still believe with every fibre of my being that they are the most powerful forces of healing. But I did learn that you cannot feel entitled to those things.

Say you hurt someone you love. You can ask for forgiveness, but you cannot demand it. You can extend a hand of reconciliation, but you cannot force it on them. Say you lose the esteem and respect of some people. You cannot argue your way back into their good books. To attempt to do these things only shows how out of touch you are with human nature. And it shows a lack respect for others’ free will.

What you can do is humbly acknowledge that you did wrong, apologize, and ask for forgiveness. And after all is said and done, accept the outcome. Whether or not it’s what you’d hoped.

And then? Move forward. Begin again. (Kicking and screaming is not recommended — it only makes things worse.)

These words by Pope Benedict XVI have taught me much:

Holiness does not consist in not making mistakes and never sinning. Holiness grows with capacity for conversion, repentance, willingness to begin again, and above all with the capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness.

Conversion, repentance, and willingness to begin again. I never had too much difficulty with the first two — but beginning again? That one’s proved to be the hardest part.

We don’t like having to start over. We prefer to pick up where we left off. It’s a lot less painful, it requires less work, it’s far more convenient. We stubbornly insist on fixing the old so as to avoid having to build something new from scratch.

But the greatest hindrance to beginning again, I’ve found, is the inability to forgive oneself. When we don’t get our desired resolution, we twist that into the belief that we are irredeemable. But the truth is that even if the situation was irredeemable, we are not irredeemable. Nobody is condemning us — nobody but ourselves.

Following a series of painful events, I sank into deep depression and got myself stuck. I buried myself under the rubble of my mistakes and failings, I wrapped myself in a cocoon of guilt and shame. I didn’t believe I had any right to be free, not unless I obtained the idealistic outcome my heart so deeply desired. So I just waited, and waited, and waited, and put my life on hold. I believed that my mistakes had permanently disqualified me from doing anything good. I understood that God had forgiven me, and that I had been washed clean by His blood and mercy, and yet I chose to base my worth on the (real or imagined) opinions of others.

The beautiful part is that when you fail to recognize the power of God’s mercy, when you fail to hear His invitation to enter into His joy, He sometimes sends people to help you. These are the people in your life who see more than your failings and mistakes. They see your potential for growth and support you as you strive towards holiness.

These are the people who will help you dig your way out of that miry grave of guilt and self-condemnation you have heaped upon yourself, and who will remind you that there is no need for that.

No, it doesn’t mean they will blindly and indiscriminately defend you. They are not there to imbue you with a false sense of self-righteousness. But they will affirm your capacity for growth; they will affirm the truth that your mistakes do not invalidate your dignity.

I’m learning that you cannot hold your breath waiting to win back everybody’s approval. It’s not fair to the people who love you and need you. And you shouldn’t deprive the world of your gifts on account of those who do not see them. But most of all, you should not deny and cheapen God’s love for you.

Beginning again is scary. But it’s the only way to experience God’s healing mercy. As the wise Blessed Mother Teresa said, “Do not let the past disturb you — just leave everything in the Sacred Heart, and begin again with joy.”

Begin again with joy. It can seem like an impossible exhortation at times. How do we muster up that joy while plagued with guilt, fear, and uncertainty? Or when you feel like such a horrible person that you’re better off dead? It can be hard to feel joyful about having to begin again, but do it anyway. The joy will come later. It will come when God shows you that you were right to place your trust in Him while your heart was screaming THERE IS NO HOPE, when He shows you that you were right to step out into the deep while your mind screamed THERE IS NO JESUS TO CATCH YOU.

The joy will come when you learn that yes, in Jesus’ hands we are never damaged beyond repair. That we can toss our ugliest mistakes into that blazing furnace of His Sacred Heart, to be purified and transformed for the good of our souls.

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This was inspired by the words of Blessed Mother Teresa: “Do not let the past disturb you — just leave everything in the Sacred Heart and begin again with joy.”

I briefly emerge from my indefinite hiatus to share these two drawings.IMG_2039

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My friend and I were talking about how different the effect of these drawings would be had I drawn adults instead of children.  It’s almost impossible to walk away from a suffering child; our instinctual response to their pain tends to be unbridled. Perhaps that’s what it means that God sees us as his little children.

Baby steps in managing depression

A friend recently asked me how I figure out whether I’m depressed (in the clinical sense of the word), or just really, really sad. Based on experience, I would boil it down to asking myself this question: am I mourning a loss or a tragedy, or am I mourning my entire existence? Another helpful clarifying question, one which the people I love can help answer, is: am I still able to find meaning in the things I’ve always cherished, or have I lost vitality in these pursuits and concerns? Of course, these aren’t fool-proof diagnostic tools, but they’ve served as a good starting point for me.

Most recently, I learned to also ask myself this: Am I suffering due to things beyond my control? Or am I inflicting suffering on myself?

Because my current depressive episode was specifically triggered by mistakes I’ve made, I subconsciously began punishing myself. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but there’s a difference between humbly accepting the consequences of my mistakes, and actively torturing myself.

This dawned on me when I recently found myself feeling faint from just trying to grade my students’ work. A few days prior, I almost passed out in the classroom. I noticed my ribs beginning to jut out more than usual, and my skirts no longer clinging to my waist. I realized that for more than a month, I’d been consuming one meal a day, sometimes less. Most days it would be a bowl of instant oatmeal, other days a couple of granola bars from my roommate’s stash, some days nothing. I hazily mulled over these observations after returning home from work, and eventually burst into tears while struggling to chew on a cold, half-eaten burrito that had been sitting in the fridge for a week. And then I made a very important resolution. It’s time to “grow up” in the way I handle depressive episodes.

If this is going to be a recurring theme in my life, I can’t and don’t want to always count on being babied. A close friend recently told me, “Take care of yourself as you would care for your own child.” I thought about that. There will come a time, perhaps especially when I have my own family (if I do), when I’ll want to be able to take care of other people while depressed. Before I can do that, I first need to know how to take care of myself, regardless of how I feel about myself.

Learning to seek professional treatment independently, while it’s a significant breakthrough, wasn’t enough. There’s a lot more I need to do to stay healthy and better poise my mind and body for a speedier recovery: eating well, exercising, spending time with people, putting my best effort into my work, and so on.

Yesterday, I finally made a trip to the grocery store. Did I feel self-conscious and anxious asking for help? Yes. Did I think that every stranger I saw was secretly thinking bad thoughts about me? Yes. Did I think I was useless and stupid for not being able to find cilantro? Yes. Did I regret leaving home at all? Yes. But most importantly, I did what I needed to do anyway. I then cooked myself enough food to last me at least the next three days. It’s not the most balanced or nutritious of meals, but it’s a start. Baby steps!

Experience does help. This being my fourth depressive episode, I’m now quite familiar with depression’s arsenal of tricks. When someone at work stares at me and my mind instantly jumps to ridiculous conclusions, I’m able to tell myself to ignore the thought. When I’m having dinner with friends and I find my mind preoccupied with thoughts like…I’m too stupid to engage thoughtfully in this conversation. My friends invited me only because they feel bad for me. I have no friends. I don’t deserve friends…I’m able to tell myself that those aren’t true, no matter how true they feel. In being able to identify false or distorted thought patterns, I’m able to direct my behavior accordingly. Conduct that lesson no matter how uncomfortable it feels. Meet that friend no matter how scary it seems. Finish your lunch no matter how undeserving you feel. The more I push myself, the more I feel myself getting better.

I attribute these milestones to a combination of factors: the mitigative effects of mood stabilizers (which I was already taking prior to the onset of this episode), consultation with my doctor, wisdom from experience, and honest communication with the people who care about me.

As a Catholic, I must also add that most importantly, access to the Sacraments has granted me access to extra graces I previously didn’t have. And there’s no better reminder that I’m loved than to receive Christ, who gives me His body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Holy Eucharist.

I still remember talking to Fr Peter, way before I entered the Church, while in the thick of depression and a major faith crisis. He advised me to “get this under control” by seeking a diagnosis and proper medication, before adding, “And you might want to consider becoming Catholic.” I had no idea at the time, but he really knew what he was talking about. Previously, my despair would know no bounds and suck me down a bottomless abyss. These days, it’s clear that there are limits to how much I can actually despair. As rough as things get, I know that I’m building my house on solid rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock (Matthew 7:25).

Perhaps when the brain fog clears, maybe in a couple of months or so, I’ll be able to write a more articulate post on the theology of suffering and how it’s helped me. But for now, this will have to do.

Thank you for accompanying me on this journey. Peace be with you. 🙂

An appointment with the Divine Physician

I know that many of you read this blog for the positive voice I bring into difficult topics like depression and bipolar disorder. Some of these posts might make it seem like I’ve figured it all out. But in recent months, I learned that I have not.

I’m hurting a lot. I’m still traumatized by the aftermath of an unrecognized, mismanaged, unmedicated hypomanic episode. I’ve learned a lot through all of this, but every day I wish I didn’t have to learn the hard way. I understand now that a lot of the mess I created could have been avoided if I’d had a better understanding of bipolar II, if I hadn’t underestimated it, if I’d recognized the symptoms early and nipped it in the bud, and if I’d been more consistent and proactive about taking care of myself. What is most painful is the realization that I could have avoided hurting myself and someone I love most dearly. But the fact of the matter is that I didn’t. And as I’ve grappled with these thoughts and emotions, it’s pushed me into another depressive episode.

But in this time of darkness, I am discovering my true love. It is exactly what St Augustine wrote: “In my deepest wound I saw Your glory, and it dazzled me.”

I see my therapist and my psychiatrist, but there’s no surer, truer healing than to be in the presence of Jesus. Day after day I approach him just as I am, a wounded child. I cry, but not the same tears I cry to a friend, to my family, or even the tears I now cry to myself as I write this. When I cry to my friends, underlying all of it is a thirst for affirmation that I’m worthy of love, of forgiveness, of second chances, and that I’m not too broken to be fixed. And when I cry to myself in my room, I know deep down that those are but tears of self-pity. These tears often deepen the wound.

But when I cry before the Blessed Sacrament, I feel free. There’s no need to struggle to articulate my pain, there’s no need to pretend to be strong, to manage other’s or my own impression of myself. I’m exposing my wounds to the one who sees it all, knows it all, feels it all. The fears, anxieties, frustrations, and regrets I’ve been carrying around all day, they fall off my shoulders and lie unhidden, unravelled, and undressed before the Divine Physician. I need not even articulate my pain, my needs, or my requests. I know He’s already working on those wounds and scabs, administering medicine far more effective than anything anyone could conjure or procure.

And each time, I walk away with the graces I need to take this one day at a time, and with ever-increasing trust in Him. Jesus, I trust in you.

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth.

–J.R.R. Tolkien

Treasure hidden in weakness and suffering

The phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” never sat right with me. I was never sure why, until recently.

It brings to mind a kind strength that is callous toward pain and indifferent to weakness. Or a cold strength of ambition that propels you forward, faster, higher, while paying no heed to what you leave behind. Maybe I’m reading too much into a quip, or maybe I’ve come to desire a radically different kind of strength.

The strength I desire could be mistaken for weakness. You could say that what hasn’t killed me has made me weaker. Weaker in that I feel pain more acutely, mine as well as others’. Weaker in that I am aware of my own shortcomings, and those more forgiving of others’. And weaker in that I relinquish all desire to live life in pursuit of self-glory, instead accepting whatever God places before me, determined to find the graces God has prepared in any given time and place. In accepting weakness we become spiritually stronger.

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I love the above quote by St. Vincent de Paul — it is an invitation to learn the art of suffering well. It’s easy to recognize the value of suffering in hindsight, but let’s aspire to lovingly receive and carry our crosses.

Again and again I discover why the saints insist that suffering is medicine for the soul. Suffering teaches me the most important lessons, purges the most stubborn of bad habits, inspires my highest aspirations, and turns my eyes toward eternity.

Related post: When you know your “good days” are numbered