"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

27 September 2005

Lincoln Essay

Note to my readers: Joshua Shenk paid Inscapes a visit and tells us that his book on Lincoln, Lincoln's Melancholy (from which the Atlantic Monthly article discussed below was abstracted), is now available. Here's a link to his website that tells a bit about the book, and here's where he says one can find the currently lowest price.

26 September 2005

Longing for a Focus

{Note: The boy now has 4” on me; his voice on the phone is now mistaken for his dad’s instead of mine; and he has chosen the road to maturity instead of juvenile self-centeredness. So he no longer seems to be “the boy.” “Guy” is unacceptable because it denotes a physiological young man who determines to remain emotionally a boy. So while he may have a ways to go to fully arrive at it, he shall now be known as “the YM” – the young man.}

Quote from “Twenty Years After” – Betty Friedan’s preface to the 20th anniversary edition of her book The Feminine Mystique, first published in 1963:

“Women [. . .] who combine work, marriage, and motherhood [. . .] have more control over their lives” than women who are “just housewives.”

In the margin of my copy appears the comment “surely this is a sick joke!”

I will grant you I did not choose to combine work, marriage, and motherhood, which undoubtedly affects my response to this assertion. However, I have not spent the past 20+ years in continual resentment over it, and I have tried my best to make the best of it, to make it “work.”

It doesn’t.

The assertion is false, and while some women may be completely happy to live this way, I refuse to believe they have more control over their lives than the woman who chooses one or the other.

Of course, Friedan frequently refers to the housekeepers and nannies and various other servants that the career women she knows all seem to hire . . . but even with a husband at home who takes care of most of the housework “drudgery” (laundry, cleaning, etc.), I do not have any sort of “control” over my life. (I can’t imagine how women manage who have to do all that after a day’s work outside the home – which is likely a lot more women than Friedan admits.)

This past summer, one of my goals was to let go – not be consumed by anxiety over the to-do list but try to live in His time and in His peace. I found at least a taste, and it was good.

I got far more done than I ever have, I think. Research on family concerns; the YM’s high school curriculum determined, books ordered, and first semester of daily assignments laid out; a good deal of reading both fun and purposeful; an essay drafted (whose death was of value – at least I know now what was wrong with the concept); a trip to visit parents; syllabi completed before classes began (a first!); and more. I even cooked a few real meals and made cookies with the YM.

I never felt rushed. I got up when I felt rested (and napped if I needed to – though after the first couple of weeks I rarely did), went to bed when I was ready, responded to my husband and the YM without constant annoyance at being interrupted – because there was nothing I was being interrupted from. I was living for others and not just for me and my timetable, created by the fact of my professional position and its ownership of my time and mind, by virtue of that monthly paycheck and all its attendant expectations.

Now I am trying to continue in that place. I am seeing some victories in leaving behind the constant anxiety that usually attends the semester, even as my days fill with more and more “things to be done.” It is better than usual, emotionally, much of the time. (Lord, help me find it this week!)

But control? More control over my life than I had all summer? I collapse into bed when I can no longer keep my burning eyes open, to be jerked awake a couple of hours earlier than my body clock accepts, so I can shower and dress and rush away from my family with quick hugs, only to spend my day immersed in what others require of me. No matter how much I enjoy teaching – and I do – I have no meaningful control over my time or my actions for those ten hours.

And when I come home, I have papers to grade and classes to prep, and when I choose to spend the evening with K and the YM, I must stay up and do the rest late at night – I am being paid for it to be done – only to drag myself up with the alarm and do it all again the next day. And when the weekend comes, all I want is to catch up on sleep, and yet there are the never-ending papers, the constant class prep, and my annoyance at interruptions from the ones I should be serving with delight.

Perhaps some women thrive so much on professional work that they are not exhausted by this routine. Perhaps the rewards of pay and prestige are so welcome to them that lack of time to restfully enjoy husband and children does not disturb them. Perhaps their children don’t need the emotional and time investment that mine seem to.

But even if they enjoy such a life, they do not have more control over their lives than I had this summer. And I do not understand why anyone would choose a frenetic pace determined by others over the freedom of “just a housewife.” For me, no amount of money, no amount of professional acclaim could ever be worth this constant exhaustion, this constant pull in too many directions, this lack of control over my life.

(And yes, I remember what it was like with young children, and I know that women at home are not autonomous and cannot do what they please; but they can be focused on serving family and not trying to serve both family and the mammon of professional expectations. It is a place of service and not a place of “personal fulfillment” which cannot be found when sought after. [One must lose one's life to find it.] And there is much freedom in not being pulled in so many different directions, but having one's life directed by one primary purpose, so that all choices are made within that one context. [Yes, I am teaching the controlling idea in my classes! One's life needs a CI, too.])

I would do anything acceptable to the God who gave His Son, acceptable to that Son who died for me, to be in that place again.

16 September 2005

Discipline and Peace

Our new Sunday School class is on the spiritual disciplines. Great teacher. Great, and for me very needed, subject. But I already find myself in avoidance, making excuses.

I am not disciplined in these areas. Partly it’s just human laziness, of course. There’s an element of having had folk in my life who made me feel like an evil person because I hadn't cloned their habits. Some of it’s irrational fear of drawing too close to Him – maybe He is waiting for me so He can shoot me down, chew me out, tell me how really a worm I am.

All of it’s just excuses. And part of me wants to embrace this class and maybe find ways to void those excuses. And part of me is afraid to find more rules and instructions and methods of organization that I can’t possibly follow, so that I will feel once again a miserable failure.

Thinking on all this last night, I was struck with the realization that it’s not just “discipline” – making myself do certain things at certain times in certain ways and amounts. But it’s desire – desire not for the disciplines but for the One the disciplines help us to know. All the prayer and Bible reading and fellowship and sermon-listening in the world mean nothing if done for their own sakes. (And I know they can be so done.)

And there is the heart of my reluctance and failure in the disciplines. For all my reliance on relationship, I do not rely on relationship with Him. Oh, I rely on Him. But I do not rely on relationship with Him. I do not love Him and long for Him as I do for my earthly father. And I want to, and I am afraid to, and I am so lazy . . .

And here’s another Scott Cairns poem that somehow speaks to this frustration and failure in me and comforts me. The title is, I understand, a Greek word for “peace.”

Stillness occurs with the shedding of thoughts.

– St. John Klimakos

Of course the mind is more often a roar,
within whose din one is hard pressed to hear
so much as a single word clearly. Prayer?

Not likely. Unless you concede the blur
of confused, compelled, competing desire
the mind brings forth in the posture of prayer.

So, I found myself typically torn,
if lately delivered, brow to the floor,
pressing as far as I could into prayer,

pressing beneath or beyond the roar
that had so long served only to wear
away all good intentions, baffling prayer.

Polished hardwood proves its own kind of mirror,
revealing little, but bringing one near
the margin where one hopes to find prayer –

though even one’s weeping is mostly obscured
by the very fact and effect of one’s tears,

which, for the time being, must serve.

12 September 2005

Under Conviction, Again

I just got a boxload of books (the day 42 freshman essays came in, too . . . how unfair is that!). I can only afford the time to glance through one in the next few days, so I chose poet Scott Cairns' Philokalia. The first poem I chanced across took my breath.

"Possible Answers to Prayer"

Your petitions -- though they continue to bear
just the one signature -- have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties -- despite their constant,

relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value -- nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.

Your repentence -- all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment -- is sufficient.

Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.

Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you --

these must burn away before you'll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.

All I can say: Lord, help me.

09 September 2005

“Thoughts of Death”

Shenk writes about Lincoln’s determination to live for the “sacred purpose” to which he was called, but his melancholy never left him; he continued to have “thoughts of death.” It is unclear to me from the article if he continued to actively contemplate suicide. But that phrase has intrigued me the past few days – “thoughts of death.”

From the time I was in early high school until some point during graduate school (after marriage and the arrival of four children), I all too frequently contemplated suicide. Not just the idea, but the ways and means.

But at some point during graduate school, the conviction to live came to me. It was no dramatic moment; perhaps simply every decision not to die strengthened an implicit decision to live. However it happened, the possibility of suicide ended.

But not “thoughts of death.” Sometimes the first realization that I am sinking into that morass of depression – I love the old-fashioned term melancholy; it is much more descriptive – has been the thought, as I lie in bed frantically tired, I just wish I would die.

It is a strong thought, frighteningly so. I used to fight it. But fighting it seemed only to increase its power. Now I just repeat it a few times, like a mantra, and then force my mind elsewhere – mentally work on a story or essay I’m writing, carry on that conversation I’ll never have with someone, plan my classes for the next day. Often a frantic go-around with its own craziness, to be sure. But the thought of death eventually goes away.

Most things go away, eventually. Fifty-three years (close enough) have taught me that this too shall pass is true. Oh, I know that circumstances won’t always pass. But the way we feel about them will. Today they are overwhelming. Tomorrow they will be gone. Or we just won’t care. Or we’ll wonder why we cared. Maybe they’ll even appear funny. (I said maybe!)

For the melancholy, however, it’s not the circumstances that are the driving force. Shenk writes, “in a depressive crisis we might feel bad because something has gone awry. Or we might make things go awry because we feel so bad. Or both.” Indeed. There is no chicken-and-egg question here, nor is there any need for something to be awry for the melancholy to wish for death.

It will come, too. But I am content to let it come in God’s time, and try to remember the star which Sam saw above the reeks of Mordor. The shadow is merely for a time; truth and beauty are forever. I need only cling to them, not create them nor even, at any given moment, see them.

03 September 2005

“Lincoln’s Great Depression”

One of our modern traits is the desire for immediate and complete alleviation of all suffering. I am not opposed, as a general principle, to the alleviation of suffering. But one must remember that this is a fallen world, and suffering is the refining of the One who created us. Maybe we seek too quickly sometimes for health and ease.

The article "Lincoln's Great Depression," by Joshua Wolf Shenk (not available online), appears in the October 2005 issue of The Atlantic. I cannot too strongly urge those of you who have struggled with depression to find the issue and read it.

Based on primary source research, Shenk draws a compelling picture of the deep, even suicidal, depression that dogged Lincoln all his adult life. He divides Lincoln’s struggle into three phases – initial fear, during which he most strongly contemplated suicide, sometimes making friends so concerned as to remove from his reach all razors, knives, and such implements. The second phase he calls engagement – when Lincoln, having determined that he would live, sought and began to live for a considered purpose: “He wanted to connect his name with the great events of his generation, and ‘so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man.’” (This was not hubris – Lincoln was surely one of the most humble men in our political history – but a sense of purpose.)

Once he seems to have engaged his depression – primarily by accepting it and coping with it through work, story- and joke-telling, and reading and writing poetry – he then transcended (not escaped) its grip on his life through embracing and using its benefits to the good of the country he was elected to lead. Of these benefits, Shenk discusses at length clarity, creativity, and humility: Lincoln could see issues more clearly than those less inclined to a pessimistic view of them, he created his best speeches and made his best decisions when he was most melancholy, and he recognized that he was a man under authority (the people’s, God’s) simply doing his job to the best of his ability.

All this is fascinating reading. One thing that most interested me was the way Shenk describes depression and, most unmodern-like, questions the wisdom of always trying to get rid of the suffering it causes its victims, or assuming that the victim of depression is so “sick” that he is de facto unable to function in any positive way. His final lines read:

“Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is a story not of transformation [once he was sick but he got over it and achieved great things] but of integration. Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.”

Some of the ways Shenk describes depression:

“True, a person with a melancholy temperament had been fated with an awful burden – but also, in Lord Byron’s phrase, with a ‘fearful gift.’ The burden was a sadness and despair that could tip into a state of disease. But the gift was a capacity for depth and wisdom.”

“Often understood as an emotional condition, depression is to those who experience it characterized largely by its cognitive patterns. [. . .] Lincoln [. . .] once wrote of ‘that intensity of thought, which will sometimes wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death.’” Of the result of this, one stanza of a Lincoln poem reads “To ease me of this power to think, / That through my bosom waves, / I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink / And wallow in the waves.”

“[H]appiness,” Shenk writes, “is often characterized by muddy inaccuracies.” He quotes a researcher: “[W]hen they are not depressed, people are highly vulnerable to illusions, including unrealistic optimism, overestimation of themselves, and an exaggerated sense of their capacity to control events. The same research indicates that depressed people’s perceptions and judgments are often less biased.”

(This quality, Shenk believes, gave Lincoln his ability to see the horror of slavery, but also the wisdom of the founders in not trying to abolish it at once but put into play the restrictions that would allow it to die out naturally. Each view, of course, made him most unpopular with large numbers of people, but he did not shrink from the truth he was convinced he had seen. He gained this particular insight directly from his own depression: “continuing struggle to realize an ideal, knowing it could never be perfectly attained.”)

“With Lincoln sadness did not just coexist with strength – these qualities ran together. Just as death supports new life in a healthy ecosystem, Lincoln’s self-negation fueled his peculiar confidence.”

As president, he believed “that he had been charged with ‘so vast, and so sacred a trust’ that ‘he felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow.’” He had found his duty, in other words, and did not allow himself to shrink from it however difficult depression might make the work. And the work, because adamantly pursued in the face of suffering, held tremendous creativity, wisdom, insight – and in turn alleviated or held at bay, at times at least, the despair of his personal suffering.

I have read nothing that rings so true about depression not written by an artist suffering from it. It gave me hope once again, especially in the midst of another dark time. I too have been given sacred trusts, from which I must not shrink.