Monday, June 29, 2009

The Noonday Demon

Cognitive psychology has become aware that much depression is maintained, even generated, by getting caught up in negative patterns of thinking. –Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land

I struggled with depression for several years. I cannot say for certain how long, because it took me a long time to realize that I was depressed. Like Hamlet, I found weary, stale, flat and unprofitable all the uses of this world, and it took a long time to figure out that the problem wasn’t with the world, but with me.

While Clare was still a baby and before Sophie was born, I began wasting time. Lots of time. I spent hours and hours playing computer solitaire. When I became aware of YouTube, things went downhill very fast. Although I have never owned a television, and prided myself on never having seen Friends or Seinfeld or Survivor, I have watched over 4,000 videos on YouTube.

I was self-employed for many years before I began teaching, cobbling together a livelihood out of composing, performing and temp work. I was always unusually self-disciplined; during grad school, I regularly rose at 5:00 a.m. to write. But during the last six years, I became unable either to face my obligations, or to take pleasure in constructive diversions. It was as though my mind were in open rebellion against the things I was asking it to do. I was clearly addicted to loafing.

Screwtape, the senior demon invented by C.S. Lewis in his book, The Screwtape Letters, wrote to his nephew Wormwood, a novice tempter out on his first assignment, about people like me:

As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness,…you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday's paper will do. … You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, "I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked".

Ultimately, between the fatigue brought on by staying up late every night—on top of the fatigues of having an infant and a toddler in the house—my corrosive shame and the weariness of hiding it, I became irritable and intolerant with my family, lashing out in self-righteous impatience at the least provocation. By the grace of God I woke up enough to see what I was doing to my family, and realized that I needed help.

I found a therapist and got a prescription for a mild antidepressant, which took the edge off enough for me to think a little more clearly. But I discovered that while drugs can help manage negative feelings, they can do nothing about negative habits. You have to tackle those yourself. And even now, with the apathy and despair gone, when I no longer want to sleep all day and am no longer smothering under the weight of a leaden sky full of black clouds, I still struggle with what the Desert Fathers called “afflictive thoughts.” I may be out with my children, taking them someplace we all like to be on a beautiful day, and the thought “I’m so unhappy” will come out of nowhere. Or “I’m so miserable!” Literally, those words. And the strange thing is that the words aren’t true; I’m really not miserable. But I’m in the habit of telling myself that I am. These thoughts –and doubtless many, many others, unlanguaged and unrecognized--slide unbidden down tracks I laid for them long ago. And it takes colossal effort to pull up those tracks, and constant vigilance over what I am thinking, so that I now understand the challenge in Paul’s advice to “take every thought captive for Christ.” Vivekananda said that most of us are like spoilt children, and we let out minds think whatever they want to. Not letting the mind default into old destructive patterns is a huge undertaking which, though made more doable through the relief offered by chemical intervention, cannot be accomplished except by laborious effort. Ora et labora.

The yogis call these patterns samskaras, or “volitional formations.” The idea behind karma is that everything we think, do or will leaves “traces” in the vritti, or mind-stuff, which will pre-dispose us to continue to think, act and will in those ways. (“The dog returns to its vomit,” as the Hebrew Bible colorfully puts it.) Once samskaras—literally, “what has been put together”—have been established, they must work themselves out completely. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children; as you sew, so shall you reap; what goes around, comes around. Only grace can break the cycle.

Though the acute emotional distress of my depression is in remission, I still struggle with what the Desert Fathers and Mothers called acedia—what the Western Church has, as one of the “seven deadly sins,” translated as “sloth,” but is actually much more: a deep spiritual lassitude that is a near relation to depression. It is always worse after a period of progress; Mother Theodora nailed it when she said, “You should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once evil comes and weighs down your soul through acedia, faint-heartedness, and evil thoughts.” This is why the Desert Fathers and Mothers called acedia the Noonday Demon: it comes at mid-day to undermine all the resolve of the morning.

I knew someone who, because of what I had experienced myself, I was convinced was deeply depressed. The hole he couldn’t climb out of was so familiar to me, I wished I could convey to him the fruit of my own struggle. It was terrifically frustrating knowing that some medication could have lifted the bell jar enough so he could breathe, allowing him to get out from under his feelings enough to take steps toward managing his thoughts. But in the end, he had to choose to do the work himself; no one could make him accept help.

Jesus couldn’t. “Do you want to be well?” he asked the paralyzed man at the well—not, presumably, because he didn’t know the answer, but because he needed the man to own the question. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…again and again would I have taken your children to myself as a bird takes her young ones under her wings, and you would not!” And God can’t force it on us either, or doesn’t; we have to seek and accept the grace ourselves.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Nursery Magic

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you…”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or but by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your fur has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are Real?" said the Rabbit…

“Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

The Rabbit sighed…He wished that he could become Real without these uncomfortable things happening to him.

(From The Velveteen Rabbit, or How Toys Become Real, by Margery Williams)

My second daughter, Sophia, didn’t sleep through the night until she was two and half years old. For the first few months, she was (read: “we were”) up every ninety minutes during the night. My wife Allison, through sheer fatigue, turned a ghastly gray-green color that alarmed me, and my own mental fog garnered me the worst student evaluations that semester in my entire ten years of teaching.

During the infancy of my two girls, Allison expressed more than once her surprise at how I managed to rise to the occasion of fatherhood. I was surprised myself—I discovered hidden reserves I had no idea I had, and began to feel like a TARDIS—those spaceship/time machines from Doctor Who that are worlds larger on the inside than on the outside.

Fatherhood has been an exercise in Becoming Real. Even Clare, my six-year-old, has noticed how much gray has recently appeared in my beard. But the “uncomfortable things” of fatherhood, like the ones the Skin Horse described, are keepers. The Sisyphusean hamster wheel of chores, the logistical difficulties of leading a normal life with a toddler to preserve from grievous bodily harm (Sophie still managed to break a leg—on my watch—when she was eleven months old,) the weird abjectness of having a screaming infant on the shoulder and a screaming toddler on the leg, the nightmares about strollers rolling down embankments, the terror when I looked around at a block party at the empty spot where my 18-month-old Sophie had been a moment before, my fear of the coming years of peer brutality that no parent’s vigilance can ward off—they are all worth it. As often as I ask myself why on earth anyone would open themselves up to the profound vulnerability of having small people utterly dependent upon them, I wouldn’t trade the experiences in for anything. They have moved me farther down the Road to Real than my whole pre-fatherhood life had taken me.

I had read many times the passage from Matthew in which Jesus reminds his hearers that none of them, if their children asked for bread, would give them a stone, or a serpent if they asked for an egg—and if they, who were evil, knew how to give good gifts to their children, how much more would God give good things to those who ask? Candidly, I had always suspected that, once I had children, I would discover that that was arrant malarkey. God loves me more than I love my children? It doesn’t make a shred of sense; what could be more counter-intuitive? And yet, against all reason, I knew the first time I held Clare that it was all true, and parenthood was a window into the heart of God.

I remember trying to change Clare’s diaper as she screamed and kicked and twisted in protest; I found myself yelling at her, “I AM TRYING TO HELP YOU! IF YOU WOULD JUST STOP YELLING AND HOLD STILL YOU WOULD UNDERSTAND!”

And suddenly, I stopped yelling myself, thunderstruck by the realization that I could be God, talking to Scott. Quit your bitching and thrashing—I am trying to help you!

“The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

I know an elderly woman who is one of those people who lifts your spirits every time you see her. We were talking about the economy, and she told me of her memories of the Depression, when West River Drive was lined with mile after mile of tent city, and people came to her parents’ back door every single day looking for a handout of food which was never refused. When I caught sight of some black-and-white photos of young men in uniform, she told me about her sons, two of whom she has survived—one of whom she was with, holding his hand, as he died of pancreatic cancer. And when she says that no experience, even grief and loss, ever goes to waste—her, I can hear, with shame at my own breathtaking ingratitude.

It doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.

So often when my girls were babies, I remembered a sermon I’d heard years ago in which the priest told us that of course, he had expected to love his children—but nothing could have possibly prepared him for the overwhelming flood of all-consuming love they would awaken in him. And nothing could have prepared him for the pain of hearing them say Daddy, I lost my job; Daddy, I’m an alcoholic; Daddy, I’m getting a divorce. If you want to get in touch with the Passion of God, he told us, you just go and have yourself some children.

Why would God open Himself up like that? Make Himself so vulnerable? Why in the world would God do that?

The Spirit, poet Mary Oliver tells us, wants to be “more than pure light that shines where no one is.” Maybe God created us in order to experience the Nursery Magic of the Skin Horse: to become more Real.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Another Growth Opportunity

At the end of the 2008-2009 academic year, I left my job at Eastern University, a small Christian liberal arts institution on Philadelphia's Main Line. Having been adjunct faculty for ten years with no visible prospect of advancement, I decided that my time and energy would be better spent elsewhere. That much was relatively easy. The difficult part is that I have no idea yet where "elsewhere" is, or what I'm meant to be doing there.

So what I'm doing here is journaling my midlife crisis--working my way through the process of discerning my vocation by documenting that process. This blog is primarily meant as an exercise in spiritual discernment for myself, but if anyone else finds reading it worthwhile, then welcome. I'd value any feedback you'd care to offer.

You may wonder why I have called the blog "Little Teaboys Everywhere." The story, as Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön tells it, goes like this: before the Indian monk Atisha introduced Buddhism into Tibet, he heard that the Tibetans were serene, friendly, non-aggravating people. Fearing lest living among such people would retard his spiritual progress, Atisha brought with him a surly, abrasive Bengali teaboy to help him continually practice patience and forbearance. The joke, of course, is that once he actually landed in Tibet, he discovered that he needn't have brought his teaboy with him, as there are frustrating people everywhere.

In Buddhist thought, the people and situations that frustrate us most are our best teachers. These people and circumstances are an opportunity for spiritual practice and growth. "AFGO," as they say in Twelve Step--"Another Growth Opportunity."

I'm no Hebrew scholar, but I'd love to know the literal meaning of the verse that is traditionally translated "This is the day that the LORD has made--let us rejoice and be glad in it." For me, at any rate, the meaning is more like this: "Might as well rejoice and be glad in it." No reason not to; nothing to be gained by fighting it, because this is it--the soup of the day that the LORD has made. It hurts you to kick against the goads. Or as we say around our house, "You get what you get, and you don't get upset."

Jesus didn't say that he came that we may have a better life, or an easier one or a more successful--he came that we may have life "more abundantly." And just as a hearing aid amplifies everything--the sounds that distract you as well as the ones you want to hear--"abundant life" means more life--all of the above. So this blog is about my coming to terms with my own abundant life. As Aeschylus put it in Agamemnon:

In our sleep, pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

Sounds grim, I know, but as I get older I am coming to realize that it isn't, or needn't be--that "resignation to the will of God" is not an admission of defeat or a desiccation of human vitality, but rather the determination to find joy and fulfillment in the present moment--a moment which comes to us, as C. S. Lewis put it, as "pure gift."