There is No Montage
"There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings."
- Fyodor Dostoevsky
This time a year ago, it was a week after I left a mental hospital and six weeks before I’d return. I only have vague memories of that time. I only have vague memories of any time since then.
I have been thinking of these last say 500 days or so as my lost year as it has been little more than me hiding in dark rooms, alone. Unemployed, underfed, unwashed, unsure of everything. The time has been marked by the dreamlike fog of strong anti-anxiety medication and the weird slow dissolve of most of my interests, my emotional range, the majority of my friends, and even my sense of self.
I’ve been trying to dig myself out. I have made some progress. But there are cave-ins. There are always cave-ins.
In my attempts to escape this rather brutal entrapment of the mind, I have been trying to find the source of my problems. But tracing back to find the root causes of mental illness is difficult. There are many threads to untangle. I think movies would like us to believe that there is one single cause. I am depressed because x happened. Thus to be cured I only need to find y. Alls you need is a Natalie Portman playing you The Shins. There you go. No more problems forever.
I am coming to think that it’s more like stubbing your toe, but before it has a chance to heal you drop something on it. And that continues to happen, from small bumps against the coffee table to anvils and bowling balls making a direct hit. And because that first stub happened when you are a kid, and these injuries keep happening without giving you the needed time and space to heal, by the time you are an adult, you have entirely lost the use of that leg and gangrene has set in as well as a whole host of other problems. All hindering your ability to work or sleep or think about much else other than that constant pain. Except it’s worse. Because all these injuries keep happening to your mind.
This affects how you see yourself.
How you believe the world sees you.
How you see the world.
How you see your role in it.
And time will not stop for your healing.
And healing is hard anyway as it involves fixing thoughts and that requires a lot of thinking about thinking and catching your own thoughts as they happen and replacing them with different thoughts.
Everyone has stubbed their mind at least once. We all carry at least a little emotional bruising. Some of us have a higher degree or greater frequency of psychological scars. Some of us have relatively few (the well-adjusted bastards). But we all have some. And life keeps happening, rubbing against old wounds, breaking scabs wide open.
This, incidentally, is (one of the ways) how I interpret the Garden of Eden story:
All of us born into innocence, in relationship, in trust. But at some point we are lied to and betrayed; our first taste of the knowledge of good and evil. We become aware that people can lie to us. That our decisions have consequences. That life is not just beautiful, but is also made up of pain, suffering, toil, and hunger. This casts us out of Eden, out of the perfect and idyllic life that we thought the world once was as children. It’s not so much that we have a sin nature as it is simply a lifetime of trauma and bad mistakes. Adam and Eve left the garden, got some clothes, and got to the business of growing crops and making babies. So too we get clothes and jobs and watch our kids turn out to be different than what we hoped for them.
Spending the rest of our lives trying out various ways to get back to some semblance of that peace, contentment and total trust that we once knew. That was our birthright.
For me, that’s one of the main goals of spirituality: a return to wholeness, newness, healing. Our garments are ripped, filthy, and soiled. Sometimes through our own fault. Sometimes through the fault of others. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be washed pure as the driven snow? Wouldn’t it be nice to no longer feel as hurt, as lost, as broken as we so often do?
I can see why I have longed for that promise. Why I still do, all these years after leaving the church and organized religion behind. I’m obsessed with it. I want the thing that will ease my pain. I want the explanation that will make all this pain worthwhile. Atheism by itself does not cure one of the human needs that drive people towards religion in the first place.
Don’t we all long for unobstructed closeness? Feelings of transcendence? Freedom from guilt, shame, and fear? What great things we could accomplish, what peaceful, engaged lives we could lead, if only we weren’t devoting so much of our attention to worry, insecurity, resentment, and regret.
I think one of the things we are looking for in a religious or spiritual path is a way to possess a secret knowledge of the cosmos with which one can gain access to instant transformation. Satori on the road to Damascus. A cheat code for better living.
We look through history and we can see these people. Some might call them saints, though we find them in every faith tradition as well as outside faith. There is something about these people that make them seem, well, untroubled. Calm, gracious, wise, humble, giving, forgiving, not caught up in their own sorrows or self-importance, but are somehow just present and alive, digging all of it. Making it better.
I want to be one of those people. Who doesn’t? However—and I can’t speak for you here, but I’m willing to bet someone else’s money that we are in the same boat—too much of my experience in becoming a better person involved merely pretending that I was one.
The comedian Pete Holmes in a podcast interview made the observation that too often those of us who grew up in church (probably any religion) will look at those in our tradition that our embodying “holiness” or “enlightenment” or “sixth level laser lotus” or whatever and we see the fruits of that piety, and we merely try to mimic those fruits instead of experiencing the inner transformation itself. We mask. We hide our wounds. We pretend we are more put together than we are. We replace our torn garments for glitter and silk, but under the fabric we are still bleeding.
Justice Bartlett recently wrote a great piece about the danger of new age spirituality’s capacity to focus so much on positive energy and attitude that one can become blind to what’s actually going on with themselves and the world around them. “Too many New Age notions tout the idea that what we focus on expands”, she wrote, “and while this is true to a certain degree, what we ignore does not shrink, either.” But if we are not, through willful or unknowing denial, seeing the real wounds that we are still present within us and around us then we are merely “burning sage while the world actually burns.”
There is a Buddhist teaching that the mind creates the world. The psychologist Gabor Maté reflected on this by saying yes, if you believe the world is a safe and welcoming place you will be more trusting, giving, and open to experience, where if you believe the world is an unsafe place you will be more guarded, defensive and paranoid. But, he says, “what the Buddha didn’t say is that before with the mind we create the world the world creates our minds.” Which is to say that we were shaped by things that we have no control over, but until we learn to heal and learn and grow away from those traumas and wounds, they will continue to shape our worlds as they have. As Richard Rohr says, if we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it.
And I do believe in transformation. Though I do not believe any of us deal with suffering “for a reason,” I do believe that we can find a reason. We can find the good out of the wreckage and salvage it and redeem it. Look back at your life and see how past hurts, trials, and mistakes have sharpened you, made you more tenacious and resilient. Widened your compassion and understanding and patience. But also look back and see where pain has made you bitter, guarded, in denial of kindness for others and your own self. Both paths are possible, neither is inevitable.
I believe that all of us have the capacity to connect with what some call the divine and some call presence and others have no name for at all. I believe we can find healing from past wounds and learn to trust and love better and have stronger bonds with friends and families. I believe we can learn to love ourselves as we love our neighbor.
But it does not come for free. There is a price of admission.
One unifying undercurrent that I have observed in spiritual success stories is discipline. There is work involved. Though maybe those are the wrong words. Perhaps our Christian friends would have us use the word devotion. Buddhists call it cultivation. Alan Watts refers to it as developing a skill. Simone Weil calls it attention.
Whatever you call it, the task remains for each of us that desire a more nourished, loving, and peaceful existence to sit on the floor in front of the giant mess of Christmas lights that is our minds and begin to untangle, unwind, and rewire.
There is no shortcut. There is no montage. This is lifelong work.
As Richard Foster once wrote, this process isn’t what causes the transformation. We cannot force our transformation any more than a child can make themselves taller or we can force the flowers to grow. That happens on its own. We are, you and I, transforming now whether we like it or not. No, what spiritual discipline does is improve the conditions of the soil and provide a better environment for healthy flourishing and growth.
The garden will sprout regardless of what we do, but it is to us to work to plant what seeds we want and to vigilantly root out the weeds.
I know just as well as anyone (maybe even more) how overwhelming such a prospect can seem. It’s why so many of us bury ourselves in our work or escape through television and mind altering substances, why we would rather do anything than be alone with ourselves. But things will not get better on their own. Those open wounds will only continue to grow worse. A lost year can turn into a lost decade before you know it. And the first step to all of this is honesty. Is seeing where you truly are and starting from there.
Which is why I am starting where I can, doing what I can. Because that’s literally the only way to start anything. And I will hold as much love and grace and patience for myself as I can muster. I know I will get through this, even if for no other reason than I know I can’t stay like this.
And to you, dear reader, wherever you are in the process of healing. Whatever hurts and scars still haunt you, I wish you peace. This stuff is hard. You are free to feel everything you’re feeling. I hope we all continue to improve the conditions for our growth.