The best description of depression I’ve ever seen. Really.
A new found friend has taken up the mantle of victim advocate in Gender Based Violence (GBV) in the capital city of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. She is wielding the weapons at her disposal against patriarchal traditions which are both native to her land and imposed from certain Western ideals. As such, she is actively on the web setting up groups for discussion, message boards, etc. and is posting images of women who have suffered unimaginable brutality. She’s emailed and discussed curriculum options for weekend seminars, and requested resources. She recently emailed me privately some photos: they are graphic and haunting–including fresh wounds from axes and bush knives, burns from hot irons, broken bones and bruises from beatings, amputations, and even images of a woman being burned to death and a beheading.
I am honored to be trusted with such images–honored and deeply humbled.
Since receiving the photos I’ve not been able to sleep. Days have passed and the images dog me, sneaking up when I least expect it. It isn’t that the level of violence is new to me: I witnessed ravages as such as a child growing up among the poor and prostitutes in the capital. I grew up not knowing that wounds weren’t normal–that amputations weren’t just a matter of course. Rape was a real possibility (even if I’d gotten the logistics confused as a child). I understood scars as women’s history written large on their bodies. Yet as an adult, with feminist-educated eyes and a wealth of theological study behind me, the images sting anew: the status of women hasn’t changed much in 30 years.
And my initial response is silence. I cannot bear the weight of these images alone, yet cannot share them–I don’t wish this sort of haunting upon anyone, especially those who for whom Western media has cushioned such blows (we don’t show dead bodies on TV or in our newspapers, they are censored out of our common news sources). We witness domestic violence through movies–comforted that it is merely makeup we are viewing, and not real wounds.
I go talk to my therapist. And I find I don’t care to introduce such atrocities to her psyche either. I pour my heart out in frustration, but hold the pictures close to my proverbial chest.
I tell my best friend of them, and of the impossibility of sharing their burden. He listens, pained at my frustration. He allows me to hold them at a distance. And finally, he offers to see them. “I’m willing.” And tears begin to flow freely. And I consider it.
But I can’t help thinking back to my friend in PNG and the life-risking work she is doing on behalf of the women there. How can I tell her that because of her pictures, I’ve been traumatized? That her emails have sent me to therapy? That while she lives and breathes this atmosphere of violence, I spend $150 to talk to a therapist? That I fret because I’ve lost 3 nights of sleep? That I feel utterly inadequate and ridiculous?
Yet I live and work in this world: surrounded by high rises, wealth, and opulence.
Damn my first world problems and first world solutions. Damn them.
I’m haunted lately by a recurring dream after which I wake in a panic, heart pounding, sweaty, and often in tears. Details of the dreams vary from time to time, but there are always core elements which remain the same: I am on my way on a trip… there are problems with packing or the commute to the airport or something, such that I am worried I’ll miss my flight… I always manage to arrive in just enough time to catch the flight… only to discover as I encounter the TSA agent in the security queue that my passport expired THE DAY BEFORE MY TRIP. From there the dream deviates between fellow travelers who are frustrated at me, extreme disappointment at not being able to take the trip, anger by someone I’m supposed to meet ‘there’ (wherever ‘there’ is?), or being somehow granted ‘grace’ by the security personnel, without a game plan on how in the world I’m going to return. ACK!!
American sociologist David C. Pollock developed the following description for third culture kids: “A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.” TCKs tend to have more in common with one another, regardless of nationality, than they do with non-TCKs from their passport country.
So what does it mean to dream that your passport has expired? That I’m feeling stuck?
I’ve felt troubled over the years with my 3-4 year itch: the restlessness I’ve felt upon spending just a few short years with any given group of people or in any given location. I’ve determined to fight this restlessness and make a home for myself. I’ve now lived through this 4 times during my 12 years of living in Chicago. I want a community; a place with some history; a place to call home. I’ve made an effort to make this home for me. I’ve turned down jobs in other cities and other countries, and settled into a church community. I’ve established long-term friendships, and allowed myself to have emotional ties.
So what does it mean that I keep dreaming about expired passports?
A recent mishap with a pair of kitchen shears brought to mind Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. I’d been cutting up chicken breasts for a stir fry, and not paying much attention. It was the difference in the density of the meat which gave me pause. “Huh. That must have been gristle I cut through” I thought as I glanced down at my hand. Huh. It was more surprise than anything that registered. A deep V shape had opened up in the pad of my hand, just below the webbing between my fingers. I paused with momentary interest, but then continued cutting up the chicken. I only stopped when the wound began to bleed. It was then that the line from Merchant flitted through my head: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
Bleed indeed! It took a moment to start, but once the bleeding began the flood gates seemed to open. I soaked a kitchen towel in blood trying to apply sufficient pressure to close the gap and achieve hemostasis; I even began contemplating the need of sutures. Gratefully the bleeding ceased (as it will always, eventually…). I then found myself in a state of shock: how could I receive such an onerous wound and not even feel it? I’ve yet to feel pain at the site. The only thing which drew my attention to the wound was that the scissors weighed differently in my hand; that the tension changed from when I was cutting chicken to when I was cutting my hand. How remarkably odd!
That evening, as I laid in bed I thought more about the wound, and then more about the Merchant. There is an intense friendship in this play between Antonio and Bassanio. Antonio goes to great lengths to secure a loan for his friend: offering a ‘pound of flesh’ as guarantee. The description of their friendship borders on the erotic. Antonio doesn’t hesitate to help Bassanio (mirroring the words on Portia’s leaden casket “Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath”). It was Antonio’s unexplained depression — “In sooth I know not why I am so sad” —which stopped me in my tracks. Scholars of English literature are all over the place in their interpretation of Antonio’s malaise: some offer back the complex plot line in a very straightforward fashion–that Antonio’s life was at stake, indeed soon to be ended; others surmise there was more than platonic love between the friends than meets the eye–that securing the loan for Bassanio’s betrothal to a Portia caused Antonio great pain. The reader is left to speculate, as we always are with Shakespeare’s ambiguous, colorful characters.
It is Antonio’s indifference, either to his fate or to his emotions, which would not let me rest. It was too familiar: unrequited, impossible love mingled with an unreasonable and disproportionate devotion. The words on the lead casket echo the language I was taught as a child regarding what it meant to be a disciple of Christ (Matt 19:29)–that there was no limit to the sacrifice we might (be called to) make in the name of our devotion; to choose the Way of God is to hazard all things. Of course in Shakespeare’s play, Antonio is saved and everyone has a good laugh. Evil’s plans (in this case, the Jewish merchant, Shylock) are thwarted, and it all works out in the end. But what happens when the potential sacrifice is indeed accepted? What if Antonio paid with a pound of flesh? What if Isaac is bound and splayed out on the altar, and Abraham’s fist clutching the dagger is on its way down, and no heavenly body intervenes?
Can there not be limits to where my devotion might take me? A recent reading the introduction to Craig Keen’s The Transgression of the Integrity of God pushed these buttons for me as well. In it, the editors of the collection of essays (former students of Keen’s) describe a radicality in his devotion which is dangerously inspiring: that nothing would get in Keen’s way of his discipleship. “Everything was up in the air. Everything was to be abandoned to the way in which he felt himself called. Marriage, school, career–everything.”
Such language stirs the valiant among us to nobel ends! It motivates and radicalizes our best inclinations. Our faith takes us to heroic heights, all the while leaving the vicissitude of daily life for others to attend to. In this manner, a sense of proportion is lost: this is how children end up raising themselves; how wives become mere ‘helpmeets’. These sacrifices become the fodder by which the mythology of the saints is built. I know of what I speak! (…says the girl relegated to boarding school so that her folks could do God’s will). Can we not with some semblance of certainty claim that the God worthy of our devotion would not require such fantastic offerings from us?
It is here that this Christian theologian begins finding Siddhārtha Gautama more compelling than the teachings of Jesus; certainly more so than many of the ‘followers’ of Jesus. While Jesus stands singularly as ‘the Way’, Siddhārtha Gautama explored several paths before finally arriving at The Middle Way–—a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.
When immersed in the pseudo-evangelical holiness world, is it possible to lead a faithful life of moderation? Or is radicality essential? The ends of this radical devotion, martyrdom, bears with it the same ultimate escape of consequences to which the family and loved ones of suicide victims fall prey. Choose the way of radicality and you relinquish responsibility to those left holding your urn.
The Middle Way seems far more difficult; far more challenging; and requires far more devotion to the path. Living the middle way demands perpetual thoughtfulness and readjustment: it bears not the luxury of emotional decision-making, but demands presence without escape. It demands attention: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
Oddly, this middle way bears a strong resemblance to holiness…
Sethe’s chokeberry tree was in full bloom-winding and twisting its way across her back. The first time I read Morrison’s Beloved my body ached–it was as though a vibration of identification with the violence and abuse welled up from the pit of my stomach and shook me to the foundation. In contrast, Paul D’s gentle touch was unbearably kind, and I sobbed aloud when I read the lines “finally the weight of her breasts were in someone else’s hands”. Never before had I encountered writing which embodied so graphically the numbing scars of abuse and the burden of my own sexuality.
I spent years bearing the ‘weight’ of my own desire, and the abuse inflicted upon me behind my back by oppressive systems which claimed divine authority over my heart, my body, and my mind.
I found myself in a state of significant depression while in seminary. I was a young woman with conflicting emotions and desire, angry that my reproductive organs placed my keen mind within the realm of novelty; my sexuality within the realm of the deviant. I began reading Nietzsche. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche describes a teacher who desired that his teachings be like a tree: where wind and wave and pestilence constantly tested its strength. To have teachings which could bend without breaking showed the strength of the theory. And if the tree indeed broke, then so be it! It was better to find out the theory had a weakness than for it to stand untested. When the teacher’s student hears of the teacher’s desire to be like a tree, the student cries out impetuously, “I believe in what you have to say so strongly, that I will say everything I can against it.” And the teacher laughed and said, “You are the best kind of disciple. Also the most dangerous.”
I found a way to bring back to life the deadened scarred tree limbs which ran across my own psyche: my theology could twist and bend and as long as it didn’t break–it showed strength. I began to nurture that Nietzschean tree. My theology stood test after test–I could please the most left winged feminists, as well as the most radical of the orthodox. I lived in extremes, embracing polar opposites. But after about 10 years of performing these mental gymnastics, I found that much like the North and South poles, these extremes were fun to visit–a feat to visit even–but no one lives there for good reasons as they aren’t habitable. Humans are a temperate bunch, preferring more moderate and livable climates–we need places that are habitable. And I needed a habitable theology.
I began to take seriously the mantra taught to me both by a professor and by my therapist: “Surround yourself with life-giving people in life-giving places.” If the person or circumstance in which I was engaged did not meet the criteria of ‘life-giving’–I removed it from my proximity. I decided to make this a permanent life-style choice: and tattooed the image of a tree of life on my back–so that I’d remember the various trees in my life–all of them framed by life. Intertwined within the roots of this tree are the initials of the therapist and the professor–two women who helped free me up to embrace life.