“I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different…” : a precis of the last few months
June 18, 2014
It’s nearly four and I have too few words for this. Every time I’ve tried to say something or think of a way to say it I’ve been stymied by my wordlessness, by the total inadequacy of the language of my mouth and the language of my keyboard to- explain, to tell you, to- draw the vast darkness of sheer and sweeping cliffs of water or the enormous unspeakable blackness of a sea that swells and moves and swallows all that enters it, cold and living and unfathomable. The vastness of an infinite, uncontainable universe of stars and the endless black vacuum between, and twelve small buckets to try and contain some of it, to make some of it visible and sensible, to make sense of an infinite vastness of ocean. That’s how I feel about trying to talk about this.
It’s been a few months now. I’ve been-
so I have something very like PTSD, and I only really recently found out, and it’s been a little bit devastating. Everything else suddenly makes much more sense, now, in a really horrible kind of way; the depression, the anxiety, the exhaustion, the grim despair and blood and death. The dissociation, the coping mechanisms, the panic attacks, the terror. Ten to fifteen years of inescapable psychological abuse can, I think, be classified as a trauma. So I’ve been slowly uncovering and wading through and running and hiding from and consumed and slowly crushed into burning little smithereens by the fact that I am, and have been for such a very long time, a hopeless wreck of a human being, and the process of doing so is ruining, slowly and surely, my academic prospects and general chances of not failing at the one good thing I have found in a very long time. I am destroying myself by being, unavoidably, myself. It’s wonderful.
I am understandably full of bright and dazzling hopes for my future at present. Come frolic with me in the garden of my castles in the sky.
So I took my childhood picture books to heart, apparently, and ‘we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we hafta go through it’ might be ingrained into my psyche. I’m dealing with all this as directly as I can, somewhat compulsively, because making sense of why is how you gain some measure of control over how you behave, and the more you understand, the less likely you are to be a confused bloody flailing bellowing wounded mess of whys (see: university, 2007-2010). But it is very, very hard and I spend so much of my time trying to understand and work through it, or exhausted from trying to understand it, or in total despair because actually, genuinely, my life and the inside of my head is a fucking ruin. Or else I’m hiding from all of this, or just sleeping because I am up to my ears in coping mechanisms.
When I’m not doing all that, though, I feel like I’ve been doused in kerosene and set on fire and I’m burning and wretched and everything is going to, is inevitably and inexorably going to, end in a trainwreck of suicide-inducing proportions, and I’m not joking, I’m distantly terrified that it’s going to get to the point where one day I will just have no more fucks to give, no more energy or tolerance or strength to survive this and no actual reason to keep doing it, and so I will go ‘fuck this shit’ and stick my head into a gas oven (the Plath) or find a car and a fur coat (the Sexton. Not doing the Woolf, though. Nobody likes drowning).
I am so not the happiest camper right now, and I am ruining any hope of a future that doesn’t involve burying myself in a bed and never waking up again because I cannot keep up with my schoolwork while dealing with a fuckton of unmanageable shit. It is a lose-lose kind of deal and can you blame me for not wanting to be conscious through most of this?
Honestly, not to belabour the point unnecessarily or anything but my schedule looks something like this: be in pain, desperately avoid pain, be anaesthetized from pain, try to process and make more manageable some fucking awful, really fucking stupid brain horror you’ve lately uncovered, or be flat out exhausted from trying to do all of that while scratching in a futile and frustratingly ineffectual manner at that eternal burgeoning mountain of overdue assignments, while dealing at the same time with draining social situations and other people as well as the paralysing terror that comes with knowing you’re fucking doomed and this all ends in death and destruction and soul-crushing loss, while occasionally and half-heartedly googling ways to die. Turns out there are many, many ways to maim yourself and/or leave yourself a vegetable if you don’t get it quite right, which is rather an amusing deterrent. Also, turns out that a paracetamol overdose means you die in slow and absolutely horrific agony over something like a full week as your organs slowly fail on you while you’re still in your body, which I totally didn’t expect because really, we hear way too much about painless suicides (someone needs to tell popular media that there’s no such thing). So I’m glad I looked that one up.
Frankly, it’s also and quite simultaneously not as dramatic as it all sounds, largely because I’ve been some colour of this for years (see: rest of blog). So I’m more or less a pro at operating in the everyday eat-food-talk-to-people-go-to-class sphere of life, which does mean that often I’m not entirely aware of the wreckage and screaming underneath my everyday ‘oh hey it’s morning, I should drink tea, isn’t tea amazing’ operating software. So it’s not precisely like I’m consciously lurching and bleeding and sick with terror all day every day every waking minute, because what the hell are effective coping mechanisms for if they don’t help you cope?
The problem, though, is that just because I’m not immediately conscious of all that’s going on doesn’t mean it’s not still there. So the less I’m aware of it the more bewildered and frustrated and horrified I become when my brain just doesn’t work because it’s mysteriously exhausted and I cannot actually make three words fit together, or when I spend nineteen hours in bed and wake up at seven in the evening with my skull hurting from too much sleep, or I read and read and compulsively, addictively, obsessively read until I feel so sick my head is blazing with pain and my eyes would like to stab themselves out of my skull. I don’t know where I was going with all this, but really, the long and the short of it is that I’m a mess and I am, as per usual, fucking up my life, and that what terrifies me is that once I have entirely fucked up my chances here I will have nowhere else to go and no actual reason to live (or: the end of 2012 all over again, only this time I won’t have bible college to retreat to because I will have fucking well burned all my bridges here, won’t I).
God. I’m a cheerful wreck.
On the bright side, God appears to be having a field day with this. It’s all a giant learning experience of blood and fire known as ‘discipleship’, innit? And it’s all fucking horrible but I get it now, I do. I’m starting to get what resurrection means. I understand, now, some of what Paul’s saying in both letters to the Corinthians about death and rebirth, about seeds needing to die, about the death of Jesus in our bodies so that his life might be made visible, also in our bodies. With death so much a part of how I see everything right now, I’m beginning to understand, in my own body, that death is always followed by resurrection. That death is also rebirth. Hard and horrific and painful as this is, I see the Spirit active and working in this, shaping and remaking me with blood and fire (‘blaze, Spirit, blaze, set our hearts on fire’. I do not think you know what you are asking for, cheerful hymn-singing pew-sitter. burning hurts).
I shoulda been so, so much more careful before when I asked for these things, when I asked for transformation and new life and the presence of God. I had no idea what I was talking about, what I was asking for. This God burns and hurts and cannot be looked on without dying, without being incinerated and destroyed in some way, and to ask for his work is to invite death into your life, to open your arms to death and offer him the hammer. To walk into dying. Transformation, after all, is death; to be transformed is destruction as well as new creation. But that’s what baptism means, innit? Death, death of your old self, your only self, the only self you’ve ever known, all the past, presents and futures of you, and death hurts. Death hurts a fucking awful lot. But oh, God, I’ve never understood the Bible better, when it talks about losing your life to gain it, and those metaphors of buried seeds. After the first death, there is no other, because after death is life.
I believe much, much more and I understand so much more than I did several months ago.* I don’t like it one bit, but I don’t need to like it. I just need to accept it, and allow it, and keep going and be obscurely, blessedly, blood-and-horribly encouraged by the fact that this doesn’t all end in death and trainwrecks and cataclysmic unredeemable destruction. That death doesn’t even end in death and trainwrecks and cataclysmic unredeemable destruction. Christianity is an invitation to die, after all, and to be unafraid of our own death in every shade of what death means, because we have been promised an enormity of a life at the other end of it by someone inextricably present in the entire process. It’s a death we undergo so that we might surface, finally, into life, life that has no end, life unhindered by everything to do with pain and evil and loss. That’s what the living and dying and living again of Jesus is a promise of. Death, resurrection, and life, unhindered and unfettered, green and wild and so very different and new as a young tree is from the seed you buried, so very, very long ago.
Also, also, oh my God, John Donne, you absolute bastard. ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God, for you as yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend’? ‘ That I may rise and stand,o’erthrow me, and bend Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new’? John fucking Donne, do you know what the hell you’re asking for? Pain and blood and death. Are you fucking insane.
I don’t know what I’m going to do, really. I don’t know what the hell to do with any of this, except for what I’ve learned by now is a good idea: one thing at a time, one step at a time, one fucking breath at a time. We endure for the sake of the life ahead of us, the weight of glory so vast and so full and so bright and wildly joyous that all this blood and death and wretched fucking pain is, and I quote, ‘slight and momentary trouble’ in comparison, and oh, oh, I am so not a fan of you right now, Paul. Get out of here. Go to Rome.
But oh God, the resurrection and the life, even while dying.
*Also, apparently, several years ago. Seems I clearly understood the pain and torture aspect of Christianity, but didn’t entirely get the resurrection and presence-of-God part. Getting that now. God, how we grow. I hate it all, I really do, but even if it ends in death, it doesn’t end in death.
(all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.)
May 7, 2014
some days I think my ability to come unwound is the most spectacular thing ever. they should put me on show. if you could walk through the clanging-ticking-echoing corridors of the labyrinth that is my head, I would charge admission.
figuring myself out is mostly composed of observation. taking notes, like a botanist or entomologist with a particularly fascinating species of plant or bird or bug; waiting for changes, detailing hypotheses based on alterations to patterns, keeping methodical records. problem, of course, being that the species under study is the instrument doing the study, and a flawed and faulty instrument at that. my life is action inquiry; it is a small-scale deeply private sociological study for the purpose of sustained change. I should take more notes. I should keep a log. I’m already doing enough reading for a literature review. I should write it up as an AI-phenomenology hybrid and hand it in as a research essay; it’ll kill.
in all my observations, I have never figured out precisely what species I am. I have too much data and I’m far, far too close, counting all the tiny veins of a leaf and detailing every shadow underlining the stubble of moss so accurately, so specifically that I barely even notice it’s a whole fucking tree I’m looking at, and I’m nothing so simple (or so complex) as a tree. There are few records of me as a whole creature, and all the ones I’ve found are mostly part-glimpses of an elephant’s hind leg here, a trunk there, another foot here, just ahead. Some of these records are comprehensive and devastating in their details, like a bird-spotter’s guide that says black feathers, curved black beak, wickedly intelligent eyes, large wings with this particular bent and this spreading of feathers at the tip for aerial acrobatics (yes, corvus). These are the recent ones I’ve found, and they detail large swathes of my life, explain and make coherent sense of it all to devastating effect. But that’s not all I’ve ever been, all the markings I’ve ever displayed, and- I just don’t know. It’s a lack in me.
I’m far more tired than I expected to be at nine in the evening. Bedtime, I think.
May 5, 2014
My brain is being self-destructive, which is to say: I am being hopelessly self-destructive. I am imploding with dissociation, because that is the only way I know to cope with hard things, and I’m really not sure how to stop myself anymore.
I’m ruining my life this way because the more I continue like this the more my life comes to unmanageable pieces because schools have deadlines, and assignments are there and not getting done, and it all compounds and I tell myself this, and distantly this makes me all terror and dismay, but see: the problem with terror and dismay is that it distresses me enormously, and the problem with distress is that I only have one way to react to it, which is dissociation. Shutting up shop. Shutting down. I am losing this fight, if this is a fight. It’s like I’m being sucked into a sinkhole of passivity; apathy has its own inertia, and I am slowing down and burying myself more every day. It is fucking annoying, but I can’t get annoyed enough to break out of this slow fade out.
It’s like being sucked into quicksand. It’s like choosing to go to sleep on a boat that is disappearing rapidly down the plughole of some vast whirlpool. Jesus can do it because he’s Jesus. I can’t stop gathering storms or oncoming doom, I can only forget to exist for longer and longer stretches of time in an attempt to not see it happening, because it feels inevitable and I cannot make myself stop anything and I am so close to the knife’s edge of losing it all, losing everything inevitably because I cannot make myself work, because I’m too busy hiding. And God, did I mention this kind of thinking is fucking annoying? But I have no other effective way of dealing; I try for a little and then it feels like my willpower’s run a half-marathon and I’m scrabbling for the next thing to bury myself in for a period of blessed unconsciousness. Being conscious is a difficult fucking choice and I don’t know how to maintain it.
I need to up my hunt for a counsellor or psychologist, find one, and go see them. Stat. I cannot navigate the mess that is my brain alone anymore.
April 1, 2014
when I was fourteen, or sixteen, or twenty, I sat in an old train and argued with God about belonging. The walls were lined with mattresses and the floorboards were weathered wood; bright trees brushed the windows and tried to grow in through the doors. Later, I’d come here and blow shiny purplish bubbles with two girls I’d somehow fallen into a friendship with. It was camp. I was sixteen.
Or fifteen. Or twenty. Really, it doesn’t matter. I was young enough to this country to know my presence here for what it was: exile. I had no name for it then, but it was the same thing; I had been torn up by the stalk and left my roots in the ground behind me. I was thrust into the clean soil of a new place with neither choice nor comprehension, and told to grow and like it, because this was home now. It simply happened to me, like most of my life. And later, when I turned to go back, I was to find that the ground had simply swallowed up the places where I had been, and there was no space for me back there, after all. I had been too long away, and nothing was the same. Home was the past, and the past wasn’t a thing that existed anymore.
I know no other way of being, now, and I have found my own tentative, shallow-rooted fondness for a city bright with wind and saltwater and streets I know. But back then I still didn’t understand, and so I sat in an old train and argued with God out loud about belonging. I may have cried; I appear to do a lot of crying. I was at a camp for Christian teenagers and I felt as if I didn’t belong.
I rarely, rarely feel like I belong. Anywhere, and to any one organisation, or to any particular group of people. I don’t know precisely why this is. But it was so during my university courses, and it was so in theatre, and in choir, and in high school, and in my high school Christian group, and in all the New Zealand youth groups I attended, and in all the New Zealand churches I attended before I stopped attending churches. Sometimes it’s so here, too, at Carey; small things happen, and I remember, and I am left a little unmoored because most of the time, most of the time I do belong here, at least a little. But it’s a shallow rooting at best, and sometimes I see just how shallow it can be, and how little I might matter, in the end.
Perhaps that’s what it is. I hadn’t realised it until I’d written it above. In some places, in many places, I don’t believe I matter at all. And that may be a fault in my own perception (not the soundest by any means), but it may equally well be true.
I think- I’m beginning to think that belonging is to be important in some way. Not important as in necessary but important as in wanted. As in desired. Because I think to be welcomed is to be desired, to be wanted somewhere; welcoming is never just the act of being Extra Friendly or greeting people with a smile at the door, as much as we’d wish it were ever that easy. To truly welcome is to be genuinely pleased that this person is here, to genuinely want this person here and truly feel that there will be something missing with them gone. Maybe, sometimes, that’s what we as a church don’t understand, when we talk about welcome and belonging.* To belong is to make a dent in the landscape. To belong is to have significant emotional, relational value and weight to the persons or groups you belong to. To belong is to matter, and to be wanted there.
… this is making me think about how many people I may possibly cause, in my daily blunderings, to feel as if they don’t belong, as if they aren’t welcome, as if I don’t value them. Even among the people I belong to. It’s not a pleasant thought, because I’m well aware I often do things that may come across so, in my frequently mad dash for self-preservation.
If I have ever made you feel as if you carry little weight in my esteem, if I have ever made you feel unwelcome or unwanted, I’m sorry. Forgive me. I’m still learning what it means to love you, and how to do it, and I’m terrible at it. But I’d like to keep trying, if you’ll let me.
On that note, I’d like to add that there are people I belong to, who also belong to me. Most of them are veterans of older circles or communities I also felt like I belonged in, for the length of time I was in them (because these places are often, sadly, transient places): Christian Union, the Catholic Chaplaincy, the online game I played for years and continue, sporadically, to play. The best friends I have made, I made in these places, and I belong with them. If I am at home anywhere, it is with these people who have genuinely wanted me in their lives, who apparently believe I matter, and who I genuinely want in my life, and who I believe matter. These people are, in many ways, home.
When I was sixteen, I sat in a deserted train and cried and told God that I didn’t feel at all like I belonged with any of these other Christians. And he more or less told me that because I belonged to him, and they belonged to him, we belonged together.
This was supremely unhelpful at the time. Now, knowing a little bit more about the Body of Christ, about the Kingdom of God and the work of the Spirit, I understand a little more, although I still think it’s supremely uncomforting. But perhaps it’s because I still haven’t worked out how I belong to God just yet. Just that I do.
I still don’t know how any of this works. I don’t even know where I was going with this post, except to say that sometimes I still don’t feel like I belong anywhere and to anything, and it hurts, especially in this place where I am with the people I’m meant to belong with but don’t. But I know, sometimes, the people I do belong to, even sprawled out across the world as some of you sometimes are, and I am truly glad to have you in my life. Maybe that’s all I wanted to say.
* Well. By ‘church’ I mean ‘some churches I’ve been to’ which is unfair. There are definitely excellent theologians who talk about belonging and exclusion (or ‘exclusion and embrace’), Volf and Vanier among them, who I really want to read. I’ve never actually thought through what it means to belong, but it’s a deeply significant issue for the church.
March 31, 2014
I’ve just cried my face off in the shower, but because it’s the shower, I can slop my face back on with goopy hands. My eyes won’t even be red.
I’m going to have a cup of tea now, and do some work for a class tomorrow. It’s odd, how fragile things feel, still. How easy it would be to lose momentum, to trip once and let everything drop, and crash, and fall to ruin. It frightens me.
I feel as if I’m constantly scrambling to pick my pieces up, trying to keep all the chunks of me that keep flaking off or coming unravelled, trying to damage-control, damage-control, damage-control. It feels like work. It feels like full-time work, and I forget sometimes how much energy it takes. The lecturer we had for our block course last week talked briefly about faithfulness (in between taking apart the books of Samuel in precise and fascinating detail), and he said that for some of his students, it would be sinful for them to get an A on his course, because they were fulltime pastors and were married and were juggling families, and to neglect those in pursuit of an A for their own self-accomplishment would be an act of unfaithfulness. But for some students, academically gifted and studying fulltime, without jobs and families, it would be a sin for them not to get an A. And he looked at me. And I looked back at him and I thought, you forgot to list mental health.
Granted, it was a small class, and he could very well have been looking at me because there’s only a few people to look at anyway, and I’m an active, responsive listener when I’m interested, and lecturers tend to respond to active, responsive listeners. But I still owe him an essay, and I think he knew it. I’m not settled on either conclusion, but it did make me think of how my lecturers might see me, and what my expectations are for myself in this, and how much time dealing with the aftereffects of simply being myself takes. Of simply existing.
Simply existing is exhausting, and somedays, even now, I think of walking into traffic. I thought of it in the shower, just now, and I wondered at how easy it is to push me back a few rungs, to overset me. To take me back a few steps in this thing we call recovery, whatever it looks like, shapeless and far too multifaceted for true names, when I thought I was well over this whole wanting to kill myself business. But at the same time, I’m not the same person I was, and I’m not in the same place, and this isn’t two steps back.
There are more options than just death for ending this, and I know it (it’s just a very familiar option that I’m sometimes very wistful about). But recovery sometimes looks like choosing not to walk into traffic, and knowing you won’t, even when you have moments of certainty that you will, that everything would be so much better.
I forget, sometimes, how cracked I am. I feel like I keep saying this, and being surprised by it; I am so much more well than I was, and yet I forget too often how damaged I still am. It’s a hard, odd place to be, between wellness and true, exorbitant, splashy damage; I’m not drowning in my own blood anymore,* but even when I forget and assume I’m sane and normal and fully functioning, there are things that still don’t work right, and reactions that other people don’t have, and coping mechanisms that aren’t at all good. And I forget, and then I stare at the sudden ruin I’ve made of my schedule and my sanity because I had those assignments due and I was working on them but what the hell happened? Why are they overdue? What just happened? and people look at me in blank incomprehension as if they just don’t understand at all why I won’t just do it, as if it were a thing simple to do, as if handing in assignments on time were a thing that were easy. And I can’t do it, no matter how hard I try. And then it becomes yet another game of damage control, and I’m running on desperation and momentum and determination, and then people talk as if I enjoy it.
It fucking sucks. It fucking sucks to be alive sometimes. Also, the rhyming is amusing me much too much.
Sometimes life feels like an endless string of things to endure, to simply suffer through, and I think back on all I’ve had to live through and all I’ve been and it feels like too much, that I have to endure more of this, that all I have to look forward to is more endless, relentless work and no rest while nothing ever really gets better and everything is broken, and remains that way. That there is no rest, that there is no end to this. And then I cry a whole lot in the shower and get really upset at God and struggle with trying to fit together the things I’ve learned about him, the things I understand and hold to be true, trying to fit it up against the things I’ve lived through and the things I’ve felt and known in my lived being. And I don’t come up with much, but there’s this: I know there’s more. There’s more. I may not see it now, but what I see is not the end of it, and the endless brokenness of myself and the world is not, is never the last word. I know there’s more; I’ve seen glimpses of it, here, studying here, and I know my own sight is imperfect, but- “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known”.
1 Corinthians 13:12. I don’t know whether I can use it in quite this way, but whatever, I’m using it. I know there’s more than just what I see right now, I know there’s more, so I’m staying until I see it too, until that more happens. Until I see it too.
I don’t know how else to end this; it’s late, I’m tired, and I have work still to do. So I’ma go do it, and you can go back to doing what you were doing before you read this.
*A metaphor. I was never anywhere near literally drowning in my own blood. All the damage I’ve ever inflicted on myself in self-hatred or pain relief has been mental and emotional; I made that decision when I was twelve and stuck to it. I don’t know whether that’s better or worse, that I have no physical scars to show for all these years of fucking awful. Sometimes it means people treat you less seriously, when you have less physical evidence. And it does mean that I have to mop up more stupid, detangle more mess- the kind I made in my own rampage of self-destruction. It’s a wonderful life, cleaning up in the wake of abuse and depression and the effects of both. It makes me fucking pissed off at everything, sometimes. When I remember. I really don’t like remembering, but life suddenly makes more sense when I do.
March 12, 2014
Is it okay to feel safe? Is it okay to want to feel safe, to want to be comfortable? Do we always have put ourselves into the difficult situation? Is that better? What defines better?
Is it okay to want beauty, to want a nice house, bright windows, a space to feel at home in, an environment to uncurl and relax? Is that selfish? Or should we continually choose exile, difficult living arrangements, cardboard boxes, one-room lives, for the sake of the people in and around our small exile? Should we skimp to feel solidarity, or fear that we aren’t giving up enough, that we’re selling out too much? Can we want a safe haven, or is that just another name for a fortress to keep everyone else out?
should we feel guilty? is guilt a godly emotion to feel, when we look at what we have? is guilt a godly emotion to feel, when we have the chance for something more comfortable?
where’s the line between self-care and selfishness? what are the right reasons for self-sacrifice, and what are the wrong?
she said: missional is a way of living, and I’m trying to figure out how this works. I’m trying to decide between two flats at the moment. I’m in the first and I’m thinking of moving to the second, but recently a lecturer has been talking a lot about mission, and I’m twisting with guilt and indecision. The first flat I want to leave because of many myriad little things that make the place feel like a hostel, a temporary lodging in which I’m parked in alongside but not with a host of others. The only space here that’s really mine to claim is my bedroom, and even then- the landlord would like to advise me on when I should or should not use the lamp he’s given me as a replacement for the ceiling light he doesn’t seem inclined or able to fix. In order to save electricity.
The landlord and his family live here, you see, and we live in their house. It’s not stated, but it’s implicit. We rent rooms here, the other six of us, and use of the kitchen and a few cupboards. Half a fridge. All the common areas are implicitly theirs; there are three chairs at the kitchen table, wearing the remnants of their meal; the living area is strewn with the son’s toys and homework; the upstairs floor has a workspace and desk with the landlord’s things across it. This isn’t a flat so much as a hostel; we rent rooms and we live in them as whole houses. The only point of contact we share is the kitchen, where we linger, standing, to discuss food or countries or language or work or different customs, and by we I mean, commonly, myself and the Eastern European couple who live downstairs.
I like this couple. I think we’re friends, as much as you can be after a week and a half of brief encounters in the kitchen. We chat about what they do in their countries for Easter; she shows me the eggs she’s painted with delicate flowers made of candles she’s melted, drawn with the head of a pin; he tells me about the car he’s still working on, which is now at the mechanics and hopefully returned tomorrow. I tell them about Chinese New Year customs and yum cha and they are apprehensive about chicken feet. Tonight we shared some wine and I looked at their passports and the slight differences between their languages (Slovakia has St. Cyril on its passport, and a castle, and more es and ys; the Czech Republic bears the face of some lady in its pages they don’t recognise, and uses slightly more is). These two, too, note the lack of common areas and plan to fetch a garden table and chair set to plant outside, to create something that isn’t the landlord’s space.
The kitchen, however, doesn’t invite lingering. When the landlord or his wife comes to cook, the Europeans leave to eat in their room, and I eat mine standing at the bench until it’s gone. And then I wash my single bowl or plate or cup, and vanish too into my room.
Sometimes I chat briefly, brokenly, in Cantonese with the landlord’s lady who speaks mostly Mandarin; mostly we cook beside or around each other, silent, one or the other of us humming. Once or twice I’ve seen the Malaysian couple in passing as they head to and from their fridge with groceries. I’m starting to ask the landlord’s son how his day has gone; we chat briefly about P.E. and language classes and then I leave for my room and he goes back to watching television or doing homework. The landlord avoids conversation, although if I’m baking he’ll come curious to ask, and we halt and half-make language at each other. We’re all ghosts in the same corridors, separated by space and language and the customs of this living arrangement. Ships consigned to passing. I can live like this, but I don’t know if I want to. There’s the rub.
The place I’d be heading to, the second flat, is with a young Christian couple. My age. I’ve not met the husband, but he’s a golfer and is away often; the wife I met this afternoon and she studies theology and English. I could live with her, I think, although it’s hard to tell on half an hour’s chat; I don’t know precisely whether it’d be a similar issue of me living in someone else’s home, or whether it’d be a shared space I could be comfortable in too, but I’m leaning towards the latter. Hopefully.
I’m having guilt issues. That’s the problem. If I leave this place and head to the other one, will I be giving in to Comfort, the Dreaded Evil? Will I be walling myself up into white middle-class privileged suburbia? Will I be locking myself into the Christian bubble? I feel like I should see the place I’m in right now as a Missional Opportunity, but honestly, I’m wondering if that’s just the guilt and the lack of understanding talking. But I’m capable of creating or facilitating community; it’s one of my skills. Should I be seeing that as a thing I should do here? What on earth should I do?
She says: missional is a way of living, which I think means: God is working everywhere, and wherever you are is where you should look for where God is working, but does that mean I should stay for duty or service’s sake, or does that mean I’m free to go?
it is one of those days where I want a friend nearby and a hug and a couch to curl up on in their company and not be okay, to be just a bewildered, lethargic, out-of-it blob, but a loved out-of-it blob. I am making do with a cup of tea instead and my ability to be analytical, because that makes everything better.
that was sarcasm. but tea does feel a little bit like being hugged from the inside.
So one of the best things about being in the company of good friends is being allowed to Not Be Okay with them. Good Friends are Safe People To Have Emotions With. If you splash your Not Okayness messily across people you’ve just met, or people you’re kind of sort of becoming friends with but aren’t entirely there yet, or people you just don’t know very well- which, some days, appears to be everyone I know in Auckland- or to some extent even your friends, if you do it too frequently, you can come across as unreasonably demanding, or too much to deal with, or a self-obsessed walking wound who just wants anybody at all to bleed all over. You thus appear to be a giant needy mess to avoid, and so people avoid you.
See, I’ve made this assessment of others before, which is ironic and a little sad because others have, quite certainly, made this assessment about me. It’s also an assessment I make of myself quite regularly. The problem is, however, that when we avoid or dismiss eedy, messy Not Okay people when they’re needy and messy and not okay, what we’re doing is telling them that they’re only acceptable to us if they are okay, or at least making an effort to appear so. In fact, we’re saying that their value to us, as persons, is entirely contingent on their ability to be self-sufficient, put together and undemanding of our resources.
In short, when we dismiss messy or needy people, we’re saying what we want from our relationships is this:
1. that the other person offers us something that we consider of worth or value
2. that the other person doesn’t demand much from us in return.
This has two implications. Firstly, it means that we in effect believe a person’s value is dependent on the value of the commodity they can provide us. Our personal worth is based entirely on our ability to provide something of value to others, and we value others according to the worth of what they offer. If we are in a relationship where what we give and what we receive is of roughly equal worth, or we receive something that’s potentially a little better, this is seen as a good thing. In effect, it’s good business; our first and most instinctive concern is what we can get out of the situation and how we can get the best out of the situation for ourselves, because our first priority is ourselves, our stability and our resources.*
This is problematic. This is deeply problematic; I say this as a Christian, but I can’t see how it isn’t problematic from a secular perspective either, given the end results. But as that isn’t the perspective I intend to live in or think out of primarily, let’s go back to: this is problematic, theologically, essentially, right down to the bones of things, because that’s not supposed to be our first priority.
Back to that in a bit. I said there were two implications. Secondly, when a person’s value to us is entirely contingent on their ability to offer us something of worth without demanding too much of our resources in return, this obviously places a significant emphasis on people not being too demanding without adequate compensation. Being needy or Not Okay is not usually a state in which one can offer any adequate compensation for the amount of resources required (which are often significant), and so it is disfavoured. This means, often, that in order to keep our social value as persons intact (which is simply another way to say in order to keep people from thinking we’re losers and dismissing us entirely), we choose to isolate ourselves when we need relationship support most.
In other words, in order to be acceptable to others, in order to keep people from seeing us as that person who just keeps having crises/doesn’t seem to have any adequate sense of social boundaries/needs to pull their socks up and cope, and then avoiding us like the plague, we are more likely to choose to appear fine, or not talk about things, or hide in our rooms, or lie, when we are Not Okay.
This is bad. Can I just point out how bad this is? Seriously. Everyone has been or will be a Giant Needy Mess at some point or another, because there will always be some reason in life to be Not Okay (this is the way life works). And when we are Not Okay, I’m pretty sure it’s a natural desire to look outside of ourselves for help or comfort or hugs; in fact, it’s a healthy and sensible desire because we were made social and relational beings, and it is ridiculously hard to hug yourself properly (self-hugs are purpose-designed to make you sadder because they just reinforce the point that there is no one else around to hug you).
Isolation and alienation are the last things we need, when what we require is comfort from outside of ourselves, but often this is what we impose on both ourselves and others- and the more this happens, the more we reinforce this particular idea of what we’re supposed to do when we’re Not Okay in ourselves and others. This, of course, leads to people who are shining examples of mental and emotional health. Isolation is good for nobody.
I don’t mean solitude. I don’t mean peace or silence or the pleasure of being alone for a good stretch of time; I am a fan of all those things and some days I yearn for a hermitage with a garden and lots of books (and internet access and a supermarket in the area and maybe a city nearby and good friends that don’t live too far away. Pragmatic solitude, yo). No, I mean isolation, where you didn’t choose to be locked into solitary confinement but appear to have been put there anyway. That thing that drives people crazy in prisons, the thing that makes people talk to coconuts. I keep stumbling across the point in my readings that people are becoming more and more isolated and alienated in modern society and culture, and it’s a generalisation, but nonetheless.
So. Given that everyone will be Not Okay at some point, given that isolation is bad for people when they are Not Okay, and given that I’ve (rather haphazardly) pointed out that this isolation is created by a particular way of seeing relationships and people as providers of commodities, the issue then appears to be the viewpoint itself. Quick rehash:
1. a good relationship is one in which the other person provides us with something of worth, and doesn’t require us to provide them with something of far greater worth in exchange.
2. as a result of this, we value people according to the the worth of the commodity they provide us, and ourselves according to the worth of what we can provide others.
Underlying this is- way too much to even begin untangling, but two beliefs in particular that I find most problematic are:
1. that our value and identity as human beings depends on what we can do or provide others, and
2. that our first priority in relating to others is our own good (and as a natural corollary that everyone else also believes that their first priority is their own good).
These two? These two are problematic as hell. The whole implicit belief system or worldview of Christianity runs entirely contrary to both of these points, and as Christians these aren’t beliefs we should be operating out of. The problem is that we operate out of these beliefs anyway, because they’re deeply ingrained in us; you might even say that they’re natural to the way we think, except for the fact that the Genesis narrative would insist we were made very good, and that such beliefs were a later result of some cataclysmic event, like, y’know, the Fall. These are the beliefs of humanity without the awareness of the presence and rule of a self-giving Triune God.
You’d think, as people who claim belief in the presence and rule of a self-giving Triune God in the world, that we’d be better at operating out of the belief system we claim to be true. Apparently not. We are terrible at this, we were terrible at this from the time of Paul (see: all of Paul’s letters) and before, and we’ll continue to be terrible at this until the kingdom comes (but hopefully we’ll get less terrible over time or something?). I’m guessing this is why there’s so much emphasis on transformative and formative change in our thinking and behaviour over time (also known as discipleship in community with the Spirit and the people of God); this ‘believing in Jesus’ thing isn’t just a matter of one-off assent and then we go about our lives as if nothing happened. It’s belief that’s supposed to change us, that’s supposed to transform us entirely as we learn what the presence and rule of this God in our lives and the world means, and how this changes the way we think about the world and God and each other, and how this change in thinking affects how and why we do what we do. And all this takes time and a whole lot of effort and a whole lot of thinking and praying and arguing (and blogging).
Arright, I’m done blogging on this for today. I’ll have something more on what we should be believing instead after I sit through a few more lectures on theological anthropology. For now, I’m going to go hug myself and have another cup of tea.
*Funnily enough, this way of thinking about relationships can also lead to white knight syndrome, where one person decides to rescue a helpless, needy other from their helpless needy plight, often via a romantic relationship. This is done in order to reinforce the white knight’s own self-worth, more or less. The drain in resources that comes with dealing with a demanding and needy person is balanced by the fact that this drain simultaneously makes you feel needed (there’s a constant demand for the goods you offer), puts your relationship in a position of stability because the other person clearly can’t leave you because they need you in order to exist in some state of wellness (making you the sole provider of these goods, like a single oasis in a desert- in effect, a monopoly that racks up your value as a person/provider of commodities even more), and makes you feel extra good about yourself because clearly you’re the more giving person in this relationship, and that makes you a Good Person, Giving So Much To Others. It’s worth noting that there are charitable, Other-loving impulses in there, definitely, but often they’re diverted into or impossibly tangled with the basic desire to bolster one’s own self-worth. People do complex things for complex reasons.
March 6, 2014
at some point in this last two years, I seem to have discovered the desire to be a better Anglican. It’s a quiet desire at best, but it’s a constant underthread in my ecclesiastical decisions; I’m slowly shaping myself to be more partisan about the traditions and qualities that make the Anglican church unique among the various denominations.
This is motivated in part by the fact that I study in a Baptist college, with a whole heap of Baptist pastors and leaders in training. The theological stands and assumptions of the Baptist church are often the norm- which isn’t to say that the norm isn’t challenged, critiqued or praised, because all three happen often (and most of it appears to be critique)- but in teaching, my lecturers are often actively involved in threading through the facets of that denomination first, before they cover others, trying theologically and pastorally to assess weaknesses and flaws and build up strengths.
It’s helpful. Denominations exist for a reason, I’m learning. When I was younger and more firmly mired in the homogenous wash of boundary-blurring charismatic Protestantism, denominations were finicky, meaningless names; if you were a Christian you were a Christian, and whether you were Anglican or Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian was entirely insignificant. The only major difference was if you were Catholic, and then you were totally suspect and maybe not really even Christian because there was something fishy going on there with Mary and the saints.* The Eastern Orthodox church wasn’t even on the map.
Not coincidentally, when I was younger, I also had very little knowledge of what I believed in, which includes all the details of what we believe and the myriad complications that come with trying to work out exactly how one lives according to those beliefs. Details like is Jesus still human now? and do we really go to heaven when we die? and what does heaven look like? Details like does God punish us when we do bad things? and can we pray for people who are already dead or things that have already happened? and if I believe really hard and keep asking for it, will God do this thing I want him to do?
Complications like should we bother trying to tell people about God if who gets into heaven is already all set out beforehand? and do we baptise children if they believe? can children be trusted to know what they believe? and should women teach? Complications like do we take care of the planet or assume it’s all going to pot anyway? and how literally should we take the Bible, particularly when it talks about stoning? and should we ask for the gift of tongues? and does it need to be bread and wine (what about coke and chips)?
These, these are the details that separate denominations from each other; what they believe about what it means to be a Christian, and how one goes about doing this. And the more viewpoints you learn- as well as the reasoning behind those viewpoints and decisions, sound or not (the advantages of a theological education)- the more you learn about what you agree with and what you don’t. And when you start mapping out what you do believe and don’t believe about the details of Christianity, you start seeing the differences in the denominations and you really do start locating yourself on the map.
When I was younger, I had unquestioned assumptions natural to the culture I was in, as any fish who grows up in water does. These things were just the way things were; it was how the world worked as sure as the sun coming up in the morning, and as I was rarely met with any alternative, the worldview I’d grown up in was left unshaken. People spoke in tongues and prophesied and it was normal; we sang Away in the Manger at Christmas,** we recited the creed and greeted each other with the peace of the Lord and much hugging, we expected miraculous healings and spiritual gifts. I was baptised as a kid; the guitar was played softly in the background when the pastor was inviting the church into a time of reflection or prayer; we prayed together en masse for the world in a babble of overlapping voices; we had songs with actions and Sunday School, we watched Veggietales, we had tea and coffee and church lunches; sections of the Bible were read out at intervals on Sunday; after I was baptised, I could line up with everyone else to take communion and I was a dipper, not a sipper.
Now, having met and listened to people from myriad different denominations and faiths, and having learned a whole lot more about the details of my own belief thanks to this theological education thing I’m doing, I’m aware that a lot of that is typical of the charismatic or Pentecostal church. The creeds were Anglican, as was the liturgical structure of the Sunday service and the year, but the fact that we went once to a youth conference where there was a workshop on prophetic songleading and prophetic discernment and we finished off the evening in an ecstasy of chanting about revival really clues me in as to my old church’s perspective on the involvement of the power of the Holy Spirit.
Again, the more I clarify where I stand on theological and conceptual issues- whether this comes through learning about the issue in class, or coming across it in conversation with someone who has a different perspective- the more I begin to locate myself within a sector of belief. It’s a long and involved- but rather organic and quite enjoyable- learning process. I identify as Anglican, for example, in part because I grew up under that name,*** and in part because I have learned and am still learning to love the Anglican liturgy; the liturgical year and the daily office are, I think, beautifully, wonderfully structured for the purpose of orienting our time- both our hours and the way we go through our year- around our relationship with God and around the way he has shown himself to work in the world. With regards to the liturgical year in particular it is both a way of actively remembering what we believe, by living it, and a way of restructuring the way we see time; the year doesn’t begin on January the 1st, it begins with the season of Advent, when we prepare for the coming of Christ, and thus the whole year pins itself around the events of Christ’s life.
Now, keep in mind I’m still learning about what Anglicans do and why we do it. I don’t know anywhere near enough about any of this, but I want to; I think the tradition of the church is an important part of our identity as both individual Christians and the corporate Body of Christ. We are the Body of Christ and our decisions and beliefs and unity in Christ don’t just extend across space, but across time too (another reason I enjoy the Anglican emphasis on tradition). Moreover, I like tradition and ritual (some of this affection admittedly belongs to my history as a theatre student); I believe both are rich with meaning and symbolism, and I particularly love the way ritual makes physical and present what is invisible and conceptual- making visible and human what is mysterious and divine, which bears a delightful similarity to the way the Incarnation works.
Basically, I’m beginning to learn that it’s good to be partisan, and that denominations are excellent things to inhabit and learn about and identify with, not least because that way one learns a whole lot more about what one believes, and why one believes (or should believe) what one believes. I’m beginning to think that having differing denominations actually contributes a lot to the Body, particularly when the denominations actually work together despite their differences; humanity is complex and vast, and so the church needs to be complex and multifaceted to address the myriad faces of the world.
*Not indicative of my current beliefs and attitude to Catholicism. Promise.
**As an adult, I am not a fan of Away in a Manger. It makes a determined effort to infantilise Jesus (‘sweet head’? ‘little Lord’?), it thoroughly patronises the child audience for which it was written, and is completed with the crowning line ‘the baby awakes! the Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’. This is quite probably nitpicking, but I’m pretty sure that a baby, when woken by loud cows, cries. I feel like it’s diminishing the humanity of Christ in order to emphasise in a sickly-sweet manner his eye-in-the-sky special qualities, also known as docetism (or else it’s a hint to the child at hand that crying isn’t a thing Jesus did, so you shouldn’t either). It’s mawkish and maudlin and I object on both aesthetic and theological grounds. Ban the thing.
***But not wholly because of this. I also grew up charismatic, and now I tend to avoid charismatic churches like the plague- less due to any theological disagreements, because I really don’t know enough quite yet to have theological disagreements, and more simply because of temperament, different desires and discomforting past experiences with the charismatic church. I have a deep fondness for contemplation, silence, tradition, theologically rich lyrics- which, often, belong to hymns- ritual, symbolism, emphasis on visual or aural beauty, and reflection. Charismatic churches- and this is a generalisation- often don’t contain any of these things.
March 1, 2014
1. buying sheets for a queen-sized bed is a process full of angst, particularly if you have previously only had experience with single bed linens.
2. when taking a look at the agreement your landlord presents to you for approval, editing it on impulse for coherency and flow will waste more time than you can spare. On the other hand, your landlord seems to be a fan of you now.
3. the first flatmate you meet emerges from the inner workings of a car the day you turn up to view the place, all engine grease and mild blue eyes. His friendly, easygoing calm is innately reassuring, and one of the reasons you feel little to no unease when you decide that you can live with these people. Today, two days later, when you pull in with your suitcases and attendant bags he’s still there beneath the hood. It turns out he has little idea what he’s doing, and still finds driving on the left-hand side of the road disconcerting.
4. Later, when you head out to buy sheets for a queen-sized bed and various groceries, the car’s exposed engine appears to have accrued a tinkering Malaysian man with a desk lamp.
5. the second flatmate you meet is the landlord himself, Mainland Chinese and a little vague in manner, but apparently eager to please with the half-embarrassed smiling and nodding that guards the borders of language barriers. No- the second flatmate you meet is the landlord’s son, a ten-year-old, or a twelve-year-old, or a fourteen-year-old; it’s hard to tell. He has the healthy disregard of the young for anybody five or more years older than himself. When you see him today, he’s dueling two friends with plastic lightsabers and loud enthusiasm.
6. the fourth flatmate you meet, or perhaps the fifth- you glimpsed her only briefly that first time, after all- is the landlord’s lady; the second time you see her, she’s hoovering at the upstairs carpet. She looks young. She avoids eye contact and greets you with the polite monosyllables of someone uncomfortable with English, or strangers. Later on when the landlord leaves off chopping chicken pieces and goes to talk to her, curled up on the couch beside her son, she shrieks with laughter and points out in Mandarin that he’s still holding his cleaver.
7. the fifth flatmate you find in the kitchen steeping mint leaves in hot water; she’s blonde, finely-boned and a law graduate on a working holiday visa with her partner, the car-explorer. Both carry accents you can’t quite place, largely because it appears you know little about Eastern European languages. You chat in the way that travellers and migrants do, and discover you’re both Christians, and both looking for churches. She offers you the free use of both the mint and basil plants, tells you where to keep your food, adds that the landlord’s family isn’t particularly good at cleaning, and when you’re scrubbing furiously at stains on your allocated shelves, comes by to drop off her cleaning products and the internet password.
8. scrubbing shelves with diluted JIF is generally considered a bad idea when you’re wearing a black dress.
9. the sixth flatmate is Malaysian Chinese, young and squarely built, and originally you assume that he’s either deeply introverted or shy, because he answers- when he first answers- sporadically, and in mumbled monosyllables. It turns out that he’s neither; he offers to drop you off at Sylvia Park for the groceries, and picks you back up again when you stagger out of the supermarket laden with things too heavy to bus home with, and on the journeys there and back you chat about how long he’s been in the country, why he and his wife moved here, what he studied originally, and the irresponsibility of the landlord. In Cantonese. It turns out you talk too fast in English.
10. you prayed, badly, for the shop assistant you met in Bed, Bath & Beyond, after chatting about polycotton versus microfibre sheets, study, sociology, life goals and the faith she grew up with, and the importance of questioning it and figuring out why you believe what you believe. you’re still not sure what came over you, other than impulse and the vague feeling that it’d be a good idea, but if you’re going to make a habit of this, it’s probably an even better idea to learn how to pray out loud gracefully.
11. codeswitching between Cantonese and English is deeply satisfying in a linguistic way.
12. your non-landlord flatmates are lovely, lovely people. you’re pretty sure this even applies to the two you haven’t met. you’re also curious as to whether this amount of people in this house is actually legal.
13. internet use here is going to be limited, and internet speed is sluggish; it appears that your landlord has a problem with people watching online movies, and youtube videos for entertainment sit in a grey area. you’re not entirely sure how you feel about this, particularly given what you’ve heard about the landlord’s casual neglect of his duties from the other flatmates.
14. you’re going to need to wipe down everything. you now have JIF, scourers and rubber gloves. have at ye.
15. you’re an extrovert. pleasant interactions with people really do appear to increase your ability and desire to be enthusiastically friendly. at the very least, you appear to have been running on an extroverted people-interest high today.
February 18, 2014
This is my afternoon:
Listening to this. Considering packing. Chatting with Frith on Facebook about the vague amorphous lines in the sand we’ve drawn- culturally and individually- around romantic and sexual attraction; how we decide when we Like like someone, and how exactly define it, and how those definitions, vague as they are, have shifted over the centuries. Narrowed, I think. I think we draw smaller circles than we used to, and it’s not a good thing. And yet.
I feel like we should have been handed user manuals at puberty. Humans and human feelings are so complex and layered and vague; a wash of bleeding watercolours that we try to draw lines of sense and meaning around so we can finally stare at it and say, oh, this is a flower! or aha, this is a bee! We like making sense of things, we like naming things, but maybe, sometimes, we shift ourselves and realise that the lines we drew before might need shifting too as we move around this bizarre watercolour sketch. As the watercolour, itself, changes.
I’m thinking about worldviews at the moment, and narratives; just vaguely, in haphazard graspings of the mind trying to grab clumsy fistfuls out of fog or water. I’m trying to pin down a topic for the mini-thesis I need to work on this year, as a kind of practice test for Masters; it’s not easy because they threw the gates wide on this one and said whatever you want, really. The only boundary is that it has to be applicable to applied theology and the bounds of research (and subtly, research that Other People Haven’t Done So Much Of Before which is the painiest of pains to consider). It’s tricky because I don’t really know the precise boundaries of applied theology, and I don’t know the boundaries of my interests. Which is to say, I have too many interests. I want to know everything; I don’t have solid, clearly plotted questions or coherent ideas, just vague areas of what if? and I want to know about! and why isn’t and why won’t and what does?
If my mini-thesis topic was a particular house I have to walk into and make myself at home inside, make a home of, a house I have to become familiar with right down to the nicks and tea-rings on the kitchen table and the pitched whine of the kettle and the smooth worn flagstones and the warm sunlight on the wall beside the vase of ornamental wheat, then right now I’ve found the continent it’s in.
It’s a continent I like, which is why I’m here; the countries and their suburbs and cities are ones I spend time in voluntarily anyway, live in often, have made temporary homes in before. Vast areas like worship and worldview and identity, districts and regions like media influence and practices and habits of discipleship. The knowledge of God; sexuality and singleness and gender roles; grief and loss and suffering and joy; the place and role of emotions in the discipleship journey and how the constant barrage of secular stories affects our narrative understanding of reality without adequate counterbalance from stories grounded in the drama of Scripture. Okay, that one might be more like a street. A street I’m very fond of. I spent the last little while in a house on a cul-de-sac off that street, living with the question of what made fiction ethical and unethical to read, which entailed some research into how fictional narrative affects our understanding of the world and thus how we behave in it.
I did enjoy it greatly. I have a pretty consistent fear of deciding on just one thing, however, of settling down with one idea, because what if it’s the wrong one and this other one might be better? Maybe I should hold off until I have more information to make this decision. Which is typical of my personality, apparently, at least according to Myers-Briggs.
I’m in the middle of flathunting at the moment, which may explain this metaphor; however it is, I like it. But I’m still no closer to narrowing down a subject. thoughts branch off into too many directions, like a tree that won’t stop growing, a thousand thousand permutations of a single idea and none of them quite right, because I don’t quite know what I’m looking for.