I, like many at WIT, have had a fantastically terrible year. Lots of stress and sadness and shame to go around for various reasons. I think most of this has to do with the pain of human living. Not to say that it’s “redemptive,” just that it’s inevitable for most, if not all, of us.
There’s no point in getting into the details, but, for myself, it’s the kind of year I will look back on and probably just curse a lot about and then be thankful that other years are not this way (fingers crossed). It’s the kind of year where you are going about your business and then all of a sudden you find yourself declaring, “Hey, this year sucks. Like, a lot. Things feel weird and out of control, and also maybe I need to change some of my ways of being in the world, because said ways of being in the world seem to be making me very, very unhappy.”
Might you be having that kind of year?
Let me tell you two things I have learned in 2014, because maybe these things will help you through Your Terrible Year, whenever it should strike:
Get off your high horse. I got kicked off my high horse, and everybody else did too.
At the AAR annual meeting in November, I went to dinner with my advisor, who is a Godsend and knows about My Terrible Year. In the course of that conversation, once we finished discussing my timeline for finishing my dissertation, she asked me about My Terrible Year. I said many things, but one of them was this humble utterance:
“So, I really thought I had my shit together.” I murmur this because I feel foolish and tired and wrong about anything that matters in my life, and I can’t bother to pretend to seem more put together than I am, at least to people who know me. My cover is blown, I’m exposed, whatever. (Though I will say I usually shy away from cursing in front of professional connections. I can’t tell if this is prudent or some residue of Good Girl Syndrome. I suppose it depends.)
Her first response wasn’t to tell me it would get better, or to give me special permission for being a mess. Rather, she responded with the most helpful thing that anybody has said to me over the past year:
“Elizabeth, nobody has their shit together.”
Folks, I need to impress upon you that this is a very distinguished, wise, and somewhat reserved lady. She says nothing without extreme care, and she treats everybody with kindness and respect. Maybe she’s like Glinda the good witch, except more awesome. People who know me and her will understand the singularity of this exchange. She chooses her words carefully, and apparently the correct wording at that moment required pointing out everybody’s lack of shit-togetherness. And I could tell that when she said it, she herself was conjuring up many memories, probably from her own life and from the lives of her loved ones. Memories filled with suffering and confusion and frustration and growth.
It was an effective reminder that true peace and joy are forged within the crucible of life’s inevitable messiness, and not apart from it. I felt like I’d just been let it on a huge secret that would make human living easier for the next several decades (God willing). I decided to pace myself on the heavy despair and try and ease up and just breathe.
I suppose if you wanted me to frame it theologically, I would say that I remembered that I was flesh [Greek: sarx]. And when I say that, I am thinking of Karl Rahner’s treatment of the concept: “Flesh means that person who is on the one hand the frailty, the threatenedness, the inexplicableness, the weakness, the obscurity of this individual, concrete, specific entity, and who at the same time knows this and is afraid” (TI 17:77). I don’t just have a body; I am an embodied being moving through the world in no other way than in and through my corporeality, my own particular blood-and-guts amalgamation. And I am me and not somebody else. I’m particular, and there are certain things I will never understand because of that particularity, because I am so different from so many other people, and because there are so many weird events, occurrences, and exchanges that went into the making of my personality and my body. I am not my own production and I cannot really police the boundaries of who I am in any strictly hermetic sense. I have a personal history that I will never fully recuperate and that binds me in ways I can’t capture. In particular, there have been — and will continue to be — things that I must grieve and cannot control. There is a messiness always at the fringes of our personhood; not only “outside” things happen to us, but “inside” things as well. Sometimes we happen to ourselves. And this is really scary.
It’s important to stop and take stock of our being flesh in this way. My point isn’t to say we shouldn’t work to care for others and for ourselves. Living well takes effort and thoughtfulness. A lack of shit-togetherness is not license to be a shitty person. I am also not saying that a lack of shit-togetherness, in all its execrability, needs to suffuse our lives in a miserable way always. I don’t think the point of life is to drown in its shitty-ness.
What I am saying is that the starting point, the status quo, for how we think about ourselves is that we are flesh, and we are always at risk of coming apart at the seams in 87 different ways. We are always in medias res, and we are always way more delicate than we perhaps appear. Perhaps we can give each other a break, then. Because when I have fallen into the temptation to think that my own various levels of dysfunction are radically singular, and that everybody else has achieved a Hermetic Life Cleanliness & Success, I am reminded by my very good friends that it’s part of human existence to struggle. Every year is The Terrible Year for so many people. Much of the time, we don’t know what we are each going through. It’s good to take heed and care for each other’s tender hearts as much as we are called upon to do. To be sure, there are greater and lesser struggles, but nobody is exempt from the struggle of fleshliness.
I’ll get concrete about this, and it will lead into my second point…
2.) Our bodies deserve care.
The feminist in me dictates that I write the next part, because fuck silence.
I’m reminded especially of my own body in a very particular way this past year. For some time I’ve had intermittent vaginal pain, which, if you’re an adult woman, make Adult Woman Living difficult in a variety of ways. It happens for a variety of reasons (trauma, underlying medical conditions, etc.). The causes for me are too complicated to get into. It’s really isolating, and emotionally confusing, and it sucks and makes you feel deficient as a woman. Though it’s funny, because at least half of the women I have told about this in person have admitted struggling with some kind of similar, intimate pain. Suuuuper common, though nobody officially gives a shit. [Note: if you are reading this and think it’s indecorous that I talk about my vagina in this context, then I think you have a variety of potential problems: 1.) You may know me personally and then find it weird to know this about me…to which I might gently remind you that I’m a woman and women have vaginas. I know this must be difficult. -OR- 2.) You don’t know me but just don’t think such discussion is fitting for a theology blog. In which case, get out of my face and get real about your own genitalia.]
Anyway, the reason I bring this up in this post is that, as I’ve been in graduate school living with this very private pain, my mentality has been like, “Hey, whatever. It’s just my body and I have to get that paper done and omg I am so stressed BRAIN BRAIN BRAIN.”
But I’m at the point where this way of living is no longer acceptable, and any academic success I’ve managed to scrounge together for myself just isn’t enough for my happiness. My body’s been hurting, and I have the power to care for it. The pain of the status quo finally outweighs the pain of changing. So this past year I’ve had to start going to what’s called pelvic floor therapy. I commute a total of three hours a week to go to this medical center and have a very nice pelvic physical therapist shove her hand up me while I try not to hyperventilate. Her name is Sarah. She says hi.
She feels around specifically for pain, and it’s super invasive, especially since I am already squeamish about that part of my body. I have to do a bunch of squeezing and relaxing and retraining my muscles and my entire approach to my body and to my life AND TO EVERYTHING. If you hate getting shots, it’s like a doctor saying, “Now hold still. You won’t ever be happy and content UNTIL I GIVE YOUR ARM TWENTY SHOTS AND YOU ARE TOTALY RELAXED WHILE I DO IT.” Or if you hate the dentist, and then the dentist is like, “Now hold still. You’ll always be miserable UNLESS YOU LET ME SHOVE MY HAND INTO YOUR MOUTH REPEATEDLY NOW SWALLOW AND BE CALM.”
Okay, it’s not that bad; I’m complaining a bit. But it is a very uncomfortable space to be in, not only because of the disproportionate physical discomfort, but because I am changing my way of being. Change really sucks. Learning different ways of being in the world really sucks. But I have to; I have to learn how to love my body and stop ignoring its pain. And I am changing…really, really slowly.
To recap what I have learned in 2014: 1.) To struggle even to the point of embarrassment in some way in your life is a part of being human. 2.) It’s important to listen to your body, especially if it is in pain. It’s trying to tell you something, and choosing to ignore it as a life strategy is really not okay. We’ve got to appreciate our own flesh since it’s what we’ve got for the duration of our lives.
I’m not saying 2015 will necessarily be better, but maybe 2014 will equip us to handle its twists and turns more adeptly. Hopefully my own admission that I am not a robot will help some of you.