Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Law of Life

Here is some unsolicited advice I gave to a friend suffering from depression (on October 11):

The value of life is to be given. Only what we give, we can keep. Even if we receive a gift, the only thing we get to keep from this experience is the gratitude we offer -- nothing else of the gift will build us or help us to grow. Nothing else in friendship matters even one minuscule bit.

Even after some demand that we make of another has been met, we will always find our way back to that empty place where we need more -- more reassurances, more gifts, more time, more signs that this friendship is real -- within a few days, it will all just be ashes -- all of it could go up in smoke and turn to dust -- except for the part in which we gave. Isn't this what the Spiritual Exercises were about? I have to go back and check, but I know I'm getting it from somewhere.

Will this attitude cure depression? I don't know. Is this attitude of generosity even possible when one is under attack from the beast within? I also don't know. All I do know is that it is the truth, and it is the only sure way to find stability and peace in life.

Depression is like a filter that removes most of the colors from life -- or a prison cell with walls that are painted to look like the world around -- but when you reach for reality, you hit up against a solid wall and have the feeling you've been tricked into believing that anything is real, that there really are colors. So, Someone has to remind you that there ARE colors, that reality is so much bigger, and it really is there. When someone is depressed, he begins to think that everything is about him -- all his failings become overwhelming then -- how could anyone love him with all these irreparable flaws? He thinks that anyone who claims to love him is either deluded, deliberately blind, or lying. Meanwhile, he feels no one can give him what he needs, no one can give him enough. The flaws and short-comings of others seem to be about him, too -- they wouldn't do these things if they loved him. So that proves that he's worthless and no one loves him!! It would be a perfect, logical system if it were true. But all of it is a lie because the starting point is a lie -- it's not about him at all. It's about being a part of the flow of Life, the law of which is giving.

Our concept of fair is a human concept and misses the greater reality, and the greater reality is so much richer than anything we could have earned or could deserve or live up to. We aren't loved because we are worthy -- love is infinite, and we are finite, so it's not a "fair" contest -- but because love is simply like that. Love gives, not because it owes but because giving is its internal logic, and without giving, it can't breathe. That's why I love the Anglican translation of the Our Father -- "forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors" (Simone Weil says this translation is truer to the original Greek) -- when we speak of debts, then we aren't just focussed on the debt of mercy we owe and can never repay to God, but also the debt of life, of breath, of all those colors, of reality, of Love -- and when we think about our "debtors" and forgiving them, then we realize that we must give without expecting anything in return -- not even thanks -- that whatever we expect or think we deserve from others (their debts to us), we must forgive -- not just their sins, as cataloged in the catechism.

Love is never anxious. It knows that love doesn't end with death or separation or even with betrayal. You know Jesus still loves Judas. What is the real difference between Judas and Peter? It would seem that Judas' betrayal was worse because it led to Jesus' death (an outcome he didn't seem to have foreseen) -- but his motives were not necessarily the frightened, ugly ones of Peter -- he had an ideal, even if he was a thief, as John maintains, a thief usually steals in order to right a sense of injustice regarding his own person -- he had a sense of justice! -- that he felt Jesus was not living up to, and he felt like he had to right the injustice. He was certainly sorry for what he had done -- he must have been just as sorry as Peter, to have killed himself over it. But the difference is that Peter returned -- he believed, against all odds, in love. He staked everything on love. But where was I? Oh, yes -- anxiety. Think of Mary and Martha -- when Martha complains that Mary isn't helping her and making her do all the work alone (essentially a question of justice, again!), he tells her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious about many things..." Of all the varieties of mental distress, the liturgy only has us pray, "protect us from all anxiety." And every time an angel appears in the Bible, it says, "Do not be afraid, but Rejoice! because God is in your midst." That is always the formula. God has been trying to tell us this for how long now, but we still need to be reminded! If God has not abandoned us, if he is indeed in our midst, and if his nature is self-giving, gratuitous Love, and if he invites us to participate in his very nature, then the only path to peace, freedom and creativity is gratuitous, constant, self-giving love. So, here's my take on Martha and Mary -- it's not that Mary has chosen the better part because she's at Jesus' feet and Martha's working to feed him, it's that Mary has given herself over to the joy of his presence, and Martha wants justice. One could do all Martha does, and more, and never be "anxious over many things." Having the honor of preparing a meal for Jesus, of all people, could be cause enough for trembling joy and gratitude along the lines of "Who am I that my Lord should come to eat the food I've prepared?" The story could have been that Mary says to Jesus, "tell my sister to stop being so busy with the cooking and come over here to be with us," and then Jesus would have had to tell Mary that she was anxious and that Martha had chosen the better part, "which will not be taken from her." This last phrase is so important, because what we give, what we truly give, is the only "part" that we get to keep -- that can never be taken from us. That's how I began this long and rambling homily, so maybe that's the note I should end on.

[Coda] Okay, so you don't have to give something Big like work or a gift -- I mean, like Mary, sister of Martha -- all she gave was her attention. If you give your attention to someone or something, it can have a really healing effect. I would say, when depressed, it would be a bad idea to try to give something huge, like hours of manual labor, or listening on a rape crisis hotline -- but the point is that everything, every moment can either be lived as a gift to the cosmos (in the shape or form that happens to be in front of you) and thus to God. Does this make sense? So, I'm not advocating that a person struggling with depression should go to Africa and be a missionary to AIDS patients (at this point) -- just that he give himself, out of love for what is in front of him, placed there by Christ so as to deepen his relationship with Him. It's more an attitude than an action. That is why, though it seemed like Martha was the only one giving anything, in her attitude of wanting justice for herself, attention to herself, she was missing out -- being less generous than Mary, who was doing "nothing."

I suppose that one could even "give" one's depression, though I think it would be terribly difficult and only possible for an adept. I think this is what is meant by the deceptive phrase, "to offer it up."


I found the following passage in "Friends, that is Witnesses:"

"Seneca says, 'I have what I have given.' This is the law of life: to give oneself. It is not that the law of life is this because Christ says so. Christ reveals a stable mechanism: that life is to give oneself, that I possess life by giving it, and the more I give it, the more I become myself...
"This summer, in the Mass one day, the first reading was that passage from Genesis in which the Mystery appears to Abraham and Abraham at once goes about welcoming that Presence...; he is all intent on honoring that Presence. The Gospel was that of Martha and Mary. it seemed that Martha was doing just like Abraham -- she too was all action, but Jesus rebukes her. This means that one can do all these things, perhaps, but in the wrong way. I often asked myself why He rebuked her. We have often been told about the opposition between contemplation and action. This idea came to me, 'Martha, Martha, you fuss about many things...' Why does Jesus rebuke her? Because in her service, Martha has not the Presence before her at heart, her service does not fulfill her affection. What shows this? The fact that she blames her sister: 'She doesn't help me!' Now, if someone is so enthusiastic to serve someone why does she care if the other is not there? I am so happy to serve that it is not a problem if my sister doesn't help me. If, instead, I am serving in an inadequate way, it can be seen, because I am not satisfied, that is, my affection is not fulfilled. The problem is not between action or contemplation, but it is the kind of relationship, whether or not the relationship is enough to satisfy..." (Julian Carron)

So, please forgive me if I seem to boast (all two of you who will read what I write here), but I have to share my joy and delight in the fact that I wrote my interpretation of the Martha and Mary episode before I read these words of Father Carron! It is so thrilling to think that he and I were both struck by this particular passage, and we both fixed on the same elements in order to understand it. And he is the leader of Communion and Liberation AND a Scripture scholar!


Freder1ck said...

I've become aware of some periodic times of blackness in my life. I'm learning that such solitude need not block me from remembering that Christ is present. At such times, it's been helpful to me to remember that the law of life is gift of self, and so I try to keep working and make myself useful to others. I also realize that my nothingness is a lack of being, so I cry out to Being to supply my lack.

whoinsamhill said...

I hope Suzanne does not have depression (first time reader). I have had it as a young man. It has gone away. What I discovered is that a walk in Griffith Park provided relief. Then, a bicycle ride (no kidding) and other exercising, and finally the knowing that these things were there. No, I'm not a believer. I never knew Mary had a sister! I guess why I'm commenting is, well, for something to do? I think a person has to feel useful (as opposed to giving being the cure all), although I enjoyed your circle of thought always being completed with the thought of giving being the answer. Now if I were Jesus I would hop up and give Martha a hand. No, I do not believe Jesus is the Son Of God. I say this only to point out that perhaps He was not behaving perfectly in His pointing out Martha's anxiousness. But you and I will never get past this point as your starting point is Jesus' perfection. Yes, I was raised Catholic and am therefore now doomed to hell:-) I just hope you don't interpret my comment as being anything less than kind, as the crickets are out, the wind has stopped blowing my tent, and this is where I want to be. One more thing, I have a peculiar idea that ours is an Accommodating God, and I give you that, yes, He gives you Jesus as His Son---but not me because I ask Him not. I'm serious. I hope you don't think less of me! Or you could say a prayer for me. I'm not proud.

Suzanne said...

Thank you so much for visiting. I once had depression, so I'm very familiar. I'm also not at all surprised that exercise helps you! Mary, the mother of God is different from Mary of Bethany (who does have a sister named Martha). We don't know -- maybe Jesus did get up and help Martha -- there is more that is left out of the Bible than is in it. But it was important for him to explain to Martha why she was so unhappy. Otherwise, she would never find a way to be happy, not matter where she was, no matter what she was doing.

I think a person has to feel useful, too -- but to be useful, one has to give something (time, expertise, attention, a helping hand) -- I guess I would say that exercise wouldn't even help in the end, if one were not giving oneself to the enterprise. What do you think of that?

God is accommodating, and he does give his son for everyone -- otherwise he'd be unfair and cruel. I hope I don't offend you, but my thought is that if you believe that God's son isn't given for you, for your life, then your notion of what "God's son" is must be flawed. I have seen this many times, particularly among Catholics. "Jesus" becomes a word that stands for shit, hatred, cruelty, mental (and even physical) torture... etc. Or, your view of "Jesus" may be milder than this. This is due to bad catechesis. If you have no use for "Christ," what do you have a use for? Truth, Beauty, Life, Love, Light? When St. John writes that "The Word became flesh," he means that Truth became flesh, Beauty became flesh, Love became flesh, etc. Have you no use for these things? If you appreciate them in the abstract, what if you could reach out and touch them? What if you could hold them in your arms? Surely you'd have a use for that, right? I would say that what you don't have a use for is the limited version of "Jesus" you were taught, and not the real son of God. Really, I hope I'm not offending you (and I was not at all offended by your comments). I will pray for you if you will pray for me.

whoinsamhill said...

"I will pray for you if you will pray for me."


"...exercise wouldn't even help in the end, if one were not giving oneself to the enterprise"

Don't know what to think about that. Don't get the meaning. But will think about it.

I admire Jesus' courage of his convictions.

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."