Tuesday, January 24, 2012

On the Sanctity of Marriage

Politicians and religious leaders love to talk about the sanctity of marriage. What I have to say here is deeply personal, but at the same time I think it reflects directly on our common understanding of what those words mean, or ought to mean. As events keep reminding us, sanctity does not belong to marriage as an institution. Rather, it is something that can occur through the institution of marriage, but only with great effort and often with considerable suffering. If people have a trivial view of marriage that is not open to that suffering, the institution can be awfully unforgiving.

To be sanctified is to be made whole, which also means being touched by something greater than yourself. Marriage is a wonderful conduit for sanctification because, while it is undertaken in love, it often breaks us. People talk about broken marriages, but the truth is, it is marriage that breaks us, not the other way around.

It happens when things don’t go as you’d planned; when your beloved turns out to be someone different than the idealized partner you had created in your own mind. For some, this is the greatest challenge they will face, and it probably causes more divorces than any other. Sanctification is what comes when you begin to realize that living with that real person is worth the effort. It means you have to grow out at the edges so that your edges can continue to mesh. It means there will be bumping and shoving as you get settled into your new shapes. As the hymn that was sung at Barbara’s funeral goes:

If you find someone to share your time
and you join your hearts as one,
I'll be there to make your verses rhyme
from dusk 'till rising sun.

Yes, Lord, but the verses don’t always go smoothly, and the night is often dark. So much the better. Marriage sanctifies because it forces us to confront things in another person—and hence, ultimately, in ourselves—with which we’re uncomfortable; of which we’re afraid. It is these very things that must be explored if we are to grow spiritually: to outpace our limitations and become a soul whose scope and reach is the world at large.

When Barbara and I met, we instantly and instinctively bonded because we had both had to overcome things that most people in their early 30s never dream of dealing with. The symmetry of our life experiences drew us together in a way that far transcended the obvious differences between us. From the very beginning we treasured each other, and when you have treasured someone in that way, it is worth being broken repeatedly in order to remain what you have become for that person: a kindred spirit; a familiar patch in a foreign world; flesh of my flesh and soul of my soul.

When Barbara became sick, both of us suffered equally. This happened again and again. During the last two years, I watched her struggle with a torn rotator cuff and a pinched nerve in her left shoulder that caused her months of anguish, while at the same time she was getting bouts of truly intolerable pain from her trigeminal neuralgia. The two conditions did a dance of torment around each other, and I hope it doesn’t sound self-indulgent to say that the only thing worse than experiencing that yourself is watching it happen to somebody you love.

We both could have given up so many times. Instead, we let our marriage sanctify us. Apparently we did something pretty special, because I have received message after message from people who have been telling me how inspired they were by the two of us, and how much my testimony about our marriage has meant to them. We seem to have spoken in very broad terms to the world about the true, genuine sanctity of marriage. I’m proud of that. That’s why it distresses me so much to see this sacred turf being used for political football of the most cynical kind.

As I said earlier, my experiences are personal, and Barbara’s and my marriage was unique. I do know two things, though. Nobody who has experienced the sanctity of marriage as I have would ever dream of leaving their beloved when he or she becomes sick. Nobody who has experienced the sanctity of marriage as I have would ever dream of denying it to anybody else.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Abyss

Since I began my very public sharing of grief over the loss of Barbara, I have been mildly astonished at the number of people who have expressed admiration for what they have been kind enough to call my courage, or even heroism. There has been almost a sense of awe surrounding some of the comments that have come my way, often from people I have known my entire life. I might as well reveal the fact that my composure and poise have a source that can be explained in some detail. This is a subject that I have contemplated writing about here for quite some time, and if there will ever be an appropriate moment, this is certainly it.

The immediate prompt came from an article in The Christian Century that was shared with me by a friend. If the magazine’s copyright policy had allowed me to post a link on Facebook, I wouldn’t need to write this, since Frederick Niedner has written the best commentary I have ever read on clinical depression and its spiritual significance. The core of his argument is found in the following statements:

“Anecdotal evidence suggests that creative types—artists, poets and musicians—and those particularly sensitive to others' emotional lives are especially susceptible, although a kind of chicken-and-egg riddle may underlie this perception. In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker observes that the sanest individuals among us, the people most fully in touch with the reality of our mortal nature and flimsy constructs of meaning and purpose, are those whom fear and depression have reduced to states of catatonic paralysis. The rest of us who go blithely about our routines, oblivious to the fleeting quality of our arc through space and time, inhabit a fictional world, the insane realm of denial.”

Whether I am sane or not I will allow others to judge, but this cut to the quick for me. For years I was nearly maddened by this insidious disease, the open discussion of which remains one of our society’s last taboos. I am going to write here with brutal honesty in order to try to help make that taboo obsolete.

Yes, I suffered from clinical depression for more than twelve years, from my junior year in college until the age of 32. I may have had it even longer, but I became aware of it after a humiliating rejection by a girl I had fallen head over heels in love with. A kind of darkness descended over my life that is impossible to describe, since it is at once invisible and all-pervasive. I took one of the classic strategies for dealing with it—exactly the one that you would expect of a former National Merit Finalist with test scores in the stratosphere. I immersed myself in work and overachievement, earning a substantial fellowship to graduate school at Yale. Even in this Ivy League hideaway I distinguished myself, drawing attention from several faculty members who recognized in me the veritable prototype of a successful academic, complete with the Black Dog on a leash that always threatened to break out and demolish my feeble attempts at self-assertion.

In short, Yale claimed me as one of its own, having seen the pattern countless times before. I continued to throw myself into my work, renouncing romance and maintaining only a vestigial social life of any kind. And the depression grew worse, even though to all eyes I was thriving.

The crisis came during my penultimate dissertation year, when the Black Dog took up permanent residence on my upturned face and began the act of slow, sure suffocation that it knows so well. One of the pots in the kitchen of the apartment that I shared with another graduate student had been left out on the kitchen counter until it began to grow mold. I washed it carefully, but from that time forward became convinced that the mold remained and was slowly poisoning me and anybody else who had the misfortune of being a guest at our apartment. (We actually had a few.)

It was hard to imagine a mechanism, though, by which the scourge of our mold could get beyond the handful of our dinner guests, so a more subtle mechanism of transfer was needed. Within months, I had found it: the sound of my voice. It was not, after all, the chemical poisons from the mold that were fouling our guests; it was the mere act of listening to me. My voice, I imagined with pathetic grandiosity, had the real presence of a demonic power that could damn anybody who heard me to permanent separation from all hope. I was the shortcut to the Inferno. Worse, those so infected could infect others as well, giving them the power to spread the contagion. Soon, the mere act of having spoken socially to anybody else would make me effectively responsible for the eternal damnation of the entire world.

I knew, of course, that this was nonsense—and yet I didn’t, and so I spent increasingly long stretches of every day trying to argue myself rationally out of what had become a deep-seated obsession. As anybody who has tried it knows, you cannot argue your way out of an obsession, and the mere attempt to do so simply immerses you further, making the stakes even more desperate. It was after months of this ceaseless futility that I realized, quite simply, that I was going to have to kill myself. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew I had no choice. Life with that torment was simply unsustainable.

Volumes have been written about the overuse of anti-depressants in our culture, but I was most fortunate that at this moment my therapist realized that I was a candidate for them. This was before Prozac; I took monoamine oxidase inhibitors, which came with a host of dietary restrictions and possibly ghastly side effects. Within weeks of starting to take them, I experienced a miracle; the entire thought-complex that had imprisoned me in tighter and tighter chains for years simply lifted. Nothing in my own power could have made that happen, but a few little red pills a day had apparently done the trick.

In my newfound optimism I married, embarked on my professional career, and began to explore the previously shelved question of who I really was. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as smoothly as I could have hoped, and within a few years I had only a very part-time, temporary teaching job. It was at this point that my wife left me, performing the profoundly humiliating dumping maneuver yet again. Alone, with practically no income and even fewer prospects, I was forced to confront some long-delayed questions.

When I say forced, I mean it. Some of my passion on the subject of health insurance actually dates back to this time. With no insurance and only a minimal income, I could no longer afford the medications, so I was forced to wean myself off of them with no medical supervision whatsoever. Every time I lowered the dose, wave after wave of suppressed anger, fear and desperate sorrow surged to the surface and clawed at my consciousness. I realized that I had no choice but to finally own these emotions, albeit in small increments so that they no longer held the power of life and death over me. For the rest of that year, I doubled, then quadrupled, then exponentially expanded my emotional universe, all the while struggling through the everyday tasks that confront any newly single person trying to build a life.

Many days were so hard I really thought I would die of exhaustion or frustration—the difference wasn’t always entirely clear. Every time I picked myself up and repeated my new mantra: “If I can make it through this, I can make it through anything.” And so I did, and so I have.

It was at some point during all of this that I realized I no longer needed to ask myself whether I believed in God. I had been raised as an agnostic, for whom the existence of the deity was an open question, and the only unpardonable sin was to buy into a set of pre-made explanations. I had nevertheless flirted with Christianity in college, only to realize that our God is the God we know. Mine was a bully with a smirk, a sarcastic taunt and a maximum ability to inflict unbearable physical and emotional pain. Much of the anger that emerged during my “weaning” was directed at that God, and I told Him off repeatedly and with relish. I survived.

Contact with the genuinely divine, I found, sneaks in around you in rivulets of warmth and protection that are, to quote the title of Niedner’s article, “Barely Enough.” Nevertheless, enough they were, and by the time I met and married Barbara I had come to understand that everything I had done to recover from my depression was an expression of faith. Faith, of course, needs to have an object, and that object wasn’t me. This has remained the one ineluctable fact of existence for me ever since, and it renders theological debates more or less futile. This is what I know, and I can no other. Amazing grace how sweet the sound is the warp and fabric of my life, and I can no longer imagine it otherwise.

So on those occasions when I still have to step out into the abyss, not knowing if there is a foothold, I don’t worry so much any more. For those of you who are still with me, that is all there is to my heroism. I suppose, after all, that it is an appropriate subject of awe.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

An open letter to Rick Santorum

Dear Mr. Santorum -

You have presented yourself, in your run for the presidency, as a candidate of religious and moral values. I recently saw you quoted as saying that "the left has a religion, too. It’s just not based on the Bible. It’s based on the religion of self." [David Brooks, New York Times column, January 3]

I try to pay you the compliment of believing that you are well intentioned. Just yesterday, though, you were further quoted as telling the mother of a son who had survived cancer that people with pre-existing conditions should pay more for health care coverage because they make poor health care choices. [Igor Volsky, http://thinkprogress.org/health/2012/01/06/399357/santorum-to-mother-of-cancer-survivor-sick-are-to-blame-for-their-pre-existing-conditions-insurers-should-charge-them-more/?mobile=nc]

I can speak to your comments from a position of unique and painful authority. My wife recently died after decades of steadily worsening health due to radiation treatment she received for a brain tumor at 23. Without my group health insurance, she would have been unable to obtain any coverage at all.

Your position reminds me of comments made by some of the people at her parents' church, who told them that she must have done something terribly wrong for God to punish her in that way.

I'm sure you would qualify your statement, as you did to the mother of the son who had survived cancer, by assuring me that my wife did nothing wrong. Nevertheless, you are supporting a system that allows her and other innocent survivors of debilitating diseases to be treated as statistics and judged by whether they serve a corporate bottom line.

I urge you to consider the possibility that you are endorsing a position that has nothing to do with Biblical values, and everything to do with a societal ethos that makes everybody into a statistic and has rendered corporate profits more important than healing lives and saving souls. Perhaps our opponents' faults are always more visible than our own. From where I stand, though, you appear to be pursuing a religion of self with a single-minded intensity that is deeply offensive to many people who have been touched by serious illness.

Please back off and do some real soul-searching. You are causing genuine pain to people who have suffered much pain already. In doing so, you are undermining your claim to speak with moral authority, and are giving voice to the cruelest and ugliest forces in our public life: forces that are a profound threat to both religion and morality.

Robin Wallace