Being Beings and Discovering Mystery

John Shea’s essay, “Exceeding Darkness and Undeserved Light,” outline four different environments that we all share, best understood as “the basic contours of our existence.” (Shea 2) The environments are made up of the self, loved ones, society and institutions, and universe. Our experience as humans may appear to be summed up by our interactions with these four, but there is a fifth environment which encompasses these: Mystery. Our basic experience can be understood in having two points: ourselves and the environment we encounter (for instance, I (1) eat bread (2)).  When this interaction reveals a dimension of Mystery, we experience sacramental awareness (the addition of the third point). In the instance of eating bread, I might understand it to be not only bread but my personal participation in the account of Christ who gave his followers bread and told them it was his body, broken for them.

There are five primary ways Shea outlines as a means of becoming aware of the ultimate dimension of our experience as humans. First is contingency, “what Kazantzakis calls the luminous interval between two darknesses.” (Shea 13) Sometimes it looks like the gift of living fully and joyfully in the moment, amazed by the very experience of it all. At other times, it can be a reminder of how very fragile and finite out lives on this planet are. The second path is dialogue and communion. Through dialogue people discover who they are and in communion they discover a love and acceptance gifted to them by their community. The third path is collapse. “When order crumbles, Mystery rises.” (Shea 16) This is the falling apart of the beliefs or knowledge we clung to and our reaction to that loss. “A fourth path to Mystery leads through a deepened sense of the ambiguity of our moral activity.” (Shea) While we strive for moral ideals, we most often find ourselves falling substantially short.  Last is disenchantment. Well known throughout history, it refers to an awakening which ultimately calls us into a maturing religious consciousness.

When we read Pigeon Feathers, by John Updike, we see a boys journey to sacramental awareness. The main character, David, experiences these environments in such a way that he becomes disenchanted, one of the five paths mentioned by Shea. David has an encounter with Reverend Dobson over heaven when he didn’t answer David satisfactorily.  “His indignation at being betrayed, at seeing Christianity betrayed, had hardened him. The straight dirt road reflected his hardness.” (Updike 36) He searched and searched for truth, but he was lost in the darkness that can fall when one realizes there is a question but no answer. He saw his classmates and their ill-fated path towards imminent death and eventually lost his desire to read altogether. Although concerned, his parents resolved to give him a gun for his fifteenth birthday. We can see the “universe environment” and it’s influence on David as he practiced shooting, which put fear into his dog who he would sometimes comfort. “Giving this comfort to a degree returned comfort to him.” (Updike 43) Ultimately, David is asked to use his new skills to clear out the pigeons in the barn. Although he didn’t have a desire to, he did as he was asked. As he killed more and more pigeons, he enjoyed it more, feeling the power he held with his gun and his ability to predict the pigeons path. Yet it was when he went to bury them that Mystery entered into his world: “He had never seen a bird this close before. The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair… a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides…And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers….no two alike… designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him.” (Updike 50) He was startled by the intention behind them and the fact that they were treated like pests. In this encounter, he rediscovered his God, “….that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.” (Updike 50)

References

Shea, John. “Exceeding Darkness and Undeserved Light.” Stories of God. Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Publications, 2006.

Updike, John. “Pigeon Feathers.” Olinger Stories. New York: Vintage Books, 1964. Short Story.

 

 

A Reflection on “Love, Sex and Dating” by Andy Stanley (Part Six)

I’d strongly suggest starting at Part 1, it’s probably worth it. We’re diving into “The Talk,” in chapter 8. It’s maybe the talk we should have gotten, but most of us didn’t, and even if we did, most of us didn’t listen.

Sex isn’t just physical. Sex in more than just physical. Way more.” (132) Many of us might feel the truth in this statement, but often don’t act that way. Society doesn’t tell us this either: hook-up culture is rampant. If you’re being safe and it’s consensual, enjoy. Satisfy those physical urges, right? But sex is more because you are more. You are way more than a body. Think this isn’t true? “If sex is just physical, then once any physical damage was healed, that would be the end of it. Granted, there may be some residual trust issues to work through. But every pastor, counselor, and victim knows the flood of emotions associated with sexual abuse goes way beyond trust issues.” (133) Andy Stanley walks through several more examples, including rape, to help highlight the fact that sex goes way beyond the physical.

He then looks at the connection between sexual addiction and alienation from fathers. Having talked to dozens of men with these issues, something else was revealed: “The men I’ve talked to would be quick to tell you their sexuality and their sexual struggles are not just physical. Something other than their male appetite for sex was driving their self-destructive behavior. Many of these men had given up on actual sex.” (136) Consider this, if sex is “just sex,” why the sense of betrayal when someone in a marriage has sex with someone outside a marriage? Why is that one of the deepest cuts you can make to the trust in your relationship? Or why do people care about the sexual history of the person you date? It comes down to our desire for intimacy. “You may find this difficult to believe, but you have an appetite for intimacy… knowing fully and being fully known… There’s a significant and mysterious connection between one’s sexual experience and one’s capacity to experience relational intimacy.” (138)

What does this mean? It means the sexual choices you make now will influence your marriage later. It means that what we do now has an impact on what we can experience later. Pretending something isn’t true (like intimacy being important doesn’t help you, it sets you up for disappointment. “The heartbreaking consequence of our sexually liberated culture is that single men and women are undermining their own potential for sexual fulfillment later in life.” (141) The more partners you have, the more your experience of sexual intimacy decreases. This is the outcome of separating sex from the significance it has to us beyond the physical.

“What is touted as safe for the body is dangerous for the soul. While your body is designed with the capacity to successfully accommodate multiple sex partners with no apparent consequences, you are not.” (143) And this isn’t just your history; it’s the history that will impact and influence your future partner for life. While we can certainly alter our path now, it is worth noting the difference between forgiveness and consequences. The past doesn’t necessarily remain the past: you bring into your bedroom memories, guilt, comparison (or the fear of it), etc. This isn’t saying that you shouldn’t be with anyone who has a sexual past. It IS saying that you should understand what that was and what repercussions it may have.

“Over 30 percent of the couples that come to us for premarital counseling are already living together. Of the remaining 70 percent, most are already involved sexually. You might assume couples who are living and sleeping together have worked through the sexual challenges created by their sexual histories. Not so.” (144) Why? This goes back to the earlier chapters that mention that adding sex to a relationship stunts the ability to build healthy relationships. Andy Stanley requires those going through premarital counseling to cease sexual activity before marriage, and they have those living together make separate living arrangements as well. Why? Taking sex out of the equation makes talking about issues easier. “Those who comply thank us later. And only 7 percent call off the wedding.” (145) He gives other examples for why this no sex before marriage is a good idea, but I think that the gist of it is pretty clear. Working to preserve your purity now makes a path for deeper intimacy in the future.

You might think abstaining from sex outside of marriage is only for teens. It’s not meant for newly single adults, right? Or maybe you think that if the damage is done, is it really worth stopping at this point? Ask yourself this: “Has sex as a single… made your life better or more complicated? If God is a heavenly Father who loves you and wants the best for you… and he knows sex apart from marriage will complicate your life… what would you expect him to say about it?” (148) The thing is, each time we sexually engage with a person and then it ends, we end up hardening our heart a little more. Insulating ourselves a little more (the opposite of intimacy). We lie to ourselves, we say it was meaningless, that we’re over it. This is true of all of us, if we really look at ourselves. If we look at our choices and the effects it has. If we look at how we relate to people.

“All regret is difficult to live with. Sexual regret may be the most difficult. So we lie to ourselves. We tell ourselves we haven’t done anything wrong. It was his fault. Her fault. You were young. You were drunk. All of which may be true. But you’re still guilty. Nobody wants to feel guilty. So we create narratives we can live with and move on. Or attempt to.” (150) When we acknowledge this (some might call it sin), things shift. When we change our path from sexual encounters to preservation for marriage (let’s call this an act of repentance), things break free. You move towards a healthy understanding of sex and intimacy in relationships. It’s how you engage in that process we’ve been calling becoming.

Desiring Relationship or Desiring Someone

Someone wanted to talk to me earlier this week about relationships, particularly the hold that the bad ones have on us and the fight it takes to get free. This last time for me it didn’t take long to recognize the difference between missing RELATIONSHIP and missing the guy I had been in a relationship with, but there is freedom in knowing what you really desire versus confusing it with someone who might be a habit or a crutch.

See, there’s a super good reason I’m not with any of the guys I’ve ever dated, whether that was a choice I made or they did. It’s done and I want healing for them and me. I want each of us to be successful and healthy in our next relationship. But that can be hard sometimes, particularly if it was a rather toxic relationship. You want to sit and feel like… half of Ed Sheeran’s albums.

Photograph – Ed Sheeran (Boyce Avenue feat. Bea Miller acoustic cover)

But the fact is, and I’m not a big T-Swift fan, we need shake it off.  Learn from the past and move on from it because that relationship is DEAD and all we are doing is wasting time.

Taylor Swift – Shake It Off

And once you’ve shaken it off, don’t forget. Don’t backtrack. You’re at a great place: where you realize it’s good to be alive and things are pretty amazing… people will start to notice that about you.

Andy Grammer – Good To Be Alive (Hallelujah) (Official Music Video)

The Silent Victim of Imprisonment: Children

According to alternet.org (link below) in 2013, around 2.7 million children under the age of 18 had a parent in prison or jail. In this video they quote 3 million which shouldn’t be a surprise since the prison population has been rising for decades. The tragedy that strikes here is twofold: first, that children suffer the pain of growing up parentless. Second, with our system and society the way it is, those children will then be six times more likely to enter the system themselves.

Some people might say that these men don’t deserve to see their children; perhaps those people are against rehabilitating prisoners so they can be productive members of society when released.  But what about the kids? Do you think that the “sins” of the parents should be the “sins” of the child?  And thus the “sin” of society?  Or do you think we can do better? This program that allows dads and their kids to spend time together seems like an amazing step in the right direction.

 

(AlterNet Article) http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/27-million-children-under-age-18-have-parent-prison-or-jail

(Article Video was from) http://tosavealife.com/inspiration/dads-behind-bars-hold-kids-1st-time-look-faces/

Final Paper: Life Through Death

Paul wrote in an early part of his book about how quickly the medical students changed and that the, “Cadavers reverse the polarity. The mannequins you pretend are real; the cadavers you pretend are fake… to take one good look at our cadaver’s face and then to leave it covered; it makes the work easier.” (Kalanithi, 45) It’s facelessness quickly allowed what was once a person in whom life dwelled, a person who may have loved deeply and been deeply loved, to become instead pieces of a body. Although in this paper we look at Paul’s life as he approaches death to understand what has been learned both about living and the process of dying, let us not forget that Paul was real and his loss was deep. Loved by his wife, family and friends, he also left behind a future in his words, the lives he impacted and his young daughter newly created. It is in his words to his daughter, who will remember him only through others, that we see the title of our class captured so clearly:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing. (Kalanithi, 199)

This kind of response to one’s own death might seem extraordinary to many, but it was sculpted by a lifetime of influences. His Christian father and Hindu mother had eloped from the south of India to New York City where he had been raised for a while before being moved to Arizona with his family. His mother’s concern about his education caused her to emphasize reading heavily at a very young age. Meanwhile, his father was deeply committed to his medical practice which meant that he was not frequently around, making Paul view the personal cost of medicine as too high early on in his life. However, these things would remain important threads throughout the story of Paul.

Brave New World founded my nascent moral philosophy and became the subject of my college admissions essay, in which I argued happiness was not the point of life.” (Kalanithi, 27) After starting college he consumed literature courses in a search for human meaning but soon began to look into biology to understand the mechanisms that made creatures creators, ultimately moving over to the pursuit of a medical degree. And yet literature continued to shape how he tried to understand his patient’s experiences and, ultimately his own. “Neurosurgery attracted me as much for its intertwining of brain and consciousness as for its intertwining life and death… being so close to the fiery light of such moments only blinded me to their nature, like trying to learn astronomy by staring directly at the sun.” (Kalanithi, 81) The medical culture he was now immersing himself in caused him to struggle to respond as a person dying instead of as a doctor and yet his lifetime of seeking served him well in expressing his experience through the book he ended up writing and scoping out his purpose towards the end.

“It is the differences in meaning, far more than mere differences in vocabulary, that isolate cultures and that cause them to regard each other as strange or even barbaric. It is not too surprising that many cultures refer to themselves as “The People,” relegating all other human beings to a subhuman form of life.” (Barland, 39) This division by culture is easily identified when there are language barriers, differences in dress, or other ethnic markers that turn a comparison between people into a study in contrasts. Maybe it is just as likely that cultural misunderstandings occur when we are almost the same. There is so much to relate to Paul on that when I struggle to understand him, it is hard to remind myself of the cultural nuances. For instance, in a culture that requires 100 hours a week when you’re dedicating yourself to the care of other’s, perhaps a reduction of empathy is a means of survival whereas I, having never had such demands put on me, see only callousness. Paul, upon hearing that a friend died from a car accident after an attempt to save her life, wrote: “In that moment, all my occasions of failed empathy came rushing back to me: the times I had pushed discharges over patient worries, ignored patients’ pain when other demands pressed. The people whose suffering I saw, noted, and neatly packaged in various diagnoses…” (Kalanithi, 85)

Additionally, I wonder if I would have chosen to have a child before I died, leaving my spouse with a permanent reminder of myself and the possible burden of being both in mourning and a single parent simultaneously. His wife also asked him, “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?” (Kalanithi, 143) It wouldn’t only be hard on her; they both struggled with the decision. It’s clear as you read that family is a strong value for him from the very beginning. If I had been his wife I think I would have wanted to have the baby. He writes in reply to her question regarding it being more painful, “’Wouldn’t it be great if it did?’ I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.” (Kalanithi, 143) Indeed, loss is the cost of our commitment to one another sometimes; the price we pay for love. If loving someone more deeply was what made this death harder, perhaps that is the best way one could exit this world.

Another perspective would be that having the child was a form a denial that death was as imminent as he was being told.  In fact, he wrote, “We would carry on living, instead of dying.” (Kalanithi, 144) Paul manifested denial differently than many of us might. He could not intellectually deny that he had cancer, or that he understood to at least some extent the severity. He had become the patient for the very things he treated. He writes: “After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely.” (Kalanithi, 132) He undoubtedly felt it profoundly. But his denial was found in his actions. He stated that if he had a sense of the time he had left it would determine what he would do. Two years versus ten years mattered, but he knew she couldn’t give him what he was asking. It appears he was able to exist in a place where he was more acutely aware of his mortality while generally operating in denial until the birth of his daughter. “Yet there is a dynamism in our house. Day to day, week to week, Cady blossoms: a first grasp, a first smile, a first laugh… Time for me is now double-edged: every day brings me further from the low of my last relapse but closer to the next recurrence-and eventually, death.” (Kalanithi, 196)

Paul writes that he believes he went through the five steps of grief in reverse; that because he knew he was going to die but at the time was unable to know the when, instead of experiencing denial first, he experienced it last. Due to his vast medical experience in the field, he saw the stage of acceptance as being at the very beginning because he understood his prognosis. I would say that while Paul and Lucy certainly experienced that stages of grief, acceptance for them was at the end. “One of the most important aspects of Nearing Death Awareness is the need for reconciliation. Dying people develop an awareness that they need to be at peace.” (Callanan, 137) Before his diagnosis, his marriage was in danger of ending. In a way, the cancer brought healing. “Our relationship was still deep in meaning, a shared and evolving vocabulary about what mattered. If human relationality formed the bedrock of meaning, it seemed to us that rearing children added another dimension to that meaning.” (Kalanithi, 142) To that end, the other important part is legacy, that we have defeated death through our ability to continue on even after we have died. Paul and Lucy managed this aspect of their grief through their child and completing the book together.

These aren’t the only things that changed for Paul towards the end of his life. Voirst writes that “our dying may sometimes provide a new opportunity, that dying may sometime permit… growth and change, that dying may precipitate a further stage of emotional development that had – until now—been well beyond our capacities.” (Voirst, 318) At first he had thought that he could never do surgery again. In the end he realized that his doctor had done what he himself had strived to do with his patients: protect the attributes which they value and empower them to discover what they wanted to do with their remaining time. As he practiced surgery, he learned more about how his illness transformed him: “The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out… Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.” (Kalanithi, 160-161) In other words, dying is a process that at its best has you discovering who you are until the very end.

We come at last to consider the role that religious beliefs played in how Paul dealt with both being diagnosed and dying.  Although certainly approached in a scientific and academic manner, Paul was not devoid of a relationship with God; he wrote that if he had known God sooner he would have perhaps pursued a pastoral role instead of the one he ended up in. The fact that he saw no proof of God left him in a place where believing in God seemed unreasonable and so he didn’t. It wasn’t that he didn’t have the foundation; he was familiar with Scripture and his family raised him Christian. After searching through much of his twenties, he reached the following conclusion:

“The problem, however, eventually became evident: to make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning-to consider a world that is self-evidently not the world we live in. That’s not to say that if you believe in meaning you also believe in God. It is to say, though, that if you believe that science provides no basis for God, then you must also be obligated to conclude that science provides no basis for meaning and, therefore, life itself doesn’t have any.” (Kalanithi, 169)

Paul reaches this conclusion and saw sacrifice, forgiveness and redemption as the foundational principles of Christianity. This was crucial to helping him deal with his situation, even if he doesn’t appear to lean on it very heavily. This is true also of his lens of seeing Jesus as delivering a message of mercy over justice. Christians understand that sacrifice is a part of their story; Paul responds to his loss of life, time and experience less with anger and more with a zeal to squeeze what he can out of what is left. While he strives, he is full of forgiveness and we see redemption is his relationships time and again.

Christian’s often define faith with language like “assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen,” similar to Hebrews 11:1. To this end, I don’t believe this is a struggle of Paul’s. The way he is built makes supernatural faith hard, but he sees evidence in the world around him that speaks to a Creator who wants our lives to have meaning and purpose. So while his faith might look different, that doesn’t make it any less deep. This is a man who, dying, chooses to create life. To write of his experience dying in order to help others. I do not see a struggle of faith in Paul; I see a man being faithful in his struggle, much like the man after which he was likely named.

Works Cited

Barlund, Dean. “Communication in a Global Village.” Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication: Selected Readings (1998): 35-48. Print.

Callanan, Maggie and Kelley, Patricia. Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2012. Print.

Kalanithi, Paul. When Breath Becomes Air. New York: Random House, 2016. Print.

Viorst, Judith. “The ABC of Dying.” Necessary Losses (Unknown): 305-327. Print.