Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The crazy

Over the last week I've become more aware of something that I've simply been calling "the crazy." I know that it's an indelicate way to talk about mental health, my own or others'. But in conversations with friends lately, "the crazy" seems an apt label for those compulsive, irrational, anxious, even destructive thoughts. I don't know how to use it in a sentence, exactly. Do I catch the crazy? Does it latch onto me? Is it more about the crazy within speaking up and drowning out those better parts of me that want to see the good others and myself? Or is it merely the product of being in a messed up situation/a broken world? I don't know.

What I do know is that lately I've stumbled into periods in which I'm gripped by a terrible blinding resentment, when I fixate on the inevitably dismissive/contemptuous/resentful/spiteful conversation about to take place or event about to occur. Like in Union station, coming back from a fantastic visit with friends in Philadelphia, wondering whether the folks with whom I'm staying would be angry that I missed the regional train that goes right by their house. And, of course, this wouldn't be the case-- they even said that they wouldn't mind picking me up from the metro station before I left. But the crazy had grapped ahold of me and I had to sit in a stall in the men's restroom to calm down enough to think through what was going on inside of my brain and my heart.

And then, when I was sitting on the Metro, having called and confirmed that I would be at the Springfield/Franconia metro station, I got this terrible tightness in my chest and the waves of self-resentment started. That's how it seems to go with me: All of the pent-up anger towards others flows out first, and then like the tide it rushes back over me so that I'm angry at myself for letting myself get so goddamn crazy. And then I start analyzing all of my mistakes, all of the ways in which I miss the mark. Sitting on the train, slumped in the seat, my heart was aching and I realized that I wasn't breathing.

These days I try to ride out the waves of crazy, knowing (having faith, perhaps) that they will eventually subside-- either my episodes or those of the people around me. Part of the riding out means changing my situation in the ways that I can, and so I pulled out the book I was reading by Anne Lamott and flipped through to find the story about stumbling our way towards grace. I mean, all of them are like that, but I found that one that I was thinking about in particular ("The Muddling Glory of God"). "That's me, trying to make any progress at all with family, in work, relationships, self-image: scootch, scootch, stall; scootch, stall, catastrophic reversal; bog, bog, scootch." I would read some Anne Lamott, and then take big, gulping breaths of air-- enough air to remind me that I wasn't drowning (physically, at least) and enough air to undo some of the tightness in my chest. Breathing out was accompanied by this relieved chuckle-- "ha ha ha, isn't this ridiculous? But I'm soooo glad that I'm breathing again, so I might as well laugh a little."

I'm trying to eat healthier and got more rest (uh huh...), and I know that I should be making time for exercise and prayer. Maybe that would create some room for the Spirit to enter and sweep some of the crazy out of my head and my heart. Or maybe Spirit would come in with some all-purpose cleaner and clean up the shit that is stinking up the corners of my brain, along with the craziness that might be festering in that shit.

So that is what is on my mind. Only a couple weeks left before my Lutheran Volunteer Corps housemates will meet me and we'll determine how each of us is doing with that wrestling match between our selves and our craziness. Hopefully they won't mind my brokenness. Maybe good vegetarian cooking will make up for it. Oh, and grace. Somehow, grace will probably arrive on the scene, even if it's less than spectacular and more bog, bog, scootch.

[Creative commons photograph from coincoyote]

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Context Matters, Part 1

In the last week I've had two experiences that re-affirm my commitment to paying attention to how social systems influence my understandings and assumptions. They were unsettling and thought-provoking, and I am curious if others can locate themselves in similar situations.

The first experience happened within a conversation I was having with a self-described "radical non-denominational Christian" friend on our way home from visiting her church. Emerging out our (admittedly uncomfortable) conversation about race and access to the Abrahamic covenant, I had a startling realization. My friend, who is mostly Malay, was sharing with me her perception of being racially excluded from the covenantal grace extended to the biblical/mythic figure Abraham and his descendants (à la Genesis 17-- a perception that seems to me to flow out of Christian discourse than to be a view held by the vast majority religious Jews). As I was responding with what it meant to me-- someone of Anglo-European descent-- to identify Abraham as my spiritual ancestor I suddenly wondered how much this identification had to do with me being white.

And by invoking my whiteness what I am really invoking is white privilege.

White privilege means that “white” is defined as “normal.” Being white in the U.S. means that I don't have to think about my race or my ethnicity. Some white people even experience a sense of not having a race or ethnicity due to the way that whiteness is portrayed as normative. (See this intriguing article by Ashley Doane for a deeper exploration of this.) Because I come from this context in which whiteness is the racial standard against which all other people are held I wonder if that extends to the way that I easily see myself connected to the Abrahamic covenant. I wonder if this connection has less to do with some rationale provided by the Apostle Paul regarding heritage-through-faith (see Galatians 3:6-9), but because I assume that my race-less-ness allows me to transcend the racial boundaries that my Malay-American friend sees.

Additionally, I realized that the Sunday school image of Abraham and Sarah as an elderly white couple is still present in my mind, even though there is little chance that these two Middle Eastern nomads look much like my Northern European-heritage grandparents. This rocked me, since of late I have been getting antsy with idea of reading our modern assumptions about religion and race into Jesus, who was not a Christian and who certainly was not white. I find that by emphasizing Jesus’ Palestinian ethnicity and Jewish religious identity I can resist falling into the trap that I “know” Jesus—i.e. his cultural and religious sensibilities are like mine. In the same way, the conversation I had with my friend makes me think about the ways I kid myself by thinking that I “know” Abraham.

What are other folks’ experiences? How else does white privilege blind us? What are the ways that we’ve suddenly become aware of how racism affects the texts and issues we care about?