When Joe first saw me in the hospital, he said I reminded him of this scene from Office Space:
I had tubes in my nose, a 16-gauge IV in my hand that was causing me constant pain, had just received a daunting diagnosis that left me with a ton of questions about both my immediate and long-term circumstances, and yet I seemed…happy.
Undoubtedly, a large part of that can be attributed to being lifted up by so many wonderful prayers. But there was something else, too, that was responsible for my surprisingly peaceful state of mind:
December was a hard month. I couldn’t seem to stay on top of anything, and my inability to deal with life seemed to get worse by the week. Three days before Christmas I cleared off an entire evening to wrap presents, and quickly became so angry and overwhelmed that I went to bed in disgust instead. I felt like I barely survived the chaos of Christmas day, and in the week before New Year’s Eve I hardly lifted a finger around the house. I was unmotivated to do anything. I began backing out of social events, and felt exhausted by even the simplest tasks around the house.
I was aware of my abysmal state, and knew what the problem was: I’m lazy. And kind of a whiner. Not to mention not being fully dedicated to my vocation, and unwilling to carry my (small) crosses. Christ asks a few simple things of me, and even gives me this lavish, first-world life surrounded by luxuries, and I let a little pregnancy fatigue keep me from getting the job done! If only I were more open to God’s grace, I’d be able to unload the dishwasher without feeling like it was such a big deal.
These are the thoughts that were going through my head for the better part of a month. And so when the doctor at the Emergency Room sat me down and told me that my lungs were full of blood clots, some of them large, and that he was astounded that I’d been able to function at all, I almost cried with relief. To be completely honest, I was more relieved than I was scared. I know the facts about pulmonary embolisms and know how dangerous they are. Later, I did experience worry and fear. But first, relief.
There is truth to the accusations that I’m ungrateful, spoiled, and lazy. No false humility here — I really do posses all those attributes to some degree or another. But it was simply not true to say that those faults alone were the cause of my suffering. I was struggling against a terribly difficult physical condition, and my body was running in the red zone for all of my waking hours. In those weeks when I was unaware of the reality of my situation, I worked under the incorrect assumption that my circumstances were normal, and that therefore the problems must come down to spiritual and mental character defects on my part. Not surprisingly, this caused me to be in a state of constant inner turmoil. In fact, it was reminiscent of the hidden angst that simmered silently within me when I was an atheist: whenever you live under false assumptions about reality, you will live in anguish. It may be buried and only pop up occasionally, or it may burst to the surface in explosions of acute despair, but whenever you try to jam a square peg of your perception of reality into the round hole of actual reality, there will always be friction.
And you know why I bring this up? Because I think I’m not the only one who could benefit from an outlook-shattering diagnosis.
Once I felt like I had permission to admit that one area of my life was legitimately hard, I began to look at other areas as well. And in the process I’ve been reminded of something I’d known for a while, but had slowly forgotten: that 21st-century motherhood is really hard, whether or not you have clots in your lungs.
Yes, motherhood has always been hard, and our ancestors faced more grueling physical challenges in a month than many of us do in our entire lives. I wouldn’t trade my life for that of my great-great grandmother. However, I think that being a mother today comes with exponentially more psychological challenges than moms have ever faced before. A few examples that come to mind:
We live in isolation. From time immemorial mothers have raised their children in close-knit communities, surrounded by their own mothers and aunts and cousins and nieces and lifelong friends. In traditional human villages, women would gather to wash and cook together, their kids running around freely with friends and relatives. Even the more-isolated farm wives and suburban moms of our grandparents’ generation had refuge to the classic sanity-saving phrase, “Go outside!” (My grandfather reports that he and his siblings often only saw their mother at mealtimes and after sunset, since they spent so much time hunting and exploring each day). Mothers were never meant to be the sole people in charge of their children’s wellbeing all day, every day. It is utterly unnatural to go for 12 hours without having a face-to-face conversation with another adult.
And here’s a big one that’s rarely acknowledged: it feels like what we do isn’t important. It is important, of course…but the reality is that, thanks to all those wonderful modern conveniences, what most of us do on a daily or even weekly basis doesn’t necessarily contribute directly to anyone’s survival. Pouring effort into my vocation can bless my family tremendously, and makes all the difference between thriving and just getting by. But the reality is that if I were to totally slack off and not do much of anything for a few days, everything would be fine. Nobody would starve. We’d still have shelter and food and clothes and clean water.
Not so for the women of history. I doubt that my great-great-great grandmother and her friends had to remind themselves that motherhood is the most important job in the world: if they didn’t cook, their children would literally have nothing to eat. If they didn’t fetch the water from the well, there would be nothing to drink. If they didn’t launder and mend the clothes, there would be nothing to wear. The daily work that the housewife of 1813 did was of life-and-death importance; the daily work that the housewife of 2013 does doesn’t have anywhere near that level of urgency. And that’s a good thing — I don’t think any of us would want to go back to a time when basic survival was so difficult — but it’s also worth admitting that it’s a little demoralizing to know that most of your day to day work falls under the category of “nice to have” rather than “have to have.”
I could go on: the fact that our isolation means that no one outside of our immediate family ever sees the fruits of our labor; that our kids are constantly lured to become peer-oriented; that the norms of our culture push us to pile way more onto our plates than we can realistically handle…but you get the idea.
What we modern moms do is hard, and not just hard in the way that motherhood has always been hard. We’re laboring under unique conditions that few people in human history have ever experienced, trying to thrive in utterly unnatural circumstances. It may not be hard physically, but it’s a great challenge psychologically.
My point here isn’t to wallow in self-pity, or encourage anyone else to do so. In fact, as odd as it may sound, my hope is to inspire fellow moms to deeper peace and gratitude.
We’re hesitant to admit that our lives are difficult in any way. We feel the pain, but then we look around at our washers and dryers and smartphones and televisions and all the other trappings of our first-world lives, and we feel embarrassed to complain about anything. It feels easier, and certainly more noble, to blame ourselves, to assume that the problem must simply be moral failings and character defects on our parts.
But what I found with my undiagnosed medical issues is that when we refuse to accept real suffering as legitimate, it actually makes it harder to be grateful. We spend so much mental energy fighting the wrong battles and beating ourselves up over phantom failings that we don’t have much energy left to take stock of all the wonderful things in our lives. Living in a false reality is exhausting and demoralizing. It’s much easier to be happy, peaceful, and close to God when we acknowledge the truth, even if that involves acknowledging that some things are hard.
I’ll never forget the powerful, soul-cleansing relief that poured over me when I learned that there really had been something wrong with me for all those weeks. Even though I had not begun to receive treatment and felt no better than before, I was suddenly inspired to do my best despite my circumstances. Almost immediately, I began to approach my situation with joy. Once I stopped lamenting sins I wasn’t really committing, I could take a clear look at the sins I was committing, and made a better confession than I had in months. Even sitting there in a hospital room, I felt closer to God and happier with my life than I had in a long, long time.
I feel like I’ve been given a divine permission slip to stop defaulting to self-blame for all of my little daily difficulties (not just as it related to my lungs, but in every area of life) and I want to share it with you. If you’re a mom and you’re struggling, let me just tell you that the problem is not you. Well, I suppose I can’t know that for sure; if you find that you’re regularly too drunk to put the Cheez Whiz on your kids’ cookies for dinner, then maybe the problem is you. But, short of that, my guess is that your suffering is due to your difficult circumstances far more than it is due to laziness or lack of holiness or ungratefulness on your part. What you’re doing is hard, harder in certain ways than what your grandmothers experienced, and don’t let the voices in your head tell you otherwise.
Just like the medical professionals in the ER did for me, Dr. Jen is here to give you a diagnosis: you have condition called “life as a 21st century mom,” and it’s known to cause fatigue, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, confusion and conditions mimicking insanity. Your suffering is legitimate, and it’s not your fault.
I wish for you that same moment I had, when I was hooked up to wires and IVs, dried blood splattered down my arm, tubes all up in my nose, and yet was so profoundly relieved to know the reality of my situation that I gave my husband a big grin and a thumbs-up sign as if to say, “Life is awesome.”
Today is my birthday. I turn 36.
Not only have I now passed the halfway point of my thirties, but it’s a brand new year, I just had a brush with a medical condition that is often fatal, and my whole life has been turned upside down by my recovery. So, as you can see, I have no choice but to write a long and reflective blog post that opines about the meaning of life today.
It’s a lot of pressure, really. I was lying in bed yesterday, mentally writing my post about all the Important Things I’ve taken away from this situation, and was mildly disgusted with myself that the first thing that came to mind was a list of tips about how to sneak contraband into the hospital that you’re technically not supposed to have. (And the next thing I thought of was a recipe for this amazing-sounding martini I discovered while surfing the web in the ER that I cannot wait to try as soon as the baby’s born.)
But I do think that I have learned a lot from this situation, even if the real insights were buried under ah-hah moments about sneaking Bendaryl into the hospital so that you can actually sleep.
Interestingly, facing my mortality was not what jarred me out of my usual routine — we Catholics are always thinking and talking about death, and since my conversion I’ve lived with a fairly constant awareness that, truly, not one of us knows the hour or the day that our time on earth will end. Having the ER tech whisper to me that the last guy who came in with a pulmonary embolism was dead 15 minutes later wasn’t what shocked me into a new way of seeing life. Instead, what has been the real bucket of icewater over the head for me has been the shattering of all my plans. I’ve only now realized that I tend to live in this weird mental space where I am pretty aware that death could come at any time…yet not all that aware that something mildly less catastrophic could happen. If I found out that I was going to die tomorrow it would shock me less than, say, if I found out I was going to lose the use of my right arm. I guess you could sum up my outlook as, Today could be the day the Lord calls me home…but if he doesn’t, good thing I have all these carefully laid out plans and that nothing could possibly go wrong with them!
But now all my plans are toast, and as I face a third trimester of pregnancy with a compromised ability to breathe, wonders about whether there will be lasting lung damage, and tricky long-term health management questions, I have been smacked upside the head with the reality that all my delusions of control through planning were just that — delusions.
I’ve been sitting here thinking of all the things I thought I would be doing in 2013 that I will not actually be doing. The crazy-intense curricula that would forever ensconce me as Queen of All the Homeschoolers, the cool speaking gigs in interesting places, the challenging but exciting writing opportunities, and those elaborate home organization projects that would surely make our entire house look like something off of Pinterest, have all either had to be hugely modified or scrapped altogether. Heck, I’ll be excited if I can walk up the stairs without flopping on the bed to gasp for breath at any point before summer. And here’s the most surprising part of all of that:
I don’t really care that much.
Starting with the moment my OB came to my hospital room to explain my diagnosis, I kept waiting to feel a great wave of mourning for all my plans. I waited and waited. But it never came. And when I look back on what God was teaching me in 2012, I see why.
In 2012 there was a very clear, specific message that was presented to me over and over again, reinforced to me countless times in countless ways. It seemed kind of random, and I wasn’t sure exactly how it would apply to daily life, but it was undeniable that it was something God wanted me to understand. The message was this:
It’s all about the human person.
Though I had felt the silent whispers of this concept in various forms as the months went on, it was Cardinal DiNardo whom I first heard articulate it, in a speech he gave at a benefit dinner in which he recounted something that John Paul II told him on his first ad limina visit to Rome. The great pontiff could have talked then-Bishop DiNardo’s ear off with hours and hours of advice about what it takes to be a good shepherd, but instead he left him with that one truth to ponder. On the bishop’s last day in Rome, John Paul II leaned in close to him and said, “Remember, Your Excellency, it’s all about the human person.” No matter how important or sweeping our plans may be, no matter how big or small the scope of our authority, everything we do must be ordered toward connection with individual human beings.
The message simmered within me all throughout the year, but it’s only now that it’s all gelled.
I’ve come to see the radically freeing truth that our plans only matter to the extent that they’re ordered toward deeper intimacy with individual people. What makes this truth so freeing is that, if your ultimate goal is to make the world a little brighter of a place by touching one person at a time, you can do that under any circumstances. You can live a life ordered toward human intimacy as a jet-setting movie star or as an invalid confined to a hospital bed; whether you find yourself surrounded by Hollywood directors or the nurses on night shift, you will always find yourself surrounded by people in need of love.
And so, to the extent that my plans for 2013 were rightly ordered in the first place, they actually haven’t changed all that much. I may have thought that on that one weekend in March I would be connecting with the people seated at my table after I gave my speech; instead, it looks like I’ll be connecting with my family, my neighbors, the people in my parish, or whoever else I can encounter without getting on a plane. The details may be different, but the goal is the same.
This is especially freeing in light of my birthday.
I’m not immune to the occasional pang of “I’m getting old!” thoughts that probably plague most citizens of our youth-obsessed society. MTV culture tries to paint aging — or illness, or disability, or any condition other than being young and healthy — as a great limiting of options. Alas, you can no longer [insert description of supposedly glamorous activity]. That’s for people who are [younger / healthier / prettier / wealthier] than you are. But the truth, which I understand with such great clarity after all I’ve been through in the past week, is that if your plans were not love-driven in the first place, then they were the kind of stupid, time-wasting plans that people shake their fists and rue through tears on their deathbeds; and if they were love-driven, then there are no worldly circumstances that could prevent you from executing them, even if the details change a bit.
And so I find it profoundly liberating here on my birthday, as I enter into the daunting territory of a year full of questions and unknowns, to know that as long as my life is ordered toward love, it is a life with limitless possibilities.
I’ve mentioned before that I want to love the Psalms more than I actually love the Psalms. I can see that God has given us a treasure chest of Scriptural riches here, I know many folks who find these parts of the Bible to be an endless source of spiritual refreshment. But I always have trouble getting into them. (This is especially problematic when praying the Liturgy of the Hours, which is based on the Psalms.)
I am well aware that the problem is with me, and not with the Holy Bible. I also suspect that this issue is related to my general inability to appreciate poetry, which probably comes from my tendencies to be overly analytical. I would like to be able to deepen my appreciation for these timeless verses, and am hoping that you guys can give me some advice that will help me get a clue.
To elucidate my problems, let me give you an example of what it’s like when I pray a psalm. Let’s take Psalm 64 (my interior dialog in italics):
HOW JEN PRAYS PSALM 64
Hear me, my God, as I voice my complaint;
protect my life from the threat of the enemy.
Voice my complaint! Yes! Boooooy, do I have a few complaints. And, uhh, I didn’t know it was okay to classify others as “enemies,” but there are some folks who are on my last nerve right now. Protect me from them!
Hide me from the conspiracy of the wicked,
from the plots of evildoers.
They sharpen their tongues like swords
and aim cruel words like deadly arrows.
They shoot from ambush at the innocent;
they shoot suddenly, without fear.
Totally! Yes! It’s like the psalmist was reading the comments to that big anti-Catholic conspiracy theory forum that linked to me yesterday, where they compared my intelligence to that of common houseplants and ended up arguing amongst themselves about which one of them hates me the most. Cruel words like deadly arrows indeed! Isn’t it awful?! Are you hearing this, Lord?
They encourage each other in evil plans.
Oh, man, totally.
They talk about hiding their snares;
they say, “Who will see it?”
That’s right — God sees your trash talking, fools!
They plot injustice and say,
“We have devised a perfect plan!”
Surely the human mind and heart are cunning.
Amen to that.
But God will shoot them with his arrows;
they will suddenly be struck down.
[Imagining that one guy who openly wished that my death will come sooner rather than later: When he goes to write a new update on the thread, his keyboard catches on fire as part of God's wrath!]
He will turn their own tongues against them
and bring them to ruin;
all who see them will shake their heads in scorn.
Yes. More of this, please. In fact, I’d love a little more detail about how this “everyone sitting around and scorning my enemies” thing works.
All people will fear;
they will proclaim the works of God
and ponder what he has done.
The righteous will rejoice in the Lord
and take refuge in him;
all the upright in heart will glory in him!
Hurray! [Imagining The Righteous, a.k.a. me, rejoicing in the Lord, while the Enemy, a.k.a. those who have annoyed me, having been smote and scorned.]
I’m doing it wrong.
I’m neither a Scripture scholar nor a spiritual director, but I’m pretty sure that you’re not supposed to walk away from the Psalms convinced of your own righteousness and other people’s awfulness. I haven’t checked the Catechism on this, but I think we’re not supposed to ask God to strike down our enemies, or hope to see them ridiculed by others — I’m not sure that we’re really supposed to think of other people as enemies at all.
Undoubtedly part of the problem is that I’m making it too personal, and forgetting here that prayer is not all about me. Perhaps I should read these words and think only of what was going on with the psalmist, or turn my heart towards all who have ever felt this way. And maybe I’m just not reading it as poetry, which is likely since, as I said above, I’ve never felt like I “get” poetry (which is weird since I’m a big music lover — feel free to speculate about what’s going on there.)
Anyway, I’m hoping to get some words of wisdom from you all. Any practical tips from how this overly literal, hard-headed person can learn to love the Psalms?