The other day I was in great need of some inspiration, and I found it in the most unlikely of places: the video for Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt.
I know. When someone says “Johnny Cash” and “Nine Inch Nails” in the same sentence, combined with references to songs that talk about someone cutting himself and lamenting his “empire of dirt,” you don’t immediately think: INSPIRING!
But it was. And I spent all weekend wondering why.
This happens fairly regularly: A book or a video or a movie or a song leaves me bubbling with excitement, overflowing with inspiration, feeling like I’m ready to go out and be the best woman and mother and wife and Catholic that I can be. Yet when I consider its message I see that it’s not exactly straight out of Chicken Soup for the Soul. It may even involve some profanity or depictions of people doing stupid and immoral things, which makes it all the more perplexing that it would inspire me to be a better Christian.
I watched the video of Cash’s Hurt a few more times, soaking in his soulful and weary voice as he sung a tale of disappointment and futility, and each time I asked myself why such a video would seem to be of God in some way. After about the fifth time I watched it, it finally clicked:
This video speaks the truth about what it means to be human.
Throughout the song, the visuals cut back and forth between grainy clips from Cash’s glamorous rockstar heyday, and recent shots of the abandoned and crumbling Johnny Cash Museum. We see the legendary Man in Black looking old and feeble, his hands visibly shaking in some of the scenes (he would die only seven months after the filming). In a series of images starting at 1:20, we see the young Johnny Cash up on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans. We see the superstar in action, and understand on a visceral level how this good-looking, vital, talented young man could become such a powerhouse that he would have his own museum. Then, only seconds later, as current Cash draws out the line My empire of dirt, we cut to the museum today. It’s abandoned. Posters, autographed pictures, and other memorabilia bearing the young Cash’s image have been tossed in a heap in a corner. Glass shelves are empty and covered with dust. A framed collector’s item record sits behind shattered glass. A 1970s-style cash register sits silently on a countertop, a cruel reminder of the years when the world still adored Johnny Cash.
This video speaks the truth, and it speaks the truth in a particularly Christian way. This is not to say that the song’s lyrics would make good instructional material for catechism class; rather, it is its theme that does the truth-telling. It depicts an accurate spiritual landscape upon which the human life plays out.
You can achieve the height of worldly glory and fame, and it won’t last, Johnny Cash tells us through this video. It’s an empire of dirt. And that is true. It makes us feel more human, because it’s an articulation of spiritual realities that only humans know about.
Imagine a movie whose theme was, Sometimes it’s good for married people to have affairs, or Smoking crack can make your life better. Even if such a film tried to be positive, it would ultimately have a dispiriting, dehumanizing effect, because it lies about the truths of the human experience. The closer we get to God, the more human we become; but we can’t get closer to God if we don’t understand the spiritual landscape in which our souls move and live.
I often fantasize about starting an arts patronage fund to help out artists who create work that brings people closer to God. (The fact that I have no money and have no idea what such an organization would look like does not deter me at all — hey, it’s fantasy!) I’ve given out millions of dollars in grants as well as multiple prestigious awards in my imagination, and the process has led me to ask over and over again: What constitutes God-glorifying art? Certainly the Sistine Chapel is a prime example, as is Fr. Robert Barron’s stunning Catholicism series. But can art that is not overtly religious be God-glorifying too?
I think I finally found my answer in Hurt. In the song and the accompanying video, Cash took a murky, invisible spiritual reality, and defined its edges and polished it up for us to behold. By taking such an honest look at the fleetingness of fame and worldly glory, he delved into the cauldron of the human experience and came out with a red-hot truth, even at great cost to his pride. And in the end he made for himself the most worthy legacy an artist could ever have: He created something that makes us more human.
+ + +
The video is below, but first watch this one-minute excerpt from one of Cash’s final interviews:
And do click the button on the bottom right to watch this one in full screen mode:
For many of you, Dawn Eden needs no introduction. She’s a popular blogger, a former rock journalist, Catholic convert, and author of the bestselling book The Thrill of the Chaste. I recently had the honor of interviewing her for the National Catholic Register, where she spoke for the first time publicly about her own experience as a victim of childhood sexual abuse. When I talked with her for that interview, I was overwhelmed by the amount of wisdom Dawn has gained on the subjects of healing and forgiveness. It was immediately clear that there was far more material here than could be contained in one interview.
So I wanted to share with you an informal Part II to our interview, in which Dawn speaks candidly on the subject of forgiveness — particularly forgiveness when you’ve been deeply hurt. The insights she’s gained through her healing journey carry powerful lessons for everyone, and so I am thrilled to share them here. And be sure to check out her brand new book, My Peace I Give You, which deals with these same subjects. Like with these interviews, I believe that the book contains powerful lessons for anyone who’s in need of healing and a deeper understanding of forgiveness.
Q: A central concept of your book is how to go about forgiving the unforgivable. In particular, you mention a quote from St. Josephine Bakhita in which she says that if she could meet the people who kidnapped and tortured her she would kiss their hands, because that was part of her journey to Christ. Do we all have to forgive in that same way?
Though we are all called to be saints, in daily life there may be many things that the canonized saints did that we are not called to do. With regard to Bakhita, what each of us is called to do is what’s within the Lord’s Prayer: to forgive, but not necessarily to reconcile.
In ministering to victims of abuse, we need to be very clear about the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. Many victims are under the mistaken impression that they are remaining in sin unless they reconcile with the abuser, but that’s not true.
Yes, we have to forgive. To forgive someone is to want God’s best for them. Thankfully, we don’t have to do the heavy lifting: all forgiveness comes from the Holy Spirit. When we forgive someone we ask the Holy Spirit to enter into us and forgive that person on our behalf, and we set our will on cooperating with the Spirit’s act of forgiveness.
Q: So there may be cases where people forgive, but don’t reconcile?
Ideally, forgiveness leads to reconciliation. But, unlike forgiveness, reconciliation is a two-way street. If someone is still abusive, the most loving and forgiving thing may be to not attempt reconciliation, inasmuch as having further contact with that person would only give him or her the opportunity to abuse again.
Q: How has this understanding of forgiveness helped you in your own journey of healing?
It is very freeing. No longer do I have to worry about whether I’ve worked hard enough to forgive. I just have to ask the Holy Spirit to work forgiveness in and through me. Then I need to trust that, with my having made the choice to forgive, the Holy Spirit will continue to work in me, taking the wounds that remain and join them to the wounds of Christ.
Q: You mention that it is good for abuse victims to pray for those who have harmed them, but acknowledge that doing so may be impossible without stirring up up painful memories. What do you recommend for those kinds of situations?
I once got a very helpful tip from a Sister of Life. I was talking to her about how I felt that I owed it to God to pray for a certain person, but that it was painful for me to think about this person. The sister advised me to commend this person to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, to say to Mary, “Please place this person inside your Immaculate Heart, so that every time I’m praying for the intentions of your Immaculate Heart, I am praying for him.”
Q: That must help channel your negative energy toward that person in a more positive direction.
You know that Twilight Zone episode where there’s a child who has a dark supernatural power, and uses it to cast anyone who crosses him out into a cornfield? He casts out anyone with whom he’s angry, sending more and more people away to this place, which is an allegory for hell.
I think many of us do that in our minds sometimes, cast people away, send them to hell in our thoughts. To place them instead into the Immaculate Heart of Mary is a positive counter to that attitude. In both cases, you’re removing those people from the foreground of your thoughts — but, through Mary, you’re able to wish them into a good and holy place.
Q: Those of us who are longtime fans of your writing notice a change in your topics and tone: You used to be known for getting into heated debates with secular feminists, but you don’t do that anymore. Did this journey of healing have anything to do with that?
Yes. There was one event in particular that led me to reconsider the way I’d been acting out against feminist bloggers:
I discuss this in more detail in the book, but there was a time several years ago when I antagonized feminist bloggers, because I saw them as encouraging the same kind of attitudes that fostered my childhood sexual abuse. Though I make no apologize for proclaiming those truths about human life and dignity that the Church proclaims to be true, it was wrong of me to lash out in uncharity.
A turning point came after a woman named Zuzu began a series of blog posts reviewing The Thrill of the Chaste at the blog Feministe. She was picking and choosing things to insult me about, setting out to thoroughly shame and embarrass me, making fun of me in the most uncharitable way.
At first I just wrote her off as a mean-spirited person. Then one day I saw a blog entry of hers about her childhood, in which she talked about the difficult aspects of her relationship with her mother. She gave specific examples of her mother transgressing certain boundaries, and while they weren’t acts of sexual abuse, learning about them made me have so much compassion for her. I realized that it was a shame that I had burned so many bridges, and therefore couldn’t reach out to Zuzu and say, “I know how you feel.”
It was a point of conversion of heart for me, which led me to seek to avoid vitriol and uncharity in my public witness.
Q: What would you say to someone who feels trapped by old wounds, not sure where to even begin down the path of forgiveness?
I recommend partaking of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. That may sound strange, because certainly those who have been abused have no reason to confess things done to them that was not their fault. But, as I write in in My Peace I Give You, although the primary reason we go to Confession is to be forgiven our sins, forgiveness is not the only thing that happens in that sacrament. Christ touches us, and, whenever He touches us, He gives grace.
A problem that many abuse victims have is anxiety caused by their uncertainty over the state of their soul. They have so absorbed the lies imprinted upon them by their abuse that they have trouble discerning the difference between the lingering effects of the sins committed against them, for which they are not responsible, and their own sins, for which they are responsible.
Recently a friend who suffered from this painful uncertainty asked me for advice on confession. I recommended to her that when she went to confess, having told the priest the sins that she was certain were her responsibility, she should add, “Since Jesus is with me in this sacrament, I want to ask His healing grace while I am here, because I was abused when I was a child. I know I am not responsible for my abuse, but it has led to my having thoughts that distance me from Him. If any of those thoughts are sinful, I am very sorry, because I don’t want anything to separate me from Him. And even if they are not sinful, I ask Jesus to cover me with His Precious Blood and heal my hidden wounds.”
A few months after suggesting that approach to my friend, I went into the confessional and was moved to say the very words I had recommended. It was very powerful. Afterwards, I could not believe it had taken me so long to take my own advice.
A big thank-you to Dawn for taking the time to chat with us. Do check out her book My Peace I Give You, where she shares more profound thoughts on peace, forgiveness, and healing.
One of the topics I’ve struggled with since the beginning of my conversion is the role of ambition in the Christian life. I have an odd personality type that could be described as “mostly extremely lazy, with occasional flashes of Type A behavior.” In other words, by default I sit on the couch and do nothing; but when I do decide to get up from the couch, I make it worth my while. I think this is why the concept of being ambitious is a tricky one for me: It’s easy for me to be tempted to do nothing and call it virtue, passing off sloth for holy detachment. On the other hand, it’s also easy for me to get so into whatever project I’m working on that I turn it into an idol.
This has been my main topic of prayer for months now. I know that placing too much value on worldly accomplishments leads to misery and spiritual death. I also know that we’re not supposed to sit around and do nothing, and that we can bring glory to God by producing top-quality work. So, how can a Christian be both intensely motivated to do his best work, yet still remain detached? I still don’t have all the answers, but I think a lot of it comes down to this:
Rock the present moment.
First, the rock part:
One thing I noticed recently was that I brought great energy to my various writing projects. I wanted to do my best at these tasks, and I wanted to do it for God. The problem was that the Jen’s-Passion-for-Bringing-Glory-to-God-o-Meter dipped down to about zero when it came to work that I didn’t like as much and/or that didn’t have a worldly payoff. I would devote myself with zeal to learning how to write a quality book; but when a lonely neighbor needed someone to talk to, I suddenly had all the enthusiasm of a prisoner on a chain gang.
The problem with ambition is that we tend to put it into practice selectively. This is what Fr. Walter Ciszek was always talking about in He Leadeth Me (a lesson which, somehow, didn’t sink in the first five hundred times I read the book): to turn your life over to God means to turn each individual moment of your life over to God. A God-glorifying life doesn’t hinge on the outcome of grand events; it isn’t dependent on the future. Rather, it’s created from the small moments of each day: the enthusiastic conversation with the chatty woman on the bus, the cup washed with extra care before it’s returned to the cupboard. A new litmus test I use to keep myself from becoming overly ambitious in the wrong areas is, “Do I devote this much care and attention to every area of my life?” If the answer is no, it’s time to recalibrate.
This brings us to the present moment part:
By default, being ambitious is a very future-oriented state of mind. We want to have accomplished X by the time we’re 50, we’re passionate about achieving Y by the end of next week — all of this takes place in the future. I think one of the devil’s most clever tricks in this department is to take our honest efforts to live in the present moment, and use them as fodder for temptation to fixate on tomorrow. For example, a while back I was writing something that I thought was turning out to be great. I could feel the Holy Spirit with me, and just knew that this was what God wanted me to be doing at this moment. All good so far. But then my thoughts drifted to the future: This must mean that God wants this piece to be really successful! It’s going to go viral! Everyone is going to read it! I ended up drifting around in dreams of the future, ignoring the present moment to become more and more attached to what was surely going to happen later in the week.
As it turned out, the piece was mostly a flop, except for some people who wrote me to say how much they hated it. Rather than using it to teach thousands of people about the Lord through my writing, God used it to teach me some lessons in humility. It was a painful experience, mainly because I had relied so heavily on my God’s Will ESP and had gotten attached to my visions of what the Holy Spirit was surely going to do with this project. If I had simply done my best during the writing, then moved on to doing my best with the next thing God called me to (which, in this case, was changing the bag in the kitchen trash can), I don’t think I would have been so impacted by the outcome of the project.
Again, I’m still working on all of this, and will probably struggle to find balance in this area all my life. But I wanted to share what I’ve learned, because it has really helped me be both motivated and detached, simply to remember to rock the present moment.
I have a personality type that leads me to feel overwhelmed a lot. I’m ambitious but lazy; I have a latent perfectionist streak that comes out at unexpected times; I’m an Olympian procrastinator; and I’m so non-confrontational that I often find myself saying “Yes, I’d love to help with that” when what I should be saying is, “I CANNOT EVEN FIND TIME TO BRUSH MY HAIR RIGHT NOW, LET ALONE SIGN UP FOR ONE MORE FREAKING THING.”
Because God looks out for people like me, I’ve had some very wise counsel in this department over the years. For one thing, my husband is an MBA with a gift for managing difficult situations. Earlier in his career he wanted to be a turnaround CEO (an executive that takes failing companies and makes them profitable), so he gained a lot of experience wading into hot messes and getting things under control. Then there was my great spiritual director, who never failed to help me shift my view of any situation to see it through the eyes of Christ. Thanks to the two of them, I can usually dig myself out of overwhelming situations before I reach the meltdown zone.
I’ve gained a great perspective on how to parse through complicated situations, the details of which I once wrote up here. But I realized recently (when I found myself in over my head yet again) that the most important addition to my life toolkit is what I think of as the Burnout Emergency Gas Mask. If you were in a room that was filling with toxic gas, the first thing you’d do is put on a gas mask. You’d do it immediately, without any further analysis, to preserve your health and give you some breathing room (literally) so that you could calmly evaluate the situation and make prudent decisions about what to do next. Through my husband and my spiritual director, I’ve learned a set of steps to take when I begin feeling overwhelmed that function the same way: If I do them immediately, without any further analysis, the process gives me the breathing room to collect my thoughts so that I can make prudent decisions about how to remedy the situation.
Since we’re approaching prime burnout season with the Fall in full swing and the holidays just around the corner, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned:
The 4-Step Burnout Gas Mask
1. Get your physical environment in order
I find it to be critical to do this step first. I used to think that a messy environment didn’t bother me at all, but I’ve come to believe that living in chaos is objectively bad for the spiritual life. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, it goes a long way toward bringing me peace simply to get my house in order. I don’t mean achieving Martha Stewart levels of perfection, but just clearing out obvious piles of clutter and wiping off messy surfaces to get things looking basically orderly. (And yes, I turn to Fly Lady when I need inspiration in this department.) In situations where the whole house seems to be out of control and it makes me even more stressed to imagine dealing with all of this, I focus only on the kitchen and the bedroom: Waking up to a tidy room and making breakfast in a clean kitchen invariably gets the next day off to a much better start, no matter what else is going wrong.
2. Get some sleep
One of my husband’s biggest mantras is, “Don’t think about your problems when you’re tired.” I need to have this tattooed on my hand so I never forget it. As I’ve said before, I’ve been known to reason my way into believing that the entire universe is falling apart at the seams when I’m tired, only to find that I have a completely different perspective after a good night of sleep. Especially if you haven’t been getting good sleep for a long period of time, pull every single string available to you to make this happen. Even one solid night of catchup sleep can give you an explosion of energy.
3. Pray — preferably outside of the house
We should, of course, pray without ceasing. I know that when I’m overwhelmed, I toss up all sorts of scatter-brained prayers asking God for assistance (and, okay, making sure that he is aware of JUST HOW TERRIBLE everything is that I’m dealing with). However, in order to truly “put on the mind of Christ,” I need to shut the door on everything else that’s going on in my life, and give the Lord my full attention. In particular, I find it to be critical that I actually follow the A.C.T.S. model of prayer (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, then Supplication); otherwise I tend to blather on and on about what I want God to help me with as if he’s my personal assistant, rather than listening for what he may be trying to tell me.
Also, it doesn’t work well if I try to do this at home. When I feel like I’m surrounded by chaos, it’s super helpful to pray outside of the house at least once, either in our church or at the Adoration chapel. If I try to do one of these “gas mask” prayer sessions at home, my prayers tend to go something like, “Lord, I praise you for your...laundry! Who knocked over that basket of laundry that I just spent an hour folding?!?!”
4. Talk through it
After I’ve gotten my house (or at least my bedroom and kitchen) in order, gotten a good night’s sleep, and spent some time in focused prayer, the final thing I need to do in order to set a path forward is to talk through everything with my husband or a close friend. I note from much experience that it is important to make this the last step, otherwise I tend to initiate the conversations with proclamations about how horrible everything is, then ramble for a while with an incoherent series of aimless, self-pitying statements. And, like with prayer, it’s also important to carve out time for this conversation so that both of us are calm, and so we’re not interrupted a bunch of times. (In other words: When I catch my husband at work when he’s late for a client meeting and I’m shouting over the sounds of five screaming kids, it tends not to be a very fruitful discussion.) But when we actually do have time to have a positive, focused discussion, it can work wonders for helping me test what I’ve discerned in prayer, think through new possibilities, and come up with a clear plan to bring peace back into my life.
So those are my four “gas mask” steps that I take as soon as I catch the first whiff of burnout in my life. What are your tips for when you’re feeling overwhelmed?