Anne Lamott writes that defeat has been, for so many of us, the portal to soul. James Hollis says wisdom comes through the integration of suffering. Megan Devine says grief is not a problem to be solved, but an experience to be assimilated. Do you see a theme?
A handful of you have noticed I have not written since early December. Well, it’s not that I haven’t written anything. I’ve written several sermons, a few birthday cards, a letter of reference or two. But I haven’t written a blogpost.
My memoir wore me out, both the writing of it, the second guessing of what I wrote, and the promotion of it. My last book event was the Miami Book Fair in November, when I spoke alongside an author whose works are world class. My book isn’t bad, but it’s not world class. That was humbling.
I have a few books on the kitchen counter waiting to be read. My book is on top. I haven’t read it since I read it aloud for the audiobook. Sometimes I look at it with a sense of accomplishment. Other times, I can only muster a halfhearted, “Meh.” It’ll probably be a few years before I actually read it again. Someone showed me a Facebook post the other day with a picture of my memoir next to other books people want to ban from a public library in the south. That hadn’t occurred to me, but in today’s America, I suppose it makes sense.
I really do want to read all of the other books neatly stacked on my kitchen counter, but the only ones I have gotten to so far are Anne Lamott’s Dusk Night Dawn, and two books by James Hollis. His book, Middle Passage – From Misery to Meaning in Midlife, found its way into a scene in the second season of Ted Lasso. It’s out of print, so it’s been hard to find since its television debut. I’m way past midlife, but the book speaks to me. It’s section on marriage is one of the best I’ve ever read on the subject. The other Hollis book is Swamplands of the Soul – New Life in Dismal Places, probably his finest work. My copy is all dog-eared and marked up.
All three books are appropriate for those attempting to live authentically, and not afraid to look in the mirror. While I was in the midst of reading both Hollis books, I was also discovering still more flaws in my being that I had not previously acknowledged. We’re not talking nitpicky flaws, like leaving my reading glasses smudgy. We’re talking big stuff. I said to Cathy the other night, “I don’t know if I would have done any of this hard work had I remained Paul. Life was too comfortable.” It is not comfortable now. I squirm a lot. I’ve seen shadow sides of myself that cast long and lean shadows, the kind that come just before sunset.
In Swamplands of the Soul, Hollis writes, “Perhaps this existential guilt is the most difficult to bear. To know oneself responsible, not only for the things done, but the many undone, may broaden one’s humanity but it also deepens the pain.” He goes on to say, “The ironic consciousness can see the flawed choices, can understand their consequences, but this knowledge is neither redemptive nor avoidable. Such a person is always left with a troubled consciousness, but at least, as Jung pointed out, he or she is thereby less likely to contribute to the burdens of society.” Except when you do contribute to people’s burdens. Sigh.
Hollis calls this, “an existential guilt from which there is no escape, only denial or a deepened acknowledgement.” Most people choose denial. Choosing deepened acknowledgement requires enough ego strength to go into the depths, where the light barely penetrates and self-condemnation shows up behind every door you open. Self-forgiveness is nowhere to be found. It’s dangerous down there. That is why Hollis acknowledges that self-forgiveness is the hardest goal of all. Anne Lamott says she “continues to believe that love is still sovereign here, and that the hardest work we do is self-love and forgiveness.”
So, that’s why I haven’t been writing. I’ve been looking into the dark places, seeing clearly the flaws, while doing a terrible job at self-love and self-forgiveness. But if someone as individuated as James Hollis and as cool as Anne Lamott face the same dilemma, I must be on the right track.
Theologian Paul Tillich understood self-forgiveness. He defined grace as, “Accepting the fact that you are accepted, despite the fact that you are unacceptable.” I can’t use that quote much at church, because too many people carry the wounds of having been taught that an angry God is just waiting to send them to hell. You can’t take in Tillich’s words until you have left that notion behind and can take in your full humanity. God is not going to send you to hell for being human. But that doesn’t mean you won’t send yourself there, right here on earth.
Which is why most people stay on the surface. Let’s just act like everything is fine, because if we dive into the chaos and emptiness that follows, God only knows when we’ll be able to come back up for air. Or write a blogpost.
I think I’m ready to write again, to keep up the weekly schedule I’ve maintained since 2014. I used to do that with no problem. From 2003 to 2014 I was the editor-at-large of a national religious magazine, with a deadline for a weekly column. I miss that work, and the people with whom I worked. I miss a lot of people from my past life.
The people in my current life know nothing of Paul. They only know the woman whose life is intersecting theirs. They see her very differently than people saw Paul. Her flaws are visible, her insecurities are worn on her sleeve, her distraught face is as easy to read as a children’s novel. Life was easier as Paul. It is more soul-disrupting as Paula. But that is good. It is very good.