I just finished reading a review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. You can find the link here. If you’re wondering why you’ve heard of Barbara Ehrenreich before, your memory is tingling because she wrote the notable book Nickle and Dimed.
This latest book was born into being because she suffered breast cancer. While the entire experience for her was horrific, she was most particularly appalled at the expectation that she feel buoyant, positive, and thankful for the toughness earned and the lessons learned through her disease.
She didn’t particularly want to feel any of those.
There is no room in our culture, she seems to be saying, to be pissy.
Now, I haven’t read the book; only the review.
But even that caught my attention.
It brought me back to a conversation I had with a dear woman in my world who had suffered a stroke. That event took away much of her remarkable ability (even well into her 80s!) to create art, to amble around finding quirky gifts for even quirkier relatives and friends, to write, and to read letters sent to her by her many grandchildren.
And something of her brightness of being left her.
Naturally, people were worried. Trouble was, they had the audacity to express it, even mentioning the “D” word to her.
One day, when I visited her, she said, “Anna, I am so tired of people asking me if I’m depressed! Finally I had to holler at them, ‘Of course I’m not depressed! I’m a Christian!'”
To which I responded with my typical flair for pastoral care,
“What the hell.”
I don’t think that this woman is alone in her aversion to naming her pain (even to herself), though.
I worry that Christians are so awfully wrapped up in making a person feel better that we don’t allow for the sacred space of pissiness.
Sometimes I do believe that we might be so ready to leap to Easter that we ignore that there is a grave over which we are leaping.
Now that said, I’m all for the healing of body, mind, and spirit!
But could it be that were Christians to be more overt and more intentional about recognizing faults, regret, sadnesses, anxiety, fears, and the possibility that healing-might-not-come-and-what’s-up-with-that, that trust could be built up that maybe, just maybe, this group understands and allows for pain?
After the accident I wrote an extensive blog about Karl’s healing. At the end of most every entry, I wrote, “God is good.”
I did, until someone who had suffered much too asked me, “How do you know? On what basis are you judging that? I prefer,” said he, “to simply say that God is God.”
It was an interesting comment, because then I was invited to express my deeply grieved and astonished self to God. Honestly. And what I wanted to say to God was exactly what I said to this woman close to my heart:
What the hell.
If a relationship is one, then my figuring suggests that there has to be some relating. There are reasons for people to be upset with God, because God’s promises aren’t apparently living up to God’s reality. I can’t help but wonder if some authenticity is surrendered when there is no room for sacred pissiness.
That said, I do realize that not everybody needs to wrestle with God. Some are quite content and quite faithful in their pure and unquestioned faith.
For the rest of us, however, I’m thinking that if one can say to God, “I am really hurting here, and I feel really betrayed by you, and soon and very soon clearly is not soon enough,” then there’s the beginning of renewed trust.
Annie Dillard gets to the matter in Holy the Firm when she retells the following story:
“Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world—for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all—in the middle of this [the pastor] stopped, and burst out, ‘Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.’ After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer. Because of this, I like him very much.”
Ah. There’s authenticity. There’s honesty. There’s a man I can trust. He probably wanted to, but couldn’t in the Prayers of the People of all things, say,
What the hell.
Now, in case some are wondering, things are remarkably hunky-dory in my world. This blog is not a vent of some personal, present crisis. It is really only that that review jarred a series of reflections on the pervasive sense of joy, which just plain old doesn’t always jibe with the plain old reality of trouble.
What do you think?
Helping me put the finger on something. Thanks!
And I’m curious!
Finally. This is just what I needed to read tonight. I have been quite pissy with God as of late. It’s refreshing to hear someone else say that maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to be honest about it. I’m tired of hearing things like “everything happens for a reason.” That doesn’t heal the hurt. In fact, I think this post fits perfectly with the way Monica Coleman tackles the topic of suffering in her book, “The Dinah Project.” She writes about how perhaps we get the question wrong from the get-go. Instead of asking “Why does God allow for the suffering?” maybe we ought to ask “Where is God in the suffering?” The former question produces less-than-helpful answers (God let it happen; suffering is just the way God teaches us; Satan is to blame, etc.). The latter question provokes a more comforting response, something like: God is right here with me – in this case – sharing with me in my pissy-ness. Or, at least that’s what I’d like to think…
I’m so glad that this resonated with you! And I like the Monica Coleman take.
I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog that after the accident, a number of people were trying to make me feel better about the event by saying, “God must have needed Bill,” or “For some reason God wanted this to happen.”
Wow, did that summon up a variety of unpleasant emotions, directed at God and at them!
But finally, someone (and God bless this person, and God forgive me for not recalling who it was) said, “God feels your pain more deeply than do you.”
That, oddly enough, helped. It let me know that God was in this with me, and not capriciously violent. And then I felt almost as if God were suffering with me, and not just observing (or maybe not) my pain, or giving me the pain in the same way that a child used to receive castor oil; it’s good for you, and so be thankful.
That takes the convo in a bit of a different direction, however.
For now, it is entirely o.k. to go to sleep pissy.
And I do think that there is some comfort even in that.
I don’t know, Anna…there is certainly something to what you’re saying, especially when looking at the whole Christian subculture. However I think when looking at the larger American/Western/Whatever culture surrounding us, it seems like we’re nothing BUT pissy. Maybe I watch too much cable news, but it seems like most of us are ready to spout off at any given moment on what’s wrong with the world and why people are idiots. I heard someone once say that the American character was permanently forged in the Boston Tea Party…basically a giant “Screw You” to King George. That went so well we’ve been collectively repeating the spirit of that event ever since.
So I think, in many ways, we don’t need any particular permission to be angry.
And yet, before my Mom started really losing her mind to dementia, I remember gently debating with her about whether it was OK to be angry with God. So…maybe when it comes to Christians and God at least, the author does have a point.
John, thanks for this early a.m. response!
I think you’re right. I probably should have made more clear that Ehrenreich is speaking about the culture, and not the Church. Both the reviewer and I were spinning off of what she thought she is observing in society, and applied it to Church-think.
However, you are absolutely right about the anger brimming about–and it is palpable anger. Again, I haven’t read the book, but I imagine that what she’s trying to say is that people are not allowed to be sad or angry in the face of tragedy and illness–as opposed to unreflective, reactive anger like we might see on cable TV.
For example, think of how often you’ve heard someone compliment another by saying, “Never once have I heard her say, ‘Why me?'”–which, depending on the circumstance, might be a reasonable question! Or, “He never once complained.” ARG! There is a lot to complain about when you get right down to it, both at an individual and at a collective level.
Perhaps I should have talked about Righteous Pissiness, like Righteous Indignation. I wonder if politically we see some of that with Jim Wallis’ stuff. But for the moment, I’m more interested in exploring the freedom that individual Christians feel or don’t feel to express utter bewilderment, not least of all to God.
I often have to remind people that Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
And then I like to point out that if the question were good enough for Jesus, it is probably good enough for us too.
I think I like your brand of pastoral care. I’ve actually said that in many hospital rooms, and I’ve never had anyone get upset yet. Our job in those moments seems to be to name the unnameable, and of course when you’re standing/sitting/laying/crawling at the foot of the cross, “What the hell,” simply names the reality of it. When I say that with people I often here a simple but patient, “Yes.”
Sometimes if the moment is right (and it often isn’t) I’ll talk about the Jesus that goes to hell, the only person I know for sure has, and what that means, not as a panacea, but at least as not totally isolated territory.
I’m often in hell. It’s nice to know that someone can reach me and sit with me even there. And that my pissiness and discomfiture fits the topography of the place, and IS in fact, ok.
My two cents on this Tuesday morning when I’m less pissy and more reflective.
Peace and all that is good…
Thank you for the benediction on what some might consider unorthodox pastoral care! Whew.
I think that you are stirring up echoes of the theology of the cross. It was my dissertation topic, so I have some affinity for the notion–although what that notion means to which theologian and era is another question!
But there is a current in this “thin tradition” (Douglas John Hall) of God being present in suffering, working in its midst to bring about hope when there is none to be found.
A fantastic literary piece to go with this vein of thought is Shusaku Endo’s disturbing Silence.
Thanks for your contribution!
Hall I know. And I love how he puts that and am quite familiar with his take on the “thin tradition.” Or to put it another way, I prefer Hall to Uncle Forde. I think Douglas gets it better. But “Silence” I haven’t encountered. Thanks for sharing that connection!
Oof? LOL…is this a South Dakota thing? My first call was a half hour south of Yankton in northeaster Nebraska. Being from the southwest, there were many expressions I’d never heard before, a veritable pantheon. Oof sounds like it must be a good exclamation though!
And this morning I read a meditation on Psalm 88:7 by Sr. Macrina Wiederkehr.
“You have plunged me into the bottom of the pit, into the dark abyss.”
She pointed out that the psalmist is not afraid to lament and that lamenting to God can be good for the soul.
I was touched by the synchronousness of the readings!
Indeed it can be good for the soul. And good for other souls who can find either a community of lamenters, or a community of people who don’t have an aversion to lament!
Wondering if there isn’t a vast difference between the ersatz pissiness we see on TV and in some political commentary and the deep anger and lament that does need to happen in our society. So much of the name calling and dramatic outrage in the public discourse is really about keeping power and diverting attention from all that we really should be lamenting and working on. I love Soelle’s claims that the suffering we SHOULD do is the suffering that allows us to bring what is voiceless to voice and to find solidarity with each other in the process of lament. Behind that is a genuine acceptance of the world as we get it, but also the godly task of transformation of the conditions that lead to suffering. Don’t see much discourse about that in the media. And, I sound crazy, I know, but I think many, many of the elected officials at all levels of are government do participate in just that kind of creative suffering, and along with public school teachers and other servants, they get dissed by the ersatz stuff that isn’t about genuine lament, solidarity, and change.
I wish I’d thought of that.
It’d make a great band name.
And I agree with everything you say. It is incisive and insightful.
Lamenting gives expression to righteous indignation, righteous indignation on behalf of the voiceless, just as you say. It can be cathartic and transformative for the individual and for the community.
What would it look like in a congregational setting, in corporate worship or gathering?
The ritual of Corporate Confession and the season of Lent rarely speak of systemic evils, concerning themselves mostly with individual sin.
But lament is more about unjust suffering, individual and corporate, or at least on behalf of another.
Hmm…another blog begins to take root…..
Thanks again and as always.
You are spot on as usual, Anna. The awareness of the reality of pain and suffering, from which no one is immune, is the key to open the doorway to the journey that extends beyond—a journey that may include more than a few moments of pissiness. It happens. And I believe it is healthy to the extent it is received with compassion and wise counsel so that the one in pain might catch a glimmer of the Light that beckons toward a wholeness that is deepened by the twists and turns of life. Doesn’t mean one is the same, though, and for some it is so difficult to adapt to a new worldview. We are not wired well for letting go of what was. Being with one another in the pain and suffering, in my mind, is the essence of presence with one another in community. But…often, a person is not afforded a safe place to sojourn with the pain. Your brand of pastoral care is just such a place. Bless you. Years ago a portion of a quote from author Hugh Prather stuck with me….”the world is round and a messy mortal is my friend. Come walk with me in the mud.”
So, how do we ‘walk in the mud’ with one another, mindful of a greater Reality, mindful of the sacredness of the human condition that is compassionately embraced by Reality, and knowledgable of the hope of things to come? With prayer, contemplation,fellowship, scripture, maybe medical intervention….but ever most surely with a well timed “What the hell” from one who emulates non- judgment and unconditional acceptance. And really, what does hope mean? It is different for each of us. Our Christian tradition tells us there is the hope of eternity, of everlasting connection with our Creator. Good enough. But when one is so ‘pissed’ that the knowledge of such hope is not relevant to the eartly realm I believe it is precisely in our presence with one another that Mystery can breathe new life. We get stuck in our pissiness when we seek answers.
As Rachel Naomi Remen writes:
“We have not been raised to cultivate a sense of Mystery. We may even
see the unknown as an insult to our competence, a personal failing. Seen
this way, the unknown becomes a challenge to action. But Mystery does
not require action; Mystery requires our attention. Mystery requires
that we listen and become open. When we meet with the unknown in this
way, we can be touched by a wisdom that can transform our lives.”
The classic ‘No Whining’ circular emblem with a slash through the phrase might be replaced with your catch phrase?!! Who knows what could transpire when we give permission to those in pain to give voice, to feel validated and cared for, and most importantly to remain with arms wide open to personal transformation.
One parting thought…I hit the submit button too soon….it occurs to me that your brand of pastoral care reflects the art of ‘bearing witness’ at the most basic, authentic level. In the movie “Shall We Dance,” Susan Sarandon’s character describes her committment to her marriage, despite struggles, using the language of bearing witness. I love that image of standing with, being with, walking with, enduring with. Powerful stuff of healing.
Thanks, Mary, for these posts! Your compliments are also appreciated, though I don’t know that I’m saying much that others don’t feel: that’s only to say that I hardly have a corner on that market!
I am awfully glad for your repeated use of the word and concept of ‘compassion. (BTW, I imagine that you would enjoy Krista Tippett’s interview with Karen Armstrong on [what used to be Speaking of Faith] Being found here. Note also Karen’s Fetzer Institute which engages “with people and projects around the world to help bring the power of love, forgiveness, and compassion to the center of individual and community life.”)
The easiest, of course, is to offer compassion to those who suffer unjustly (either at the hands of people or nature!). It is much harder to offer compassion to others (ourselves as well) when the suffering is self-inflicted, and perhaps has wider repercussions.
But a well-stated “What the Hell” can be an affirmation that a) something is not right; and b) it is worth righting again. It, to carry the expression a bit further, indicates that one gives a damn.
The moments when one is most called upon to do just that are often the moments in which one wants to flee, to escape. They are muddy, just like you say.
Which is why I appreciate also your emphasis on community. We really can’t do it alone. We need others to get dirty with us–and hopeful they are the ones with the ropes tied around their waists with someone at the other end to pull!
I have said that one primary role of the community of the saints is to believe and breathe on behalf of those who can’t, for whatever reason.
And while I really, really like you “calling out” the “No Whining” sign, I gotta confess that getting a “Whining” sign might be a hard sell. I just did a quick google image search, and found not a one–and charges for whining range from $5.00 to $25.00!
Then again, maybe you could make your millions by being the first entrepreneurial whiner!
Peace, and thanks again for your contributions.