“Do not abandon yourselves to despair!”

I was recently reminded of the value of thinking publicly. It’s not a new idea, but it’s one I haven’t ever practiced regularly, and not at all recently. I found myself nodding along vigorously with Clive Thompson when he says he feels like he’s losing his ability to think:

“I’ve increasingly begun to feel intellectually claustrophic. It’s hard to describe, but it’s like a cabin fever of the mind. The symptoms: I’ll get obsessed with a particular line of research, chewing away at it for days or weeks, only to realize it’s a) kind of half-baked or b) super interesting but not at all useful to my work. Or I’ll read a fascinating white paper, write a bunch of notes on it, but never crystallize a solid analysis.”

You can read the whole thing over at Collision Detection, but “intellectually claustrophobic” basically encapsulates my mental state whenever I’ve sat down to write in recent memory. The problem, I think, is twofold. I’m stuck writing stories I don’t want to tell, and I can’t quite capture the stories I do. In the past, I overcame this by jumping from project to project—if floundering around in prose, I’d sketch out a poem; if stuck on a verse, I’d blast out a stream of consciousness, and there were always journal entries and essays to pad out the gaps. (Ah, education. These days, my writing is less literary and a lot more, well…)


I needed a space in which my trains of thought could freely go off the tracks, in which I could expound on philosophy or pound out a half-baked poem or the middle chapter of a story I had no intent to finish, and in which I could also talk about my life and my faith (to contextualize the art, to frame the discussions, but more importantly to blow off steam). And I became convinced it needed to be public—or at least have other people reading it who might bother me if I stopped. After all, the journal I was able to keep up the longest was the one my senior English teacher was collecting every couple weeks, to keep me accountable. Bienvenue, friends, and thanks for accepting the invitation to be my support system’s support system.

"Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!”
“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!”

Today’s title quote is, of course, my man JP2. He’s a saint now. You may have heard of him.

Mea culpa, Papa. This morning, I abandoned myself to despair. Circumstances confluenced, of course, as they tend to do—if that’s even possible as a transitive verb. Too little sleep, cloudy grey morning, grouchy Matt right after waking up, guilt over grouchiness only increasing the net grouch factor. Losing voice, a little bit. Taking calls anyway.

(I tend to identify with the world in terms of color. Most of the time, it’s painted in bright pastels—even if the background is dark, there are splashes of color standing out in counter-relief. Other days, it’s chalk and graphite all the way down. Today was the latter, heavy on the greys.)

A lady called in to say her mother passed away, and insisted we were still charging her credit card every month. We weren’t, incidentally, but she screamed and cursed until I had to hang up on her. I pride myself on almost never having a call I can’t deescalate, but this lady, this morning, made me want to walk out of the center and never come back. She shook me up. I took my lunch an hour early and went and sat in the rain, by the river, quietly despairing.

My problem, of course, was not with this random woman who took out her frustrations on a dazed voice at the other end of a phone line, nor with the company I have to defend for charging her elderly mother’s credit card in the first place, nor even with being caught in between them, uncomfortable though it was. The problem was that I hadn’t been to Mass all week.

I know the symptoms, and it’s not just that all the color leaks out of the world. All the energy leaks out of me, too. All the hope, all the joy, all the good humour. A slow, spiritual starvation, slow because I never notice it at first. On Monday, I’m still satiated from the Sunday feast. Tragedy may strike, but I bounce back. On Tuesday, I have enough energy left to debate the Mormon missionaries in the street. By Wednesday, I’m lethargic, but I soldier on. I try other ways to generate energy—I go up into the hills, I go for a run, I meet up with this friend, that friend. I try to fill myself up with food that does not satisfy. On Thursday, I drink too much coffee and just try to make it through the day, try to ignore the cynicism in my thoughts, the familiar blunt edge on my tongue, the dullness creeping back into my heart. Then Friday strikes, and it’s all I can do to hold back tears in the rain.

“We are the Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!” 

I got an email from the Archdiocese vocations office, during this rainstorm of moodiness.  “Father John would like you now to go ahead and apply to Mt. Angel Seminary.” Just that. But the timing was impeccable, and I got up and went to Mass.

The difference afterwards would, of course, be incredible if it were not so obvious. One day last week, I woke up and went for a five-mile run without having eaten or drank anything in about 16 hours. “I wonder why I’m so dizzy and seeing black spots everywhere?” I thought, shortly before I passed out.

I wonder if it’s something about my personality, that I keep pushing and pushing, without even noticing that I’m running on empty, right up until my blood sugar is so low that I no longer have any choice but to lie down and sleep, right up until my soul is so battered and exhausted that I have to drag myself to Jesus’ feet.

Christian without joy is either not a Christian or he is sick.” Papa Francesco hit it on the head in his homily today, as per usual. “The Christian vocation is this: to remain in the love of God, that is, to breathe, to live of that oxygen, to live of that air.

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