What do I feel right now? Truthfully, not much of anything.
Oh, surely there is something. Well, there’s that oddly familiar twinge of pain that occasionally shoots up the right side of my torso. Probably associated with the vaguely sick feeling in my stomach.
And I feel really tired inside my head. Perhaps mildly irritable too – why do the neighbors let their dog bark?
But mostly I feel rather flat and lifeless. Perhaps the best descriptor would be that well-worn phrase: “I don’t care.”
I see things, simple things, that need to be done – and I don’t care. I have family and friends and patients but I feel no caring within. (No offense intended to any family, friends or patients who are reading this – it is nothing personal.)
I look at my art materials or projects I’ve been wanting to do. Nope. Don’t care.
Of course, there is God in all of His goodness and the call to pray to Him. But again, there are no feelings stirring in my stony heart.
Some of you may be getting concerned by now. “Wow. She sounds really depressed. Is she alright?”
Rest assured. This is nothing new. It is called “Migraine: Day 2”.
I don’t feel like myself. I don’t even really feel like a person. I feel like someone could crumple up my body, stuff it in a trash bag, toss it in a dumpster and there would be no great loss.
But I’ve been down this road enough times that it is very familiar to me. I expect it will pass. So far, it always has.
We know that feelings are extremely fickle. What I feel (or don’t feel) at this moment may well be gone tomorrow.
It may be replaced with something I find more comfortable. Or taking its place may be some inner state that I find even more unpleasant.
I should like to think that I have some control or at least choice over what I feel. But is this actually the case?
I’m sorry. I’m too tired to continue. I need to rest or do something different…
I resume writing, though briefly since I am at work. It is a day later than when I began this post.
I do not feel much today either. My head is hurting again, though not severely. I am tired inside my head, despite sleeping well.
My brain does not feel like it belongs to me. There is a fuzzball in my head where it used to reside.
But I am here at work because I know that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter all that much how I feel. I often think that it does – and I can spend a great deal of time pondering what I feel or how I might try to change it. But, in truth, it is a minor thing.
God can make use of me even when I am in this state. In fact, He may be able to make better use of me because I am in a state of weakness.
I know now how much I need Him. Helpless as I am, I don’t have the energy to get in the way of what He wants to accomplish through me.
As the Lord said to St. Paul in his struggle,
My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.
(2 Corinthians: 12:9)
I may not feel like I care about anything. But I know that I do. At any given moment, there is a much deeper reality at work than what I feel.
Another day has passed (so, technically, we are on Migraine: Day 4).
I woke up this Friday morning to find that my brain is back! I am so grateful – though I haven’t totally emerged from the fog.
I had suspected last night, despite the head still hurting, that things were getting better. On the way home from work, as I was praying Evening Prayer, I heard the following excerpt from the first chapter of James:
My brothers and sisters, count it pure joy when you are involved in every sort of trial. Realize that when your faith is tested this makes for endurance. Let endurance come to its perfection so that you may be fully mature and lacking in nothing.
(James 1: 2-4)
I found myself feeling a bit encouraged. Yes – I felt something.
My Friday evening is typically “art with God night”. I fast from the Internet and God and I spend the evening together – praying, reading, making art – whatever.
I read and prayed a bit last evening but was very tired, my head still hurting.
And then it occurred to me, “Now is the time to paint my socks!” (See previous post for context). It was the perfect thing for God and I to do together because it would absorb my attention but was not at all artistically complex.
And so we did. I wasn’t ready to hear any sounds that I didn’t have to so, rather than putting on music, I just sort of hummed random tones while we chose and mixed colors of ink to splash upon my socks.
It was kind of fun. By the time we were finished, bedtime was right around the corner. Prayers were said out of my still-scrambled brain. But I suspect the real prayer had already taken place – in the time spent together as God allowed color to awaken my soul.
Praying this morning was different than it has been for the last several days. I felt present. I felt human. I felt grateful.
Breakfast settled comfortably in my stomach, the torso pains and vague nausea having vanished overnight.
While driving to work, a fresh wave of fatigue hit me. I had been up for three hours. I have come to expect this as well – or at least not be surprised by it.
With fatigue and a slight headache appearing and disappearing throughout much of the day, I undertook the process of catching up. There are many things I didn’t do, back when the feeling of “I don’t care” reigned.
And so I must work and get back to you later…
It is now Sunday and I am alive. And I feel alive.
During Liturgy this morning, I wanted to sing and dance – and I did, though I kept the movements of my feet and the swaying of my body very subtle. (I wanted God to know that I was dancing for Him but no one else need notice…)
I want to write and paint and do a few things in my garden today. In fact, I want to do more things than I will reasonably be able to do. I feel good.
But I must watch this sensation with some caution. The feeling of release from a migraine attack is sometimes so pleasant that I feel a bit euphoric.
While we all like euphoria, I have learned to be careful with it. Sometimes it is part of the prodrome of the next migraine. Does it cause the attack? Or is it simply a warning sign? I do not know – but I prefer not to test it.
In any event, I have not written here to tell the tired old tale of what my migraine attacks are like. (Anyone wanting to learn more about migraine will find an abundance of information at migraine.com.)
Rather, I am writing about feelings, those fickle, frightening, fascinating vicissitudes of my inner state that often challenge me in my emotional and spiritual journey.
I suspect my journal-like entries above address the question I posed at the onset – whether I have any control or choice in how I feel.
Apparently, quite often, I do not.
Not too long ago, I wrote a rather lengthy post about feelings – or perhaps, more accurately, about emotions (see Strange bedfellows.)
What I write about now is not so much the emotions themselves (anger, fear, happiness, sadness, etc.) but how the absence or distortion of normal feelings may confuse us in our faith.
How do I pray, how do I relate to others, how do I live, when I find myself passing through such a desert – regardless of how or why I came to be there?
I do not know. But I return to the letter of James. I am called to endure and to allow that endurance to come to perfection.
What does it mean to endure?
On the most fundamental level, it means to survive – to stay in existence. Certainly important. However, it has a deeper meaning as well: to suffer patiently.
As I enter further into this reflection, I ask myself, “and what does that mean?”
Suffering, or experiencing discomfort in body, mind or soul, comes to us whether we want it to or not. It is a fact of our human existence – and one that we don’t like and cannot readily understand.
Certainly I didn’t ask for my migraine episode. I would have much preferred an easier path.
But for me to suffer patiently or to endure involves learning acceptance of whatever God allows to come to me. To accept it without becoming angry or fearful or despairing.
I do not banish these emotions should they arise as part of my experience. But I do not become them.
I cannot help what I feel (or don’t feel). But I can know deep within me that I belong to God, regardless of what is happening to my body or even my brain.
I may not feel Him with me. Quite probably I won’t – at least during the more severe challenges. But I know that I am His.
A dear and holy patient of mine (who has since gone home to God) told me something years ago that stuck with me. She had passed through a profound depression that lasted a very long time (months? years? I no longer remember). It was so deep that she could not work, she could not keep track of her bills or property, she could not think clearly.
Much later, when the depression had eased considerably, she told me that she hadn’t known where she was then except that it had been a place of great darkness. She didn’t remember being able to pray or feel God’s presence but, “I knew He knew where I was.”
There was the link. He knew. He had not forgotten her. And so she could hold on and endure.
My little migraine episode is nothing compared to that.
But it is part of the same process – a necessary process, I believe, that God uses to purify us, to make us “fully mature”.
The holy people of several spiritual traditions tell us the same thing: we are to welcome and accept equally the pleasant and unpleasant experiences of life – for they come to us carrying a message or a lesson.
While God may or may not be the one who sends the lessons, He allows them to come. He wants us to learn and grow.
Part of my daily prayer is to ask God to purify my heart for Him alone. Had I thought He would accomplish this for me pain-free?
Perhaps, naively, I had. But He is teaching me.
He teaches me that to follow Him is to walk the way of the Cross.
Not the way of the shiny cross that fashion hangs from a chain around my neck. Not the way of the painted or sculpted cross that hangs safely in our museums and churches. Not even the way of the cross observed in song or prayer.
No, to follow Him to the Cross is to walk the way of suffering.
But “why?” we might ask. Why is suffering so important? Does God love suffering?
Most certainly He does not.
Yet two things have been made clear to me in this regard.
My preoccupation with “what I feel” keeps ME on center stage – and I do not let go of this easily. Indeed, for my heart to be purified, the “contaminants” that pride has sown there must be rent away. This, inevitably, is painful. (For a wonderful illustration of this, see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis, where Aslan “un-dragons” Eustace.)
If I wish to pass my time on earth with God as just one small part of my life, I can do this. I can go to church now and then, say a few prayers and call myself a Christian. And little or no rending will occur.
I will not have freed myself from all suffering, of course. None of us can do that. But, without purification, I will not have walked the Way of suffering or entered the Cross of Christ.
The suffering that does come to me will have no meaning. I will be apart from Him and left with only me. Perhaps the best description of hell I can imagine.
And this leads us to the second thing made clear to me.
Lived in union with the Savior, my suffering is no longer pointless misery. When I stop clinging to the self-idolatry of “what I feel”, it is no longer about me.
My suffering is transformed into sacrifice. My life becomes part of His holy sacrifice.
When patiently enduring my trial for the sake of the Gospel, the love of Christ Jesus is poured forth in me and through me.
And whether I am feeling good or bad or nothing at all – none of this is important – so long as I give myself back to Him in love.
But I don’t know how to do this.
I don’t know how to patiently endure. And what trials of mine could possibly be worthy of being joined to His holy Cross?
It is here that the Gospel becomes surprisingly simple. If I return to “the little way” of my friend, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, I learn that any trial may be given to Jesus as long as it is given in love.
While it may be something as major as a serious physical or mental illness, it may also be as small as routine day-to-day disappointments or annoyance. No trial is too small to offer as part of the Way of Love.
And it is true that I do not know how to patiently endure. But that is why the lessons come. How else will I learn?
I must admit that I am not a very good student. Yes, I’m good at studying books and answering questions on tests – but I am not at all good at accepting my weakness.
In the end, it is His grace that will lead me.
May I follow, no longer having a “will of my own”. A priceless thing that shall be…
It’s a priceless thing too to join in your weakness through reading. (Well, it actually feels more like listening.) Every time I’m in church I hear the priest sing, right before the creed, “Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess…” I thought about that a lot yesterday. And now I think it may also mean let us be with one another in whatever they are experiencing. That must be one big difference between liturgies and personal prayer– we are one in a very wonderful way, even in our darkness especially and pains.
Easy enough for me to say, right? I’ve never experienced migraines. I don’t think I’ve ever really suffered. It frightens me, because I don’t know how I will react. But I’m counting on your words as a kind of guide. And I know there is no point in measuring (as we often do, say, on a scale of ten) or comparing pains. It’s probably as useless as trying to measure “progress.” We have what we have been given — my prayerful variation on the ever popular “it is what it is” — and we know that God is always there. Here. And yet, I find great comfort and inspiration in listening , and just being– together (sometimes two, no three actually–He is “everywhere present” –sometimes a churchful, always everyone. What a blessing.
Thank you, Mary, for writing this.
Thanks for commenting, Al. I always enjoy your thoughts. I like the priest’s prayer “with one mind” – it seems like it is getting harder and harder for us to feel that oneness with each other in our weakness. Especially in the US now, passions run strong and we too easily judge each other – even in our churches, sadly. But if we can even just become one mind in Christ with the Creed, we will surely grow in grace.
I know what you mean about suffering. My sufferings have all be small, relatively speaking. Sometimes I think this is just training camp for what is still to come. I do not know how I would/will handle the really tough stuff.
But that is not worth pondering too much. God will help me through as long as I allow Him.
A poem that i remember connected with 2 Corinthians: 12:9:
When I am weak
In the strength that is mine,
Then am I strong,
In strength divine.
Thank you! I like that – and it is easy to remember.