Friday, February 6, 2015

The stories we tell about ourselves

Back when I lived in Philadelphia, I was driving to work one day when I got behind a car with the license plate KT RUNS.  I thought, "That person must be named Katie and like to run."  So that got me thinking, what six or seven letters could explain me to others?

I came up blank ... there's just too much of me to put on a license plate.  For that matter there's surely much more to Katie than that she runs.  But running is the thing she wants you to know about her.  It's the story she tells herself, about herself.

We all have our things, those things we think are important about ourselves.  They might be our religion, our major, our occupation, our hobbies.  And people who don't know us well might use those as a shorthand for getting to know the whole of us -- "this is my Catholic friend," "that is my teacher friend," "this is the one that's into Doctor Who."  So at Christmas the Catholic friend gets a rosary, the teacher friend a coffee cup with a clever slogan about teaching, the Whovian friend gets TARDIS earrings.  It's our way of saying, "You are not just another friend to me.  I know you in your individuality, I know something about you."

But after the millionth teacher-themed gift, a teacher might think ... "But I'm not only a teacher.  Do they know anything about me besides that?"

So, when talking about identity, it's important to remember that no one fits on a license plate.  Even people who it seems are inviting us to put them on a license plate -- you know, the person who posts nothing but animal-rights articles on Facebook must expect that after awhile you will think of them as "my animal-rights friend."  But they are more than that, even though they are really and truly that thing.

That's kind of where I land when it comes to the word "gay."  Some Catholics say they are Catholic and gay and follow the Church's teaching about homosexuality -- that is, they are celibate.  Others say, "Catholics should identify as Catholic, not as gay."

In short, they are saying that if you are summed up on a license plate, Catholic should make the cut and gay shouldn't.  Fine.  But in the depth of who a person is, sexual orientation certainly is going to be part of it.  A person is Catholic, but they are also American or French, liberal or conservative, extroverted or introverted, straight or gay.  And that is also part of who a person is.  The better you know them, the more of their adjectives you're going to find out and learn to appreciate.

Further, some say that it's wrong for Catholic gay people to suggest that there is anything good about being gay.  If they say, for instance, that a homosexual orientation is in some sense a blessing, or if it has come with blessings, or that it's given them insight others don't have . . . that's bad, because being gay is only and exclusively being tempted to things that sinful.

But it seems to me, as an outsider in this discussion, that anything that is truly a part of you must be in some way accepted as good, given a good story.  If you hate a part of yourself, you hate yourself, and hating yourself makes you unhappy.

I am highly sensitive.  At the moment this is almost exclusively a burden.  I don't actually experience it as a super-power like some do -- I am not more observant than other people, that I can see, and while I am highly attuned to others' emotions, this is actually kind of unpleasant.

So I could say, "I have issues with sensory processing."  Which is possibly true.  However, if I think of it as a disability, it becomes something I am always trying to change and get away from, and since I can't, that leads to anger and frustration.  It's better for me to remind myself that 20% of the population is highly sensitive, so it can't possibly be a disorder, more on the realm of normal variation.  And this variation couldn't have been so widespread if it weren't useful in some circumstances.  It must be a special talent, even though I don't know how to use it well and am in a life situation where it causes me some grief.

I choose to tell myself a story about my brain and the way I experience life that is positive.  I could tell a more negative story and not be entirely wrong, but it's good for me to choose the story I have, because it is true and helps me accept the struggles inherent in dealing with my situation.

Likewise, I could use the term "cult victim" when talking about my experiences in Regnum Christi, but I prefer the term "cult survivor" because it focuses on my triumph.  I could also choose, as some do, not to use these terms at all because I feel I have gotten past the effects of my experiences.  To me, however, this would be less truthful.  Since it doesn't reflect how I honestly feel about it -- the way in which I try to use my experiences to guide my future action, and the way these experiences still do affect me -- it isn't helpful to me.  It rings false.  The best stories are both true and positive.  They make us feel we are strong, or capable, or heroic.

You can see how I've been working on this lately -- trying to find a good story about being a woman that can make me love it instead of fight it.  And in my spiritual journey as well.  I could say "I am not sure whether I believe in anything so I am kind of going with it for now."  And indeed I've had that attitude most of this year, suffering through church every Sunday, thinking the whole time, "I want to believe ... but I don't ... but I do ... I don't belong here."

A better story, for me, is this one: "I am on a spiritual journey, looking for God.  I believe he's at the end of it, whether or not he is anything like I was taught to think, and because he created this beautiful world for me, I am thankful to him and love him.  And because it seems to clear to me from this evidence that he is good, I am not afraid to find out the truth of what he is really like.  I don't know where to start my search, so I will start right where I am, as a Catholic, following the Catholic path of discipline, humility, and continual self-improvement.  I trust God that he will not be upset with me for doing this, and that if I am wrong and it matters to him that I'm wrong, he'll help me find the real answers."

So when I'm in church, I try not to fuss too much about whether I believe enough, or the right way, or whether believing is just brainwashing, and I just listen and try to learn something.  Maybe that something will not be what I am "supposed" to come up with.  That's okay.  Maybe I need to be a little less concerned with finding all the right answers, all of the time, and consider instead whether I personally am worshiping God, whether I am trying to be better than I am, whether I am on the path of a seeker that I am trying to be on.

Of course this is the wrong story, to a lot of people.  To atheists, it seems that I am willfully deceiving myself ... if I have doubts, I ought to start digging for answers.  And to Catholics, I should be believing more and doubting less.  Some even think the Church is better off if we clear the pews of everyone who isn't entirely sure they want to be there.  If one isn't sure of anything, why hang out in a church that has an approved answer to everything?

I can see how there's a side of doubt that may be sinful -- the ironic scoffer, the one who has the evidence but doesn't want to accept it.  But there's a side of doubt that is simply humble, saying that one can't ever be sure, that one is always subject to error.  I can't seem to believe this is wrong, even though everyone seems so sure that I ought to push through it and have the answers by now.

I don't like rationalism, even though I think that everything has a reason, because it seems to deny the reality that we live in a body, we have emotions and biases and sometimes reason is not a good friend at two in the morning.  I can believe things before my morning tea (like that my life is not worth living) that I readily disbelieve once I've gotten a chance to drink it.  Belief, perhaps, should be something beyond reason, not at war with it, but I think whatever capacity some have that lets them do this is broken in me.  I can't "just believe."  And the other option, to reason until you know for sure, seems impossible ... there is no end to the questions.  You think you have the answers, and then someone asks "What about the archeological evidence that Jericho was never conquered by the Jews?" and you're back to square one, you've got to do it all over.

So for me, instead, is the path of seeking and doubt.  It is not a comfortable place; how can you pray when you can't hear the other side of the conversation, when you wonder if there is another side?  But to own doubt about some things, and yet to feel certain that there is something out there worth worshiping and praying to, seems right to me.

What stories do you tell yourself about yourself?  Are they helping you, and is there a different truthful story that would be better?

4 comments:

Alaina said...

It sounds like your letters should be 'SEEKER'.

I know what you mean about having a very multifaceted personality, but only having one side visible at a time. I think motherhood, especially of little children, exacerbates that singularity of focus to the exclusion of so many others. There are so many other activities that I'd love to engage in each day, but I can't because they aren't child-friendly and right now, my primary duty is keeping their needs fulfilled. I keep telling myself, "Someday . . . " Eventually my someday will come. It did when I was waiting to get married, and it will when I'm not in a baby-minding time also. It's tough to be physically and mentally ready to do so many things, but unready because of other obligations. I just keep telling myself that this is the best time of my life to devote to the kids - better now than when I'm older and they don't need me as much.

Sheila said...

And the thing is, you are still all the things that you don't have time for. I'm still a gardener in the winter. I'm still a writer when I don't have much time to write.

And of course as your kids get older, many of the things you can't do now, you can do along with them! I remember my mom sitting at the table writing a poem or a story or something, and me hauling out my notebook and writing too. I guess that's why I love writing now. We share the best of who we are with our kids -- we are never just "mother" but the specific sort of mother they are lucky enough to have.

Meredith said...

My thoughts have not been particularly helpful to me lately. Every day I think about all the horrible ways people die and I tell God, "You wouldn't stop that from happening to James, would you? You'd just watch and say nothing." My letters would be BITTER. I do a lot of that "two a.m. reasoning myself out of everything I believe" that you were talking about. Then I tell myself that becoming an atheist would not stop horrible things from happening. And I continue to drag myself around. Postpartum anxiety sucks.

Sheila said...

Oh, no kidding. I don't have ppa strictly speaking, but I'm a mother, and mothers worry. Children are "the hostages we give to fortune" -- it was easy to be carefree when the worst thing I had to worry about was my own death, and hopefully heaven after, no sweat.

Religion doesn't help here ... because the evidence is that bad things happen to all kinds of people, regardless of how good they are or what they believe. And the internet sucks, because it gives us so many more ideas of bad things that could happen! I try to remember every day that the vast majority of kids outlive their parents, that medical care is impressively good these days, and so forth. How women managed to stay sane in the Middle Ages, I have truly no idea.

Wish I had more comfort for you. I do recommend you see your doctor about it, if you haven't, and see if there is anything that could help. And call me anytime.

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