Wednesday, December 14, 2022

JJ is Frustrated, Perplexed, and (As Usual) Exhausted

These are days filled for me with personal frustration and perplexity, as well as anguish over many catastrophes in the world, and above all this vicious, corrosive war. There is no end of the war in sight, and we have no right to presume that we will escape its ravages. God help us!

I’m not going to hide it. I’m “anxious and concerned about many things,” and I feel like there’s less and less that I can say or do. In three weeks I will be 60 years old. I know, that’s not very old, but it’s “a little bit old”—as in “I-remember-when-my-grandfather-turned-sixty” oldness. Life is “powering down” in new ways after four years of big family changes. I don’t know how that mixes together with the health problems that have already long limited my “productive” activity. So far, it doesn’t seem to mix very well. Or, perhaps, I just don’t yet understand the new rhythm of things. I’m not even sure what that “rhythm” is, because things are still changing, and the possibilities going forward are vast for us and for those five people who used to be little kids under our roof. Children grow up—thank God!—and they become physically and emotionally independent from their parents. I won’t deny that certain aspects of our lives have “gotten easier” or at least less complicated logistically speaking. But we never stop being their parents, and our love for each of them accompanies their lives in ways that—at this stage—we are more aware of than they are. I think I have learned not to “worry too much” about them. (I should note that everyone is doing fine right now.🙂) 

And yet, I get into moods where I look at the world with a new kind of trepidation, and I wonder with no little fear about the future our grownup children may have to live through—indeed, the ominous events we may all have to face. I have read many accounts of the terrible evils endured by families in the 20th century, scattered apart by war, dictatorship, famine, genocide. Now in 2022, we comfortable modern Western people can no longer pretend that these are just stories from the past….

There is much to pray about. There is much that prompts us to cry out to God.

So I’m turning 60 years old. As a scholar, author, and—in whatever way I can still manage to be—teacher, I may be approaching the most fruitful decade of my life. I have learned many things, but I don’t know how to share the abundance of what I have been given. Maybe new forms will arise that I can use to communicate. Or maybe my active work is nearly done, and I am soon to be overcome by death or incapacity. Lord, have mercy on me.

As usual, I live constantly on the edge of exhaustion, but now I fear that other new factors are contributing to it. Writing is becoming harder. It demands more of my diminishing resources of energy and mental flexibility. I continue to study and ponder many things, but I don’t have the energy to share much of what I’m learning. At least, not now.

Writing is also harder because our society is becoming increasingly illiterate. It’s a strange new kind of “illiteracy” in which everyone seems to be reading and writing more than ever, but without understanding or patience. “Reading” stops at the level of impressions, which are superficially collected into labels. We crave simplistic images, which signal our ideological tribe (or our enemy’s tribe), which yield a primal experience of belonging and a pseudo-vitality of collective affirmation through the weaponization of words in wars of denunciation that have no rules. Everyone is outraged, and no one is listening.

In the last century, we saw whole nations endure “government” by rage—totalitarian rage—that used words in the service of vindictive and utopian ideologies. This was called propaganda. Today, we have multiple power groups raging against one another—we have contrasting ideologies that generate contrasting forms of propaganda. Their noise dominates what was once called “the field of discourse.” What is a writer to do?

Well, I’ll just have to keep writing. I shall write as well as I can, for as long as I can. It often feels futile, and I am tempted to get discouraged, but I intend to persevere (please pray for me) and leave the results in God’s hands. I’m doing more art too, although that is harder for me to do well, even with the ever-increasing digital aids that are being developed. Art has its own (often obscure) ways of pointing to what matters, or even “speaking” when words have been corrupted.

In any case, I will continue to study and learn in whatever way I can, in whatever circumstances I find myself. Most of what I learn these days only makes me realize how little I really know and how much I have taken for granted. The world is full of so many events, so many stories, so many different peoples, so many needs, so much anger and resentment, so much suffering.

I can’t do much to relieve the suffering that we see all around us in the world today, but I can grow in empathy, or at least in awareness (which is the beginning of empathy), because empathy takes time, and must overcome the powerful instinct to run away from other people’s suffering. But with God’s help and through his mercy, I can begin to suffer with them. I can offer my own loneliness and frustration, which hardly seems like much, but it is “mine”—inseparable from my “self,” which is constituted as a need and desire that I cannot fulfill by my own power (and I have lived long enough and failed often enough to know this is true).

Suffering is unique to each one of us, yet (paradoxically) it is something we all endure. Even in our greatest loneliness, our most solitary cry to God, there is a mysterious space for compassion, for offering mercy toward one another. This is because we are never really “alone.”

We are never alone. This has to do with the wonderful mystery we are preparing to celebrate soon.⭐️ We don’t have to feel sentimental about it, and it’s okay if our feelings are a mess. What matters is to remember that what we are celebrating is true. It really happened. A companionship began in a moment of history, a companionship that accompanies each one of us, in all our circumstances, in all our sorrows, destined to endure forever.