Thursday, January 1, 2009

Chapter __: Dispositions

“But as it is, God placed the parts,
each one of them, in the body as he intended.”

--1 Cor. 12:18


When I was in college, I knew a woman who was a consecrated virgin, a lay person committed to living the life of a single person in the world. She was the most joy filled woman I had ever met.

At first I did not like her. In fact, in all honesty, I disliked her very much. I suppose there was an underlying jealousy at the heart of my hostile feelings towards her: I wanted the stable mood she had--she seemed always happy. It makes one think, "what is wrong with this person." Being perpetually filled with joy does not seem natural. I regarded it as a kind of superficial phoniness. How dare she be so happy when there are so many awful things happening in the world! Did she have her head in the clouds, or in a hole of some sort?

The fact is, Maria is her own person. We are one in Christ, but represent different members. I have known people who never seem to be sad, to whom depression is a foreign state. I have known people who were manic all the time (or at least hypo-manic), and never seemed to crash. I also know people who are perpetually depressed.

Manic depressives are a different sort. We have no fixed disposition. We run the spectrum from one pole of emotions to the next; some making several laps in a day, others spreading their vacillations over the course of weeks or months. I cannot say, "I am a happy person," or "I am a gloomy person." I am both, and neither exclusively.

The saints throughout history represent a microcosm of humanity as a whole. St. Francis of Assisi seemed to be a genuinely joyful man. St. Terese of Lisieux was a mercurial wildcard. St. Antony of Egypt made army generals look like lazy lollygaggers with his extreme asceticisms. Mother Teresa of Calcutta had a glowing outer shell which radiated love, but inside she was barren, steeped in darkness; a walking contradiction.

All this is good. We are different. Problems arise, however, when we begin to think that we should be this or that. I think "shoulds" are of the devil; they never seem to lead to anything constructive. When we say I should be this or that, we are really saying we are not content or accepting of who we are. If I felt that I had to be happy all the time like Maria, I would go crazier than I already am. Such a disposition is probably natural for her; she may not think twice about being anything but what she is, which is a joyful person. But it is not natural for me. And that is okay!

Learning to ignore "shoulds" was a big part of the cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) I went through for a number of years early in my diagnosis. While I am not presently in therapy, CBT provided me with the tools to be discriminate when the "shoulds" sneak their way in to my thought process in my life. The first therapist I had was excellent. She gave me homework to do, and encouraged me to watch my moods carefully and to catch myself in the act of giving in to destructive and irrational thoughts. Once these thoughts were caught red handed, they were exposed to the light of cognitive reality and put to shame. When I think, "I am stupid. I have never done anything good," I am encouraged to grab them by the neck and hold them up to the light of what I really know. It's point, counter-point. I say, "What about that award you won, the compliments your friends shower you with. Are they telling of a stupid person?" When I do this, these cognitive distortions vanish like demons exposed to the light of Christ.

One of my favorite poems is by Gregory Corso, one of the great beat poets of the fifties and sixties. It is titled Marriage, and begins: "Should I get married? Should I be good?" Our lives are chock full of shoulds. When they begin to crowd out your rational sensibilities, beware of an impending mental breakdown. Throw shoulds out the window of the mind into the darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. Don't ask "should I get married?" Either get married, or don't. Take yourself where you are as if you were the only person in the world with no one to compare yourself to. Do what you do, and be who you are. This is so important.

When you make sincere efforts to be good, to live a virtuous, spiritual life, you are bound to fail at some point or another. The mind of a manic depressive is a fantastic but tender thing. Do not reprimand yourself in any way or with any more force than Christ himself would do to you. You may find yourself in a wicked downward spiral, and it is there that you give the Devil a helping hand in destroying you. When I beat myself up and give myself black eyes for not being good like Maria, or St. Teresa, or Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I am not loving myself as I should; I am judging myself harshly. As a good friend who knows how hard I can be on myself would tell me, "hold yourself gently." Whatever your unique disposition, know that God made you that way. Be good. But be yourself.

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