The Unfolding of Forgiveness


“The Prodigal Son,” Max Slevogt

The air stuck to my skin, humid enough to hang suspended and thinly substantial. Like a veil. A torturous, hot, stifling veil. It was a typical late Spring day in the Midwest, and I found myself back in Milwaukee for work and for family. And for a friend. I hadn’t planned it that way, but it turned into the most important thing.

My friend was a former friend, and we had once been very close. I admired her still, though I had lost that thought for a time. I lost a lot of thoughts for a long time. Cracking at the seams after my dissertation, I struggled to stitch myself together. Every relationship in my life shifted under the strain, and I – a mess of threads – often forced the change. I withdrew, lashing out when threatened, and I felt very threatened indeed. So I hurt people, deliberately and accidentally. Always, always reacting to the stress as if I were scrabbling at rocks at the edge of a cliff. Desperate, shivering. Angry.

I endured some kind of subterranean implosion, an upsetting of the farthest reaches of me in a catastrophic  supernova. Everything scattered, no longer intelligible. I clutched together what fragments I could, collapsing inward like a neutron star.

One of the casualties of this event was my friendship with this woman. A fiercely warm and nurturing person, cleverly intelligent and intensely energetic. I pushed away her nurturing in particular. Raw on the cliff edge, fighting for autonomy by fighting to be left alone. And I did so viciously. The lick of flames over a collapsing bridge.

It wasn’t fair to her. It wasn’t at all. I understood that a little at the time, and better later.

In the present, we walked together down a serene sidewalk in an old Milwaukee neighborhood. Green grass and bright sun. Sticky air. I clasped my hands behind my back to hide their trembling. She was all lean edges of muscle and bone, striking and beautiful in a clever outfit – always clever – and I felt miserable by comparison. She resplendent and I a collection of scars.

I apologized. I tried to review what I had done, and tried to describe the ways I was sorry. Trauma and all that stuff explained my actions, sure, but it did not excuse them. I stumbled in the middle of my confession, needing to gather my thoughts as if they had scattered to the ground.

Her voice came strong at my side: “I forgive you.”

She proceeded to explain why. Incomprehensible things like how she loved me and missed me. How she could see my unbearable pain.

My invisible mental notecards dropped from my shaking hands again. I blinked, heart suddenly pierced by a strange hurt that bloomed warm. “I’m… I’m not done yet. I wanted to say more. You can’t just instantly forgive me.” I paused. “Goddamn Christians,” I added, acting grumpy to hide soft and vulnerable wonderment. Probably unsuccessfully. She’s not an idiot.

She laughed. I smiled.

Then I finished my confession, and she repeated her forgiveness, and we cried.

I do not know when she felt ready to forgive me. It took me a couple of years to grow into an existence that could bear to miss her. Two years to unfurl again, unsteady and different and the same. Long days spent learning how to mourn, how to forgive. How to live with the very, very sad things that had happened to me, and how I made it worse.

It arrives to me unevenly and in fragments.

My friend is this mystery to me. This frail human being is able to be broader than the fracture, arms poised outward to embrace the all of me: the one who hurt her and the one who loves her.

It hurt to be forgiven, and I barely understand why. And I don’t understand how the sting became comforting.

But I cherish these things I don’t understand. And I cherish the memory. And my friend.



Mending Memories


I know why I keep watching them. The handful of episodes from this one cartoon. Of all things. But I know: I know what it reminds me of, and I know that what I remember hooks its way through my brain and pulls – and then that broken part of me wakes up and steps automatically into the shadows. Tasting it, I turn around, reset the pulleys, and deliberately draw myself to the dark. Again and again. This is how torn memories live on; this is how we try to stitch them back together.

This kid, this young woman – Korra – has been captured. She’s important, this character named Korra, because she is something special and powerful called the “Avatar.” It matters to the plot, although not really to my memories. She’s a child, barely the age of my own students. This matters. She’s restrained, held in the air Christ-like in chains. This matters too.

The fantasy reminds me just enough and not too much. A threatening ghost. I do have specific memories of trauma, though most are confused and fragmentary. Still, some crinkle in my hands like something wrapped up and brand new. I remember being held down at my wrists and ankles. More than once, though there’s one time in particular that refuses to fade. To see something like it on the screen is to somehow to experience it without experiencing it.

korra poisoned

So I watch as the bad guys poison the child. I never know if it’s the poison sinking into her skin or the way she jolts in pain, limbs taut, unable to fold in on herself. Whatever it is, I jolt, too, and I never seem able to look away. Watching attentively, remembering… Something. Many things. They’re never clear to me, the rush of memories, but the feeling is exquisite: hurting badly while stretched out, fighting not to flinch.  Ex-quaerere – exquisite – comes from a word that means “to seek,” refers to the perfectly sought and found. Exquisite pain. Instantly, I know the feeling again. That strangely thin terror, frail and tremulous, unable to comprehend surviving. The feeling is the memory.

But here is where Korra changes and I do not.

korra zaheer

The young woman awakens in her most powerful form and breaks free, snapping the links of titanium chains. She fights, furious, wielding devastated revenge. It is not quite enough, and that not quite is something I know. She still almost dies. The poison eats away at her, and her enemy literally tries to steal her breath away. That flickers like something in the back of my brain – I don’t know what. The heroes capture the bad guy, and poor Korra is freed of the poison (mostly).

I don’t know what it would have been to escape. I watch her fight and lose and win, and this is to experience it somehow. To somehow dream of what it might be like to live outside a tragedy. She fights, and I see in her reckless anger my own. She colors in the details, and so do I: to have wanted so badly to claw free, the rage that kind of feeling requires, the rage that still sits there deep in my chest. Hot anger that conceals trembling fear.

She lives, but she’s still hurt – she’s not the same – and that’s a feeling I know too. Or rather, I know what it feels like to be broken until feeling itself seems to have gone away. It matters that she doesn’t make it out whole. It makes a difference, draws me close. I watch it again, that past and that sorrow living on in me and on the moving screen. I’ve done things like this before. Gotten caught in a mimetic loop. It’s something that the traumatized do. I sit almost helpless, obsessed, aching to watch again and again – and again. Trying somehow to safely touch the memories, searching for a way to escape them.

Mourning what did happen through something that didn’t.

red lotus end

A professor in therapy.

Eingang zum Palais de Roure

Sometimes I love the contradiction of my being: capable yet broken. Other times it’s just painful. I know, for example, that travel saps more strength from me than it does others. That’s part of what it means to have an anxiety disorder. At least for now. But that will take time if it ever arrives. Recovery and coping look different on everyone.

I know for a fact that, as able as my mind is, I cannot do all the things I am able to do. This is when I am most frustrated with myself. I can see what I could do – I could translate that, or respond to this article, or whatever – but I cannot. My body is too exhausted after a long day on full alert, or a flashback rattled my heart loose in its cage. I only have so much of myself to give, and much of me is already given to learning to cope with being myself. Whatever myth taught me that I can do anything as long as my mind is willing is a complete lie. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, and the spirit is too.

Sometimes I rage in frustration. I don’t handle anger well. I’m much too conditioned to direct it at myself. So even being angry as I mourn all that I cannot do – even that is very hard.

That’s a whole set of reasons I’m in therapy. I don’t “believe” in therapy because I think that belief only has one proper object: God. But I do think that therapy is helpful and effective, and I think that it is so for academics especially. We’re already stuck in our heads. May as well invite someone in there to help understand what it means to be where we are. We all know that just being somewhere doesn’t mean understanding that place.

Hell, being highly intellectualized means that we’re extremely unlikely to be aware of other very important things: feelings, tired bodies, people.

I’d be in therapy even if I weren’t an academic with a fucked up childhood and adolescence and a fun history of mental illness. I could be a completely normal academic – whatever that is – and I’d still want someone to help me think about what it means to be thinking all the time, how to grapple with my inherent remove from popular society, ways to manage the stress of the job. The benefit of slashing my own throat just means I actually got myself to therapy and have a visceral awareness of my need for it. Therapy doesn’t actually require a bloody story to go and need it.

We don’t wait until we have a heart attack to exercise. Hopefully.

My hope for my own therapy is that it helps me do the things I want to do – including wanting anything at all – and successfully mourn the things that will never arrive to me. I can’t undo abuse. It has taken me a long time to be okay with that, and it’s still hard. I’ll probably never be able to work myself like some scholars do, especially if my workload remains what it is, and I’m not okay with that yet. I know I could be. I could really be okay knowing that I have more stressors than others, more because they affect me more. Okay knowing that will always be a part of me. I’m not yet.

My friend says there’s probably some benefit to the negatives of anxiety. I scowled at her and wondered what the hell that might be. She pointed out that I notice more, and more quickly. I scowled at her, still displeased. I’m not there yet. Someone else go notice things. I’m so tired of watching body language like a hawk.

I’ll just blissfully not know you’re upset.

Therapy lays to bare exactly those kinds of dynamics. Those internal conflicts. In good therapy, I get to determine my own goals. If I have a particular perspective on a problem, okay. A therapist will respect that. A good one will, anyway. My current therapist is very respectful of and open to my religious sensibilities, to the ways Catholicism directs my life. I once had a therapist ask my what “my God” would think of something I’d done. I crossed my arms and glared at her. I didn’t appreciate what I interpreted as a game of pretend. Religious people can be touchy about God. I didn’t have to go to her again, and I didn’t.

Some therapists are awful, and that’s important to know because therapy can make us so vulnerable. Many therapists are really, really good. They’re there for you when you are so very vulnerable. There for you when even the other people in your life aren’t there, or don’t know how to be there, or can’t be.

It’s not at all like confession. As a Catholic, I’ve been asked that a lot. Confession is for the things I know I did wrong, for healing breaks in my relationship to Christ and the Church, for grace to help me heal. The sacrament is medicine applied directly to specific wounds. Therapy is about working through the patterns of feelings that surround the sacrament, that keep me from it or lead me to rely on it in ways it’s never been intended for. We could say that therapy addresses the rush and flow of emotions that accompany me everywhere, including to the sacraments. It’s not about feeling God. It’s about being whole enough to offer myself to God. Baptism and confession address this in fundamental ways. So does therapy. We don’t have to pretend they do the same work.

For example, I never believe absolution when I hear it. Never. I think, “Nope. God hates me. Fact.” Regardless of what the sacrament objectively offers – ex opere operato – I have to do the careful work of learning how to subjectively partake in the offering – ex opere operantis. For the saints, this has always meant confidence that seeking God has a way of untying our inward knots. I agree. Therapy is a profound and helpful way to seek God, to try and open up enough to let Him untie me.

Christians also sometimes worry that therapy supplants religion or spirituality. It can, and it has. As with every instrument, however, it doesn’t have to be that way. A hammer can kill someone, but I don’t have to use it that way. I truly appreciate my therapist for being willing to acknowledge a presence greater than either of us can describe, a presence in the room. It is important to me, and important that he is willing to grant it.

He’s not Christian. I love that he isn’t. He has no particular expectations for what a Christian or Catholic “looks” like. That can be confusing for us sometimes, but mostly it’s a relief. Many of my knots center upon failing to look like a “good” Catholic, after all. Other people want a therapist who shares their faith. That’s fine too.

Also, he’s a man. I don’t trust women, not particularly. So that’s fine by me. Others want someone of the same gender. Whatever is comfortable. And it should be about what is comfortable at a basic level. That room won’t always be comfortable, not at all, so elemental forms of trust need to be in place. If that means talking to a man who gets what it’s like, by all means.

Something hard for me is talking about work, and since work is theology, talking about God has the risk of becoming a chance for me to conceal my actual feelings by talking theory. That is my favorite way to not really talk to people wherever I am. “We’ll talk Catholic and I’ll be safe in this corner right here.” So I’ve learned to use simple, simple words. Words a child might use. Other people need to be given a way of talking about that stuff at all.

What I’m indicating is this: because therapy is interpersonal, it is very flexible. This can lead to bad practice, but also to good practice.

I don’t know that everyone should go to therapy. I think it’s good for people, but I’m uncomfortable offering a universal dictum. Unless that dictum has to do with who God is. That one is actually far simpler than diagnosing what ails human beings. The good is more knowable than evil (which is unknowable in itself).

So, yes, it’s incredibly frustrating and difficult to have the difficulties that I do. Still, I don’t think that the extremes in my particular life make therapy utterly strange. Sure, I need it “more” than others. That doesn’t mean only people like me need it. Everyone needs to do the work of learning how to be open to the world. It’s not about you understanding yourself so much as it’s about you understanding how to offer yourself to the world in healthy ways. In ways that God wants. Because every offering to God is meant to give life rather than take it.

How much more wonderful that is after braving the depths of the self.

A word on triggers.


Not my hands and arms. I wanted the image to be striking, and this is definitely.

I have triggers. Real and serious experiences of situations and things that send me backward into something terrible. Triggers aren’t funny to me. They’re not inconsequential fictions of modern psychology that conceal a refusal to confront the difficulty of life. They’re very, very real.

Just last week, I walked into my new office – I had moved down the hall – and our secretary had arranged some chairs and a coffee table in the corner of the room for students. Simple enough. I knew this already as I walked through my door. Then I saw the chairs and stopped dead. Fear, intense fear, slithered up my spine. My heart pounded in my ears. The white walls, the floral patterned cushions, the coffee table: they looked just like a doctor’s waiting room. I’ve been in those hundreds and hundreds of times. I hate doctors; I hate waiting rooms. More importantly, I hate what the image of those chairs and that blank wall reminded me of: painful, miserable abuse. Or rather, waiting for it and knowing it was coming.

Triggered. The chairs triggered me. For God’s sake.

I didn’t have a flashback. (I’ve had those.) Nothing in particular came to mind. I knew where and when I was. But I was on full alert, adrenaline racing through my bloodstream as the mess of feelings I once had in those situations surfaced and played through me again. Physically, emotionally, it was like waiting in that quiet room when I was small.

“These are chairs,” I thought, angry and jumpy. “Just chairs.” So I sat at my desk to see if I could endure them, even tried to make fun of them in a picture, wanted to find some way to live with them. They’re just chairs, after all. But they were right across from my desk, haunting my line of sight. I felt sick, scared. I got up and moved them around. Nothing helped. Finally, I gave up dragged the two chairs into the hallway. Took them out and just left them there. I walked back into my office and nervously took a look at the coffee table. Without the chairs, it didn’t bother me. I sat down at my desk and felt as if a sliver of iron had been pulled out of my chest. I could breathe again.

It took me a long time to calm down.

Our poor secretary was so confused. I didn’t explain much, didn’t know how to explain. Professors are strange and fussy anyway, so I tried to think of it like that. Another random quirk in the ivory tower.

I felt angry and helpless, you know. They’re just chairs. It’s just a wall. A stupid coffee table. But they aren’t just that to anyone, let alone me: they mean what they resemble in our minds. In my case, the similarity is wired up to ugly experiences and painful feelings.

It sucks.

I’m by no means a psychologist, but I have been taught a few things about myself. I’ll try to explain.

Triggers come from something hardwired into our brains. A common analogy is baseball: if you get hit by a pitch, you might flinch at the ball the next time you’re up to bat. Your brain remembers the danger and hurt from last time, instantly recognizes the shape of it, responds using reflexes meant to protect you.

Our brains love patterns. Sometimes I think of the brain, especially the parts always sort of “on” in the background, as this complex and active copyist constantly trying to organize itself. Our brains want to create patterns so that we can recognize similar things more quickly. This can be hurtful (stereotypes, racism, rigid categories, etc.), but mostly it’s helpful (interacting with people, reacting to danger, etc.). So the thing with the baseball is a “copy” in your head of the thing that hurt you. If something like the copy comes up again, you and your brain react accordingly. You flinch. If the copy stops working, your brain drops it. (You’re not afraid of the ball after a while.) If it keeps working, the copy is reinforced. (You swear off baseball.)

We do this with food: if people get sick with food poisoning, sometimes they can never make themselves eat that food again. It just looks disgusting, horrible. Your brain says: I’ve been here before, and no way am I returning. The food is gross now. Which is great, actually, because being poisoned is not in your best interest.

Trauma and triggers are formed out of this instinctual neurological process. Sometimes – not all the time, or perhaps not even most of the time, I’m not sure of the numbers – something bad happens to your brain when something bad happens to you. Sometimes when something really bad happens, the brain doesn’t know what to do with it. One of the DSM-V manual’s requirements for trauma is that the person has to experience a fundamental threat to their safety, especially to their identity or the identity of someone they love. Sometimes people don’t have strong social networks or good environments that help them cope, and the likelihood of our brains being hurt increases. Those sorts of conditions make an experience “too much” to be interpreted.

Interesting how important it is for someone to be cared for even long before they’re ever hurt.

Once a therapist of mine explained trauma as a moment the brain hasn’t make sense of, and reminders of that moment gets the brain repeating through the memory again and again, trying and failing to making meaning of it. And I hate this analogy, but: it’s sort of like a computer that keeps restarting, can’t finish running through the code, and it keeps starting over and trying again and again. As long as the code is the same, it won’t work. It continually not-works.

Lots of people go to war, are sexually assaulted, injured, and so on and do not develop PTSD. The people who do lack one or several of the conditions that would’ve helped them interpret and integrate the experience. In fact, the experience can be objectively less violent – if we want to go there – and still leave a person traumatized if they lack support, affection, and safety.

I have many, many traumatic experiences. These are from when I was very young and stretch sporadically in intensity until young adulthood. Most of the experiences revolve around doctors, coercion, submission, sexual violence. Things like that.

So then.

To be reminded of the pattern awakens the response. These are triggers. They’re somewhat specific, but they’re also an especially heightened version of instincts we all have. Triggers are complex, vary in intensity, and encompass a whole range of possible similitudes.

I couldn’t have predicted the chair thing. (Yeah, I’m pretty miffed over the chair incident.) I see chairs all the time. It still happened, caught me sideways and unprepared. I hate when I can’t predict it. I know, for example, that this specific beep claws my ears to pieces and makes me profoundly agitated. (They remind me of monitors and such.) Since our campus is perpetually under construction/repair with those freaking machines that beep so no one runs into them, I bring headphones. Listen to music. Try to avoid the sound.

Today beeping gnawed on me as i tried to help a student with a schedule. I struggled to focus, felt very distracted, worked to maintain a soothing voice. Had I no filter or control, I’d have reacted to everything with the agitation I felt.

It’s complicated. I can’t control the universe, so I can’t control all triggers. I don’t attend the student information session on assault and dating violence because that’s an easy one to predict.

The thing with the chairs wasn’t so much about chairs as it was the whole gathered visual experience, the Gestalt (form) of the corner of the room is what caught my heart by a metal hook. Sometimes the emotional situation will remind me profoundly of an experience. If I think you’re trying to force me to do something I think would hurt me – even if you’re not and I’m just seeing a false copy – I instantly become angry and afraid. I won’t show you that I’m scared. I learned not to do that, and I definitely don’t want you to see another “weakness.” I’ll survive the situation, probably by agreeing to whatever so you go away, and then freak the hell out. Cry, or rage, or what have you. The feelings are intense, very difficult to understand and soothe. Mostly I feel like I’m drowning and it won’t be over ’til the flooding stops.

I knew I wasn’t in a doctor’s office. Sure seemed like one. Sure kept looking like one. Just knowing isn’t enough. The pattern is still there. I’m slowly learning how to find new patterns, and deal with my feelings when something does happen.

Triggers are real and they are serious, and I have offered a relatively mild one in this space. No, I don’t like that people use the word “trigger” all the damn time for tiny things and “trigger warning” for everything. I also think they’re trying to describe something real. “Trigger” is the best word they know, and really it’s not at all the best. Maybe they want a single word for “this might hurt.” (As if life could always have such signs.) Still, I do want to be allowed to use the word “trigger” and I want it to be considered perfectly legitimate. I want to be able to say that I hate those chairs that were in my office, the chairs that reminded me of waiting rooms, and that my responding fear and anger were real. No, it wasn’t really a waiting room, but the reminder is as real as my bones. It’s my damn brain, and I was reminded. That’s real. The reminder is real. I don’t want to be called afraid of chairs or weak or something. How is it weak to be afraid of a thing so horrible it never quite goes away?

Back off. Given all that, I’m brave to wander around the world at all.

So then, it’s true: right now the words “trauma,” “trigger,” even “abuse” are prevalent, and there is an understandable reaction against this usage. Either way, I have written this because I’m concerned that the debate itself encourages us to lose sight of a few things that are very, very real.


The birth of memory.

Study of a figure for Hell, John Singer Sergeant

Only last year, my mother was telling me a few details about when I was born. The myth itself sits heavy on my shoulders, and has rested there my whole life. We spoke of it so many times: how I came three months early, I almost died, my mother almost died, and I was baptized immediately. I’ve seen the photos. My mother, rail-thin and pale, dark hair and glasses just like me these days. My two-pound self lying there in a clear plastic box, tubes and needles everywhere. The red of my skin, which didn’t soothe into the soft pale of a newborn. Unnatural. I’ve looked at the images my whole life.

My therapist says I need to remember that child. The little baby alone in the incubator. For the first few months of my life, I only rarely received affectionate touch. My parents had to scrub themselves perfectly and wear gowns. The other touches: they were needles and pain. There wasn’t the snuggling regular newborns receive. The constant soft assurance. Babies are shaped by their early months. Science shows us this.

Me: I was primed by a brutal world.

I hate the science. I hate the goddamn facts that point like daggers to my painful shyness, the tearful anxieties that haunted me through school. Struggling to feel attached, which worsened as the doctors did. I hated the doctors, hated them more and more as I saw them more and more. Sometimes I think: I just couldn’t seem to live or die. I feel so angry at that child, can’t seem to avoid hating myself at any age, and I blame myself. Sometimes for just not freaking dying. The anger conceals terrible loss, terrible disappointment.

In a world that will send no one to rescue me.

My mother told me that when I first came home from the hospital – in Cabbage Patch Doll clothes, because they didn’t make clothes for premies then – she sat with me and held me all day. Just held me. I try to picture it, and I’ve made it a memory of my own, though of course I don’t actually remember anything. I treat it as if I do. A memory of how much my mother suffered and cared. And simply that she held me. I don’t have a memory of her holding me, not ever. I know that she did. But I don’t remember, and I don’t know why.

Flesh hardened for an unkind world doesn’t remember touch, I suppose.

My sister doesn’t like it when I say these things online. She says I never remember the happy things. I do – and I don’t. And I don’t like it when she suggests I’m not remembering it right. I’m worried it’s true – and I know it’s not.

Once she spoke of my life like it came to me easily, my success, like an unrolling carpet. I saw something then: that certain things are very, very easy for me. That this was painful for her to see. School was never so simple for her. That I forget. I also understood that she didn’t, she can’t, know what it felt like inside. And both are true: school was really goddamn easy even when I missed half of it sick; also, I missed half of school sick.

God damn high school. I have dim memories. It all runs together, the shapeless days and me half-dead inside. Deeply withdrawn, deeply religious, hyper-intellectual. I still get that way in the summer, because summers are still the most like back then. (And the world is brutal.) Most of the real remembering is impossible. So when I seek to reference high school in class, I ask students for their memories. I can’t offer any of my own.

And I still can’t fully remember what happened to me. The really bad things. They are purely concentrated conjectures, perhaps, that try to provide answers for feelings I have. Their reality is more in the shape of my pain than their flickering, tenuous concreteness. My body remembers something. The confusing flashbacks to hospitals, the sudden crawling spider-waves of fears – these are memories of a kind. Recollections of a body already long primed by a brutal world, shaped to perceive what hurts.

No one will come and rescue me from all that. From the memories and suffering and confusion. I’m sorry, but it’s true. No one will glide in and carry me away. No one ever has. No one at all. They can’t. Lift me from the waters all you want: I cannot be made to breathe. Sure, there are machines; medicines. But don’t mistake those for breathing.

This is the impossible conundrum of freedom: that to be had, it must be used. Even when the free one in question desperately is not.

Because there isn’t some moment of titanic willpower into being better. Not from things like this. Sometimes I think mental illness terrifies people because it exposes the limits of our willing. My suffering isn’t actually explained by any of the memories, you see. Not quite. Yes, in part – and yet not. My sister remembers our childhood, and she makes an effort sometimes to set her memories against mine. But the suffering isn’t in the memories themselves. Not quite. I could take control if it were true, if everything came to remembering – or not remembering. If it came to “moving on.” Time doesn’t work like that, though, and neither do memories – we can’t will them away.

Remembering is a strange sacrament. These words and symbols that somehow more than they are – even pain. The fragility of a memory isn’t the problem so much as the strength of what they impart. A brief half-trace can burn all over.

Even if everything were reducible to the trauma of my birth – which it isn’t – and the rest is just a self rather helpless before experiences that would never hurt anyone else, it would mean so very little. The answer. If it were all that one thing. Like it always was, growing up: “She’s a premie, so…” God dammit, I’ll never escape the shadow of being born. And neither will you. Part of what being born means is that you will never be able to summarize yourself.

Being unable to recount high school doesn’t leave me unmarked by it. The lack of memory shows me how the past is more than what I am able to see in it. Even in the presence of memories – like the time a teacher asked me what happens to us when we suffer, and I felt the whole world of a suffering adult settle on my shoulders – I do not fully understand.

Trauma is a particularly painful and broken way to remember. This doesn’t make it unreal or more real than the rest. (As if suffering could summarize me instead.) But it does hurt, far too much, and we at least must say that memories ought not do this. Something must somehow break the hold. Yet what would it be, that thing, if you cannot offer it and I cannot either? We don’t like to ask that question. This one than mental illness lays to bear.

The obvious implication is that my spiritual powers are not enough. We think we see guilt on the faces of the mentally ill, some kind of failure on their part. No: they are signs of a frightening impossible. The uncomfortable proposition that we are not enough for ourselves. Nor even for each other.

There is a word in Latin: conveniens. Thomas Aquinas uses it to discuss when something is “fitting.” It isn’t necessary; it isn’t arbitrary. It fits, makes sense in the strange way only beauty makes sense: inexplicably reasonable. Of course, of course – that just suits you. It just does. Conveniens.

There is a doorway somewhere in our imaginations and wills, there where memories and dreams live. A door that can’t be made – not with human hands – nor opened. But by some fitting measure there is a way the heart (which dreams and remembers) can be soothed into the perfect shape to open it. The measure of a different willing, a will that is not the heart’s yet not without the heart. So suitable it goes on unnoticed in the beating dark. There may be no memory of it, none at all. Or the recollection may rise up sudden from the past in some future far from now.

A grace that doesn’t rescue so much as it breathes within, and the dead gasp awake.

Beatrice and Kenosis: On Power and Words and How We Use Them (and Hans Urs von Balthasar)

“The First Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death,” Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Hans Urs von Balthasar loves the word kenosis. “Emptying.” It’s a Greek word that I’ll explain, and it’s a problem. It should be your problem, too. A problem that I’ll resolve by making it worse, telling a story, complaining in German, and all in all pretending that I’m not addressing a huge issue in scholarship in a damn blog post. So then.

Balthasar, the influential 20th century Swiss Catholic theologian and my hero, does not draw his ideas from nowhere. When he himself emphasizes kenosis, he is touching a very ancient Christian nerve.

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

– Philippians 2:5-11

This poem of sorts comes to us from Saint Paul, and it is sometimes called the “Kenotic Hymn” after some speculation from biblical scholars that this may well be a Christian hymn that pre-dates Paul and he’s simply quoting it, or perhaps adjusting it. Or perhaps it’s not that at all. Either way, this “hymn” tells the essential story of Christ: the one equal with God who became human, died, and was exalted to the Glory of the Father. That is the whole movement of Christianity, all of it right there, an arc away into humility that returns again as glory because, really, humility and glory are the same.

So we’ve already touched the edges of the problem.

Kenosis (ἐκένωσεν as it appears in the original text) means simply “to empty.” Jesus emptied himself. The word is the lynchpin of the hymn, and it has long been a profound animating force in Christianity. This, after all, is the attitude (φρονεῖτε, understanding, feeling, mind) we are supposed to have: that of Christ, who was kenotic (emptying). So we should be Christ to one another, to the world. We should be as he is. Emptying.

For the Christian, Jesus – who is God – is humble. This isn’t a change in God; this is God. The remarkable feature of Christianity is its God: the infinite God who becomes finite, the Word who becomes flesh, not because anyone forced him to and definitely not because we deserve it, but because this is what he does. He loves us. Or, I should say, he is love. And this love – that God is – takes a specific shape, is recognizable and alive. The love that overcomes through humiliating defeat, the divine strength revealed through weakness. Balthasar will sometimes call this “the power of God’s powerlessness.”

If humility is glory – if the last shall be first – then we have an extraordinary inversion of what we thought was real. This impulse is what has Christians through the centuries embracing the poor; this is what drives them near to the suffering and ill; this is what has them visiting jails. In the faces of these people, Christians see their God. And so they treat these least with the dignity that they would God, and in doing so – in loving with humility – they show God to others. That is to say, we surrender to one another in love.


What, exactly, does this power-in-powerlessness look like? This could be devastatingly beautiful, as above, or simply devastating. Friedrich Nietzsche, famous opponent of Christianity, saw an element of Christianity’s inner power of destruction: by valuing the weak, he said, you make everyone weak. He meant this because he thought everyone had a “will to power” and should be able to dominate others if they could, and if they couldn’t – well, that’s your fault. It’s a more interesting critique if all we do is understand that powerful people do want to dominate others, and that this domination keeps others weak. Christianity, then, could become a coda for oppression. We love the weak, so we keep them weak.

This is all rather abstract, so let me offer a couple of examples. The first comes to us from literature: Dante’s Beatrice. She herself, and his love for her, animates the entirety of the Divine Comedy. But is this Beatrice, really? Dante met the real Beatrice twice in real life, after all, and she was a constant figure in his poems even after her death. Especially after her death. Well, there was a pause with Lady Philosophy, but we’ll get to that. In any case, Dante rather deliberately renders Beatrice in ecstatic symbolic forms: she is a beatified woman, she is Beatitude itself, she is divine love and judgment incarnate, she is Christ. So, commentators wonder, is Beatrice even Beatrice anymore? Or has Dante done violence to her memory and made her someone else? All in the name of Christ, no less. This gets at a certain problem of how to imagine other human beings when we look at them as Christ. It could result in some kind of erasure.

Or there is the more sophisticated critique of feminist theologies, which I will simplify here but bring to life with my own life. Outside of the arts, there have been many ways that power has reinforced itself by concealing its intentions in something “good.” Balthasar calls this “the lie.” It would take too long to list the horrifying examples of even the recent news cycle, so I will simply reference my own experience. As a young victim of violence, much of which revolved around doctors, I was often convinced to behave by being told it wasn’t that bad or asked don’t you want to feel better? My suffering, you have to see, was placed on my shoulders as my responsibility. I was crying at nothing, or I pushed away the hands because I didn’t want to get better. It was my fault if I hated it. Or – and this is more vivid, so feel free to skip down to the next paragraph – I was frequently made to surrender by sheer physical force. I can remember being pinned down and my head shoved away and then I remember much worse, and God damn if wasn’t some kind of surrender when I gave up and went limp. And it was my fault if I hated it.

Notice the perplexity here, which gets at a certain problem with how we use words to mask truth, and how surrender and self-emptying can apply to things that are truly awful. So for Balthasar – right, back to him – to use this word kenosis, to pair it with surrender, to praise self-offering… Well, it becomes possible to see why people might have a problem with that. Because these words have been used to conceal incredible suffering. They have. Balthasar still uses these terms, these ideas. I don’t see any point in denying these things.


The thing about Lady Philosophy in Dante (of the Commedia) is that she’s a lie. Beatrice in fact calls him out on it, framing Dante’s life as infidelity. You went and loved another woman, Dante, and she doesn’t even exist. The accusation of infidelity is described as a betrayal of Dante’s love for Beatrice, a love “that should have led you to the Good.” Beatrice, as someone who is real – Lady Philosophy is a figurement of a field of knowledge – is able to be loved in a way that leads Dante to better things, and only inasmuch as her specificity as a real person plays a role in his love for her. Dante doesn’t have to confess “I am a totally lost and confused guy”; he has to confess to her about where his heart has been. Yes, Beatrice’s eyes flicker with Christ-the-gryphon, and she shines with a glory we can easily guess is God’s. But these only veil her as long as Dante lies. When he tells the truth about her – to her – she pulls her veil away. (And the angels sing. I think there are flowers thrown around too. It’s pretty epic. Dante, you insufferable poet.) In other words, praising humility in itself or surrender in itself or virtue in itself don’t get us far. They have to be expressed in specific people and specific situations. Or else we end up admiring all surrender instead of only loving surrender. This is one reason why the saints are so important to Balthasar: they show us what the difference between wonderful and horrible humility might be.

To the far messier point about physical force, the concealing of oppression, and so forth, I can only gesture toward something important. Balthasar discusses self-surrender and kenosis all the time, it’s true. But we’re forgetting a word: “letting-be.” It’s inconsistently translated, to be honest, but still this further phrase (typically Sein-Lassen) is key. Letting-be is, in Balthasar’s parlance, a summary term for the free act of allowing someone else their agency. Letting-be is what Mary does in the Annunciation (called her Fiat, “let it be done”), which is both an act of agency on her part and an allowing of God’s action. In fact, letting-be is always a twinned action – the act of the person letting and of the person being, the one allowing and the one doing (or even simply existing). The twinned act of letting-be has to be mutual, then, or else they’re not letting the other person freely allow. They’re committing an act of force. If it doesn’t have both freedoms at work, it’s not Sein-Lassen. It’s something Balthasar variously names “demonic” or “titan” or “violent.” The archetype of letting-be is to be found in the Trinity, in the three Persons who entirely share one divinity. Here the archetype spins away from what is even remotely possible for us, since the Persons all offer to one another a specific relation of “letting be,” and perfectly share the one divine will. The Trinity explodes what in us is “twinned” or double – you there and me here – but nevertheless provides the ground of the possibility for our letting-be.

Especially where he goes on and on about kenosis and surrender, Balthasar either frames the discussion with letting-be or carries letting-be throughout. In other words, for him, surrender – the authentic kind – cannot be understood without Sein-Lassen. What is more, the surrender of letting-be is always to a real person (even in the Trinity). It cannot get lost as a mere concept, or again it ceases to be itself. It must always be shared. And, as with Christ, it must lead to the greater glory of both.

Obviously, my experience as a youth meets absolutely none of those criteria.

Real kenosis is also “letting-be.” Kenosis without “letting be” is mere violence. Balthasar actually helps us work to see the difference.

On the Scowl of Katniss Everdeen


Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen (Mockingjay Part 2)

Katniss Everdeen. She’s emotionally daft, which might be my favorite detail in the narrative. The kid – and she is so young – honestly doesn’t know what to do with her feelings or the feelings of others. She can track tiny animals through the woods while hunting, but she gets thoroughly befuddled by people feeling stuff. She has basically no clue when she’s feeling a feeling, which leaves her annoyed with all these other people and their messy feelings. Many a young character has brooded Hamlet-like in the middle of beautiful landscapes. Katniss would push Hamlet out of the way to try and kill a bunny with an arrow.

Why is Katniss a terrible student of emotions? There’s simply no time for it in her world. No time at all. Katniss is painfully aware that she walks the knife-edge of survival. Who has time to pause and feel, to read the softness in others’ eyes? All is hard edges underneath.

When pressed to decide which boy she loves or whatever, Katniss’s response is to scowl and feel embarrassed. Hell, when Peeta announces to the nation that he loves her, she reacts by shoving him into a plant. She doesn’t even articulate herself. Can’t say why she’s irritated. Can’t search the source of her own bafflement. If she had the self-awareness to apprehend and describe her feelings, an awareness that she absolutely does not have, she’d say, “I’m sorry, I was so busy fighting starvation for most of my life that I haven’t really thought about all that.”

As it is, she scowls at people and gets kinda rude and assumes they want to manipulate her. Which they do.

Katniss is accustomed to a world that does not bow to her wishes or even her basic needs. That’s the thing in dystopian worlds: the world has nothing left to give. It is neither lush nor welcoming. Katniss is habituated to a universe in which she has to fight to survive, fight to help her sister survive. She does not effortlessly dominate her surroundings or even expect that she will. In this world, tiny success is arrived at with great cost. She doesn’t have the spare energy for smiles. She wants her sister to have them. Her sister, who gets blown up. (Sorry about all that sacrifice, kid.)

The heroics of Katniss Everdeen, in other words, are startling in their realism. It is quite clear, after all, that we are not in control of most of our own lives. We aren’t. It can seem that way, yes, absolutely. I am fully able to make a whole lot of fun little decisions about the various details of the day. But that has a way of concealing just how elusive most of my freedom is, and it conflates deciding something with freely willing something. “Not every act is free,” says Bernard Lonergan. It may seem obvious, what he says, but the phrase closes a long reflection over whether we’re free at all. Because, mostly, we are not.

I’d scowl at that. I’d scowl the hell out of that. I do scowl at that.

It is notable that Katniss is a young woman. In a strange way – whether or not the author intended this – Katniss Everdeen struggles under the weight of grim vulnerability rather than overcoming obstacles with some titanic inner strength. Whether this kind of shuddering danger – also supremely real in all of us in this world – would be acceptable in a man is an open question. What would we think as an audience? Could we tolerate a young man shivering in a dark closet, terrified of the ghosts in his head? Maybe. In a woman, we consent to the image all too easily. I cannot help but think of that.

Katniss is made a national celebrity and the symbol of an entire rebellion. (No pressure, you emotionally stunted, already-traumatized teenager, you.) She accepts the role of “Mockingjay” to encourage the rebels, to try to do something good, and, mostly, to rescue the boy she’s survived horrible things with. She’s dragged this way and that at the behest of higher powers with unspoken plans. The boy is left to suffer, and when he returns he is not himself. Very, very not.

Sometimes good intentions don’t matter.

Katniss, as a symbol, is negotiated like a symbol. Those with power seek to exert their wills through her. Or they straight-up try to execute her. Either way, becoming a symbol diminishes Katniss’s self-possession in part because it externalizes her identity, which makes her negotiable. An object on a chessboard to be assessed and moved.

This is what being made into a symbol does to a human being. At least in the sense of the word as I use it now. Sometimes we say “stereotype” to mean something like it: the person serves a principle or presumption rather than as a self. It is more than mere stereotyping, this negotiating of someone else’s identity through symbols. It is a willing over someone else, a willing in someone else, despite and without that someone else. But first they can’t be someone else. Not if this is going to work. They’ve got to be emptied out into some image or symbol first. Then they are robbed of themselves.

Katniss is robbed of herself in more than one way. Each is a haunting thematic gesture toward the ways we might be killed with symbols: violence (you are not a person but a thing), expectations (you are what I want you to be), love (your desire is mine and not your own). Expectations and love – I will leave violence aside – can be wonderful and good. But they can be flattened into a knife that threatens another into acquiescence. Pressed down into a flat image, a narrowed understanding, a stiff notion.

To do something like that is profoundly different than, say, seeing the significance of a person who shares our humanity or seeing a human being as a sacramental image of God. Those latter kinds of symbols do not view another human being as a vessel for someone else’s power, and they do not understand symbols as separated from the thing symbolized. In other words: if someone is dignified because they are an image of God, that dignity is theirs and it is nonnegotiable. Katniss is important because she’s Katniss.

But these are things that her world, and ours, struggle to grasp. Refuse to grasp.

It does not end well for Katniss Everdeen. At the age of eighteen, she’s been exiled to her home district and declared insane. She’s got burn scars all over her body, severe PTSD, and the sister she gave everything for is dead. Most of her friends are dead, and almost everyone from her hometown is dead. Katniss Everdeen is a broken wreck. And that’s exactly why we should pay attention to her.

No giant success offers her back to herself. No triumph. No inner enlightenment, or outward praise, or miraculous event. Somewhere in the quiet of her exile with that boy who is not himself, she grows. With him. The most interesting part of the story is left a mystery. Somehow that small space of existence lets her find the someone that she is. Someone who can feel and choose and rest. Someone who can be with someone else.

In a dystopian world rather unreal, Katniss Everdeen is strangely – powerfully – realistic.