Are We Done Yet?

When is Lent over again? My teenage son asked me this question a few days ago. I laughed, assuming it wasn’t a sign of his eagerness for Easter but more that he is done with this fasting thing regardless of its supposed benefits, and is ready to move on. I understand that feeling. I’ve reached the point in pregnancy where the level of extreme discomfort grows exponentially each day, making lack of sleep and a temptation towards crankiness my constant companions. I know it’s good for the baby to be in there awhile longer. But I am so ready to move on.

This sense of, “Can we be done now?” is like an undercurrent in the air, especially as the anniversary of the beginning of the pandemic arrives in various places, reminding us just how long we’ve been at this thing and how much we’ve lost. I know I have said more than a few times in recent weeks—when yet still more plans are canceled or parts of our life we used to enjoy remain distant and unrealized—"I’m just so ready for this to be over.”

A few weeks ago I was reading the letters Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote while in prison and was struck by the waves he went through, in a much more extreme sense, of accepting his circumstance, to feeling like he would burst if he couldn’t get free, to experiencing deep peace and even vigorous growth in intellectual and spiritual pursuits, to despair and doubt, to acceptance, and finally— we know not exactly what his final state of mind was. A poem from somewhere near the end of his days is poignant and heartbreakingly true to our human experience this side of eternity. It’s worth reading in full.

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cells confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As thought it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

-“Who Am I” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

That middle passage, that place of apathy and disillusionment, where we are ready to give up— it’s a real thing. I’m struck by how often it is a place in which we have no real agency. We can’t make the hard or difficult circumstance go away. We can’t speed up the process. We can’t escape the trouble or the pain. It’s one reason why Bonhoeffer’s poem holds such weight, I think. Walled in, he sees how he is shutting down. He feels the discrepancy between the man he presents as and even wants to be, and the man he knows all too well on the inside. His final line: an easy cliché? A hard won truth? Or just the only place to rest in the end?

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

As I sit in my own places of torpor and unrest, I’m looking for a way to move through them with honesty that yields faith. One practice that has been helpful to me here is the Ignatian exercise of examen (also referred to in the first newsletter). Perhaps because it expresses a desire to meet with God, experience his presence, admit to the realities of our physical and emotional lives, and ask for grace, without the pressure of any outcome that is helpful to me. It is simply presenting oneself, stripped of pretense, and looking for how God is present there.

Here I am, Lord, uncomfortable and tired. Ready to be done. Knowing there are yet more days ahead before this is lifted (if ever). Am I faithful or a quitter? Am I thankful, or complaining? I am both. I am all. But what I rest in, is that I am thine.

For next time…

In preparation for next week’s newsletter, I have a few questions I want your feedback on. Let me explain why.

Recently, in various places like social media, articles, and a few books, I’ve been intrigued by certain assumptions we now have that not too long ago were thought of very differently. I’m struck by how emphatic these claims we have today can come across, as though in our enlightened progression as humans, we have seen the harm of the past and wisely moved on to better ways of thinking and living. While this may be true (that we’ve grown and matured) in many ways… what if we haven’t? How would we know? I’m curious about the way we fall in line behind current modes of thinking and how we challenge or validate them.

In that vein, I would love to know your quick reactions (or elaborate thoughts) on a few questions below. I have listed only three. These are particular questions I’ve come across in volume of late. You can respond to just one, or all if you like. Shoot me an email or leave a comment here.

  1. Can men and women be close friends without sexual/emotional involvement? Do we need guardrails in place or should we “normalize deep male/female friendships?”

  2. Is shame always a bad thing?

  3. Is my identity defined by what I think feel/think on the inside, or what is narrated to me from the outside?