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Questions for God

Questions for God

This year I sent my parents a Valentine’s card with a religious theme about love, which made them happy. My dad half-jokingly said, “Could it be my prayers have finally been answered?”

I stopped going to church long ago because I didn’t agree with a lot of the doctrines of the Catholic church. When I asked questions, I wasn’t satisfied with the answers, and I couldn’t get on board with a God that wants us to accept his rules without understanding why. I mean, why would he have sent us Jesus if he didn’t care whether or not we understood him?

But that’s not to say I gave up on understanding God. Through years of reading, praying, meditating, and talking to others, I feel much better about my relationship with him. But I still have questions. Many of them have to do with mental illness.

Last week the student group I advise, Active Minds, sponsored a presentation by the JCK Foundation, whose mission is to end stigma associated with OCD and other mental disorders. The foundation was created in honor of John Kelly, who suffered from OCD and eventually took his own life at the age of 25.

One of the problems I had with the Catholic Church was the belief that suicide is an unpardonable sin. It’s obvious that John was an amazing person whose compassion and goodness were felt by anyone who knew him. So much so that his friends and family created this foundation in order to do what John did in his every day life–to help other people who are suffering. Is it possible that this one final act could have nullified all of the good that he brought to the world?

John tried so hard to beat OCD. He kept a journal. He took meds. He went to therapy. Did every kind of alternative treatment in existence. Helped other people. But still, the pain was unbearable. I can imagine how someone who was in that much pain could decide that they could not bear a life where there was seemingly no hope of getting better.

I’ve heard many people say that when their loved one was near death, they gave them permission to let go. Isn’t it possible that God would have done the same for John? That he might have said, you’ve done your job on earth; you don’t have to suffer any longer. Wouldn’t that be something that a loving father might say to a son?

Or did God say, don’t give up! There will be a cure someday. You need to persevere! Even if that’s what God said, he forgives us for being fallible. No sin is supposed to be greater than God’s love. So why wouldn’t he forgive this particular sin?

I have been thinking about John Kelly for the past 5 days, even though the presentation wasn’t that good. But I could feel John’s compassion as his friends and family talked about him, and I was moved by how they have chosen to spread compassion as far as they possibly can in honor of him.

I  choose to believe that God is happy about that.

***

After I wrote this post I found this article that says the Catholic Church no longer believes that suicide is an unpardonable sin. That God is the only one who decides who should go to hell. Thank goodness.

Why I Don’t Hate Valentine’s Day

This is the second year in a row that I will be spending Valentine’s Day alone. Well, I’ll be playing in a tennis tournament, so I won’t really be alone. But I probably won’t be getting any chocolates or flowers or anything. And if I do, that actually might be a little creepy.

Still, unlike many single people, I do not hate Valentine’s Day. I sat home alone last year and knitted and watched the Olympics, and that was fine. It wasn’t any worse than being alone on any other holiday.

To defend my pro-Valentine’s Day position, I thought I’d provide rebuttals to the most common anti-Valentine’s Day sentiments.

1. All holidays are made up. The most common objection to Valentine’s Day that I hear is that it is a conspiracy in which Hallmark, FTD, and Russell Stover Candies all got together and made up this day so they can sell more products. But the thing is, all holidays are made up. Think of Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day. We made those up, too, and nobody is complaining about it.

2. There are lots of consumer-driven holidays. But, you may argue to my response to #1, all of those holidays are not fueled by consumerism. Which isn’t true, either. I’ve seen lots of car commercials offering great deals for Presidents Day, and cars don’t have anything to do with Washington or Lincoln’s birthday.

Plus, have you ever heard of Black Friday? Which now starts on Thursday? The holiday on which people are supposed to spend time with their family eating turkey and pumpkin pie and watching the first Christmas special? Nobody throws anti-Black Friday parties that actually start on Thursday in protest of this consumer-driven conspiracy.

3. Chocolate. Most of the holidays that we don’t get a day off for at least allow us to indulge in something. Green beer on St. Patricks Day. Candy on Halloween. And chocolate on Valentine’s Day. Who could be against a day that celebrates chocolate? And if you’re single, you can go to the grocery store around 10 pm and buy chocolate at 50% off. And it tastes exactly the same.

4. Singlehood is nothing to be ashamed ofIn my opinion, living in a culture that makes people feel bad about being single is much worse than being alone on Valentine’s Day. I avoided being single for the first 45 years of my life, but I have to tell you, trying to pick out a Valentine’s Day gift for someone you don’t love is way worse than spending the day enjoying your own company.

5. I have people who love me. Being single does not mean that you are not loved. As I indicated in my post from last year, the best gifts I’ve ever gotten on Valentine’s Day were from my dad and my baby brother. So even though I am not in a romantic relationship, I know I am loved. I have always been loved, and I have faith that I will always be loved. And it’s nice to have a day that reminds me of this.

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What Love is

You know that famous quote on love that they always recite at weddings? The one that starts with “love is patient, love is kind…?” I wrote a post about this Bible verse, but in my quest to discover whether I’ve ever known love, I thought I would revisit it.

Let me preface this exploration by saying that I am not usually the type who interprets the Bible literally, but since a lot of people agree on this definition of love, I figured it’s as good of a place as any to start.

So there are 15 things that love is supposed to be, and I would say that I exhibit 11 out of 15 of them on a good day. Which would be a 73. Which is a C. And as you know, a C is failing in my book.

I have problems with envy, anger, keeping record of wrongs, and selfishness. Selfishness, in particular, is the hardest one for me to improve upon. I try to be reasonable, but the truth is, I don’t want anyone to get over me. I don’t want anyone to be happier without me, even if I am happier without them. Even if I never hope to be with them again. And even though they want me to be happy.

In my defense, this verse doesn’t explicitly say that love is not selfish. It says that love is not self-seeking. This may be splitting hairs, but that’s what obsessive people do. Wanting to be loved the most is clearly selfish, but is it self-seeking? And if so, what is it that I am seeking?

I guess I want to be the most special person they’ve ever known. I want to be able to hold up that gigantic foam finger that says “We’re #1!” that sports fans wear, even when their team sucks. Except it would say “I’m #1!” So, even if it is narcissistic, our culture clearly condones the desire to be the best as socially acceptable, even when it’s delusional.

But that just sounds like a rationalization for my selfishness, so it doesn’t really alleviate my guilt. Plus maybe we, as a culture, shouldn’t be so focused on being the best, either.

But that is for another blog post.

Oh! I just thought of something that helps me to redeem myself!

So you know how I want to be a famous writer and have a best seller and make a lot of money some day? Well despite my desire for fame and fortune, I often pray that my brother’s blog on “The Walking Dead” will be more successful than mine. That he will be the one who knows fame and fortune. Because I will be happy regardless of what happens with my blog, but it would make him really, really happy to have some external validation of his talent. And I want him to be happy.

See? I am capable of putting someone else’s happiness before my own. I do know what love is after all. Because this is how much I love my family.

Love is

What Love is Not

love freely

Sometimes I’m still not sure I know what love is.

I’ve said I love you many times, but often immediately after the relationship ended I was like, what the hell was I thinking?! It’s as if I had been in a trance, and once the person moved out of my empathy range, I could not understand how I ever convinced myself that I loved that person.

Once the person decided that they loved me, I felt obligated to love them back. I felt like it was my job to give people what they wanted, so I tried my best to focus on the person’s good qualities. In positive psychology research, being able to overlook your partner’s negative qualities is actually one of the best predictors of a happy marriage.

And admittedly, sometimes I would try to change the things I didn’t like about them so that they could be more like someone I could love. That’s part of the reason why I’m afraid to be in a relationship: I don’t trust myself to accept the person as they are. In my defense, sometimes I was responding to their desire to be helped. But sometimes it was just because there were things about the other person I couldn’t stand.

But isn’t that true in loving relationships, too? I’ve often heard couples say that there are days when everything their spouse does gets on their nerves. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean that you feel loving towards them all the time. This is what I would tell myself as a way to justify staying.

And like I’ve said before, if Jesus said we should love our enemies, then surely I can overlook the fact that this grown man picks his nose in public. Even though that was a good enough reason for someone to break up with Seinfeld.

In a couple of relationships I actually felt like I hated the person. My friends would explain away my hatred with the the old adage that there is a thin line between love and hate. But that wasn’t why I hated them. I hated them because they exhibited the kind of narcissism that characterizes psychopaths, and I was their latest victim. And I hated myself for trying to love someone who was a borderline psychopath.

I still have nightmares about one of my exes. I’ve had dreams where somehow I am with him again and I feel panicked and trapped. Like Julia Roberts in the movie “Sleeping with the Enemy” where she walks into her house and sees her husband standing there, even though she faked her death and changed her identity in order to be free from him.

That can’t be good. That hardly sounds like love at all.

I don’t want to give the impression that all of my relationships could be turned into psychological thrillers. Most of them were good guys. And I truly loved the two that I married. The problem is that I never knew for sure whether I really loved someone until the relationship was over. Until they were far enough away that I could distinguish my feelings from theirs.

Yet another example of how empathy isn’t always a good thing.

These are not easy relationship patterns to change. But I have not given up hope. I like challenges. I’ve figured out knitting patterns that were beyond my skill level.  Surely I can learn to choose love, rather than have love choose me.

The Dilemma of Being Human

I am currently reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which is awesome! It’s about this guy who decides to walk several hundred miles to visit an old friend who is dying of cancer because he believes that it will keep her alive. His walk is a form of penance for all of the people he has failed, including himself. To make up for his passivity, he decides to take a leap of faith that he can walk 600 miles in yachting shoes without a cell phone, a map, or a plan, and be redeemed.

I like this book because it explores how loss and grief can change us and our relationships with the people we love. It has always bothered me that someone who had once been so important to us can become someone who we can’t stand the sight of. Even though it’s less romantic, I would prefer to think of love as a weed that sticks around no matter how hard you try to get rid of it rather than some high maintenance flower like a rose that is easy to kill.

I also like the book because I’ve had this fantasy of walking the Camino de Santiago because some Catholics believe it will halve their stay in purgatory. I don’t know if I believe in purgatory, but if it does exist, I would definitely like to shorten my stay there. I can see why a pilgrimage would be therapeutic. It’s like self-therapy with a rigorous physical activity component.

Along the way, Harold meets people who share their own sorrows, which he feels both comforted and burdened by. The other night I read a line in the book that gave me pause: “Harold cold no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and this was the dilemma of being human.”

This statement is at the heart of what my blog is about. I have always felt different from others in a way that makes me feel alone in the world. For being Filipino and for not being Filipino enough. For thinking too much and for being too shallow. For not being married, for being divorced, for not having children. For having depression and anxiety. Even without these specific differences to point to, I have felt fundamentally flawed in a way that I can’t quite put into words.

But as I blog about my flaws, I realize that other people feel just like I do–alone in their craziness. The details make us unique, but the pain of feeling separate from others is universal.

So in a way I feel like I am Harold Fry, on my journey to self-acceptance, but with a much less rigorous physical activity component. And as I tell my story, I give others the opportunity to reflect on their own story so that we can share the joy and pain of being human together.

The Dilemma of Being Human

Photo: Maria Roman

Heartbreak

Regret

I’m working with a student right now who is heartbroken. I’ve always been bothered by how adults distinguish puppy love from “real” love.  I remember when I was in grad school a fellow student was talking about how boring it would be to work in a counseling center where all you do is help students with insignificant problems like breakups. No one questions that divorce is painful, but heartbreak as a teenager or young adult is apparently no big deal.

It took me a long time to get over my first love from high school. It also took a long time to get over my divorces.  I can’t say that my pain was more real or more legitimate as an adult than it was in my teens. And to be honest, I’m not sure I have been any wiser about falling in love or more mature at handling heartbreak than I was when I was a teenager. I feel like I keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

I  think that dismissing someone’s feelings as puppy love is just one of many examples of how we trivialize emotions in general. We judge some feelings as being more or less legitimate.  Puppy love is not to be taken seriously. You can’t be angry without a good reason. It’s better to be depressed if you have a “chemical imbalance.”

And because we haven’t learned helpful ways to deal with pain, we try to push people along too quickly.  So we tell them that they are better off. Tell them to suck it up. Shame them out of their feelings if we have to.

I never talked much about how I felt when I’ve had my heart broken. Certainly not as much as I wanted to. I knew that I wouldn’t hear what I needed to hear. At the time I couldn’t even articulate what I needed to hear, but now I can. I needed someone to tell me that my feelings counted. That my pain was real. And that when I was ready to move on, I would.

This is still what I need to hear, even if I’m just saying it to myself. And this is what I tell my clients when they are heartbroken. And I keep repeating it until they are ready to move on.

Nostalgia

Nostalgia

Today I heard a song on the radio that reminded me of my first husband. Memories of him come up every day–sometimes multiple times a day. Depending on the memory, I may feel a variety of emotions, but I almost always miss him. I almost always wish he could still be in my life.

I’ve always liked romantic movies like “Bridges of Madison County” where two people love each other but can’t be together. I guess in some ways the appeal is that you can experience the intensity of their love without having to be in pain yourself. Because in real life it’s pretty terrible, living with so much longing.

I know I’m not unique in this regard. I’ve seen the Facebook posts where people remember someone they love. I’ve heard people say the pain never goes away–that you just get used to living with it. The prospect of losing someone I love and facing a lifetime of pain has always terrified me. And then I remember that it has already happened.

It’s not that I spend my life pining away for him. I have a good life. I have a loving family and good friends. I love my job. I love tennis and blogging and college football. I have things to look forward to–like Federer being in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. (So exciting!) And yet the sadness is still there, right alongside the happiness.

People have this misconception that you can’t experience positive and negative feelings at the same time, and this is perpetuated by the field of positive psychology. That’s why they tell you to think happy thoughts and count your blessings and remind yourself of why you’re better off without him. These strategies help some, but they don’t make the sad feelings go away.

I don’t allow myself to pray that God will put him in my path again. That would be too close to having hope, and I’m afraid to have hope. That seems like a delusion that wouldn’t serve me well.

Today I considered the possibility that God hasn’t put him in my path for a reason. Perhaps he is a different person from the one I knew, and I wouldn’t like this person as much. Perhaps knowing about his life would hurt me more than not knowing.

The scene that stands out to me the most in “Bridges of Madison County” is when Meryl Streep tells Clint Eastwood that she can’t run away with him because eventually it would turn what is extraordinary about their love into something ordinary. That they would grow resentful of one another and their resentment would destroy their love altogether. That the only way to preserve their love is to walk away from it.

I’ve had many opportunities to pursue the ones that got away, and the encounters were ultimately disappointing; the fantasy was always better than the reality. And now I have no fantasies left to sustain me. No daydreams about what might have been if I had chosen a different path. In some ways it’s a good thing because I don’t have to live with regret. But there is something to be said for having something that you can dream about.

Perhaps God is allowing me to keep my dream without giving reality a chance to destroy it. Perhaps God is helping me to preserve the memory of our love as I knew it. That possibility gives me some comfort–for the moment, at least.