Jumping Life

5:16 PM

I just realized my entire life crisis of the past several years identically matches John Stuart Mill's. (I really don't know who he is -- somebody important and someone I ought to know, but I didn't feel like reading the intro to the excerpt on his autobiography because I wanted more time to take an afternoon nap.) In a nutshell, from his own autobiography:

"I had what might truly be called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world." Check. That was me -- bright-eyed, big-visioned.

Then "the time came when I awakened from this as from a dream. ... I was in a dull state of nerves...one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent."

He quotes Coleridge's "Dejection":

A grief without a pang, void, dark and drear,
A drowsy, stifled, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet or relief
In word, or sigh, or tear.

It's always a fascinating thing to stare into a mirror of emotion and find a famous soul staring back out at you. Fascinating, and burdensome, actually, to know that the oppression you carry is so much a part of normal life for everybody else. And while I stared into this, struggle identifying with struggle, he explained what happened to him, to me.

His upbringing emphasized associations -- moral, emotional, and willful associations with certain actions or facts or mindsets. Our education inclines us to gravitate toward some things as good and away from things as bad (either because of family prejudices or exposure or lack of exposure to certain ideas and behaviors or because discipline or praise follows almost everything we do as a young person being educated). These form our habits and our inclinations and our thinking about the world. And we can't always explain them. They are prejudices. They are biased opinions. And they are very passionate, very much attached to our deepest feelings, our strongest passions, our biggest beliefs. 

And that was me, as a child -- passionate about everything I believed in -- naive about almost everything -- but passionate nonetheless. I clung on to beliefs that I now repudiate as ignorant and narrowminded. But within that ignorance and narrowmindedness was the raw me -- all the affection and motivation and foundation that molded me for the however-many-years I lived under the influence of my immediate social circle and the lifestyle they (we) lived. 

Being inquisitive and seeing that there were large loopholes in saying daughters should stay home and not go to college and get jobs or that alcohol was inherently evil or that Catholics weren't Christians, I started tearing apart all the negative and positive associations that held together my strong convictions. I separated them out until they stood alone, unadorned by my prejudices. I found truth. And in the process I became extremely analytical and critical about everything, breaking up and piecing back together everything most cherished to me. Those raw ties that bound up my entire world were shattered and chopped up and rejected.

John Stuart Mill explains what happened next: "the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings: as indeed it has when no other mental habit is cultivated, and the analysing spirit remains without its natural complements and correctives. ... [I]t tends to weaken and undermine whatever is the result of prejudice; it enables us mentally to separate ideas which have only casually clung together: and no associations whatever could ultimately resist this dissolving force. ... Analytic habits may thus even strengthen the associations between causes and effects, means and ends, but tend altogether to weaken those which are, to speak familiarly, a mere matter of feelings. They are therefore (I thought) favourable to prudence and clearsightedness, but a perpetual worm at the root both of the passions and of the virtues; and above all, fearfully undermine all desires, and all pleasures, which are the effects of association...except the purely physical and organic."

What does he mean? The analytical nature opens up truth as opposed to prejudice. It aims to see things as they are, apart from our childhood biases and cultural norms and popular catchphrases in our circle. What happened with him and me, though, is that while opening up a new understanding of truth, it killed any passion or pleasure or motivation to do right that naturally associated itself with our old biases. Nothing except the most simplistic, physical pleasures brings immediate joy -- sleep, for instance, has become almost an obsession to me because it brings physical gratification. Reading, writing, serving Jesus Christ -- not so much anymore. 

I lost the innocence and the strength of those childhood prejudices and convictions.

"I was thus, as I said to myself, left stranded at the commencement of my voyage, with a well equipped ship and a rudder but no sail; without any real desire for the ends which I had been so carefully fitted out to work for: no delight in virtue or the general good, but also just as little in anything else."

This isn't depression. Maybe it's a form of depression, in the sense that life no longer brings ordinary joy so easily. Or maybe it's just growing up?

"During this time I was not incapable of my usual occupations. I went on with them mechanically, by the mere force of habit. I had been so drilled in a certain sort of mental exercise, that I could still carry it on when all the spirit had gone out of it. ... And there seemed no power in nature sufficient to begin the formation of my character anew, and create in a mind now irretrievably analytic, fresh associations of pleasure, with any of the objects of human desire."

Fortunately for John Stuart Mills, he found a solution in art and poetry or something like that -- I didn't really understand his epiphany; it didn't resonate with me; it didn't reach down to the spiritual level. I feel like my life, at the prime of my life, is on the verge of becoming a corpse unless someone grabs an AED quick. I need a shock. A new start. 

I need a new childhood. A new capacity to form associations based on passion and will and hopefully, this time, truth apart from childhood prejudices. I cannot go back to the former beliefs I held. But I admire the guts and grit of prejudiced people and find little to applaud in such critical people as myself whose main contribution to life is tearing apart other people's naivete. I admire the person of simple faith as much as I cringe at his puny understanding of theology. 

There must be some way to grasp the mystery and the perplexity and the raw unprejudice of life and truth and God without becoming emotionless cynics. 

I am praying this semester brings about a time of healing...a time to form those passionate associations again, a time to strengthen my will to desire what is good and truth instead of rebel against what's stupid and prejudiced. Maybe that means taking more pleasure in simple things, letting my emotions react in joy and surprise and delight instead of constantly struggling, thinking, figuring out, criticizing, crying over my ignorance.

I cannot live in the dead state of criticism as I am. I want out. I want done. This relationship is over. I know what the problem is...now only to find the solution. 

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4 impressions

  1. I've been trying for two hours to write this comment to you. I tried to wax poetic; I tried to come up with wise words that would help you find and grab onto hope again ... nothing's been working.

    So, I'm going to just say to you what I know: firstly, that whether you can find strength to believe it or not, God promises that He will perfect and complete His work in your life. This overanalyzing loss of joy fits right into the list of the things that cannot separate you from the love of God. He has not let you go. And for His own glory and for the love He has for you, He will not let you go. These truths may sound hollow and meaningless; but I've been stuck in that black cloud myself, unable to see His face or His working or even see my own heart, and even when I thought He had finally given up on me, just as I had given up on myself, He hadn't. He was working things in my life that I could never have understood in my fragile state. But He did eventually bring me out on the other side, just as He will bring you. He knows you have no strength to save yourself from this. He knows. You don't have to know or do anything other than believe that He tells only the truth and does not lie. Because that truth is that He will not let your life end without completing the good, beautiful work He began in you.

    The other thing I know is that this period will end. I promise, it will end. When I was lost in a gray cloud of dull apathy, I thought I was doomed to spend the rest of my life like that, hopelessly barred from the life of passion and joy I had always wanted; but the grayness did end. And yours will too. Don't believe that you will spend the rest of your life like this, even though I know it feels like you will. That's not who you are, Bailey. Endure this, take one day at a time. Focus on getting your work done and getting home to a yummy supper and a movie while you do your homework in the evening. Focus on getting lots of sleep before you get up again in the morning. Focus on taking care of your body and keep your stress as low as you can. Before you know it, these days will have passed, and you'll be feeling better.

    The last bit of advice I can offer is that God's natural world is one of the best remedies for a weary mind and heart. As an introvert, when I am very troubled, it helps me to go on long walks out in the bogs near campus and walk or ride my bike until I am able to bring my focus onto the landscape around me. The sounds and smells have a naturally soothing effect, and when I'm able to see how big the world really is around me, it helps me realize that my life really is a very small part of God's bigger universe. And the problems which boil so violently inside my little tea-kettle heart are well under the control of the great God Who controls such vast things as the seasons, or the weather, or the migration patterns of the birds and animals. Because you are an extrovert, it might be easier for you to go on a walk or hike with your boyfriend or a close girl friend instead of alone. But just like David all those years ago, we really do find help when we lift our eyes to the hills.

    I know this is a crazy long comment, Bailey, and you certainly don't have to publish it if you'd rather not. But your post really touched my heart when I read it this morning, and I've been thinking and praying all day about whether I could write something that might help you. I hope you can find a little encouragement in what I've said. Regardless, I'll be praying for you, and please feel free to leave me a comment anytime if there's anything else I can do to help.

    Sending hugs and sunshine your way,


  2. One last thought, I'm sorry to dump more words on you ... but even though theology and logic and so forth have been such a huge part of your life for so long, is there any possibility of your focusing your energy on a completely different field for a while? What used to interest you before you came to Hillsdale and got so focused on theology? You're obviously a gifted writer; have you ever tried writing fiction? Do you have a good camera that you could dust off and take with you on those long nature walks I prescribed for you (*grin*)? Even if you continued to use your mind on a different topic, like analyzing great fictional literature or pondering political problems, I think a change of focus would be good for you. After all, underlying every exegetical conundrum that the theologians can throw at you is the very simple truth - "do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God". What if you let HIM take care of the theology for a while, now that you're all worn out wrestling with it, and put your attention on something else while He does the hard work? "[T]hus saith the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel; In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength ...".

    I have no idea if this is a helpful suggestion; if it could be hurtful in any way, I'm thoroughly sorry; but as an older sister who is also watching you from a great distance away, this is what my INFP intuition tells me. :-) Again, as I said in my original book-length comment, pleeeeease do let me know if I can do anything to help. You're not the only one who's gone through this and you're certainly not alone!! Every person who reads this blog is surrounding you with love and support!


  3. I've been thinking about how to respond. And all I can say is thank you. Everything you wrote is exactly what I need to hear.

    And in defense of theology -- it's not theology that's the problem. Philosophy is the stuff that fries my brain. Actually, someone prescribed studying more theology and less of philosophy, and it helped immensely. In theology, you find truth. In philosophy, you question what is truth and whether it exists. I can reach answers in theology that I cannot in philosophy.

    And I should maybe start writing fiction again. I used to. Used to be very imaginative. I'm also in a lot of music and dance and theater this semester...which should help as well.

    Thank you. Thank you for writing. I am so glad there's an out to this.

  4. I didn't know you had responded to my comment, Bailey, or I would have come back sooner ... I'm so very glad that you found a little encouragement in my comment, and judging from your more recent posts, it seems like you're feeling a bit better. I certainly hope this is the case!! Remember to get enough rest and eat well - basic reminders, I know, but I also know that they're harder to keep up in college than people might think! :-)

    I completely understand what you mean about philosophy. I had to take some philosophy and religion classes early in my college life, and studying Spinoza, in particular, really threw me for a loop. It's hard to defend yourself against philosophy even when you know the truth, because they use such complicated and devastating logic. It makes me think of when Christ told Pilate "for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth", and Pilate responded evasively, "What is truth?". That's philosophy, basically. Frustrating. I'm so glad your friend suggested that you study theology to get back on your feet!!

    I hope your classes, relationships, health, etc. are feeling good so far this semester and that things are looking up for you. I'll keep you in my prayers!!

    Hugs, my friend!
    ~ Vicki


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