Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Who Am I, And To What End Do I Live?

I think I became a stoic by accident at the age of twelve. I had heard of the philosophical views of the Stoics (I was quite a reader), yet I didn't decide to live like that. It just happened. My brother died one day after birth, and I needed to survive somehow. While most of my family went through the natural process of grieving and healing, with the exception of my siblings who were too young to understand, I wanted to be strong. I wanted to be dependable, in order to help my family. So I denied my grief, squashed my emotions down as best a 12 year old can, and plodded on, determined to be a good, helpful child.

My family are devoted Catholics, and I know that their faith was, if shaken at first, only deepened by the experience, as they worked through their shock and grief to find healing in prayer. Grief tends to do that to people; either they find greater meaning in their faith through it, or they abandon faith altogether. As for me, I began thinking about God differently. I didn't ever doubt He was there, nor did I feel tempted to turn my back on Him. Instead, I told myself God did everything for the best. I didn't feel loved by Him, so much as I felt I needed to be strong to endure whatever else He had to throw at me. I gave up on trying to make sense of the whole situation, and just concentrated on enduring.

As I grew older, I ceased to feel as if I was loved by God and others just for who I was. Instead, my belief that God was distant led me to believe that if I could just become virtuous enough, maybe He would come to love me. I guess I thought I could achieve peace through practising religion. So I would pray and try to conform my life exactly to the rules of the Catholic Church. I became set on obedience, and I was ready to sacrifice whatever it took. I think I began to consider myself as more of a thing than a person, something that could achieve recognition through successes, but that had no intrinsic value of its own. 

I've mentioned often before that I found my emotions a hindrance and an obstacle as I grew out of being a teenager into young adulthood. I found negative emotions driving me to do things I logically didn't want to do. I perceived my emotions as being unwanted, a barrier between me and my ideal identity, that of an in-control, virtuous, rational woman. So I crushed them down. If I could have had them surgically removed, I think I would have. I prided myself on being unattached to physical things, and on having a clear and logical mind, and emotions just seemed like unnecessary baggage to carry around.

While I was in the convent, this desire to be emotionless, a person driven by logic and obedience, only seemed to be reinforced. I did my best to ignore the needs of my body and emotions, driving myself to the point of physical collapse in order to do everything prescribed by the convent Rule. I never considered that God might not want me to hurt myself in order to obey, but simply accepted the rigorous life as another God-given suffering to endure.

My body didn't really cope with the physical demands of religious life, but I took that as a necessary suffering. I used to look at one sister who had very plain signs of a mental illness, and I would think that I could accept any physical suffering, so long as my mind never went. I was absolutely fine with the idea of physical disability or death, but to lose my mind? I would think of my deceased grandmother, who eventually lost the ability to remember certain words, and who would forget to check the use-by dates on packets of food, and I was terrified I would one day lose control of my own mind.

It was ironic, therefore, that my desire to be a stoical, intellect-driven, successful person was shattered when my wayward emotions asserted themselves, pushing me into full-fledged mental illness. All my self-worth, based on my mastery of myself and on the achievement of religious life, was destroyed. I was asked to leave the convent, and worse, I found myself at home with no identity, no path in life, and a mind that was fractured with violent emotions I had seemingly no control over.

I think I spent some time just trying to endure this new pain. I felt broken, a shell of a person whose main purpose in life was simply to survive each coming day. Instead of being proud of my achievements, I slipped into self-hatred. I suppose I still thought of myself as a thing, and a thing that had out-lived its usefulness at that. I felt I had used up all of my energy and resources, only to be cast away because I couldn't live up to this perceived ideal. I was mentally sick, and I couldn't think clearly like I used to. I was battered by emotions I couldn't control, and therefore I found my physical self also out of control, one day full of boundless nervous energy, and the next day lethargic in the midst of deep depression. I had nothing left to take pride in, and I wanted to die.

There were two things that helped restore my self-worth. One was medical help, where through a combination of counselling and medication, I was shown how to gently control my emotions and to listen to what they were telling me. As I began to heal mentally, I found my mind growing clearer, and my health improving. On top of that, I found myself enjoying so many things I had simply ignored before; the sun as it dipped below the horizon of the ocean, the enjoyment of waking on a weekend to find that you can sleep in as long as you want, the fun of playing with a dog. Life was fuller, and I appreciated it so much more than I used to.

The second thing was the entry of love into my life. A nice young man got to know me, began to love me for who I was, not for what I could do, and decided he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. I could hardly believe at first that he truly meant it. But he did, and the feeling of being wanted, just for who I was, was incredible.

I said before that I used to have an ideal identity. I wanted to be calm, rational and unaffected by emotions or physical needs. That identity was crushed when I became mentally sick. So who am I now? I'm still not sure, but I think if I want to be anything, I want to be a whole person. I want to be at peace within myself emotionally, physically and intellectually, able to reconcile those different facets of myself into one whole. I want to be someone who is able to enjoy both the emotional and physical enjoyment of eating cake, and the enjoyment of expanding my mind. I want to be happy with who I am, just as I am. I'd like to know that I am a worthwhile human being, not for anything I can do, but just for being me.

I doubt I can ever achieve all of this fully, but it is an ideal. In the meantime, I am quietly trying to start over a new life as a wife, and one day, maybe a mother. I bet there will be times when I love sight of who I want to be in the pressures of what I feel I should be doing, but hopefully I never forget for long.

Finally - God. I think it took the love of my husband to really drive home to me that God loves me. If Graham can care for me just as I am, broken and sick, then God must also do so. So I am much happier when I pray now. He is not just "up there", sending trials on us randomly. In fact, I can see that without trials such as my mental illness, I would never have grown past some very harmful attitudes and beliefs. So I guess I finally learnt the lesson my family learnt back when I was twelve - that God only gives us suffering we can bear in order to help us grow. It only took me around 10 years to learn it, but at least I got there in the end.


  1. What a moving account of the frustrations you must have felt and the recognition of the true value of the emotions! The stoic approach is inhuman and ultimately impossible to live. Thank God you've learnt this at a young age.

    We're not pure spirits. I've come to realise that if you try to crush the emotions, it's like trying to bury a beach ball in water. Then when they come back they can explode, leading to emotional meltdown, a self-loathing, discouragement, scruples and so on.

    St. Thomas Aquinas starts his treatise on the passions and the virtues with Beatitude, although perhaps you might like to call it Felicity. THAT's where to start, seeing the emotions as a good and necessary part of your whole makeup, drawing you towards your goal. They are a little like horses - neither to be let to run uncontrolled, nor to be tied down until they break free.

    As you showed, you can't make human or spiritual progress by earning your way to God's love, or resolutions purely in the will, or by being "good" and winning friendship. The emotions are a necessary and beautiful part of our human makeup, and they lead us to joy even in this life. Escaping them ultimately leads to despair.

    Grace perfects nature - it doesn't replace it or crush it. St. Therese of Lisieux said that even if she had committed all the sins in the world, she wouldn't trust any less in God. It's not because she was free from those sins that she trusted in Him.

    I like to think of good sad and bad sad. Some sadness is very good, liberating and purifying, like drops of water into a sponge. But the bad sad, the kind that makes you beat up on yourself, think people despise you and hate you or only pity you and so on, that sadness which makes you wish to be a doormat, or drown in self pity, that is clearly not from God.

    It's a hard lesson to learn, but an important one, and very liberating. You're loved for who you are, not for what you've achieved, or some illusory perfection. Just for who you are, a child of God who He has loved into existence and whose greatest treasure is within you. Be yourself. That's the Felicity we know (a little) and love (a lot).

    1. Uncle Anthony, did I never answer this beautiful long comment? I apologise! Thank you for commenting. I miss you very much, and hope to see you when I next make it back to NSW.

  2. "I felt I needed to be strong to endure whatever else He had to throw at me"

    I think a lot of us have felt that way.. I know I have. You certainly had suffered a lot... internal suffering is miserable..

    "found my emotions a hindrance and an obstacle" You and me both. I still feel that way, on a regular basis.

    I think you were brave to go to the convent, and not to mention staying as long as you did. I cannot imagine the demands, the rules, and trying to always be 'good' and say and do the right thing. I don't think I would have lasted a week. Sure, who wouldn't want to be the perfect pious nun? Of course you would! Just because you weren't given those graces though, is okay.. you were given the graces to be a wife, and given the gift of a husband... and it still amazes me he was your 'first' kiss, date, and boyfriend. God knows what He is doing.. :)

    Someone once told me that we are all clay vessels that God Himself handcrafted each of us lovingly in the manner/shape/style of HIS choosing. Clay vessels though, get cracked, chipped, get dusty, etc. Yes, absolutely He loves you and me and all of us. Cracked pots and all! :) Sometimes its hard to see that/ remember it. Sometimes you get (at least I do) get so far down it feels impossible to even look up. But with His grace and Divine Mercy, we can.

    I am enjoying your blog, Miss Felicity!