No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Stomach Acid Binding Reality of Being Grateful for Divine Intervention

Winter, a touch less than a year ago now, I had just come out of one of the more demanding semesters of my life, and was feeling the pressure of the reality I lived. My work had me teaching full time while trying to simultaneously work on my dissertation, and my personal life meant that I was also raising a 10-year old girl on my own. Fall term of 2009 had me teaching four courses, acting as director of a philosophy teaching program and speaker series, and traveling to two conferences. The truth was that though I'd managed to complete the term, and somehow get much of a chapter of dissertation written too, I'd barely survived. At the end of it my spirits were thoroughly worn. Moving into the lighter load of the spring semester I could feel that the pressure on me, even under a more manageable schedule, was still too great. I couldn't face the thought of teaching full time while trying to make progress on my dissertation any longer, even if I did enjoy teaching, and was committed to finishing my PhD. Life simply had to get easier.

At the very start of 2010 I decided to take a significant risk and commit to refusing any and all teaching work for the 2010-11 academic year. The thought was that I've consistently shown myself to be good at problem solving, and I had to ease up the craziness of my schedule. So, if I put myself in the situation of refusing teaching work for the sake of focusing on writing, I'd simply have to problem solve my way into pulling together enough money to get by anyway. I just had to trust that somehow I'd be able to pull it off. Interestingly, immediately after I made the commitment I was offered the possibility of a contract from two different universities. I really did have the choice to make. So, having decided already what to do, I stuck to it and refused work from both locations. There I was without possibility of paid work for the next academic year, and thus an open schedule in which to write.

The truth is that I began praying for a miracle. The truth of refusing paid work is of course living without money, and in the face of that I needed divine intervention to get what I needed to live from somewhere. I prayed multiple times a day, and I wished regularly on the stars I saw at night too. I prayed and wished that I'd somehow come up with enough money to honestly have an open schedule the following year, that somehow my life would get easier. I knew I couldn't easily imagine the best possible way to make such a thing happen, so I never prayed or wished for anything more specific. I just asked that it would come together in the best possible way, and then I'd let the wish go, and return to problem solving the situation as I had time.

My thought on prayers and wishing is that both are means to focus on our own best intentions for a moment. In the act of saying a prayer, or making a wish we get clear on what it is we want. We set the intention for that desire, and we give it out to some future self to be had. In saying what we want in such a focused way we give ourselves the opportunity to clearly announce (even if only to the starry night) what it is we hope for, and then we let it go. The aspects of our desire that we can do something about making happen remain ours to hold onto and work with. We can continue to problem solve. But in so many ways we also cannot control how the situation will work out. We can simply announce our desire to the night, set the intention for ourselves, work on what we can, and let it go. In praying for my miracle, I did just that. I kept problem solving ways to bring in enough money to get by, and I gave away my clear intention of finding a solution at the same time. The funny thing is that in so many ways how skilled at problem solving any of us might be doesn't matter except that we also happen to come into a whole lot of luck, or destiny, or divine help, or whatever that extra bit of magic that makes our lives work amounts to.

It turned out the miracle came. I applied for various fellowships I could find. I cobbled together various small funding sources that all together were going to be enough for me to eek out a very thin financial existence that, to be honest, likely would have also included visits to the food bank. But, even so, would have gotten me through my year till I had completely my project. I'd figured out how to piece my year of an open schedule together with my problem solving skills, and I'd gratefully accepted that I'd stay where I was, incredibly poor, but writing, as I'd decided. In accepting this situation I'd fully committed to refusing to teach. The deadlines to accept a teaching contract had passed, and I was completely thrown to the year of the open schedule. Then I received a phone call. The college I now live at was offering me a one-year writing-only fellowship. They wanted me to fly out for a visit so that we could talk in person. Assuming that visit went well, they then wanted me to live in residence for the year simply to finish my dissertation with their financial support. They were offering me free housing, health insurance, research money for books or conference trips, and a stipend on which to live. After getting off the phone from this offer I slumped forward in the chair I was sitting in for several minutes unable to breathe. I'd accepted the miracle of cobbling together a very poor year, and the very real shift of reality such a year would ask of me, and then been offered the miracle of a year fully funded at a well-regarded educational institution to consider instead.

The truth is that even as great the gift of such a situation clearly is, accepting the fellowship was incredibly difficult for me. As much as it is a situation I'm endlessly grateful for, I also knew in advance it would mean changing my life in ways I wasn't sure I wanted to, and changing it too more thoroughly than I thought I was ready for. After a full month of wrestling with myself over it, I did in the end accept the position, and now the 11-year old and I live here, in residence, supported while I write. It honestly is a modern day miracle. And I am grateful.

So, now, let's be plain. Why the hell all this talk of divine intervention?

The move here has been a profound challenge for me in ways it would hard here to explain. It's been a very real material shift in circumstances--living in a new place, and a place very different from others I've lived. But moving is something I'm familiar with. The more profound challenge has been the existential one this experience has triggered. To be honest, I don't want to bother talking through the details of that. Instead, I want to say that I've spent time recently thinking on the idea of miracles.

Many of us get caught living lives of frustration, or stagnancy, or limitation. There are times when we might have an epiphany of what we would want if we could step suddenly into our more fulfilling lives. In those moments sometimes we long for a miracle that could make it come true, or simply wish to imagine such a situation. From such a perspective the idea of the miracle is one of divine grace, a magical coming together of forces such that we receive a great gift we could not have provided for ourselves. The Christian tradition of course attributes such gifts to the power of god. If we're to believe movies, miracles aren't much expected any more, but when they do happen people are both surprised and grateful, while also changed. The thing I've realized though is that the reality of such change is not thoroughly enough considered in such idealized scenarios.

Let's for a moment simply consider that kind of experience described above when a wealth of forces come together to grant us a gift (of whatever sort) bigger or more special than we could have simply provided for ourselves. Allowing that of course such things do happen at times in people's lives in a variety of ways, the moment of miracle is not simply an incredible blessing, or a wonderful gift. It's also a moment of deep loss and pain. The truth is such a moment takes from us the certainty we've had in our lives, and asks us instead to reimagine what it is that is possible. There is nothing about such happenstance that should be disparaged, or denied. Miracles, when they do happen, really are incredible gifts. By definition we're discussing a gift we could not have in our lives without incredible intervention from beyond ourselves. But the truth is we humans aren't too readily cut out for such radical change much of the time. It comes on uncomfortably, without preparation, and often too with deep resistance. When we consider honeslty how most of us live our lives, it turns out most of us like to occasionally, or often even, imagine ourselves in slightly different lives, but we don't actually wish to go through the shock of change that different life would demand. It's uncomfortable, and hard. In the case of something simple like a move to another locale, it isn't just the physical area that's changed, but also the daily habits that keep us feeling comfortable or cozy, the small interactions at the grocery store or coffee shop that are familiar to us and make us smile even just for a moment, the way the air feels (humid? dry? full of oxygen? smoggy?), the scents all around us, the people we do or don't expect to see. The favorite sites and spots we've come to be used to having around. And moving to a new place is a simple miracle. Other sorts actually ask much much more of us.

Appropriately, bible stories come in handy for illustration here. Jonah, in getting a message from god, was asked not just to do a simple public speaking gig, but to rethink his whole identity, and what he considered himself to be capable of accomplishing. Such change was so difficult for him to face he swam in the stomach acid of a whale for three days before he took up his miracle. Life had to become profoundly uncomfortable for him before he could comfortably accept the change he was being given by god.

The funny thing is, I don't mean by any of this to discourage us from asking for or even expecting miracles. The thing is, we should expect and ask for them everyday. Because, miracles really do happen all the time. Of course they do. Most of the gifts we have in our lives we simply couldn't have made happen only of our own will and ability. Of course it's the case that multiple forces much greater than ourselves all came together to make our lives possible. But in recognizing that we should be struck too by the great humility, and even caution that represents. It's a wonder our lives are as they are at all, and we might be even more grateful for them to be as they are, rather than wishing them to be otherwise. But also, we never know when a miracle really will come through for us, and as much as we might genuinely hope for it, it turns out we've got to live with the uncomfortable reality of the belly of a whale for a while before we can live to appreciate the result of it. Those of us granted the power of divine intervention really are only human, after all. It's an uncomfortable life, and an incredible blessing.

1 comment:

  1. Yes.

    I am still struggling with the results of the last two times I asked for something and got EXACTLY what I asked for. I feel like we need some kind of '... and the resources to deal with it gracefully/well' clause but perhaps qualifying things like that would dilute the focus.