Holiness, healthiness, and feeling the feels

Recently I have been reading The Tao of Fully Feeling by Pete Walker.  In this book, Mr. Walker argues that in order to be fully human, we have to allow ourselves to feel and express the full range of human emotions.  We can’t, for example, decide that we are above feeling or expressing sadness or anger.  Repressing these emotions only causes psychological dysfunction.

Reading this and Mr. Walker’s newer book on CPTSD, I realized that anxiety is an almost constant state of being with me, and has been for about as long as I can remember.  I finally had a breakthrough when I realized that my anxiety is not actually warning me about danger in the world around me–it’s my repressed childhood emotions leaking out sideways, so to speak.  Dismissing this anxiety as something unreal and not productive gives me an astonishing–and unfamiliar–sense of clarity.  I guess that’s what normal feels like.

An interesting thing happened when I went to church in this state.  I felt that God wanted me to be free of anxiety because it was crippling my ability to live as a healthy human being.  I was surprised by the thought that being holy includes maintaining one’s mental health, since this is one part of pursuing what is good, rather than what is disordered, in all areas of life.

Interestingly, Mr. Walker’s words, “fully human,” have a deep significance in Catholicism–it’s been said that to become a saint means to become fully human.

But I didn’t realize this when I first returned to the Church at the age of 29.  When I wanted to know how to be a good Catholic, I looked back to my childhood and its distorted idea of what holiness meant–basically I thought that the more I denied myself, the holier I would become.  However, I came to realize that thwarting myself was not actually producing the fruits of the Spirit.  It seemed to me that I’d been living a healthier life before I returned to the Church, but I couldn’t justify returning to that way of living without any intellectual basis for it.  Finally, with Mr. Walker’s books, I realized that my concept of holiness was lacking in humanity.

Mr. Walker himself touches on religion and points out that my issues are not uncommon in the West–we seem to have lost some of our groundedness in the reality of what it means to be human, especially in terms of accepting our negative emotions.

In fact, it seems that sometimes we can’t even understand our own spiritual heritage because of this.  How many people have, like me, been perplexed by all the “complaining” in the Psalms?  Isn’t complaining a sin?  Reading the book, I had an “Aha!” moment where it finally made sense–they’re not complaining (which is non-productive), they’re engaging in healthy emoting (processing feelings)!  Mr. Walker even points out that Jesus’ words on the Cross–“My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?”–are also an example of this healthy expression of negative feelings.  Remember that the Church teaches us that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine!

One of the tools Mr. Walker suggests to rectify issues with healthy emotional expression is “reparenting.”  I think this is essentially what happened to me the first time I went to Japan.  Being a somewhat helpless foreigner encouraged grandmotherly types to dote on me anyway, and sitting in on the assemblies in the elementary schools where I worked was probably as educational for me as it was for the kids!  I can’t speak for the cities, but at least where I was, in the countryside, I feel there was still very much a holistic sense of what it means to be a healthy human being that included our emotional nature.  I often saw adults help children put words to what they were feeling, and gently suggest a healthy response.  Even adult society seemed to have more consideration for our emotional nature as human beings, lending it a charming, old-fashioned, pre-industrial feel.  I think absorbing these lessons helped me to heal from the truncation of my emotions.

It fascinates me how my experiences living in Japan, of all places, helped me to understand what Catholicism is really about.  Becoming a better Catholic requires embracing reality–something that the humble Japanese are very good at teaching.

 

Advertisements

Breezes and pigeonholes

In The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Father James Martin explains that the Jesuits (a Catholic religious order) are characterized by their practicality.  When it comes to finding God, they turn first to experience, rather than lofty theology.  The fact that God chose to be incarnated into this world, Father Martin says, proves that He wants to communicate with us in our everyday lives through the things of this world.

Here’s an example of one of Father Martin’s spiritual experiences in the everyday world:

Fat grasshoppers jumped among the daisies and black-eyed Susans.  Crickets hid in the grasses and among old leaves.  Bees hummed above the Queen Anne’s lace and the tall purple and pink snapdragons.  Cardinals and robins darted from branch to branch.  The air was fresh, and the field was alive with creation . . . I felt an overwhelming happiness.  I felt so happy to be alive.  And I felt a fantastic longing:  to both possess and be a part of what was around me.

This longing after the mysterious and beautiful, Father Martin says, is ultimately a longing for God.  But, he points out, the idea that God communicates with us through our experiences in this world is antithetical to the mindset of the modern West, which denies spiritual experiences altogether, instead lumping them in with “emotions”:

So you disregard that longing you feel when the first breath of a spring breeze caresses your face after a long dark winter, because you tell yourself (or others tell you) that you were simply being emotional . . . It’s a natural reaction:  much in Western culture tries to tamp down or even deny these naturally spiritual experiences and explain them away in purely rational terms.

I love his wording here:  “Western culture tries to damp down or even deny . . ..”  Isn’t that just the case?  We all have these experiences–we just don’t talk about them.  After all, the great project of the Enlightenment was to explain the entire world with no reference to the spiritual.  This necessitates lumping a whole lot of things, from spiritual experiences like the above, to inspirations, movements of the will, nudgings of the conscience–into the laughably inadequate category of “emotions.”

Guess what:  Japanese people talk about their spiritual experiences.  They’re not embarrassed to get poetic about, for example, the ways they feel inspired by the sky.  And it’s refreshing.  It makes more sense to simply admit to these things than to write a thesis trying to explain them away.  It’s more freeing–more human.

Reading Father Martin’s book, I was reminded that encouraging me to acknowledge reality–including its mysterious, beautiful and poetic aspects–was a major way in which Japan coaxed me out of atheism and prepared me to return to the Catholic Church.

The Malawi of Japan

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a diplomatic couple who had come to America after a posting in Malawi.  I just had to hear about it.

“Once I went on a trip,” the husband began, “and when I came back, I saw my security guard holding some radishes.  I asked him where he got them from and he said, ‘your garden.’  I mean, it was kind of ironic that the security guard was stealing things.  But he was so straightforward about it, it was cute.  I couldn’t get mad at him.”

As he went on telling stories, like how his cook scrubbed every speck of the “dirty” teflon coating off of a pan, I could tell what affection he had for the people of Malawi; how he admired their innocent and childlike nature.

“So tell me about your time in Japan,” he countered.

So I told him all about my experiences living in the little fishing village–how the men would spear a wild boar in the mountains and make a cauldron of stew in front of the community center; how strangers would recognize me, the village’s only foreigner, on the streets, and offer me bags of homegrown tangerines; the grand folk dance at the summer festival.

His eyes widened.  “I had no idea there were places like that in Japan,” he said with wonder.  “It’s like the Malawi of Japan!

Now it would probably not occur to most people to compare one of the least-developed and one of the most-developed countries in the world, but I knew just the sense in which he was doing so.  I believe, from the stories we exchanged, that we experienced something of the same nature.  We had both been awestruck by the beauty of a pure soul.

And I wondered again, as I sometimes do, just how accurate it is to say that I fell in love with Japan.  I have been to places in Japan quite different from that fishing village, and my diplomat friend, apparently, had been to a place somewhat similar on another continent.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I fell in love with something I encountered in Japan–something that even now, as then, I am not sure I have a name for.

 

Anatomy of a Japanese barbecue

Recently I had the chance to work at a Japanese barbecue.  I’ve been to plenty such cookouts before, but this time it struck me afresh just how unique they are–spiritual, even.  And I knew I had to sort out these impressions and write them down, because as strange as it sounds, the Japanese barbecue was surely part of my journey from atheism to the Catholic Church.

So here’s what I feel is unique about them:

  1.  Emphasis on the team.  First of all, when you have a Japanese barbecue, you do it en masse.  In this case, it was my employer putting on the BBQ, so dozens of my coworkers and I left the office and donned matching happi (traditional jackets).  Papers were distributed in advance dividing us into teams and each person was given a specific job to do.  Every procedure, from washing our hands at the outset to carrying the empty pans back to the kitchen at the end, was carefully choreographed.  I find that there is a lot of satisfaction in working this way–it seems to make honoring the dignity of the human person and of work as much of a goal as eating delicious grilled squid.
  2. A Japanese barbecue is lo-tech.  The men fetched bags of charcoal and poured them into a metal trough, then covered it with a metal grate.  Voila–the grill.  They then carried large styrofoam crates of fresh whole fish and squid from the kitchen, presumably just the way they were received from the fish market that morning.  Everything is reduced to its bare essentials–one could feel that it was the effort of our team that converted a grassy spot into civilization–which I find gives a satisfying feeling of connection to the earth, your team, and existence itself.  You haven’t felt the soul of a grill until you’ve seen one assembled from the minimal required elements.
  3. A Japanese barbecue is gendered.  We were given no particular directions regarding the happi, but most of the women chose red and most of the men chose blue–the traditional colors for the genders.  The men were directed to carry the heavy items out into the yard, and my very gracious partner offered to do any tasks that involved running up and down a hill.  My manager saw to it that I wouldn’t be assigned to the grill, lest I burn my hands.  And it was a delight to watch the women slicing the grilled squid respectfully flatter the men on their grilling skills (it seemed to me the men’s hearts were singing at the opportunity to grill!).  Some people’s worst nightmare, perhaps, but I find that approaching gender with such reverence is like water to my parched soul.

There are other aspects of the Japanese barbecue that I struggle to describe–one would be the childlike “scripted comments” that give many Japanese gatherings their uniquely innocent character–but perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

For now, I think I can conclude that, once again, it is the Japanese art of listening–to what a human being is, to what a team is, to what work, a man, a woman, a grill, and a fish are–it is their sensitivity to and reverence for the essences of these things that makes a Japanese barbecue such a satisfying and spiritual experience.

And I think that learning to listen to these things was one of the experiences that gently led me out of atheism.

Thank you, Japan!

If beauty makes you sad, what makes you happy?

A Japanese coworker once told me that he wasn’t happy.  He didn’t want more money or a better position.  He just couldn’t put his finger on what it was.

“You need a vacation,” I told him.  It was an objective fact–I’d never actually witnessed the man leave the office.

Knowing that he liked camping, I added, “Why don’t you go camping and think about the meaning of life or something?”

“No, then I would get depressed,” he said.

That broke my heart.  I’d always thought of spending time relaxing in nature as an uplifting and spiritual pursuit.

Then I remembered a T.V. show I’d caught a snippet of once in a Japanese dentist’s office.  On this show, a group visited different tourist attractions and restaurants in Japan, and gave a witty running commentary.  One joke, in particular, made an impression on me.

After a particular experience that everyone was raving about, one man quipped mournfully, “But this will fade into oblivion too someday!”  I felt it was a particularly revealing joke, as the sincere emotion that he was making fun of was that Japanese wistfulness at the transience of things.

And I wondered if sometimes Japanese people look at beautiful things and feel sad.

Fast-forward to today, when I visited a particularly beautiful garden.  It was one of those gardens that somehow feels like a map of the heart.  It felt like a place I’d longed for–remembered or dreamed about long ago–and I couldn’t believe it was real.  It occurred to me that maybe such a place is a spiritual symbol for Heaven.

Then my mind wandered back to that coworker, and I wondered if it would do him good to spend some time in such a garden.

Or would it make him sad?

Japanese and Catholic: Not an oxymoron

If you were to ask me what the single biggest barrier is for Japanese people converting to Christianity, I would say, “It’s perceived as un-Japanese.”

In Japan, where nationality and religion are intimately intertwined, to be un-Japanese is basically heresy, in the sense of that word when it actually carried weight in Western culture.  I mean it gets you “excommunicated” from Japanese society.

The Catholic Church, of course, is universal:  bound to no single nationality or culture.  It is capable of absorbing and re-purposing pagan festivals, for example, and there is flexibility in terms of language, aesthetics, and spiritual styles.  Just look at the differences between the Eastern and Western Catholic churches.  While they believe precisely the same things, their ways of expressing those things are quite different.

So from the Church’s point of view, should the Japanese ever have a collective change of heart and convert to Catholicism en masse, it would not be the death of Japanese culture.  For starters, there are already icons of the Madonna and Child in kimono.

But what would Japanese culture look like if the whole of it were brought in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church?  Would the Japanese even recognize it as their own?

Recently, I got a glimpse of the answer to that question when I read the book A Song for Nagasaki by Fr. Paul Glynn.  This evocative masterpiece tells the life story of Takashi Nagai, a Japanese radiologist and cancer patient who survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and went on to inspire the country and the world with his books that found joy, hope and meaning amidst terrific suffering.  Nagai had a fierce love for things Japanese and often expressed himself in beautiful tanka and haiku poems.

Oh yeah, and he was also a devout Catholic.

Reading the book, I experienced no jarring sense of discord.  Nagai was a seeker of truth and beauty, and he found those things in both traditional Japanese culture and in the Catholic Church.  Not in a syncretic hodge-podge kind of a way, but in a surprisingly natural way.  The beautiful virtues of the Japanese fit with the teachings of the Church like two halves of a locket.  Buddhist mantras were adapted simply by inserting the names of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in place of Buddha.  And there is certainly no commandment against traditional Japanese practices such as composing a poem on one’s death bed.

At once lyrical and profound, I found that Dr. Nagai’s synthesis of Japanese culture and Catholic teaching fulfilled a longing within me that perhaps I didn’t even realize I had.  I can’t help but wonder if there are others out there who would feel the same way.

 

There, there, child

I had an interesting conversation with my sister today about a certain politician.

“I agree that he says things that are unacceptable,” I said.  “But I don’t want to attack him personally.  I just think of what the Japanese would do.”

“What would the Japanese do?” she asked.

“Well, in Japan, when someone says something that demonstrates emotional immaturity, people don’t attack that person.  They treat him like a child.  I mean, like a child that they love.  They just say, ‘Okay, this is the level of emotional maturity that this person is at.  Let’s help him get to the next level.'”

In fact, the Japanese will often indulge a person who is demonstrating emotional immaturity by agreeing with them, giving them what they want, or at least sympathizing with them.  This can have the effect of embarrassing the person into acting their age when they realize they’re being condescended to.

Of course, sometimes the only result is a pampered adult.  Ultimately, change has to come from within; the most other people can do is encourage it.

But in the end, I don’t think the Japanese would vote for someone they viewed as childish.

In my opinion, it’s actually a brilliant system that combines compassion with prudence.  Help the child grow, but leave adult society to the adults.