Thursday, June 24, 2010

On Brokenness

(Image by, used on

I follow my fellow Southern Californian Elizabeth Esther both on Twitter and her blog on my Google Reader. She's a wonderful writer with that fun, snarky edge to her writing that lightens my mood. She's on a journey out of an abusive church upbringing and exploring how her faith works in light of her background. And she makes me laugh. A lot.

Yesterday Elizabeth Tweeted a link to an article on recovering from depression that stated that breaking through "the chains of self-absorption" was key to recovering from depression, that if only the depressed person would look outside herself and strive to serve others, she would recover from depression. Elizabeth Tweeted the article and her unfavorable opinion about it, and was accused of "gossiping"--about a public blog. She was Tweeted, "Perhaps you could write a post on depression. I'll await that post, where you discuss and not berate." So Elizabeth, who has been very open about her struggles with depression, wrote (yet another) post: A Few Handy Tips on Writing About Depression.

All of this background is to say that I know that perky, "if only you had more faith, you'd be well" mentality in evangelical Christendom. I've dealt with it--only a little at our evangelical church, but more so online. I don't write much about my own illnesses here because I'd rather focus on what truly interests ME (and I hope interests YOU), but my illness is not one of those intriguing topics. But the reactions I receive from various Christians is worthy of discussion, I think.

Just for background's sake for my more recent readers, let me quickly lay some groundwork. Nine years ago, after visiting many doctors who insisted that there was nothing "wrong" with me, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Within five months I was transformed from an active homeschooling mom who rode a bike several miles daily, who cared for and taught her four kids, who cleaned and cooked and did all the normal housewifery tasks with ease, who gardened enthusiastically, to needing a cane and often a wheelchair. I couldn't walk 100 feet. I couldn't care for my husband, our kids, or our home. I homeschooled our children from the sofa. I was bedridden for an entire summer, and couch-ridden for the next 18 months.

Most of our church family were wonderful in praying for me, in helping care for our home and our kids, in keeping lines of communication open when I wasn't able to get out of bed, much less attend church. But a few people--mostly in online communities--implied or just baldly stated, "You know, if only you had more faith, you would be healed."

My life as I knew it was gone. Of course I wanted to be well! I was in tears of pain most of my days, and my doctors didn't find medications that relieved the pain for 18 months. But implying and/or stating that my lack of faith was the reason for my current state put all the blame on ME. As if I already didn't blame myself for not being able to care for my family, not being able to care for my house and garden, not being able to teach my kids at home, not being able to lift my head from the pillow, and not being able to afford all the medications that didn't work. Just what I needed: more to blame myself for.

I know these people mean well. Sigh. But the damage they do is enormous.

Slowly, as I prayed and read and talked with friends, and prayed the Psalms, I came to see that brokenness is the key to holiness--an aspect of suffering that several of my Catholic friends pointed out to me. When we are perky-perfect Christians, studying our Beth Moore, and offering advice where we have no experience, Christ can't shine through us. We're solidly us; we're not transparent enough for Him to shine through. But when we're broken, His Light and His Love can shine through the cracks, through the broken pieces.

My new Quotation for the Week is from Anne Lamott's wonderful book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. Anne has struggled with substance abuse, with alcoholism, and with depression, and she is one of my favorite writers--mostly because her sarcastic snarkiness makes me laugh one moment while her incisive truthfulness brings tears the next; I am putty in her capable storytelling:

"Holiness has most often been revealed to me in the exquisite pun of the first syllable, in holes--in not enough help, in brokenness, mess."
So I pray that Christ can indeed shine through us broken, messy people, through the "cracks and crazes [in our] enamel," as Robert Frost writes in "Birches." When we reach out to Christ in our utter need--when He is life-and-death to us--He is glorified. His glory shines in and through us. He can be seen at work. And others can see Him at work. We become witnesses of His Love, His Grace. In our brokenness, His Light prisms outward, slinging colors into the darkness. Light to lighten our way...and the way of others also trapped in the darkness, in the brokenness.

Pat answers don't prism His Grace. Blaming the broken ones for their brokenness only makes one appear as a bully, kicking someone when she's already on the ground gasping desperately for Light in the darkness. Giving advice on brokenness when one has not been broken is a slap in the face to the broken, messy ones. It's like the perfect Christians don't want to sully their hands with our messiness.

It's maddening. And saddening.

And it does not allow Christ's Grace and Light and Love to shine into a dark and hurting world...the world He died for.

Letting Him shine through my cracks,


Jane D. said...

Very well put Susanne - I can't remember who but do remember someone once pointing out to me that broken pots are often able to shine light into the darkest places through their cracks - a whole pot can only shine light upwards - I find that very comforting even though it doesn't take my pain away.

Susanne Barrett said...

Yes, it would be nice if comforting words took away the physical pain! But at least they can lessen the psychological pain we impress upon ourselves when we believe the lie that our pain is somehow "our fault." If only we prayed more, prayed differently, had a stronger faith, served others, etc.

Knowing that our cracks allow Him to shine through at least minimizes the secondary pain. The primary physical pain is more than enough to deal with in the first place!

Love and prayers to you, ((((Jane)))), my fellow RA Warrior! xxx

Carol said...

Oh I remember those days online! UGH! The legalism was crippling at times. Thanks for sharing. Love you! I knew a woman name Esther Elizabeth who led my Journey to Freedom retreat here in Oregon and is also an excellent writer. It is funny that this woman's name is Elizabeth Esther!

Susanne Barrett said...

Yes, Carol--and thanks for walking through those "crippling" days with me, always praying and consoling. Your gifts of love and compassion in those days (and ever since) are so precious to me!

Love you, too! Muchly!!! :)

sarah said...

This is a beautiful, honest, and poignant post. I am so very sorry for your suffering. :-(

May I offer a different perspective as a way of letting the balance rock gently back and forth, to prove there is no one definite answer, only self-awareness and trust in something Greater? I used to suffer from very bad depression. When I had my child, and began to think less about myself, more about other people, the depression lifted. So I must agree with the idea that "breaking the chains of self-absorption" did help me. And when I contemplated my patients who were depressed, I found the same chains binding them to sorrow also. So while I would not judge anyone for their right to self-compassion, and I would certainly not suggest to anyone that their attitude was to blame for their illness, in the case of depression I do believe a proactive approach can help with healing.

I hope that hasnt come out in a bad way. You know I also have ME and have been blamed for the illness and for not "getting better", just as I was blamed for having depression. It is very disheartening. I think though the hardest thing for me was trying to work out which of the people telling me to "put my chin up" or "just get out there and be happy" were judging me because of their ignorance, and which ones were genuinely trying to help me through a solution they believed would work.

I wish you health and happiness.

CC said...

Thanks for the post. It has given me a lot to think about as we are starting our own journey to a new reality. Blessings to you!

Susanne Barrett said...

Yes, Sarah, there are times when "self-absorption" can make one worse and serving more can help, but for someone with clinical depression, who has served and served to the point of having nothing left to serve with, being glibly told to that one is "self-absorbed" is an insult.

I think it was even more the attitude than the advice itself that greatly disturbed me about the original blog post. It was more like "if you do 'a,' 'b,' and 'c,' God will heal you." The assumption behind the advice was troubling (and insulting) to me, simply because I have encountered it from Christians of similar ilk.

I do serve more because it helps to keep my mind off my pain. There definitely is a place for looking outside oneself and keeping busy to distract one and raise one's spirits. But that wasn't what the original poster was stating. I wish she had.

Carmen, thanks so much for posting--I somehow posted your identical post twice, so I tried to delete it. You all are in our prayers daily. I hope your trip for Jeff's birthday was a lovely break.

Love to you both!


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