Listen as you read

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While struggling through my depression, I continued preaching a sermon every Sunday, because, well, that was my job, and I think I did a fairly good job of keep my despair out of my sermons…whether or not I should have. But one particular sermon became a sort of window into my struggle. Listen if you will to a fragment of it…

I find myself here, if I am not to be the greatest of hypocrites today, I must—I am compelled against my will—to tell you something of my own journey over the last year and a half. I don’t want to because I know it will cost me. Somewhere in the back of the mind people want or even need the person who stands here to be above such things—even though publicly you would say, “He’s just a guy like anyone else.” It’s not so. When you fail, you hurt a dozen people. If I fail, I hurt hundreds. And so there is the unstated pressure to “manage perceptions,” to give the image of strength, when the truth is lots of the time, I’m just trying to hold on.

Four months later I was unemployed and unemployable. And yes, you heard me right, I saw it coming. People often hear the bullet coming and yet seem unable to duck?

This is Jilted by St. Asinus

This may be the most candid and disturbing homily the Holy Ass has offered, but the stakes are too high to do otherwise. Much of what I’ve said before has been aimed at people who’ve already made a life-destroying mistake, or perhaps to their friends, family, and colleagues. But some have asked me why I haven’t spoken more on prevention. Why not try to help these people before they self-destruct?

The short answer is, because of my own journey, I am most concerned about what happens to Sampson after his hair is shorn. And further, in my experience those with the acute self-induced fever of self-destruction cannot be talked out of it. But I suppose it is right to try. So today I speak to those who are in immediate peril of throwing it all away in some depressive, addictive, or obsessive decision, to those who are so far down that road that they can already hear the bullet coming.

See, I watched my own live unravel in slow motion. I lived 10 months in perpetual fear, just waiting for everything to fall apart. I dropped a fifth of my body weight while telling everyone around me, I was fine. I was emotionally trapped in a Sampson-Delilah-like relationship, which I felt both a defiant desire to continue and a paralyzing despair of ever escaping. What solicitations the other party contributed to it is not here my concern. Twice I nearly took my own life, just so I to go out in a way that would make people sympathetic, instead of the humiliation I knew was approaching. See, I could hear the bullet coming. The suspense only made me more desperate.

Does this sound like you? The particulars of your story differ I’m sure. But you already know the analog in your own life—that relationship you can’t escape, or maybe the one you can’t have, that choice you’ve made so often that it doesn’t feel like a choice anymore, that itch you keep trying to scratch even though your soul is red and swollen from digging at it. You know what it is, and we both know you will not take any exit I could offer. You too hear the bullet coming, but have lost the power to duck.

Because your case is that desperate, I’m going to risk saying the hard things no one else will say to you. This is not attempt to dissuade you from the path you’re on—I know better than try that—but to give you something to come back to later when it has all come apart and you’re looking for a way to interpret all that has happened to you.

First, let’s rehearse your real situation. You must know by now that you are lying to yourself. Whatever that thing you are clutching—the person, habit, possession, or value—part of you already knows it is killing you slowly, yet you continue to clutch, telling yourself that you can handle it, or that it will eventually work out, or that, if some impossible change of circumstance were to happen, you could finally be happy or have the thing you want.

It’s a lie, not because you don’t believe it. I know you do. In my depression, I was absolutely sure that everything I told myself and others was true. I was actually convinced that the poisonous relationship that was killing me was an act of Christian charity. It is only now, years later, after the fever has broken, that I can see it for the self-deception it was.

If you’re like me, then like an addict, you will gorge your disordered longing until you feel justified in casting aside spouse, children, career, health, even your own life in desperate and despairing bids for the unattainable. But it is still a lie. In truth, you are willingly putting yourself in the path of the bullet that will kill you.

Second,  is there no solution? Yes, of course. The answer to bloated raging desire has always been Contentment. The chances are really high that you do have some wonderful things and people in your life—great beauty still in the life you now disdain. Others can see it. Perhaps they have tried to tell you, but you’re blind to the color, deaf to the music. I don’t fault you. Despair is like that. It takes and takes and leaves us deaf and blind and desperate. It is a tyrant you’d rather die with than live without. Go read C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. You may find yourself in it somewhere. He describes many such people, who will insist upon clinging to something, even if the price is a hell of their own making. Does it not feel like hell, where you now sit? Why do you bar the gate against joy by refusing to let the dying thing die?

The overwhelming grief you feel is not a threat, but an invitation. You must learn to mourn the proper things. Learn to let go, loosen your grip. This troubling thing does not lie in your hand so that you may grip it until it kills you. That is the wrong way to deal with a pain. That ghastly thing in your hand is a seed. You must give it to the ground and let it die.

That is how you grow something beautiful out of something painful. A special kind of contentment is available to those who will let dying things die. Nothing has come upon you but is common to man. What’s demanded of you is demanded of all of us. That you are particularly fevered about the thing in your hand changes nothing about the required choice. Nothing worth having in life is gained by clutching. Most things are ultimately attained by giving them up, and that is what makes joy such a surprise when it comes.

Nothing worth having in life is gained by clutching. Most things are ultimately attained by giving them up, and that is what makes joy such a surprise when it comes.

But the invitation to happiness will probably not be compelling to you. All that is left then is fear. Let me tell you what is about to happen, so that when it does, you may then believe that I knew what I was talking about.

Third, no addiction, obsession, or depression can continue forever unchecked. It is only a matter of time before the bullet finds its mark. I can’t predict what that tragedy will look like. I certainly never could have foreseen the manner of my own downfall. God only knows—the loss of a marriage or friendships, a death, the loss of career or health or reputation. You might reply that you’ve lost all those things already and yet the itch persists. Well, all that means is that you have not yet hit bottom, and worse is waiting.

Here I will pull no punches. All that you fear will happen if you continue down this path, is going to happen. You are about to expose to the world what you have made yourself into in your grief. And I can assure you that all the things that you fear people will say about you, will be said…that’s what people are like. So begin even now to make peace with that fact. Learning to live with crippling shame will be a central feature of life after this. Trust me, I know.

Feel free to lash out at me with enraged explanations of why this is won’t be your end, why you’ll be the exception. How all this self-torture will somehow still result in happiness. The Saintly Ass welcomes your anger. It means you still have enough self-respect to care what you are becoming. No, no, you cannot shock or hurt me whatever your reply. I’m too far down the road you are now walking to care what others think of me. I have to be; that is what life looks like on this side of the decisions you are now contemplating. I would spare you this. “Leave the fair, Pinocchio, before you become an ass.” Your Geppettos, whoever they are in that life you now detest, may not be perfect, but they love you, and that is a better offer than you will get from Monstro when he comes.

I say all this as one who has endured it. I say it as one who has survived it. Many do not.

So finally, what to do when all this finally comes to pass. Book mark this so you can come back to it. You’ll know when it’s time. Most of my advice for you is to be found in the other homilies, so go back and review them.

The first step back to sanity is to be able to speak truth to yourself.

That said, I do have one central piece of advice upon which all else depends. You are feeling as though you have nothing left? You’ve lost all that you had? You are perhaps even now realizing how good you had it and what a fool you were to trade it all for the desolation you’re now feeling? Well, that’s actually an improvement—the first step back to sanity is to be able to speak truth to yourself. Because…well, you were a fool, and so was I. But here’s what I’ve learned, and this is the single most important thing for you to remember.

That horrible destructive choice you made—the thing that made it all come crashing down—is not half so important or half so defining as the choice you are about to make. Yes, you still get to make choices. Others, of course, do also in response to the one you made…let them, that’s their right. You are now faced with the most important choice of the journey. You will either chose to give up, only to discover that what you thought was the bottom really isn’t—there is always a deeper level of hell you can descend into—or you can change. You can embrace the fact that you were a fool—as we all have been—and, now that the fever has broken, begin the hard work of rebuilding your life on a firmer footing.

That horrible destructive choice you made is not half so important or half so defining as the one you are about to make.

It won’t be the same life you had. No, no, it’ll be different. Resurrection is never about getting the old life back. It’s about new things. It may feel like the bullet has killed you, but really, that’s yet to be determined. You are no longer able to avoid the bullet, that choice is already made. But whether or not the wound is terminal? That is still within your power.

You have before you now a journey of several years of consistently making good choices before you really feel like you’re coming out of it. So don’t give up. Get a calendar, get a journal, get a hobby, get a counselor, a friend, a pastor, and a spiritual director. Don’t try to do this alone. You’ve been the ass long enough, my friend. It’s time to explore what it means to become the Saint.

This has been Jilted, by St. Asinus.

If you want to talk about your journey, get in touch with the Holy Ass through Facebook, or by email, or leave a comment. He’d love to hear from you. If you would like to help in the productions of these little essays, please visit his Patreon page. We’ll catch you next time at the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.