Saturday, February 21, 2015

One Red Marble

I have certain memories that stand out like parables that I return to again and again. Recently I found myself thinking about this one.

It was the first semester of my Sophomore year in college, and I was enrolled in a psychology class for which one textbook was required and one study guide suggested. By the time I bought books, the study guide was out of stock. So of course I was driven to anxiety when the professor indicated that although the study guide was optional, when it came time for the exam those without it would be in deep trouble.

Anxiety over what I lacked inspired me to carefully study that textbook like I had never studied a textbook before. I carefully took notes from the text, highlighted, studied the vocabulary terms, used the study questions and basically applied myself full-steam to learning the material.

Then came the midterm. It was something like 500 multiple choice questions. I faced the challenge with serious, if still anxious, determination.

When the professor handed the exams back, he was visibly disappointed. He explained that the vast majority of the class either failed miserably or came close to it, and that a retake was being offered. After his all-class tongue-lashing he mentioned that one student got only four wrong.

That was me. I was so mad.

I was mad at the rest of the class for not using their precious study guides, at myself for studying so carefully and for being driven by anxiety to do so. I was angry at what felt like foolishly spent effort. I was mad at the professor for inspiring me with this anxiety. And at deepest I felt angry at myself for being the one oddball who was applying myself to learning as if there were something to be gained from it.

There is so much in this memory that epitomizes my basic struggles in life. But I am only just beginning to be able to look at this with a bit of humor. For one thing, anxiety has been such an unwaveringly normal engine in my life that only in recent years have I been aware of optional ways of functioning. For way too long I have faced my natural characteristics, like my tendency toward earnest seriousness about everything, as enemies to be subdued and problems to be stamped out instead of just the human package I am. I can appreciate that some anxiety is indeed helpful and can motivate good things, like attentiveness and thoroughness.

Another significant issue here is feeling like this:

a red marble in a sea of yellow marbles. For me, this is also about accepting the human package that I am and not being angry at myself or at others that we all are who we are. Accepting that God wishes me to be me, and that's why He made me as me. Accepting that I cannot find my way by trying to be like someone else. Accepting that my cues do not come from what I can see in others, and that my confidence is not born from conformity.

This also goes a long way to make sense of how much work God has had to do in my heart with regards to detachment in my relationships. Find a human soul that resonates with mine? Why, glom on with all my might down to the very cost of my soul, of course! Oddly missing from my memory of the exam is any real delight in doing well, or even a sense of boasting over the flunkers. Because the overwhelming value to me here was the sense of isolation that shoved delight off the stage before it could take one step out. In this, too, I have finally begun to find peace because I begin to realize that what I have thought of or felt as isolation is really a path towards union with God. Living in harmony with my design may make me unique, but it does not isolate me. Rather, it communicates God's glory and so offers real delight.

What is true of all creation in general is true of my creation as well, as the Catechism teaches:

St. Bonaventure explains that God created all things "not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and to communicate it", for God has no other reason for creating than his love and goodness: "Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened his hand."  
(Catechism of the Catholic Church 293)

If I am a red marble in a sea of yellow, it is not because God is mean. His creation of me reveals to me and to others His love and goodness, because that's who He is.

St. Therese teaches that the power of the Holy Spirit is blocked in our lives when we cannot serenely accept ourselves as we are, inherent weaknesses and powerlessness, as well as gifts and graces lavished on us by our loving Father. When we are stuck in our willfulness, the "I want my way," we are bound up in our limitations.  When instead we open in ourselves willingness, the "Yes, Lord -- your love!" to all God intends for us, which includes of course the path of the cross and suffering, that is all it takes to please God and be in our full potential before Him.

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