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Friday, October 03, 2008

Success and Freedom: Inspiration from MadPriest

Anxiety. It's hard not to notice. It's everywhere.

I have been walking around with this cartoon image of the men in my community, their mouths moving with jovial banter while little balloons hang in the air above their heads filled with emissions of noxious fumes, all labeled "ANXIETY".

You can hear it in hushed conversations in the grocery store, at the supermarket, in the parking lot. I just returned from the gym and I heard it in the hallways.

But, it's what I see in the eyes of some of the men in my community that is really troubling.

Some readers of this blog will recall that I live in what many here lovingly refer to as "Republicanville." In many ways, this town is a "bedroom community" for New York. Many of the men and women in my community of faith work on Wall Street or in businesses that are connected to Wall Street.

Needless to say, in the past three weeks, anxiety levels are off the chart.

The women here seem to know intuitively how to ask for and get help. Women, by and large, have a natural proclivity to be in relationships and have developed small circles of relationships and support - prayer shawl ministries, bible studies, book clubs with their friends as well as some lovely new "Mother-Daughter" ones that have recently sprung up, meditation groups.

I've also had some very intense conversations with business women as well as the wives of business men about the economic crisis and its effect on their families.

I've been looking for the "hook" for the young men in my congregation and this community who are trying to hide the anxiety in their eyes about this economy.

It ain't workin'. I see it and I am at a loss to know how to help.

Anything that comes remotely close to "religious language" only seems to make them wince and run for cover. And yet, in the six years I've been rector here, attendance at Sunday and Wednesday Eucharists has never been higher for this time of year. Someone recently joked that it's now less expensive to be in church than to be at Starbucks on Sunday morning.

Bible studies and book clubs don't do it. Not here.

Support groups? Fuggeddaboutit!

I have had some conversations with a few of these guys and have been deeply moved by the trust they place in my conversations with them as their pastor. They are also share my concern about some of their colleagues but when I suggest some sort of group - a men's support group or bible study or book club - they shake their heads politely.

I know this much to be the paradox: They need community desperately, and want it even more desperately, and yet it's the one thing they greatly resist - at least in this place and at this time.

I've been asking around for help - for creative ideas to develop ways to "hook" these guys into a place of community where they might feel safe enough to be vulnerable with each other. And, in that process, find some relief from their anxiety and, perhaps, find hope.

I know I'm in the midst of a great spiritual /evangelism opportunity, but other than preaching and pastoral phone calls to "check in," and pastoral visits to my office, I'm at a loss. And, maybe that's all that's needed right now.

My beloved, Ms. Conroy, who volunteers with the Chatham Emergency Squad as an EMT, has been out on three suicide attempts in five days. When she left the other night at 1 AM she muttered something about "it's the beaching of the whales," and then said, "We're going to see more, not less, of this."

I've been ready to chuck the whole idea of trying to be of any help. I've been filing things under my ACoA file, criticizing myself for being tempted into rescue/savior behavior, repeating the mantras, "If it's not your, don't pick it up." And, The Three 'C's' of the ACoA: "You didn't cause it, you can't control it, and you can't cure it."

Alternatively, the other file is, "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus," subtitled with my own parody of 'Enry 'Iggin's lament, "Why can't men be more like women?"

And then I remembered Willy.

Willy Lomax - the aging husband and father in Arthur Miller's play, "Death of a Salesman." Throughout the play, Willy is struggling with his failure to achieve The Great American Dream and finally, after losing his job, takes his own life.

Of course, The Great American Dream he has is post modern - to be a success. The Great American Dream of previous centuries had been to be free. His son Biff has just returned from Texas where he had been working on a farm in the outdoors. Returning to this house, he feels the flood of bad memories and feels boxed in.

I continue to be haunted by the closing monologue of the play. His wife, Linda, and sons, Biff and Happy, are standing over Willy's grave. Linda says that she can't cry, that she's expecting him to return home from one of his long sales trips, and tells him that she has just made the last payment on their mortgage.

"We're free," she says, "We're free."

The audience is left to wonder if she is talking about the irony of Willy's posthumous achievement of The Great American Dream - and, if so, which one. Or, is she saying that she . . . they . . ., with Willy's death, are finally free.

Stay with me now, I'm about to take another sharp turn. We're heading across the Pond to make a little visit with MadPriest.

Jonathan has a remarkable essay up about his grief at the death of a little dog named Grendel. Go read it and then come back to this.

G'won. It's really quite good. I can wait.

Hello. Welcome back. It was good, wasn't it? Brilliant in MadPriest's own way of brilliance. It gives me such hope and direction.

Here's the thing of it for me. Maddy writes: "I had forgotten what an enjoyable emotion sadness is. It's not a negative emotion at all. In fact, it had the same physical effect on me as love. You know, down their in the stomach. I understand why people so often burst out laughing after a good cry. It's not relief, as such, it's more a natural progression of the sadness. I also see why sadness and joy are so intertwined in the story of our faith. Yesterday,I was like Mary Magdalene in the garden."

I think we all need to spend more time in The Garden as Mary Magdelene. It's important to feel that exquisite mixture of joy and sadness before we get to witness the Resurrection - once again, for the first time.

The Great American Dream, which had its genesis in the hearts and minds of women and men across the Pond, is not about success. It's about Freedom - the freedom to be fully, wholly human. The freedom to feel the full range of emotions - from sadness to joy and everything in between.

Yes, even anxiety.

I am beginning to realize that the best thing I can do as a pastor - besides listening and keeping watch over my flock in this time of the Dark Night of the Soul - is to pray for the kind of miracle which Jonathan describes.

I'm going to pray for the death of my inner "Religious Salesman" and stop trying to be a success at being a priest and selling faith. Instead, I'm going to pray that I may be a more faithful priest.

I'm going to pray that I might be able to lead the people God has sent me to serve through this Valley of the Shadow of the Death of Success and into the place where we all may be blessed with the freedom to experience a greater fullness of our humanity.

We have enough of everything we need. Jesus taught us that. Just a Mustard Seed of faith is all we need. Just a tiny mustard seed is all, which must go into the ground and die before it becomes one of the mightiest trees in the Garden.

That, or the death of a little dog named Grendel.


Bill said...

The problem with men, and being one makes me a subject matter expert of sorts, is that we are trained from the time we were little boys to be brave and strong and not to cry. We were never allowed to show weakness; never allowed to show fear.

From personal experience it almost takes surviving a near catastrophic experience (as in suicide) to realize that you can ask for help. Fear is not a bad thing. Fear is a survival trait. It teaches us not to do things that can kill us.

Many men wouldn’t even hesitate to consider suicide. In their minds they postulate it would leave their families in a better financial position. They don’t think about the emotional wreckage they leave behind. It’s when all these crises are coming at you all at once and too damn fast that making rational decisions goes out the window. This is a leap of faith, but I think that most wives and loved ones would rather have a live dad then a dead one regardless of what the insurance policy is worth.

Maybe you could find some survivors who would be willing to talk about their experiences. It is ok to cry you know and it’s also ok to ask for help. We just need to undo a lifetime of “machismo”.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Interesting. You thought of Willy Lomax, I thought of Richard Corey...

"And he was rich—yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

"So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head."

The economic meltdown has reminded me of the late 80's when all the strip mines closed in NE Missouri. The coal that came from these mines was high sulfur coal, not as useful, and the cost to scrub it in the furnace was higher than it was to mine it.

As a child, when you knew someone's dad "worked at the mine" they were probably better off than you. They had a union job with about the best union benefits going. Next to the professional people in town like the doctors and lawyers, the mine supervisors and the shovel operators and the highly skilled technical laborers had the nicest houses in my little town in the 60's and 70's.

Then in the 80's, Peabody Coal pulled out of the region. There were a couple of attempts at different forms of ownership, but by 1985 this was no longer "coal country"...and that's when the suicides started, and the widows were left with crumbling mortgages and kids to feed and an anger at the visitation and funeral that was almost too hard to bear.

The other weird thing is the "have nots" started up how "the miners had it coming." Jealousy is a funny thing.

What I noticed about the men who survived is they had "One good friend." Someone to sit on his porch, maybe with a beer, or a brat, or farting with something that needed fixing.

I think I understand the XY chromosome heart at least a tiny bit, since I seem to share a few of their coping tendencies...and what I realize is groups scare the stony tough male heart to death, but the buddy system is more "do-able." They often can deal with the buddy system b/c it was part of their military training, or sports training. So maybe a more realistic approach is to provide a situation that allows "buddies" to pair up in some way...

Dan said...

Yes, that describes exactly where I live in Bronxville, New York. It is real; very real. And being retired and dependent on investments I am one of those people with that anxiety.

I have recommended this at my blog, A Blogspotting Anglican Episcopalian.

Jim said...

I think Kirk has something with the "buddy system." I just have no idea how a congregation might help make it possible for you troubled young men to find one.

I have a buddy with whom I went to high school. In a real sense, our ongoing friendship (we graduated in 1964) has probably kept us both sane. (Ok, in my case not so much ;-))

Funny, we agree on almost nothing. We argue a lot, over everything from my lesbian/gay rights activism to his extreme conservatism. I ride a sport touring motorcycle, he is a cruiser guy. Does not matter, we have been arguing, sharing, helping and generally talking for over 40 years and that is what matters.

I have no idea how one fosters that sort of grouping for guys. It is however a question worth exploring.


June Butler said...

Elizabeth, you're a long way along the path to being a faithful priest. I'd say you're pretty much there, except we never truly "arrive" this side of the kingdom.

As Bill says, men too often want to show that they are in command of the situation, and they fear appearing vulnerable. That's too bad, because life is as tough on them as it is on women. I pray that the men in your church come to see that it's not at all a bad thing to ask for help.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Mimi for your kind words and your prayers.

Suzer said...

Beautiful and thoughtful essay -- thank you.

...And not to be one of those annoying A-type personalities who fixes typos, but I am so who am I to go against my own nature -- it's Willy Loman. I know it's just a typo, but I'm reminded of the Lorax which I think is a Dr. Suess creation. :)

Fr Craig said...

Bill is spot on. As a man, I was told to be tough and -as my father put it - 'root hog, or die.' The hardest thing for me about the ordination process was CPE - took me 5 weeks to realize the hard part was that I couldn't fix things and to learn to just be there and listen and pray. I think that's all you can do, Elizabeth - tell them that you are there if they want to talk. but, sadly, I suspect that most men will be very hesitant to admit weakness to a woman... sigh.