It is cold and raw and dark this time of year. Winter is late in coming, despite the sun slipping over the shoulder of the hill and into darkness by four o’clock in the afternoon. There is no snowpack yet, just half-frozen mud and cold rain. Without the snow to catch and reflect the lights, the early night seems even darker.
I am susceptible to depression at the best of times; when the cold rain and darkness and frantic busyness of the holiday season and end of the semester crowd the boundaries of my reflection time, it takes more vigilance than usual to keep the soul-sucking monster at bay. I’m not sure I’m winning. I feel scraped thin, fragile, insufficient, unworthy. Exhausted.
Okay then. So, that’s what it is: this thinnest ice, with brittle edges, only just starting to form on still ponds and reeds in the crisp of the black pre-dawn. I try to remember the beauty in fragility, the tenderness of one snowflake caught on a loose thread of a glove, the glitter of low-angled sun on ice after a storm. Surely those are real things that I have seen. But sometimes I feel as stiff and brittle as the first sharp raw edge of winter.
That’s the paradox I’m sitting with, at this turn of the wheel: trying to find my own voice and my own balance and the confidence to speak from the authority of my own deep imperfection, with all its cracks and thin spots. This is a hard thing and, well, I can only do it imperfectly.
I have been meaning to write for a long time about ministerial formation, about the process and how and where I am embedded in it. It has been awhile since I took inventory of that; sometimes a person gets too busy doing things to spend much time thinking or writing about them.
As I write this, I am halfway through my third year of what is looking to be five years of seminary. When I started, I had every intention of being done in three. Now I am watching people I began this process with coming to the end of their training and beginning the next phase of their ministries. Their success is a mixed blessing for me. I am still grieving that I will not be graduating with them this spring.
In the long run, it will be fine. I am doing, one step at a time, the things I need to do in order to get from where I have been to where I want to be (by way of where I am.) That is all that I can do – all that anyone can do, really. Where it becomes difficult is in the places where this unfolding process bumps up against the rough edges of the world and the systems and structures that exist within it: money is the least of them, though there are real financial penalties for doing part-time study relative to full-time. It is systemically assumed that part-time students will be gainfully employed outside of study, and when this is not true, well. “Over time and over budget” happens.
But the deeper difficulties are less tangible. They are rooted in our assumptions: in the cultural sickness of our collective perfectionism; in the sublimated anger that drives our ambition to do more, faster, better; in the lingering shame around our frail, vulnerable, human limitations. Popular culture venerates rock stars, literal or metaphorical – holding public figures to exacting standards under microscopic examination in the glare of the spotlight, then excoriating them when they fall humanly short. And even though our stated values suggest that we know otherwise, Unitarian Universalist church culture is still susceptible to hero worship – and dropping our clay-footed former beloveds like so many hot potatoes.
We can do better.
But will we? And who am I to say so?
I am very conscious of the tension between speaking authentically from where I am, and being conscious that where I am falls short of perfect authority. I find myself becoming angry at the way we want there to be one right way to do things – whether the thing we would do be politics or ministry or even just basic human existence. For myself I need rest, and reflection, and gentleness from the world, to thrive. And despite the unrelenting push to do more, faster, better, louder – this is also a legitimate way to be human, and there is beauty in it.
Even so, I feel the weight of shame that I cannot do this thing any other way, that doing more and going faster are simply not an option. Shame feeds the monster, which wakes up and whispers lies about worthlessness and futility. When our systems, our institutions, our social structures – even occasional ambitious or thoughtless individuals – glorify superficial flawlessness and frenzied activity, leaving incompleteness and reflection by the wayside, where does that leave the rest of us?
Even as a person of relative systemic privilege, I still get tired of feeling dehumanized and devalued by the machine. That my spirit is particularly vulnerable to this kind of injury, in the same way that my lungs are overreactive to fragranced hand cream and seasonal candles, means only that I notice it sooner that someone more generally resilient might.
I am still trying to understand this as a gift, not a deficiency. This understanding is, as all things are, a work in progress.