Dear Raising Faith: on pastoral care for humanists

This guest post, from “Alicia,” asks what Unitarian Universalism, and what our ministers, specifically, might have to offer in times of personal crisis.  These are great questions, and I’m happy to put them out here.  What think you, trusty readers?  

All the best,

-j

My teenaged baby sister still lives with our parents. She’s been suffering with depression for quite some time now, and it’s recently come to enough of a head for our parents to seek psychiatric help for her. spilled pillsShe’s currently on her second prescription in as many weeks (it is always hard to find the right medication and the right dosage), and after spending time with her this weekend (when she seemed to be in relatively good spirits, discussing with me her plans for prom and the future), I got a message from my mom today telling me that they had taken her to the hospital, because she is having suicidal thoughts.

My immediate reaction was one of helplessness. I live not only in a different house but a different state, unable to provide my physical presence as support, nor practical help with household duties, cooking, or anything, really, while they help my sister work through her depression enough to safely leave the hospital. I do what I can to be there for her emotionally, trying to keep up with her through Facebook and text message, making time for her when I visit. But ultimately, there’s nothing tangible I can do to help.

On the heels of lamenting my helplessness, I had an impulse to e-mail my minister. He is great at being aware of the stresses present in his congregants’ lives and asking how he can support them. But as someone who sucks at asking for help, much less directing it, what can I say? Honestly, I have no idea, in this moment of helplessness and brokenness, what kind of meaningful help he could offer.

If I were a Christian, I would be seeking spiritual reassurance, a reminder that even if I am helpless, God is not, and He has both a plan and the power to remedy any situation. A Christian minister would pray with me, for God to soothe my heart and my sister’s (and my parents’), to heal us, or at least wrap divine arms of love around us, providing security as we weather the storm.

But even though I’m sure my minister would give that to me if I wanted it, I don’t – I’m agnostic. If I believe in something beyond physical reality, it’s not anyone moving the chess pieces of humanity about with a grand design in mind to checkmate the devil. I don’t believe in a personal God who knows the sorrows of every sparrow. So while I’m quick to suggest that my mother seek out her Christian minister’s care for her own needs, I hesitate to do the same, even when it occurs to me that I might – that perhaps, I ought.

In the context of a humanistic religion, what does pastoral care have to offer that a good friend – or a good therapist – doesn’t? The space to express my feelings of sorrow and helplessness abounds here on the Internet, and in the hearts of a few loving and trusted friends. They offer me non-anxious presence, love, an awareness that I’m not alone. A therapist (if I had one), would undoubtedly validate my concerns and offer me some secular coping strategies. I am fairly emotionally and spiritually self-aware, and don’t need anyone to tell me to engage in self-care during this time (though it seems a bit ludicrous to worry about myself because of my sister’s pain, I know it’s important). So what does the minister of my humanistic religion have to offer me in this time of difficulty?

This question feels big to me, the crux of a wider (if tired) conversation about Unitarian Universalism, and what makes us a religion rather than a social group, a lecture circuit, or a gathering of activists. And I’ve never really known how to answer that, except that it is a feeling, a sense of wonder and unity that can only be called religious. But while that is nice when all is well in life, what does it offer when all is not well?

(click here for a response from the Rev. Jill Jarvis.) 

an intermezzo about abortion

“There aren’t ‘women who have abortions’ and ‘women who have babies.’ Those are the same women at different points in their lives.” — Rachel Atkins, PA, MPH, Executive Director, Vermont Women’s Health Center

My children are the joy of my life. I love them more than I would have imagined possible; they add depth and meaning to my days and challenge me to seize the moment, to see the good, to be true to my best self far more effectively than anything else ever has.  That these things are true, and that the idea of having another child, at least right now, is impossibly frightening, is one of those strange paradoxes of life.  My husband and I have our hands full in every possible way. The past year has been very interesting around here, and in the midst of it, I took a pregnancy test, got an unexpected result . . . and I cried.

And eventually, I thought the unthinkable—the dark whisper that comes after, “I cannot be pregnant right now.”  Or, I halfway thought it, only to be overwhelmed by fear, guilt, shame . . . in the hours between taking that test and talking with my husband, I felt something like despair.  I knew that in even thinking about ending a pregnancy, I was turning away from my faith in God.  And I knew equally that my marriage, while wonderful in many ways, had been strained to the limit by our two career, two commute lifestyle, a series of significant (and horrifically expensive) health challenges and an ongoing, soul-gutting lack of sleep best employed in the context of a gulag.

Having a third child is an expensive proposition by any measure, but in this reality, it felt like the true cost might be my soul.  And of course, I worried about that fairly literally on the other side, not because I believe in eternal damnation, but because I believe that we are responsible for our decisions, and there was no potential cost that made this one feel defensible.

In short, I didn’t feel free to think about abortion.  I also didn’t feel like I could talk about my fear and internal struggle, not anywhere, but particularly not in the context of church.  In the Christian church, I’d find platitudes and guilt . . . and in the Unitarian church . . . I wasn’t sure. And after some soul-searching, I decided not to find out.

Ultimately, it wasn’t fear of God, but fear that I would not, could not be heard on my own terms in the Unitarian context that kept me silent.  I was afraid I might lose UU as a safe space for my family—not because I’d be shamed for considering an abortion, but because I might be encouraged to, in a way that would let me know, irrevocably, that my own spiritual experiences are not taken seriously by this religion.

This is unfortunate, as I have rarely felt so acutely in need of spiritual guidance.   I was terrified—and my terror at the situation was compounded by fear of becoming an unwitting case study for those determined to view “crisis pregnancy” as solely a medical decision or even a political statement.  I feared being ideologically manhandled by people whose devotion to their cause makes it difficult for them to acknowledge the toll that “choice” can take—even where that choice seems the more survivable one for the members of our family living outside of the womb.  And I realize now—I realized then; irony is bitter—that I had helped to build the ideological walls that entrapped me.

By framing the issue in black and white terms, by choosing a “side,” and then choosing another; in agreeing, tacitly or explicitly, to be identified as part of a group differentiated from another group on the sole basis of my thoughts about abortion, I had left myself precious little room to manage the actual events of life.  By reducing this life circumstance to an “issue,” my response to it was equivalent to a “statement” . . . unless I’d prefer to remain anonymous.

In the end, it wasn’t a decision we had to make.  I wish I could tell you I was entirely happy about that.  I wish I could tell you I wasn’t.  The reality is, it was a terrible, scary, confusing few days . . . and I’m still confused about these issues, it still scares me to think of becoming unintentionally pregnant, and it continues to feel terrible to weigh quality of life (mine, my husband’s, and our children’s) versus actuality of life (an unborn child’s).  The best thing I can say is that I have a deeper understanding of how incredibly complicated and fraught these decisions are—not unlike end of life decisions, which in some ways this is—and greater empathy, on both sides.  I hope that this more nuanced picture of reality enables me to respond more creatively as a participant in our ongoing dialogue about abortion.

Partly this means a change in the way I envision the conversation.  It also impacts the way I engage with the social justice piece of reproductive health.  Thus, as part of our family’s inaugural Chalica celebration this year, we made a donation on day 2 to celebrate justice, compassion, and mercy. I considered our local battered women’s shelter, the rape crisis center . . . and Planned Parenthood.

After careful consideration, I chose Planned Parenthood—not because I feel any less conflicted about the moral issues we confront in the abortion debate, but because the work that they are doing to allow women to lead healthy and productive lives—and here I am talking about basic and essential preventive health care, friends—is simply not being routinely provided by anyone else.  In fact, in many communities it is no longer being provided by anyone at all, and there is every indication that this trend will continue.  This is unacceptable; it is, in fact, an sign that we have lessened the humanity of women in poverty.  I felt a bit strange, but also proud, making this donation, and the same mix of pride and apprehension in posting about it on my facebook page.  I may have lost a few “friends”—or not—but the world continued to turn despite my embrace of a messy take on morality.  Nothing of note changed . . . except for me.

In this conflicted, messy, imperfect action–in recognizing the humanity on all sides of this conflicted, messy, and imperfect discussion–I took a small but significant step away from polarity.  What started with my wallet—and believe me, I experienced no small amount of cognitive dissonance making this donation; I really did have to force myself—ultimately brought my heart along for the ride.

I am not somebody’s pawn in this conversation.  And as it turns out, you don’t have to be, either.  How often do we paint ourselves into a corner of a discussion that shouldn’t have corners in the first place?  Why do we let others define the terms of our thoughts and opinions on some of the most nuanced issues we confront?  We step into the midst of a polemic that we had no role in creating (most of us, anyway), mentally check one of two boxes available, and accept the entire adhesion contract that the movement—whichever movement—places into our hands (if it is not instead shoved down our throats).  It will take a conscious, informed effort on each of our parts, but what if we simply stop allowing the discussion to be framed this way?

Another option: a continued challenge toward self-reflection and a renewed commitment to self-responsibility—including the insistence that this right extends to others.  As above, allowing each woman to manage her own life leads to decisions that are messy, imperfect, and conflicted.  Thus, the greatest challenge of all might be a quiet one: the inner work that allows us to accept this.

Perhaps we could call this the theology of life.  We seek the ideal, we acknowledge what is real, and we render unto each other the terrible, wonderful power to make decisions for ourselves.  Ultimately, we do this not because we know things are going to work out the way that we want them to, or because we are entrusting others to make the same decisions that we would make, but because, in the words of Nelson Mandela, “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

To that end, this past week, I went farther, making a donation—and a significant one, for our family—to the Peggy Bowman Second Chance Fund.  Our church has contributed to this fund at least once per year for as long as I’ve been a member.  My family, on the other hand, has contributed never.

Unlike my Planned Parenthood contribution, this isn’t something I can rationalize by explaining that I’m covering costs for preventive care; someone who believes in it more can foot the bill for abortion services.  No, I made a donation that will help pay for abortion expenses for a woman in a personal and financial emergency.  And I have to tell you: it hurts a little.  This is true despite what I shared with you earlier—and I think it’s because, at its heart, this isn’t what we pretend it is.

Abortion isn’t an issue.  It is rights and lives and real people clamoring for recognition of worth and integrity.  It is balancing that which cannot be balanced.  I continue to stretch myself, and it continues to hurt a bit because this isn’t a process that makes things feel less fraught or somehow numbs me to reality.  There is a woman out there making a choice that ends a possibility for another human being, and I am helping to make that choice possible.

For me this awareness touches both a great sadness and a great mystery.  That sadness and mystery too often go unacknowledged—because we know there is power in this pain, and we fear it.  But let’s acknowledge it, just as we acknowledge that there is wonder and revelation in allowing for human freedom, whatever great things or terrible wreckage that freedom may leave in its wake.

It could be a choice.  It could be a child.  And, just maybe, it could be your family.

If so, I’m trusting you to make your decisions, and to live with them and make sense of them, in the best way you know how.  I simply don’t know what else to do.