“At the very moment when everything seems to be collapsing
before our eyes, we realize that quite the opposite is true,
‘because you, Lord are my strength.’
If God is dwelling in your soul, everything else,
no matter how important it may seem,
is accidental and transitory,
whereas we, in God, stand permanent and firm.”
~ Josemaría Escrivá, Friends of God, 92
Until at least this past decade- with refinements in wireless communications- those who appeared to talk to themselves were generally regarded with suspicion. Urban streets being arenas of assessment, stereotypic self-talkers tended to be written off as rumpled shufflers conversing with the air. Now, stereotypic bluetoothers tend to obliviously stride around, conversing with the air- except for the occasional crackling voice in response. For an observing pedestrian, I’ve gotten used to seeing individuals sauntering around to their own speaking voices. Negatively, the loud talkers in public spaces are intrusive. Positively, I get a great excuse to keep on talking to myself as I might while driving or working. Journaling gives me space to preserve ideas and experiences, as well as making sense of observations and ideas in writing. Speaking to my thoughts while in transit or at work also helps me distill observations and decisions. Thematically, my self-talk and most of my journaling -and photography- are parallel strands along the same streams of absorption, reflection, and creativity. These are extensions of consciousness. But like expression and the life of thought, self-talk wields enough influence to determine how we operate within as well as outwardly. Working alone as a self-propelled and consistently accountable one-person department for 36 months and counting, I’ve been my own voice of assurance. That’s a formidable discipline for me, unceasingly working through the depths of pandemic, personal loss, desolation, and gentrifying displacement, while rarely able to dispel my longrunning streams of verbal self-condemnation. Indeed, surviving present hardships only becomes more difficult amidst harsh self-criticism.
Gesturing with thumb and pointer finger about an eighth-inch apart, I hear myself exclaim, “I’ve got this much margin for error.” Unreasonable as it may sound, there are deepseated reasons beneath this, with a lengthy catalogue of failures, missed opportunities, and comparisons. And yet the hard-driven efforts and persistent hopes continue. Self-talk clashes against the challenge of faith. The equation of oppressive conditions at all hands has forced a necessary straightening out in the form of “Let’s get through this,” and “We’ll get there.” (Oddly enough, I naturally default to the plural- but only interiorly. It reminds me of King David asking his own soul why it was downcast.) In recent months while standing at city bus stops in subzero cold as part of my daily commute, I’ve been reading the wise homilies of Josemariá Escrivá. His essays join my special category of books that seem to have been written for me. I think every reader has their own equivalent bibliography.
A captivating reading, like going out photographing, really gets me out of my own way. Escrivá’s words are notably welcoming. Between the lines of his theological reflections are plenty of his personal anecdotes about his poverty during the Spanish Civil War, and especially his experiences as a university chaplain. As it was for college students in midcentury Spain, present-day individuals struggle with existential angst. It is dangerously easy to believe that what we see is all there is, and that each setback is an unrecoverable blow. But Escrivá asked his listeners and readers to question the perspective that considers denied opportunities to be earth-shattering and perilous. Such things, as he said, should be viewed as “accidental and transitory,” which is to say incidental and temporal. He emphasized keeping in mind an all-essential thirst for the eternal, for the Living God. Escrivá wrote in his essay called Humility, “Why do we become dejected? It is because life on earth does not go the way we had hoped, or because obstacles arise which prevent us from satisfying our personal ambitions.” Of course this speaks to my ill-fitting and uneasy predicament. “Don’t be frightened; don’t fear any harm,” he insisted, “even though the circumstances in which you work are terrible, worse even than those of Daniel in the pit with all those ferocious beasts. God’s hand is as powerful as ever and, if necessary God will work miracles. Be faithful!” Sanctifying the everyday is a theme that manifests throughout his writing.
I wonder how many of us, when we graduate from school- brimming with catharsis and ambition- say, “my life’s goal is to be humble and lowly.” Who does this? Not me. Academic and professional work are pointed toward achievement, success, and prominence. As many of us commendably aim high, many of us are frustratingly brought low. The former is in our nature, the latter makes us chafe. And the rub is in the transcendence of setbacks; not once or twice, but persistently countless times. Indeed, it is humbling to consider standing straight in defeat as a measure of success. With my philosophy students, we regularly take up topics in axiology. In one of our Socratic forums my question to the class about the definition of value became a discussion of how we determine value. It was a great discussion, and a parallel thread about the widespread societal concern called success led to how each person defined stability. Engaging in philosophy, we balanced such concepts as implied in material and moral ideas. As we step back to see the fluidity of the present as incidental and temporal, borrowing from Escrivá, an antidote for dramatic devastation is found in the sanctification of understated tasks.
If we regard the present as provisional, rather than as helplessly irreparable, we can freely admit that everything is subject to improvement. That ubiquitous self-talk (for those among us who care to listen to their own thoughts) is also worth improving. Proofreading the inner script is a form of healthful detachment, essentially an untethering from living as though momentary deficiency is some kind of life sentence. Even if momentary amounts to years, and even if the years are saturated with rejections. Resilience has an upturned chin, an affirmative step, and conscientious manners. Things won’t always be like this, I tell myself, even at this late stage of the game. The pearl of great price is the open door in the wilderness labyrinth of barricaded passages. It is imperative to trust enough to hold with insistent certitude that supplications are not spoken into an unattended void. Prayers are surely not self-talk; whether or not they are granted does not mean they are not heard. Grace must be met with courage, and trials must not have the last word. I’m holding to this, as I navigate this throwaway here-today-forgotten-tomorrow culture. It’s easy to believe the immediate is everything. But it really isn’t, and such tempting mirages must be bypassed and resisted at all turns. There is much for me to learn these days about the fine differences between humility and humiliation. Fulfilling the daily obligations, under miserable living conditions, it consoles me to confidently keep its very temporariness in mind and to interpolate dashes of creativity when possible. And continually telling myself to keep faith, look upwards, and never cease searching for better conditions. No doubt, I daily join my praying voice with all who struggle with housing and employment. Fortitudo et spes.