informal_homeIn the last three years I’ve discovered that a divided life is not worth living.  Seeing life as an either/or proposition almost ruined me.  I was mired in a conflict between my head and my heart, my logic and my feelings, my education and my instinct.  My divided life led me on the path of depression, despair and thoughts about ending it all as the only way out.

Western thought is chock-full of divisions and dualisms.  Right or wrong, true or false, guilty or innocent, good or bad, dark or light, heresy or orthodoxy—I used them all to form an ever-embracing security blanket.  It framed my experience of human reality without the discomfort of ambiguity.  It was cozy and comfortable for a long while, until the very divisions that simplified my life turned on me.

I usually framed my divided life as Me against the WorldNot to say there weren’t many nuances within this world-view.  But in the end I saw myself as a victim needing continual justification for my existence.  For a long time this seemed worked as an effective explanation for why I felt alienated from the rest of the world swirling around me.

My victimhood enabled me to maintain a degree of self-righteous indignation whenever I felt hurt or misunderstood.  It permitted me to believe that I was an underdog, unapologetically on the correct path toward transcendence.  And it protected me from having to take seriously others’ opinions, unless they came from very trusted sources (which usually supported my presuppositions).

My divided life and the feeling I was a victim began when I was very small.  I realized by the age of four that I felt different and apart.  Much later I would discover that I was wired like 20% of humanity as highly sensitive and only recently have seen it as a true gift.

My parents unwittingly aided and abetted my divided life.  They didn’t mean to; they were reflecting their own difficult upbringing and struggles as children of immigrants who lost their mothers as small children.  Their wounds became my wounds.

My mother probably had the greatest influence in this matter.  She was a truly remarkable woman, who instilled in me a deep faith, a lively intelligence, a passion to help others, and a capacity for true friendship.  She also insisted from an early age that I needed to be good, to stay clean, and to behave nicely.  And her joy was in part seeing her careful parenting in these issue bear fruit in me.

These things of themselves are not bad, but I being highly sensitive automatically linked my mother’s wishes as conditions for her love.  After my mother’s death following a two-year struggle with lymphoma, my father looked through the greeting cards we had sent her as children, and that she lovingly preserved.  He later told me how sad reading them because in most of my cards I had written: I’ll be a good boy, Love, Michael.  He realized then how difficult she made my life.  It was the closest my father came to really understanding my emotional landscape.

I still wish she hadn’t admonished me to be good, but rather affirmed: You are good, even when you make wrong choices.  I wish she had not been obsessive about cleanliness as a direct reflection on her own value.  And while she had wanted me always to be polite and nice, I wish her correction did not come in the form of toxic shame.

My divided life was exacerbated by years of bullying inside and outside my family.  The chasm between head and heart grew wider as a means of survival.  It was no wonder, then, after years of math and science and a track toward dentistry, I entered the seminary to become a Catholic priest.  It was there and in ensuing years that I learned a whole new set of divisions and dualisms, now tacitly supported by the institution I was part of.

Here’s an example of the dialogue that droned on as my head and my heart were at war for the next thirty years:

Head: Church teaching on matters of faith and morals is essential to salvation,
Heart: But is not so important when difficult to grasp.

Head: Sex is a good created by God,
Heart: But is not for the unmarried.

Head:  Marriage is wonderful,
Heart:  But is not for priests.

Head: It’s okay to baptize children of gay couples,
Heart: But it should be done in secret so as not to upset anyone.

Head:  Canon Law is to be obeyed,
Heart: But not when convenience trumps its enforcement.

Head:  The Church is neither liberal nor conservative,
Heart: But it’s the reactionaries who have the real power.

Head:  Liturgical texts and rituals are to be followed to the letter,
Heart: But not when a priest is popular enough to do his own thing.

Head:  Priests are images of Christ,
Heart: But they are mere functionaries in a huge bureaucracy who don’t need emotional support.

Head:  Personal Spirituality is important,
Heart: But public religion is more important.

Head: The brotherhood of the clergy is of supreme value,
Heart: As long as we don’t rock the boat, are not really honest or truly charitable with each other.

One day after many years of prayer, reflection and counsel, it suddenly dawned on me that these divisions would not go away and so I had to go away.  It was time, despite the threat of economic ruin, to leave formal ministry, knowing I would receive no pension and frankly, no thanks after 32 years.  Notice I did not say I left the priesthood; I will always be a priest using my gifts more widely.

I am no longer a victim (as often) of false and destructive divisions between my head and my heart.  My personal integration has been hard-fought and now I see the next third of my life as the most productive yet.  What false divisions are ruling your life?  Where are your head and heart at war?  What are you doing to repair and heal the dualism into which you were born?  How can my message of hope begin to sustain you?

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