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Embracing Our Fragility

Human beings are extremely fragile. Not as frail as some other creatures on the planet, but nonetheless fragile. Humans are more hardened and protected than a hummingbird, but certainly lacking in the brute strength of a humpback whale. A moth can be brushed away easily. A human being can be also discarded, but not easily. And some people will not go away when discarded.

As fragile as we are, we are quite capable of denying our fragility. It is amazing how so many people seem to live their lives without any reference to their brittle and vulnerable personhood. If there is any awareness of fragility, it seems to be shielded from everyday experience with a type of bravado that attempts to cover it up or to make it less obvious. Some people are good at projecting a strength that they have it altogether, but in reality their fragility is in no way bolstered by this kind of behavior. It just makes the fragility seem less operational, but all the while it persists.

In spite of the ability to deny or to mask human fragility with a sense of bravado, experience has a way of inviting people to consider, if not accept, truths about themselves that they prefer to ignore or not dwell on. Some experiences are so powerful that it is impossible to deny what has occurred. An experience may invite reflection and maybe a new way of thinking or living. There is no guarantee, however, that new thinking will happen. It is also quite possible to retreat even more into a false sense of security and live in denial.

A random list of ordinary human experiences that invite reflection illustrates the manifestation of human fragility. Sickness, the loss of someone we love, the abrupt change in a relationship that is important to us, the unexpected fender bender that changes our driving habits, a well-placed criticism of something or someone that we value and care for, even an unexpected change in the weather that leaves us unprepared and forced to change plans. Each of these are examples of events that can trigger fragility.

In addition to the events and experiences that happen outside of ourselves, there are also the experiences that are within the depth of our being. Scrupulosity is an example of human fragility. The disorder has the power to wreak real emotional havoc in the life of a person who suffers with the disorder. The emotional upheaval that a single unwelcome but nonetheless intrusive and powerful thought can inflict on a person is remarkable. Even when an individual is aware of not being in control of his or her thoughts, none of that seems to matter. The thought generates guilt, fear, anxiety, shame, remorse, an almost never-ending list of emotional responses and possibilities. Each experience reveals a deep experience of fragility and vulnerability that is unwelcome.

Unfortunately, a common behavior when faced with fragility is the impulse to “tough it out.” There are a variety of reasons why human beings engage in this posture in order to encourage and perhaps even console themselves. For some, it is the “manly” thing to do. For others, it is a sign of personal strength in the face of adversity. For others, it is the “cross” they must bear.

If our struggle is rooted in mental illness, other reasons for endurance rather than fully addressing the issue are quite common. Chief among this other kind of reasoning is a distrust of therapy. The distrust is often founded on the fear that acknowledging to another a mental struggle will somehow mark a person or tarnish his or her reputation. And there is the deep distrust that many people have for any kind of behavioral, cognitive, or medical therapy. The possibility of addiction is often cited as a reason used to support the reluctance for therapy.

The inclination to deny what is being experienced and the tendency to try to endure the experience is not only not helpful, but it strengthens the disorder. Mental illness thrives on isolation. When the experience is religious scrupulosity, isolation from community and relationship is particularly paralyzing and ultimately deadly. Authentic spirituality and worship require relationship and community in order for the disciplines and practices to make any kind of sense. Sitting alone, isolated in your pew in the dark and repeatedly engaging in compulsive ritual expressions is not healthy religious expression, it is an indication of a disorder, often a serious medical disorder. It is certainly not expressive of a healthy spiritual practice.

Amazingly, in the confused mind of the individual who suffers from scrupulosity and who has become isolated in response to suffering, there is often a false belief that to choose to become healthy might displease God. Some believe that to choose to break an unhealthy ritual is a sin. That just makes the suffering more intense and the isolation more secure. It is not from God, nor is it a manifestation of the will of God. Rather, it is the disorder running free and unmanaged.

The beginning step to engaging a healthy and integrated life and spirituality is to completely let go of the need to manage everything that is marked by the disorder at once. Trying to do it all at one time is a recipe for failure. It is too overwhelming. A good place to start—and as good as it is, it is not an easy place to start—is to embrace your fragility as it is experienced. Acknowledge you are suffering. Don’t deny it, try to lessen it, or cover it up. Acknowledging your fragility and the suffering you are experiencing is not a denial of God or God’s will for you. It is rather an acceptance of who you are as a person.

Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

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