“Woe is me!"

One of the more comforting things about confessing one's anxieties so publicly (or, given my current rate of hits, semi-publicly) as on a blog is that one almost immediately begins to wonder, having posted, whether things are quite as bad as they seem. Falling back on my usual habit, I started making a list in my head while I was doing footwork this afternoon, tallying blessings in my life against misfortunes and disappointments.

My parents' divorce and my father's parents' deaths the same year loom large in the narrative of my childhood. The usual adolescent calamities and frustrations (being "fat", losing friends, falling in and out of love), my own divorce after three years of marriage in graduate school, my mother-in-law's death three months after my son (with my second, not my first husband) was born, having a skating rink built outside my office window while I was writing my first book (constant construction noise for over a year), being pilloried in the national press for defending my colleagues during a curriculum change, my father's death three years ago at age 66: these are about the worst things I can come up with on the side of curses. I'm not sure it's really fair to count things like worrying about getting good grades or passing my tenure review; these aren't curses, unless (as I suggest in my previous post) one counts constant worry as a character flaw one can't change. More on this below.

The blessing side is immeasurably richer, starting with being born. As I say to my son whenever he (or I) is tempted to exclaim, "Life's not fair": "Of course it isn't. As long as you are alive, it is unfair in your favor." The love and support of my parents, my teachers and the education they gave me, my husband of now fourteen years, our child, our health, our home, my position at the university, having my book published, learning to fence, not hitting the taxi that pulled out in front of me on my way to practice: these are incredible blessings which I of myself have done nothing to deserve. How could I? They are gifts from God. And it is easy to go on: having enough to eat, being able to bicycle to work, being able to write, the sunlight streaming through my office windows as I sat reading this week, talking with my sister, my friends at fencing, my friends at work, having a backyard in the middle of the city, having a career as a medievalist, my students at the university, the church that my son and I attend, our cats.

On reflection, it almost seems silly now to complain about something so ordinary as writer's angst (although, as you can see from my previous post, it hurts terribly at the time). It's as my grandmother (my mother's mother, who died only five years after my father's parents, when I was in high school) tried to teach me when I was only 10 years old and already horrified at being fat.* "Whenever I feel really sorry for myself," she told me, "I just start repeating to myself, over and over, 'Woe is me! Woe is me! Woe is me!', until I start laughing at how absurd it sounds." Try it. It really is very hard to say more than two or three times before the silliness kicks in.** "Woe is me! Woooe is me! Wooooooe is me!" It helps if you give a sort of vibrato to the "Woe!"

Why is it so hard to feel happy? (I've read books on this, too. Apparently I'm not the only one with this problem, otherwise the books wouldn't be selling so well.) Paradoxically, I sometimes suspect that part of the problem is the expectation that we should. Particularly in America. "The pursuit of happiness" is, after all, one of our self-declared inalienable rights. Maybe we would be better off if Jefferson had kept to Locke's original list and just concentrated on "life, liberty and possessions". It's interesting to compare our anxieties over stress and status with the governing anxieties of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: status, to be sure, but even more important, making a good death. Nothing really about happiness except eternally, and that, of course, bears only little relation to how happy one is in this life.

Or does it? This is another of the ideas that we Americans, particularly we crypto- (and not-so-crypto) Calvinists, still labor under. On the one hand, our founding documents declare our political right to happiness; but on the other, how can we ever be sure that our happiness actually means anything? Because (at least according to folk-Calvinism, it would take a longer post to work this thought out in full) we can never be sure that we, individually or socially, are among the saved. Call me skeptical, but I still have a hard time understanding how what the Puritan divines preached in the seventeenth century stuck with us quite as long as it did, particularly after the Transcendentalists had their say; certainly, I've read very little Calvin in my life (still working on that Reformation reading list). But there it is: work hard, examine your conscience, but never presume to believe that you can do anything to help yourself towards salvation, repeat. You can see, perhaps, why I became a medievalist. But I digress (never! I must be more tired than I supposed.)

What interests me here is what makes it so hard for me (us?) to recognize our blessings, at least on a more or less daily basis. Maybe we do: there's that factoid that people's happiness doesn't seem to depend on their material well-being, such that many in circumstances much less comfortable (that's an important word) than mine nevertheless describe themselves as generally happy. My own anxieties, I realize, are generally highly status dependent--and no, before you start professing not to have similar worries, have a look at Alain de Botton's Status Anxiety (2005) or, if you need more persuading, Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (English edition 1985). Insisting that one does not care about status is itself a mark of status in some communities, e.g. white people's. So there you go, I do. The thing is, whose yardstick am I using?

This morning my colleague who is also going to be working on a study of Mary and the psalms reassured me: "The book you are planning in your mind is so wonderful, so big, so important and true.... The Lord has certainly called you for this, and He (through Mary's irresistible intercession) will sustain you through it." (See, what blessings I have? Who could wish for more generous colleagues?) What she sees as my calling, earlier today I was lamenting as a curse: the burden I feel when defining a project, the sense that I have that all of this belongs and so I must learn it, the near crippling (when I'm not thinking clearly) conviction that I have nothing to say unless I have tracked down every reference in full. Perhaps, indeed, God has called me to this and the reason I struggle is because I am resisting, rather than embracing His call. That's the funny thing about blessings like having a friend who is working closely with material that one also wants to understand; they are easy to mistake for curses when one forgets to trust in the Lord.

*It didn't really help that she was a size 4, maximum size 6, always perfectly turned out; being "fat" in my mind simply meant being bigger than she was, which I already was at age 10. My mother is even smaller. Just to put things in perspective.
**In all honesty, I should say that this didn't work as well when I was 10 as it does now. Adults have a rather different sense of humor than 10-year-olds.


  1. This is an encouraging turn around from the last post. From a strictly "academic" perspective, it seems a disaster. But from a broader perspective, company on the road is confirmation of the direction you've taken (and inspired others to take).

    Collegiality in this case could be the difference between one individual's interesting contribution and a new direction for the field at large.


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