By John Rieping | Published 15 May 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Empowering affirmations have perhaps become some of our era's most popular cliches, doomed to be drained of meaning and impact by casual overuse.
Even so, one made me think when I heard it on social media. It says: "You are enough."
To me, the phrase begs for the reply: enough what? Am I enough of an annoyance? Enough of a man? Does it mean my body mass index is healthy? Or that my income is above poverty level?
How am I enough?
The more I pondered the words, the less sense they made to me. If anything is clear, it is that humans are social animals by nature. We're not self sufficient.
This is especially clear in the U.S. today, in which most of us rely on others to feed, house, and equip us in exchange for money. We lack the skills to survive on our own.
But, even if we did, we still would need other creatures around us for the sake of our hearts and minds.
In the 1950s, psychologist Harry Harlow of the University of Wisconsin studied the effects of solitude on rhesus monkeys, who were placed in an inverted pyramid they could not climb out of. After a day or two, most monkeys seemed to lose hope.
They became "profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in places for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves," Harlow said.
Most recovered after returning from isolation, but not all. "Twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially," according to Harlow.
The results of solitary confinement on human prisoners are similar.
In one study, psychiatrist Stuart Grassian of Harvard Medical School found about a third of such inmates were "actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal." Being cut off caused hallucinations, panic attacks, paranoia, hypersensitivity, severe obsessions, difficulty thinking, and more.
Half of all prison suicides in California from 1999-2004 were by those in solitary confinement.
On our own, we are not enough, and we don't have to go to extremes to discover that.
In 2014, a series of 11 studies led by University of Virginia researchers found that most people would rather do something — even if painful — than be alone and undistracted from their own thoughts for 15 minutes.
Among this majority, two out of three men and one out of four women even preferred to self-inflict an electric shock instead of think while undisturbed for 15 minutes.
Not everyone is like this, of course.
I, for one, am an incurable daydreamer and can happily spend hours lost in idle thoughts, whether inventing worlds or solving puzzles in my imagination. During my years as a Benedictine monk in temporary vows, half a year could pass without the itch to walk down the hilltop on which the monastery stood.
I tend to be content.
Yet I too am not immune to loneliness, restlessness, frustrations, failures, pain, or so many other aches that remind us we are not enough.
We humans have a longing for "enough," for fullness, that drives us to connect with the world around us to find what we lack. It is a universal hunger and, if we deny it, we devour ourselves.
This hunger is the "emptiness" I wrote of near the end of my last column.
Neither pain nor pleasure can do more than distract us from this ache, and nothing in our lives can ease it for more than a time. As a Christian, I suspect it is this hunger that led our first parents to aspire to become like gods -- self sufficient -- by rebellion (Bereishit/Genesis 3:1-6).
It is a hunger for divinity.
We who claim to be Christians must offer this emptiness to God by resisting the urge to fill it with anything less than the divine.
That can be hard.
In heaven, Christians believe, we will be united with God fully and be fulfilled utterly. So much so that sadness will be impossible. Our hunger, so endless, will be satisfied by the infinite one.
Meanwhile, though, we don't experience this. We may love God, but we ache even so.
That is what makes the offering of our emptiness so pleasing to God. It is the yearning of a faithful lover.
"No gift is proper to a Deity; / no fruit is worthy for such power to bless. / If you have nothing, gather back your sigh, / and with your hands held high, your heart held high, / lift up your emptiness!"
— Jessica Powers, aka Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit (1905-1988)