Kate Blanchard, Alma College
I’m not gonna lie: my semester is over and I am toast.
I’ve dragged myself into the office most weekdays since turning in my final grades, but all I can seem to manage so far is showing up to various committee meetings (or piddling tasks related to said meetings), responding to emails, and emptying my office candy bowl of everything my students didn’t finish during the semester. I have not yet managed a serious start on a syllabus, an article, or a book proposal—much less figured out how to resist despair over the everyday horrors of America in 2017.
Like many of you, I imagine, I am emotionally exhausted. When my mind gets started on the myriad injustices in the world, or the countless things I could/should be doing, it bounces around like a pinball. It cannot settle on one particular horror but ricochets off of racist police killings onto health care, from climate change to economic inequality, from Russian-flavored dictators to anti-Muslim violence, from corporate theft to mass incarceration. (Admittedly it is my privilege that life has not thrust one particular issue upon me.) During the semester I am able to find daily inspiration for resistance in many of “the classics” that I read alongside my students, but once the term is over, how am I to prioritize the many sources of outrage and grief that demand my attention? And all this is to say nothing of the pinball of personal obligations that I’m currently failing at: mothering, exercising, responsibly consuming, partnering, volunteering, lobbying, befriending…you get the picture.
Sadly, when I need a path to detox from outrage and grief overload, I tend to look elsewhere than Christianity. At least as I have known it, Christianity is terrific at outrage but terrible at self-care. (How my gut recoils at the term “self-care”!) Even the Beverly Harrison quote on this blog suggests that self-care might be problematic for true feminism or genuine social justice. But the truth is we—or at least I—sometimes have to “absent ourselves” from what is going on in the world, if only to remember who we are and what we care most about.
When I want to come back to myself, I gravitate toward Buddhist teachings, mostly as interpreted by Western practitioners. (I wish I didn’t have to feel guilty about heresy, or worse, cultural appropriation, but there it is. I comfort myself knowing the Buddha himself had an evangelistic impulse.) A very helpful source is Sounds True, which offers free podcasts as well as some paid subscriptions. I’m currently participating in one year-long workshop to practice mindfulness. Some days I do very brief sitting meditations to bring my monkey mind back to my body; a simple moment to feel my feet on the ground, or feel how my facial muscles are clenched, is an important reminder of my finitude, my small everyday-ness. It is such a gift to be able to pause, even if only for a couple of seconds, and to be exactly where I am and who I am. Sometimes there’s a lecture, such as one by this Zen priestess, who talks about the necessity of individual contemplation, and of claiming the space one’s body takes up, as paths to social peace. And recently I read a new-agey book that reminded me that I want to love people—I really do!—to love them rather than judge or merely tolerate them. For some reason this message coming from an unfamiliar source hits home more deeply than once more repeating “love your neighbor” or “love your enemies” from the gospels.
Christianity does of course offer plenty of “intellectual, pedagogical, spiritual, and moral resources” that are “valuable in resistance to hatred, indifference, and injustice.” But if at some point you find that these resources ring hollow, that they do nothing for you except make you feel more fatigued and less inspired, then I suggest exploring a different path that might speak to you anew. It is not that these alternate spiritual resources replace Christian teaching, but that they shift my perspective in a way that lets me return to familiar traditions with fresh eyes.
So here are some paradoxes: In order to flourish in Christian ethics, explore other traditions. And in order to reach out to other people in love, first come home to yourself. Navel-gazing probably doesn’t come naturally to many of us; women scholars tend to be do-ers and not just thinkers or feelers. But I, for one, am in desperate need of centering, and what better place to start than my own body, mind, and breath, which are always right here waiting for me?
Kate Blanchard is Professor of Religious Studies at Alma College. She is currently thinking about abortion, about the relationship between economics and environmentalism, and about the relationship between theology/ethics and the academic study of religion.