Thursday, November 6, 2014

Anne Lammott's 'Small Victories' - Review by Ethan Richardson

The church I attend is trying to reboot their “pastoral care ministry”, which is one of those amorphous seminary terms for something that could (and maybe should) mean more than it intends. Isn’t the job of a pastor to care? I got a little worried when I heard ours needed rebooting! I haven’t gone to seminary, but it doesn’t take long in a tour of church websites to see what is generally meant by pastoral care: hospital visits, home visits, prayer shawls, marriage counseling, baptisms, funerals. In other words, pastoral care has a lot to do with the church sharing in someone’s bouts of joy and grief. To be in some precious spaces with vulnerable people, and to help. Luther calls it the tending of souls (die Seelen weiden). If this is pastoral care, it is the heart of ministry. “Weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice.”
As many of us know, perhaps quite personally, what often goes wrong happens in the “help” part of this equation, mainly because of the index we use to insure the moment has been tended to. One or two things generally happen. One, the minister (I’m using this term broadly here) coats a painful–or beautiful–circumstance with a platitude or cliche, something that adds the whiff of a God-dimension to the room without actually waiting for God to say anything. Second–and this often happens because of the first–the door closes in the room. For whatever reason, whether it be the minister’s legitimate fear of the moment’s meaninglessness, or just lazy agitation with the emotions you don’t feel, the minister closes the door to what’s allowed. Feelings become encased in ought-to-feels, and the soul’s basement adds one more box of latent resentment and grief.
Enter the courageous Anne Lamott, the dreadlocked sufferer who’s been unpacking boxes, in narrative form, for the last thirty years, and has just released her most recent collection, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace. Salon just did an interview with her about the new book, the reason so many of her stories have to do with suffering, and the state of her prospects as a cellulit 60-year-old. She talks about the fear we have, as both the recipients and companions of trauma, of dealing with that trauma. Aging helps, she says. You find you care a little less about how you ought to feel in certain situations. At the same time, she lays out an impeccable blueprint for what “pastoral care” ought to be about. And it begins with being a sufferer yourself.
Grief is just so scary. Our grief and rage just terrify us. If we finally begin to cry all those suppressed tears, they will surely wash us away like the Mississippi River. That’s what our parents told us. We got sent to our rooms for having huge feelings. In my family, if you cried or got angry, you didn’t get dinner.
We stuffed scary feelings down, and they made us insane. I think it is pretty universal, all this repression leading to violence and fundamentalism and self-loathing and addiction. All I know is that after 10 years of being sober, with huge support to express my pain and anger and shadow, the grief and tears didn’t wash me away. They gave me my life back! They cleansed me, baptized me, hydrated the earth at my feet. They brought me home, to me, to the truth of me.