Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Prayer for Persistence and Reform

Mr. Camp, it is my professional opinion that you have bipolar disorder.

Many people who have been informed of bad news like this take it differently than I did. They describe their immediate reaction like a punch to the gut, as though this means that their life is over. My original psychiatric diagnosis was treatment-resistant depression, which meant that this news was not unexpected. For three or four years before that particular moment, I’d been hanging on by my fingernails, trying to manage the pain. Keeping out of the hospital whenever possible was my main goal. By then, I took several daily medications, drugs I’d long since accepted I’d need to take the rest of my life.

That said, I wouldn’t downplay what I was told. It changed my life. The milder hypomanic episodes I’d already been experiencing could now be rightly categorized for the first time. I waited for the first major episode to arrive with baited breath, knowing that it could strike at any time. Mania, for lack of a better term, tends to fry the brain. Today, I recognize that the way I think and perceive those around me has been dramatically changed.

Mania makes many hyper-religious. In the middle of an episode, I speak like a seminar student or evangelical minister. I am religious by nature, a quality that usually leads those around me towards conclusions that are plausible, but aren’t always correct. Once, a few years ago, I had to have bladder surgery. In the recovery room, I remember telling the nurse stationed nearby the full story of the Religious Society of Friends, dating from the 1640’s. She was a Mormon and found my anecdotes interesting. I imagine emerging from anesthesia causes strange behavior in many.

I believe that the trying, troublesome times I have experienced have given me the ability to better know God. It bothers me how many people my own age don’t believe. I do respect their own journey, but I wonder if they've never been adequately schooled in how to develop a relationship with the Divine. Though I’m glad I left Alabama, I miss the ability to be public about religious belief. Yankees are private about such matters, limiting sharply their religious discourse with others, losing the opportunity to grow their numbers in the process.

Depending on how you parse the statistics, religious belief continues to hold steady, or it is completely eroding away. To me, God is alive, but to some, he is dead. Urban, liberal Quakers have been losing membership for years, but the same is true for urban, liberal believers of any faith group. A month or so ago, a reader left a comment on a blog post of mine, stating that the reason he remained a non-believer for years was that his parents kept no religious observance of their own. Baby boomers cast a skeptical eye towards religion, one they frequently passed on to their children.

My job is to fight against this belief, however I can. The work is difficult. The young adults who are attracted to my Meeting usually do not hang around for long. 80% of them attend once or twice and then move elsewhere. They’re dabblers by nature. Even so, it deserves to be said that more conservative houses of worship have similar problems. The people I’ve described are often termed “the inert.” They stay on membership rolls, but rarely participate more than a minimum. In other settings and other causes, the inert exist there too, producing in organizers great frustration.

Not all Quakers are created equal, or created with equal beliefs. I am allied with two separate branches of the Religious Society of Friends, one of which patently refuses to do mission work, and the other which considers proselytizing and winning souls for Christ essential. Because of the work of this branch, there are now more Friends in Kenya and Bolivia than the whole of North America. I feel personally torn. Quakers now comprise less than 1% of the population in North America. At our heyday in the 19th Century, we only made up a paltry 3% of the United States. We’ve been losing ground for a long time and unlike many of the mainline faith groups, we never had far to go from the outset.

The recent Young Adult conference I attended included participants from Africa and those with Latin American roots, in addition to those with Jewish heritage who now identify as Quaker. This is a good start, but like every group, faith, or movement that is predominately Caucasian, we have had a persistent issue with attracting people of color. A book popular among Friends is entitled Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship. The issue is known, and yet still we struggle. The title speaks about our reluctance to count among us black members, even as we took substantial risks in establishing full civil rights for recently freed slaves.

I can’t help but worry sometimes that I’m fighting an uphill battle. Feminists worry the same thing about their own numbers, which have shrunk considerably since their apex in the 1970’s. There is never any lack of committed leaders, but the breakthrough to the next level is what everyone seeks. Leadership without followers is not enough. Following does not mean giving up one’s agency. I follow Jesus, but I do not surrender my unique God-given path in the process. This is what many fail to recognize about religious faith. We are not robots, doing the same task as the robot next to us. It is possible to serve God in more than one way.

Bipolar seemed daunting at the time, but I attacked a substantial problem step by step. I try to keep this in mind with every conversation I have and every column I write. I’ve been on medications long enough that I make room for them in my life. My work to make myself well is a continual struggle, but I believe that life is not meant to be easy. No worthwhile crusade comes easily and it never will.

1 comment:

Daniel Francis said...

Friend speaks my mind.
I'm a recently convinced Young Adult Friend of color, and I also share a lot of these concerns. I don't have all the answers yet, but know that you are one of many who share your experience. And we can find a path forward for the Religious Society of Friends so that we can grow spiritually and numerically.