Grace and the Incomplete Flush

By Sara Zarr

Almost two years ago my husband and I bought a condo in a cool old building downtown. Great location, hardwood floors, exposed brick, pocket doors—charm and more charm. The trouble with cool old buildings is that they are rife with plumbing and electrical issues as ancient systems jury-rigged to keep up with modern times continually fail.

Our previous home had these same issues. The electrical never bothered me much—an ungrounded outlet here, a shorted breaker there, a little smoke wafting out of the dimmer switch of a summer evening. Life.

But the plumbing. The plumbing is another story. The primary symptom of its troubles (and all of my angst about it) coalesces around what is known in the biz as an “incomplete flush.” No matter how many times you flush the toilet, you can never quite get rid of all evidence that you had to use it.

This creates a low level of stress that’s with me all the time. What will I find when I go into the bathroom? What will remain when I leave? How do I politely explain to guests what to expect and not to worry about it?

“It won’t overflow,” I assure them. “It only looks like it will.”

What will they think of me?

 

I have a number of recurring anxiety dreams.

One is about being in college and realizing I have a test in a class I’ve somehow neglected to attend for the entire semester. Common. Another common one is a version of “the actor’s nightmare,” in which I’m about to go on stage before an audience only I’ve never seen a script and I might also be partially nude.

The third that I often have involves toilets, some variation of “I gotta go” and I can’t find a single toilet that isn’t dirty, overflowing with waste, in a stall without a door, in a room without a stall, or, oddly, in a flooded gym locker room. I assume this one is pretty common, too.

 

My friends and I, when we talk about our various spiritual and psychological and childhood issues, often say: “Oh, I’m just dealing with my shit.” Or, “Sorry, my shit was coming up,” when we overreact to a perceived slight or rejection.

Anything that feels like evidence of what we find ugly or gross about ourselves we equate to literal crap, and ideally we could just flush it all away and never have it bubble back up at inconvenient moments, never look messy, never feel soiled.

Sometimes I have a difficult time maintaining relationships once they feel dirtied—and they all get dirtied. I want tidy closures and sparkling reconciliation, for everything that seemed foul and repulsive to be whooshed away into the great sewer of the universe and be completely forgotten.

I have this belief that it would be less painful to be a young widow than to have to struggle through a difficult conversation in marriage, that it would be neater to have no friends at all than to work at loving people and letting them love me once we’ve seen what’s down there clogging up the drain, that it would be better to move on from a job once I’ve sent a regrettable email or missed a deadline.

I guess what I want is for there to never be evidence of my sin. I guess what I want is to never need forgiveness, understanding, patience, or mercy. I guess I don’t want to need saving. I guess I want to be perfect.

I joke about being a “perfectionist” and how it can freeze me up when I’m trying to write. With writing it’s one thing, just a minor symptom. It’s serious, though, when it comes to my spirit and my ability to have meaningful relationships (including with myself) in the light of the gospel.

Though the anxiety of not being perfect crosses every social divide, religious anxiety and some types of doctrine can really exacerbate it. My Mormon friends deal with this, I know, as do my friends from evangelical backgrounds.

But in theory, anyway, it seems like Christians should be the best at being okay with not being perfect. We confess our inability to save ourselves, and exchange our imperfection for Christ’s perfection. It’s not our job to be perfect, but to let Christ’s perfect love live in us and through us, and to know that and nothing else as our salvation.

Still, there is a point in every day where I have some version of the thought: But tomorrow I will be perfect.

The thought isn’t spiritual; a thought nowhere near to taking hold of Christ’s perfection.

It is a thought that encompasses what I will eat and how I will exercise, and that I will say nothing mean or sarcastic to my husband, that I will write a thousand perfect words and only tweet perfect tweets. I will make my hair perfect and my clothes perfect and this will probably involve buying something.

I’ll make sure no one sees me being petty, afraid, envious, stupid, or uninformed. And I will do this all through sheer force of will. Jesus doesn’t even cross my mind.

Then I wake up to the new day of perfection, and I have to use my cranky old toilet and go another round with the fact that I am messy, and my ways are messy, and my thoughts and issues are messy, and my relationships don’t always have the whiff of clean summer breezes, and everybody knows it.

Today I will need grace; I will need salvation.

Tomorrow, I will need it again.

The above originally appeared on Good Letters at Patheos and is reblogged with the permission of the author. 

 

Sara Zarr is the author of five novels for young adults, most recently The Lucy Variations, which the New York Times called “an elegant novel.” Her sixth, a collaborative novel with Tara Altebrando, came out December 2013. She’s a National Book Award finalist and two-time Utah Book Award winner. Her books have been variously named to annual best books lists of the American Library Association, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, The Guardian, the International Reading Association, the New York Public Library and the Los Angeles Public Library, and have been translated into many languages. In 2010, she served as a judge for the National Book Award. In fall 2014, she received a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband, and online at www.sarazarr.com.

Technology habits and the connections that really matter

Over the past five years, I have gradually become attached to a laptop. A couple of months ago, I reluctantly got a smart phone. Of course I know I am not all-that-strange for these personal facts, but as one who prefers to be more centered on my spiritual life and my relationship with God than on things, I actually feel ashamed to admit that I spend most of my time interacting with machines.

Of course, the technology can aid me in my connecting to God and neighbor, right? It’s a tool I get to control how I want, right? It doesn’t control me, does it?

Well, a quick assessment of my day reveals that I do, in fact, use technology to connect with God and serve others. I use the Daily Catholic and CRS Rice Bowl apps for prayer. I frequently listen to hymns and read Scripture reflections online. And, I certainly use technology for acts of service and activism and help moderate a Facebook group called The Vocation Discerners (which I founded years ago.) I certainly stay in touch with my dearest friends and family through email, Twitter, Facebook, texting, and even Instagram. Of course my ministry as a writer here and elsewhere requires technology too. These are not bad things!

Still, I am not proud of how much of my life is consumed by technology usage. In this season of Lent, a season that invites consciousness and conversion, I’m trying to honor my cravings for less screen time and more soul-centered time. This focus is causing a clearer portrait of the roots of my struggle to come into view.

A writer I greatly admire, Sara Zarr, recently wrote a reflection of her Internet history of the past twenty years. In the piece, she shares how she began this Lent with the intention of tracking (and possibly changing) her Internet habits. She acknowledges how using it has its pros and cons, and much of her patterns of usage are ultimately rooted in the core human need to connect, to relate. As for her Lenten intentions and possibly changing those patterns, she states “it turned out Lent … happened to be a time where I got to see and experience and lots of reminders of why I wanted to change it in the first place.”

I really appreciate Sara’s honesty about her tendency to use the Internet compulsively. She said it, but I’ve experienced it too: “It is the easiest, fastest way to relieve a moment of loneliness, to procrastinate, to fill a void, to get an ego hit, a dopamine rush, approval…I mean, we all know how that works. It’s hard to turn off and look away.”  Whoa, doesn’t she just name exactly what continues to drive us all online? Certainly, much of the shame and guilt I feel about my own technology usage is due to the things that drive me into it—not because of the fact that I am using technology itself.

Source: Pandodaily.wordpress.com

Spirit is involved in all of this. God is with us in our loneliness, in our habits of avoidance, in our needs for approval and connection. Spirit invites us into holiness and health, not disappointment or frustration. If we let the tools of technology lead us to the right places of prayer and communion, we can meet God, deepen our relationships, and serve others. But, if our human weakness and its sinful nature gets the best of us, we can lose control and technology can become self-serving or even an addiction.

Much of what’s at work is our living in a bit of gap. There’s a gap between our preferred behaviors and our actual behaviors. We can find God in this gap and discover ways to serve others, live in community, to share and participate. That’s what living the Gospel is all about.

It’s part of the reason why the Time article about the “sharing economy” fascinates me so much. I couldn’t help but to think about Jesus’ mission when I read about how many people are giving of their time and resources in order to connect with their neighbors or complete strangers (and yes, at times, to earn a bit of money) by sharing their car, their stuff and their meals. Our Gospel living is about connecting, relating and serving. It’s about communion and building community. It’s about willing the good of the other. If technology helps us with that, then it indeed can be a tool used for God’s purposes.

As we ponder the signs of this time, such as what is occurring in ecology, I believe that technology usage demands our attention. On this topic Ilia Delio writes, “…We humans are becoming something new with technology. Technology is evoking new patterns of relatedness which now include an artificial device. Hence, we need an operative definition of IT as ‘intentional technology.'”

As it turns out I need not be ashamed about my technology habits, as I’m united with many in my dilemmas. Instead, I can heed the invitation of this Lenten season and let my increased consciousness influence my choices. By the grace of God, I can change and become more intentional in my use of technology. With more intentionality I shall gain more freedom. By the grace of God, we all will.