Usually it’s a novel, perhaps an Agatha Christie mystery, with characters I can’t stop thinking about or gripping plots that keep me turning pages. But strangely, twice within the last year, I found myself reading an entire non-fiction book in a single day, and both were by the same author: Roxane Gay.
For those unfamiliar, Gay is a left-wing writer and speaker, a lapsed cradle Catholic, a college professor and author of multiple books, who describes herself — aptly, if you ask me — as a “bad feminist.” On most hot-button issues, she falls somewhere between “far” and “very far” from me on the political spectrum; some of her writing features a robust defense of abortion rights, for instance.
And yet I find her work mesmerizing, not least because I find her, as an individual, and her life story, compelling and, in some respects, beautiful. In spite of her success, Gay has lived a very difficult life, and in many ways, reading her candid memoir Hunger and her essay collection Bad Feminist reminded me quite viscerally that we can never really know what’s going on for someone behind the page or the screen, or even behind the gaze of the person across the table.
It is a fitting reminder as we come to another haunting Good Friday, another Saturday with the churches dark, another Easter Sunday and its blaze of glory. Each of us arrives at this Triduum bearing a burden of some sort, some heavier than others, all needing to be laid down at the foot of the Cross.
Just after finishing Hunger, I followed it up with another non-fiction read atypical of my literary diet, and a book as different from Gay’s memoir as one could find: Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection. Brown became famous several years ago with a viral TED Talk on the power of vulnerability, a chief topic of her research into how we all experience shame and human connection.
In her book, Brown argues that the most joyful human beings, those who believe in their self-worth, who reject perfectionism and have the highest levels of “shame resilience,” are those who embrace the power of courage, compassion, and connection, all of which require a willingness to be vulnerable. Though Brown’s research and advice is interesting as far as it goes — more useful as a window into basic psychology than as a true self-help book — her findings are far more intriguing when studied through the lens of faith, and this Easter season.
In her chapter on the subject of faithfulness, Brown says her research indicates that individuals tend to believe more strongly in their self-worth and thus are more resilient — particularly in the face of shame — when they believe in something bigger than themselves. It need not be God or a religious practice of any kind, she’s found, but merely a spiritual connection to nature or a sense of some higher purpose.
This finding makes some sense, but its vagueness represented for me what was lacking from the book as a whole: an understanding of why exactly human connection and vulnerability are particularly important in the effort to believe that we are valuable. It’s all well and good to research and understand the way the human mind works and its effect on lived experience, but it is in Christian theology — not in the nebulous embrace of some “higher power” — that we can most fully understand our meaning and purpose, and thus our need for vulnerability.
It is only in knowing about our creation in God’s image and likeness — knowing that we were created good and made out of love to love God in return — that we can make full sense of our human nature and our purpose. It is only in knowing about the Fall that we can really understand our senseless suffering, our sin, the ways we inflict hurt on one another. It is only in the truth of the Resurrection that we can find hope, a path from brokenness to redemption.
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