On Uselessness, Creativity, Dreams, and Letting Go

A reflection by Sarah

“Yes, those who are sick or incapacitated in some way show the features of Christ; there is a “usefulness of uselessness”. After all, the most useful hours that Christ spent on this earth were on the cross, though they seem utterly useless from our prag­matic point of view.”

This bit of wisdom from the great spiritual writer and activist Catherine de Hueck Doherty came my way rather unexpectedly yesterday afternoon as I was sifting through some old files of research materials on my laptop. Feeling convicted by recent discussions about racism, I was looking for a particular quotation of Catherine’s on discrimination and segregation. But instead, God saw to it that the above paragraph fell before my eyes not even five minutes into my search.

By the time you read this post (if you read it the morning of its release) I’ll be at the hospital getting prepped for and undergoing a surgical procedure on my right ear. At this point in my process of managing life with Ménière’s disease, all nonsurgical treatment options have failed to reduce my chronic vertigo or prevent further permanent hearing loss. As much as I’ve tried to continue living a regular life that includes teaching, dissertation writing, babysitting my favorite toddler, being active in church, and other parts of laboring in my vocation, I have to admit that my level of ability has changed over the past few months — likely over the past few years despite my not noticing it so much until this year. The greatest challenge by far is accepting how my current situation fits into the way God is calling me to spend my life.

I’ve shared here before that doing art is one of my hobbies and that I planned to share some of my images here eventually. As I’ve experienced more periods of exhaustion from vertigo, I’ve found myself drawing or painting from my bed almost every day. I’m feeling rather inarticulate at the moment, so for the rest of this post I’ll use some of my artwork to assist me in reflecting. For starters, this is what I like to imagine is actually happening inside my ear on days when the tinnitus is particularly loud.

Tinnitus

Tinnitus

And this is how it feels to experience a vertigo episode that lasts for hours and includes multiple falls while attempting to get to the bathroom.

Falling

Falling

Returning to the Catherine Doherty quote at the beginning of this post, over the past few months I’ve noticed myself feeling especially useless. I’ve been unable to make dissertation progress, I’ve had to miss much more work than usual, and I’ve had to stop babysitting altogether. Some weeks, I’ve noticed depression symptoms creeping back in, and I’ve wondered whether there’s any meaning to a life lived constantly bouncing back and forth between extremes: productivity and inactivity, balance and out-of-control spinning, working and lying in bed with an art journal, hearing and deafness, good health and total disability. Identity questions that I never expected to arise for me at age 30 have been bursting forth from some place inside that I did not even know existed.

Unzipped

Unzipped

After several weeks of thought, prayer, and consultation with Lindsey, I reached the terribly painful conclusion that it would be best for me to discontinue Ph.D. studies at this time. This decision comes at a great cost, and I’ve already heard every possible challenge including, “Can’t you just take medical leave?” and, “You’re almost there. You’re ABD. Earlier this year, you were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Can’t you just push yourself to finish and take a break then?” Being totally honest with myself, I have to admit that the answer to both of these questions is “No.” I’ve been pushing myself to finish. I’ve been pushing as hard as I possibly can, which only makes me feel guiltier and more worthless when I can’t even get out of bed three days a week. Severe Ménière’s disease by itself is complicated enough. Trying to manage a dissertation in the midst of constant symptoms makes life a nightmare, and being able to call myself “doctor” is not worth what I’ve been putting myself through since my health began to decline rapidly.

My experience of my doctoral program has been fantastic. I couldn’t have asked for a better advisor or committee of readers. I received my MA from the same institution, and from the time I visited campus for my first interview I knew that God was calling me there. But just as clearly, now I hear God calling me to spend this season of life differently. It’s time to let go. As is true for navigating many tough decisions, my art served as a great processing tool.

Chotki

Chotki

Synthesis

Synthesis

Ecclesiastes 3

Ecclesiastes 3

So where is the meaning in all of this? At one time, it was my dream to serve God and minister to others by being a good academic theologian. I wanted (and still want) to share my love of Christ and his Church with university students, challenging them to think more deeply about their assumptions and guiding them toward using their gifts for the greater glory of God. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being a theology teacher. Even if I need to take a semester off here and there, I am confident that teaching is a significant part of my vocation. But lately, I’ve been wondering if God might be using my experience of hearing loss to open new pathways of ministry — even if all I can do some days is paint pictures of peacocks.

His Name Is Isidore

His Name Is Isidore

In moments when I see a playful peacock or an autumn dancer finding its way into my imaginative consciousness, I can’t help but feel joy during an immensely difficult period. Being a Christian has taught me how to wait for hope, joy, and even victory. There’s something profound when the Church observes Christ’s passion with full knowledge that the resurrection is coming. As with Great Lent last year, I find myself plunging into Advent’s darkness knowing that the Light will arrive.

Holy Week and Paschal Vigil

Holy Week & Paschal Vigil

Caught But Not Held

Caught But Not Held

Twister

Twister

Lindsey and I have been praying about what my hearing loss might mean for my ministry. I know that many of you have been remembering me in your prayers. Thank you so much. I’m profoundly grateful. I have questions about how God is shaping my vocation as my hearing loss creates new opportunities for experiencing the world differently. In this sense, it has shown some signs of being a vocational gain. And so I continue to entreat God, remembering Mary’s guidance to do whatever Christ tells me to do…and Catherine Doherty’s reminder that there is a sense of usefulness even in uselessness.

I’ll end today’s post with two abstract interpretations of the inner ear. I’m the sort of nerd who watches videos of any surgical procedure before undergoing it myself, and I’d like to imagine that what lies beneath my mastoid bone is full of fascinating colors. 🙂

Cochlea #1

Cochlea #1

Cochlea #2

Cochlea #2

(Note: the images on this page belong to A Queer Calling and may not be reproduced without permission.)

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18 thoughts on “On Uselessness, Creativity, Dreams, and Letting Go

  1. What a difficult decision this must have been! In the meantime, I’m glad your art is helpful for you, as I love seeing it and hope it keeps coming (though preferably not BECAUSE you’re experiencing health problems). I’m glad you’re not in this alone, and I’m praying for you this morning.

    • Thanks for the prayers, Annie. And I’m glad you stopped by to let me know that you were praying for me yesterday. I felt those prayers all around me! -Sarah

  2. These are awesome, Sarah! Unzipped and His Name is Isidore are the ones that catch my heart first. What’s the story behind “Isidore”? May you find grace and peace as your journey and vocation transform from what was and what was hoped to be to what is, again and again.

    • Hi there! Isidore came to me in a dream once when I was having vertigo in my sleep. It was very strange, but as soon as the vertigo ended and I had enough energy to paint him, I did. And it was lots of fun! Thanks for the encouragement. -Sarah

  3. I was once working on a doctorate and came to a similar struggle deciding to stop my pursuit. My identity was entangled deeply in the decision. Alas, like you, I found my last bit of strength and stopped. It was the greatest decision of my life. I was the same age as you at the time. The past decade has been magical.

    May you have light and love for your journey ahead, and healing for your ear.

    As an aside: may I use your image called “unzipped” for a class ppt about identity construction? Thank you.

    • Hi Anastasia. I feel very much at peace with my decision, and I’m hoping that the next decade will also be a great one for me. Thank you for your words of blessing. And yes, you may use Unzipped for this purpose. 🙂 -Sarah

  4. Sarah,

    <3.

    Being deaf, being a laywoman and scholar, and Christian ministry have intertwined in the opposite order for me — I grew up deaf, but never really got into the active practice of a faith until midway through grad school. And yes, I have found (am starting to explore, really) that there are fascinating ways that my experience with deafness and disability affect my ministry as a scholar (engineer and education researcher), which is (for me) also part of my vocation as a Christian, and the site from which I do my ministry/evangelization.

    It's not necessarily just as simple as "hurrah now you can do ministry to the deaf/disabled/ill/etc population" (although that does exist). There's growth of empathy, and humility, and spiritual consciousness, as you're so clearly experiencing, and it's wonderful to watch your witness of experiencing that with courage, not trying to escape it with sugar-coated words or overwork or soap opera TV or something else. And all the people who know you and are watching you go through this — you are witnessing to them.

    This is woefully inarticulate, and I hope we'll get a chance to talk about this stuff someday in person (hopefully this summer in DC, and also in ASL). But you're walking the walk, and singing your voice, and living your life, and it's with gratitude and admiration that I see you and Lindsey doing what you're doing. So thank you, and know that you're both in my prayers.

    • Hi Mel! Thanks for stopping by and sharing from your heart. I’m looking forward to getting to know you better. I’d love to meet up and practice ASL. Let me know if you would like to sign together over Skype sometime. Lindsey and I are deeply appreciative of your prayers and thoughts. -Sarah

  5. I too have tinnitus as the result of a teacher hitting me on the sides of my head with a book. It has gotten worse over the years, but has not interfered with my life as much as it seems to have done yours. I also had bouts of vertigo which the doctor was investigating as meniers but not having much success. It was terrible when I could hardly walk because I would reel and stumble. However, as a result of a regular annual check up, a heart block was discovered and with a pacemaker the vertigo is rare and quite mild.

    I remember how scary it was to think that I might not be able to continue my regular life and ministry. We each must do what we must do in life to respond to the loving guidance of Christ’s Spirit. You are both in my prayers, and you are never alone as you navigate this new sea change in your life.

    Advent blessings for the (im)patient wait.

    • Thank you so much for the prayers and kind thoughts. Sorry to hear about that situation with your teacher. Sounds awful! I am grateful for your Advent blessings. 🙂 -Sarah

  6. Thanks for sharing these beautiful pictures.

    We often struggle with the desire to put energy and time we don’t have into things which are not central to our vocation and which probably are not Gods will for us.

    I’m sure that not having a PhD won’t stop you continuing to jake a great contribution to theology.

    Best wishes for the operation. Will continue to keep you in our prayers.

    God bless

    • Hi Chris. Thank you for the prayers. I am trying to wait in hope that God will lead me to where I need to be. God bless you. -Sarah

  7. I cried reading this post – seeing your beautiful art and reflections on your illness. I don’t know you at all, Sarah, but I care about you and I’m praying for you. As I keep telling my best friend, who’s going through similar feelings of uselessness: you are fully valuable and beloved by Jesus even if you never do anything for him. He didn’t save you so you could accomplish great works, but because you are his chosen and precious daughter.

    “For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve others, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45

    “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” John 15:9

    • Ivy, thanks for quoting the verse from John. It touched my heart today. Your words are so kind and lovely. I am grateful for your presence here in the comment box, and I’m glad you liked the art. Thank you for reminding me that I am loved and valued. -Sarah

  8. Sarah, your calling for now (what else is there but now) is to lead the way into darkness, or rather perhaps to follow the light, however dim, that is leading you. It is both, actually, because you are leading some of us through your writings. I for one feel right now that your words are a light, as is your art. I am not so frightened or confused because of them. Keep going.

    P.S. I read or heard somewhere that the highest form of theology is prayer.

  9. Oh, Sarah, what an immensely brave and painful discernment. Many warm wishes and prayers as you undergo and recover from surgery and explore God’s leading in the next phase of your life and ministry.

    • Thank you for the warm wishes and kind thoughts. It’s amazing to me how much prayer I’ve felt surrounded by the past couple of days. Blessings to you, Laura. -Sarah

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