Why I Will Never be a Ninja Vicar

I have had two acute bouts of Anxiety in my life.  Bouts that required medication which re-established a 'normal' baseline, from which I could then live my life.  I tell you this because Anxiety is less understood as a mental health issue, than Depression. Anxiety by itself is a 'thing'.  During my experiences I never felt depressed.  But I did feel plenty of other things: frustrated (deeply), scared (a lot), hypochondriac-al (constantly).

Often it was difficult for me to get out of bed in the morning.  Sometimes I could be feeling fine, doing normal run-of-the-mill daily things, and then I would suddenly be in the middle of a paralysing panic attack. Every day had potential, but I just seemed to wake up in 'fight or flight' mode.

These acute periods lasted about a year each time.  and I haven't had one of those for almost 10 years now.  Although I still have times where I get out of kilter with myself - I recognise the signs better.  The worst is when I feel I'm hurtling towards a black hole and have very little purchase on the world around me to prevent the descent. Prolonged stressful living is likely to trigger a period of Anxiety, and if I ignore the warning signs, that's where I'm headed.

It would be very easy for me to 'spiritualise' this experience, in fact on one level it is the right thing, the good thing to do.  I spent a good portion of the five minutes before getting up in the morning (not really an option because during one of these acute bouts I had a 1 yr old and a 3 yr old), mantra-ing to myself 'This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it'.  An instruction, a discipline to myself, to choose the good, to choose to believe something contrary to my immediate experience.  I'm sure that for others having their own brand of mental health experience, this wouldn't necessarily have been a choice that was able to be made, but for me it was.

I also believe that the raw vulnerability which comes with some of these experiences, opens us to God in ways which can only become available to us when we have no defence left.

Having these experiences has in a very real way, been profoundly Christian. This is truth.

But there is another truth too. That it hurts.  That every time I feel anxious or panicky... I wish I was stronger. Still, after over 15 years.  There are bits of me that would exchange dependence on God, knowing God better, wholehearted acceptance of my utter reliance on the Creator of the Cosmos, for being invulnerable, strong, safe, defended.

In particular it is difficult to be involved in Christian leadership and be cracked.

I notice that we talk about it all the time - the need to be vulnerable (even without the mental health issues which compel it). But my observation is that we are pretty inept at it, or honouring it.  We want alpha males, we want omnicompetence.

We want clergy special ops. Hi-yah!

Any vulnerability is the kind which is to be epitomised by those 80s posters of muscle men holding babies. The kind that will pull himself together soon.  In that sense occasionally we can give the impression that vulnerability is okay.

But I'm not convinced.

And for the female of the species it's often a complete no-no.  Our vulnerability is distasteful, the kind that means there are some who point and declare we are unfit to lead.

And yet.

I know that my experiences of being vulnerable, vulnerable in the realms of mental health, vulnerable in the realms of a male dominated vocation, vulnerable in the realms of needy creature-hood, are more true than the experiences of the tough cookie I sometimes pretend to be.

My vulnerability is the truth about me.

And this is why, I will never be a Ninja Vicar.


Duncan said...

Thanks for raising these important issues. It's such a fine line (esp for clergy) between being vulnerable in a way that shows we are human, but not so 'needy' that we use that role to meet our needs. It's a curious combination of maturity and brokenness - perhaps the two are closer than we think.

Kevin Wright said...

Read Henri Nouwen "The Wounded Healer"...same concept.

Jody Stowell said...

Hi Duncan

It is indeed a fine line. Although I'm beginning to think that most of us walk very far away from it - so concerned about being seen as 'needy' that we head scampering off in the other direction.

I also think you've hit the nail on the head, perhaps inadvertently - as clergy we live in a world of projections and transference of others hopes and desires about who we are. You say 'being vulnerable in a way that shows we are human' - but it mustn't be about the 'show', vulnerability is about the truth of who we are, not whether it serves to build up the role we inhabit.


Jody Stowell said...

Hi Kevin

Yes, Nouwen is a hero of mine - something which would horrify him I'm sure :)

I haven't read Wounded Healer, but have found great wisdom in 'In the Name of Jesus' and 'The Inner Voice of Love', both which expound this.


Julie w said...

I thought this blog post was as excellent as usual. Your point about clergy receiving projections and transference very insightful. I think honesty and authenticity are important qualities in our priests. It's a powerful witness when asking others to deepen their commitment to a genuine and trusting relationship with Christ and I think most congregations are astute enough to see through the falseness of ninjas.

Jody Stowell said...

Hi Julie

thanks. Yes, although I think the way that priesthood is set up can lead to a fear of the humanity of the priest. And we can collude with that very easily in our own collegial groups. :)


evd.macrina@btinternet.com said...

I have been ordained for 14 years but for five years now I have had to be "early retired" due to sickness. The freedom to be myself and the joy of letting divine love be in charge instead of my frightened ego has been immense. I would not wish mental ill health on anyone but for me it has been the path to true, spiritual healing and a fulfilment of my priestly vocation which is exercised both within the institution of the church and everywhere else too! Thank you for speaking out

Michael Wenham said...

If I may add, being I diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease was, imho, the making of my ministry and the church where I was vicar. I clearly was not the alpha male, just one of a community of broken people living in grace. In retrospect, it was a special time! I'm glad you'll never be a ninja vicar :-)

Jody Stowell said...

Wow Michael, how insightful. I'm still learning, keep having to remind myself of this. Keep trying to be super-vicar. What nonsense! :)