National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 29, 2003

Seeking comfort in a world shook up


Oldest trick in the book: Start writing again by writing about why you haven’t been writing.

I tap the keys faster and faster, each stroke making the task more doable. Then I gulp in panic, hurry to the kitchen and wash the soaking dinner dishes. My God, the mail’s still unopened, all those neglected friends and creditors.

I’ve been doing things for six weeks now. Stapling invoices from the ’60s to help my husband the archivist meet his grant deadline. Reorganizing all the furniture in our tiny house to accommodate a lucky-find dining room set with enough pieces to serve a medieval banquet. Gathering household goods for Somali Bantu refugees who would be stunned to have a dining room.

Oh, and I just started a new job after 10 years as a reporter, and I need to learn Quark, Photoshop, Illustrator, scanning, digital photography and PR protocol all at once, while meeting two months of unmet deadlines. My --

My what? I stopped in mid-sentence to dry a dog who smells like the bayou, and now I cannot remember my intent. Except that it was my intent, something I was about to claim and control. That’s been the point, these six weeks. Regaining control, and at least a glimmer of competence, so I can live the necessary fiction of mastery over a life thrown into chaos.

Chaos, scientists tell us, is complexity; what happens looks random and disorganized because we cannot discern the variables and their interactions.

I do not like chaos.

I do not like feeling overwhelmed and uncertain, like a Victorian banker trying to navigate eBay.

And so I do things. Learn codes and shortcuts. Organize files and furniture. Figure out the best and least trafficky route to my new job. I create, in short, new habits, so my overwhelmed brain can settle into a familiar routine again.

Habit is dulling.

Habit is necessary.

It is a living creature’s attempt to survive in an unpredictable world by using predictable strategies, thus conserving as much energy as possible for surprises.

But it locks the mind into patterns of doing without thinking.

My goal is to create enough new habits that I can let my mind wander again. But the doing seduces me; it feels urgent and necessary even when it’s not. Every time I act and see consequences, I am reassured about my ability to control my surroundings.

This is dangerous. What I should be doing is praying every time somebody asks me to create a brochure, because I am nowhere near controlling anything.

But prayer is terrifying when you’re trying to control your world. Prayer would require me to empty my chattering mind. Like writing, prayer requires silence. Openness. Reflection.

And then everything I’m scared about, everything new and unfamiliar, will flood the gates.

Maybe if I could skip that step? Cut straight to intimate communion with God without admitting fear and inadequacy?

No cheating.

So I don’t pray. I let my nerves push me into motion. Often it’s wasted motion: I check out library books I will never fathom; make lists and folders before I even know what I’m organizing.

But I have the illusion of control.

There, I’ve admitted my pathetic quest. Now all I have to do is --

My husband calls from the porch: The gutters are leaking. Eagerly I flip to a clean page, write a note to call the roofer, look up his number so I have it ready. I press for details: Where exactly shall I tell him to look? The water has formed a spout? Ah, then we can pinpoint the trouble spots. This is comforting.

I tear the page off slowly.

The one beneath it is blank.

Maybe this is why we approach God through liturgy, leaving only small windows for spontaneous reflection. Any more freedom and our brains would explode. The same is true for leisure: How often do we arrange to spend time with someone we love and leave the hours unplanned? Rites and rituals tap deep into the human psyche -- but they also tap our fear of what might emerge if we didn’t have ways to frame and regulate our experience. Like habits, rituals both free our minds and dull them. They give us a shortcut to powerful experiences and an illusion of mastery over our changing lives. But they remove the need to greet each experience as new and unique, sit with it in silence and think through every facet of how it affects us.

Sure, it’s been hard to be reflective because I’m in that anxious new-job phase. We all go through it and it passes. But I also happen to be terrified that I’ve copped out by choosing a nice safe PR job because the kind of journalism I love -- idealistic, in-depth coverage of social issues -- now qualifies for the endangered species list.

There’s no resolution for that tension. But there is a correct resolution when scanning for publication: 300 dots per inch.

I’ve memorized it.

Jeannette Cooperman is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 2003

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