Limbo or Purgatory? Advice for the Impatient

While having dinner with a couple of friends this weekend, I said I was fed up of my limbo situation and that it’s high time things moved on. Other than reassurances that  things are bound to change soon and that nothing but death is permanent, this statement also gave me a germ of an idea for further research. People who have not had any religious education whatsoever (like me) tend to glibly assume that limbo and purgatory are much the same thing, and that they refer to ‘transition states’. However, the truth is of course much more complex. Needless to say, it’s the Catholics who have raised the subject to an art form so I will refer mainly to their interpretation. (I always associate Catholic doctrine with the Baroque – they do like to overcomplicate things but can lead to stunningly beautiful results – but that’s a topic for a different post.)

Limbo is not part of the official doctrine, but has been accepted by many Catholic scholars as the temporary state of those worthy people (who perhaps committed some minor sins but no more than that) who could not enter Heaven until redeemed by Jesus Christ. So, essentially those who were born before the birth of Christ and therefore could not have heard of him or been saved by him are in a waiting room.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante depicts Limbo as the first circle of Hell, but above it, a castle stuffed to the gills with virtuous pagans of classical history and mythology, such as Julius Caesar, Virgil, Electra and Orpheus, as well as non-Christians.

Purgatory is for those souls who have sinned, and are not sufficiently free of their sins (i.e. have not prayed enough or led a life of penance) to go to heaven. The outcome (heaven) is not in doubt, but they have to pass through a sort of spiritual car-wash to get there. Except, this being all biblical and fearsome, the cleansing is done through painful punishment, most often by fire.

Dante likens it to climbing a steep mountain, with seven levels of suffering (one for each of the seven deadly sins), which are also opportunities for spiritual growth. Earthly paradise – the Garden of Eden – awaits at the top and let’s hope that it is serpent-free or else you might have to start the long ascent all over again.

So, which one of these states am I in?

At first glance, it must be purgatory, although the final outcome of heaven may seem in some doubt. Certainly all of my deadly sins are taking a pummeling: Pride is being shattered through daily rejections, which provokes Wrath and Gluttony (a lot of nervous comfort eating). I become envious of others who seem to lead normal lives and have become really stingy with my money for fear of losing it all (avarice). Finally, there are days when sloth gets the better of me and I am so struck by the futility of all of my efforts, that the best policy is to just stay under the duvet.

But there are even worse days when I think limbo is the operative word after all. Waiting with no end in sight. For someone as impatient and active as myself, this seems very much like the entrance-way to hell.

So what advice can I offer myself (and anyone else who is impatient but stuck in a transition stage)? Don’t worry, I’m not going all ‘wise coaching guru’ on you. I’m just reminding myself, because I haven’t cracked it yet, by any means. [Warning: Mixed metaphors may follow.]

  1. Find small things to enjoy in the present but also things to look forward to in the near future. A combination of mindfulness and anticipation.

I still try to keep on filling that biscuit tin with little scraps of paper on which I scribble things that have made me happy. Most recent example: surviving a 7 mile walk through forests, up and down hills, despite the rain and mud.

But I also try to have at least one thing to look forward to every week. This week, it will be quite a major thing: a whole day in London, taking in London Book Fair, meeting up with several friends, and a poetry reading in the evening. Other weeks, it’s been something much smaller: a film, dinner with friends, a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages.

2. Stop being afraid of not being in control at all times.

Yes, lack of control is horrible for most of us, but there are times when external circumstances really do push us in ways we cannot do much about, no matter how many self-help books we read or how many times we are told that we become what we think.

Two things help me gain perspective. First, I ask myself: is it worth losing my health, sleep and sanity over this problem? Secondly: When they write my obituary, how many lines are they going to give to this part of my life? Am I going to let it define me?

3. Allow yourself time to get those feelings off your chest.

Rant, rave, throw stuff around, cry, do weird ritual dances and recite incantations and curses. Just do in the privacy of your home or somewhere in a forest where no one can see you, and in front of no one else. And, although friends say they want to be there for you, by the time you tell them the same story for the tenth time, they will almost certainly find something better to do.

Better write it all down, to someday make a masterpiece of it, when the distance is there.

4. It’s OK to take a day off, to not be constantly in the driving seat. Postpone without guilt. An hour in bed with a good book can make all the difference. Don’t even bother to review it – so freeing, isn’t it?

5. Yet the longer we wallow in the mud, the harder it becomes to get out of it. As Epictetus said, we can only control our internal mind, not the external world, which we can (at best) only hope to influence. Do you really want to go down in history as the ‘eternal victim’?

6. The key is not to get what we want, but to want what we get…

Yeah, I know, me neither, I don’t have any idea how to go about that. Especially since many of my problems seem to come from far too low expectations of others, and unreasonably high expectations of myself. Besides, what if you get nothing and more nothing and another week of nothing… for months?

There we go again, I can feel that Wrath building up again. So perhaps it is best if my advice list ends right here.

27 thoughts on “Limbo or Purgatory? Advice for the Impatient”

  1. What a thoughtful and insightful way to look at life’s challenges, Marina Sofia! I think we all feel that way at times: waiting for something, or frustrated that our dreams haven’t worked out, or something else. It really is a matter of taking joy in small things, of being grateful wherever it’s possible, and of taking small steps to reach goals. And sometimes, yes, taking a day off. We all need to re-charge.

    1. Small steps – yes, that’s what I should have mentioned. Baby steps are still better than nothing at all. Thanks for adding that thought, Margot!

  2. I don’t know if there *is* any solution. Definitely giving yourself things to look forward to is important. Not getting bogged down in the small stuff because that’s not important. Don’t waste time amassing clutter because you’ll only have to get rid of it some time (or someone will for you). Vent if you have to, because brooding on things only makes them worse. Don’t beat yourself up all the time because nobody can be perfect. Accept that you can’t control the rest of the world (my BFF in my youth developed anorexia because she couldn’t cope with not controlling the world – catastrophe theory, a bad thing) and as my OH says, if it wasn’t this thing, it would be something else – there is always stuff to deal with and we just have to get on with life and enjoy it while we have it.

    Hope it wasn’t meeting with your ex-MIL that caused the stress….;)

    1. I should have asked you to guest write this post – it’s all so much better and more coherent than my waffle!

      No, the startling thing about the meeting with my ex-MIL and ex-sister-in-law yesterday was that it was very amicable, we only made polite small talk and they never once asked how I was, what I was doing, how I was coping. Perhaps they were being discreet (not likely, with a Greek family) or perhaps that’s where my ex got his ‘sweeping things under the carpet’ attitude.

  3. What a brilliant post, and how thoroughly inspiring. I think any one of the above will aid us impatient A Types appreciate life better. Like you, I had a tin on the go (a discarded sweets tin, in my case) that I was filling with scraps with paper of the highlights of my day, however small they might have been. In fact, the whole family was at it; we called it our joy jar, but *hangs head in shame* we abandoned it when it started becoming a chore to remind everyone to put in a piece of paper every day. Instead, we make a point of recalling daily highlights over the dinner table now, and that’s working just as well now that we’re in the habit.

    Me, I’ve come across a little saying that captures my current state of mind(fulness?) extremely well. When things don’t go to plan, wholly or in part, I remind myself of “present over perfect.” I only have what’s present, and if I continually ignore that or wish it away in my quest for something “perfect”, I have… well, nothing.

    It may not be much, that little saying, but it’s working for me.

    Write on, my friend, and I hope you enjoy the Book Fair. One of these days, I must get organised and go. Just imagine: we could actually meet up! xxx

    1. Thank you for your helpful suggestions. I like that ‘present over perfect’ mantra…
      I was actually daydreaming earlier today about a stay in a hotel in Lincolnshire, so who knows, meeting up might actually be on the cards at some point.

  4. I feel exactly the same, S. What rejections are you talking about? Book? Job? It’s a long slog, in any case. Some days are better than others, and one day will be best of all. Big hugs from Scotland, where the sun shines today (so much that we have spotted a second referendum)! xxx

    1. Ha, that made me laugh – so much sun that we spotted a 2nd referendum! Goodness knows, all of this uncertainty in politics only adds to the sense of purgatory!
      Sadly, the rejections are both in terms of job and writing submissions, so it’s a double whammy.
      Sorry to hear you are going through much the same sludge. Let’s cheer each other onwards through the treacle (that’s much better than thinking of it as muc, isn’t it?).

  5. Love love love your blog. So helpful to me. And you’ll be happy to know that Catholics ended Limbo in 2007 (weird they can just do this) which was for babies who die before being baptised. Sick….I’m Catholic, I can say this. But….this is a FABULOUS blog!

    1. Thanks for your kind words! I heard about the ‘abolishing’ or ‘closing’ of limbo for infants! Poor babies, as if they had time to sin – other than pooping. By contrast, I believe the Greek Orthodox church and the Protestants never accepted the limbo for infants. Interesting differences of opinion, right?

  6. Oh, man. Just keep going. That was what I told myself in the worst times: you only have to live through one day at a time. Future planning, worrying about posterity, all of it can be dealt with when you feel stronger.

    1. Very sound advice. I start off every week with incorrigible optimism, but when you get two rejections within the space of 50 mins, all before 10 a.m., you do feel like the week is not getting off to a good start…

      1. Oof, good Lord. That would be enough to throw anybody. Well, just think how silly they’ll look when you’re accepted!

  7. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for you that you are soon able to get out of your funk. I usually get bent out of shape when my expectations for myself get too high. I am still trying to learn to step back and not attempt to be perfect but just be the best I can be at a particular moment. (This weekend that meant folding the laundry as soon as it came out of the dryer AND putting it away right away. I would say that’s almost the opposite of having too high expectations. :))

    1. Thank you for your encouragement and personal example. Some days I have a To Do list so long that no human could possibly achieve it. Balanced out by other days when having a shower is just about the maximum I can achieve…

  8. I might have wept reading this, MarinaSofia. Specially with: “I become envious of others who seem to lead normal lives and have become really stingy with my money for fear of losing it all”. I am going through something similar with my PhD, and I long for normality, a 9-to-5 kind of job that will provide me with some kind of steady income and help me move out of my parents’ house and enjoy that imaginary life we are all supposed to live during our 20’s. Alas, I’m not sure it’s going to happen.

    Here’s to a 2017 without fear and guilt to us. I am sure that things will get better soon for you and your lovely family. You know where to find me xx

  9. I have nothing helpful to add here – just support and sympathy. I nodded in recognition through most of what you describe. Hang in there – and vent away when you need to!

    1. Ah, thank you, your sympathy and support are always appreciated. I used to be very discreet about my problems, but I’ve come to the conclusion that online venting does help (as long as it’s not harming others).

  10. Lovely thought provoking post. I don’t have any useful advice to offer, other than to agree about taking pleasure in small things – that’s how I always manage stressful situations.
    Give yourself time – time that’s just for you . Take care.

  11. Despite your trials and tribulations, your sentiments are very well said here. I am going to bookmark this post because much of what you say can be applied to many life situations.
    I think when you have big disappointments like that in one day (and in the morning, too!), it’s time to pull out the good piece of fiction and read — and to have a good almond croissant or chocolate and excellent tea or coffee. Treat yourself well.
    Also, and I speak as someone with limitations due to health problems, give yourself a statue of limitations on disappointments, a deadline. Don’t carry it with you past a couple of days.
    Then put one foot in front of the other and move on. Start a new day or a new week and give yourself new things to look forward to. And for book lovers, a good book can be better than anything — except for good chocolate, in my book. Or a chat with a good friend. Or a beautiful sunny day communing with nature. And pets are good medicine, too.

    1. Thank you, Kathy, all very wise advice from someone who’s been there. I do try to pull myself up by my bootstraps and carry on, with fresh hope, every week – the Japanese saying ‘Nanakorobi yaoki’ – fall seven times, get up eight. It just takes so much energy at times.

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