Life and Death Decisions Made Beneath the Pedestal

The other week when I posted my rant-o-rama about the misuse of the label “amazing,” John Hathaway went right to work at the blog discussion group pulling out of me the what’s really going on here??  We managed to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, and below I’m going to explain what I think is the biggest, most deadly part of going around thinking other people are “amazing.”

But first, a few side issues that deserve some resolution:

  • We quickly agreed on the usual explanation for surly bloggers: I was being cranky.
  • I do concede that the word “amazing” has shifted to take on a second, diluted meaning of generally “nice” or “good.” I’ll spare you a long talk about how we already had words that meant those things.  (To wit: nice and good are still around.)
  • Furthermore, I generally don’t care if other people have the odd shoddy linguistic habit — don’t we all?  If you’re itching for a fight, you’ll get more fervor out of me if you bring up the Oxford Comma.

(Yes!  Even though I am a convicted comma abuser!  We pundits would have nothing to do all day if we sat around waiting for our holiness to arrive before we opened our mouths.)

Now, on to the Pedestal of Death.

Superman is Amazing

Let’s talk about Superman.  He stops speeding bullets.  He leaps tall buildings in a single bound.  He’s the guy you look for when you need something done that ordinary people just can’t do.  He’s called “amazing” because he does things you and I never could.

Ordinary people of course are “amazing” in the sense that we are each the precious and intricate handiwork of God.  Spend half an hour learning about the things we’ve discovered to date about, say, the way a human nerve cell functions, and you’ll be rightly amazed.  Furthermore, our loved ones bring all kinds of invaluable gifts to the world simply by being themselves.  Despite my cantankerous headline the other day, your children are in fact amazing even when all they’re doing is drooling over their baby food.  There’s that.

But sometimes we call someone “amazing” not out of simple wonder at the marvel of human worth and dignity, but more in the Superman-sense of amazing.  We have gotten to where certain classes of people who happen to be doing hard things are given the Superman label.

Doing this isn’t just over-enthusiasm.  Such labeling actually causes humans to die.

Hard Things Don’t Require Superman

Life is hard.  Humans — all of us — are called to do hard things.

When somebody is dealing with some tremendous difficulty, they aren’t being Superman. They are experiencing human life.

Lately though, our society has gotten that idea that difficulties are only for Very Special People.  We consider suffering to be the sole province of amazing superheros, and do all that we can to excuse everyone else — people who are “like us.”

If you have a baby with an adverse prenatal diagnosis and you don’t choose to abort that baby, people call you “amazing.”  Only special superhero people can do that; ordinary people would have to abort, because they just can’t take it the way Amazing SuperParents can.

Thus it follows that if you happen to be raising a child with a serious illness or disability, or you happen to be such a person yourself, surely you are “amazing” for experiencing such a life.

If you reach a point where your family member’s illness or disability becomes overwhelming, you’re “amazing” if you continue to care for that person rather than opting to go ahead and put the sufferer to death.  If you yourself are the one directly suffering and you choose not to commit suicide, again you are “amazing” for enduring what “ordinary” people just couldn’t do.

No! No! No!

Not Killing Innocent People is an Ordinary Person’s Job

There’s just nothing “amazing” about not committing murder.  Ordinary old you is a person who is called to man-up and do your best to muddle through difficult circumstances.

Some people endure their hardships with admirable fortitude and good grace, while others of us aren’t winning any prizes for Sufferer of the Year.  But all of us, by mere dint of our humanity, should anticipate the time when we, too, will bear our share of hardship.  We don’t have to seek it out; it will find us.

When it comes, we will not be Amazing Supermen.  We’ll feel the sting of the bullet and the penetrating wound and the leaking of life from our bodies in an unstoppable river of blood.  Suffering hurts.  Suffering is difficult.  Suffering eventually robs you of this mortal life.

Death by Admiration

The going expression is that if you put someone on a pedestal you’ll see their clay feet, but I don’t think that’s the gravest risk anymore. Anymore, the pedestal is where we put people we want to admire from a safe distance.  If you keep far enough back from someone who’s working through a difficult part of life, and you squint so you don’t see the messy parts, you can convince yourself you’re looking at Superman.

You can say to yourself, “I could never do that.  I’m not Superman like that person is.”

You can say to other people, “I don’t expect you to do that difficult thing, because if you’re not Superman it’ll be just too hard for you.”

You can say, “Well, they are the ones who chose not to abort or euthanize — if they’re having a hard time, it’s not my fault they tried to act like Superman.”

These are lies.  The people you know who are doing hard things right now? They are ordinary people.

If you admire someone’s fortitude or good grace, don’t say, “Wow you are so amazing!” as if your friend were from another planet, possessing super-human attributes.  Rather, say, “Wow. When my time comes to face some similar trial, I hope I’ll have learned enough from your example to be able to do you proud.”

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By Matrakci Nasuh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What Happens When You Go Out to Eat on Sundays

Before we begin, let’s clear something up: Sometimes I go out to eat on Sundays.  Credible witnesses can attest to this fact.

***

A friend recently shared St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter Dies Domini (On Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy).   It’s a long, rich exploration of the what’s and why’s of Sundays, so naturally I just skimmed it and made a note to come back later and read it more carefully.  But I link to it now because I’ve been meaning to write about the restaurant problem since last summer.  Here are some pertinent quotes:

65. By contrast, the link between the Lord’s Day and the day of rest in civil society has a meaning and importance which go beyond the distinctly Christian point of view. The alternation between work and rest, built into human nature, is willed by God himself, as appears in the creation story in the Book of Genesis (cf. 2:2-3; Ex 20:8-11): rest is something “sacred”, because it is man’s way of withdrawing from the sometimes excessively demanding cycle of earthly tasks in order to renew his awareness that everything is the work of God. . . .

66. Finally, it should not be forgotten that even in our own day work is very oppressive for many people, either because of miserable working conditions and long hours — especially in the poorer regions of the world — or because of the persistence in economically more developed societies of too many cases of injustice and exploitation of man by man. When, through the centuries, she has made laws concerning Sunday rest, (109) the Church has had in mind above all the work of servants and workers, certainly not because this work was any less worthy when compared to the spiritual requirements of Sunday observance, but rather because it needed greater regulation to lighten its burden and thus enable everyone to keep the Lord’s Day holy. In this matter, my predecessor Pope Leo XIII in his Encyclical Rerum Novarum spoke of Sunday rest as a worker’s right which the State must guarantee. (110)

FYI, Rerum Novarum is no commie pinko manifesto.  Actually it’s an anti-communist manifesto.  [And some other things, too.] Go read it sometime, it’s really fun.  If you’re local, you can bait me into a conversation (bring the text, please) basically any time you want.

Anyway, the point for today is that Sunday rest, worship, and Christian fellowship are so important it just keeps coming up and coming up century, after century, after century.  It’s like the Church just. won’t. shut-up. about it.

So let me tell you about my kid.

Woohoo! Gainful Employment!

I have this boy who can cook really well.  Just last night I came home with a tray of chicken, pointed him to the grill, and he caused there to be dinner an hour later.  So last summer we sent him out to find a job, and yes we all considered it providential when he got hired by the local sandwich shop.  A few weeks of doing dishes and then on to cooking and he’s never left the kitchen.  He’s still working there and everyone’s happy.

When he interviewed, he said up front that he had to have Sunday mornings off.  Non-negotiable.  Since this place gets most of its traffic on weekdays, the boss was good with that.  But the restaurant is open Sundays, and so he does get assigned his share of Sunday afternoon-evening shifts.

As a result, he misses out on a lot of the Sunday-afternoon Christian fellowship activities that happen in our area.  He can’t do Sunday afternoon youth group events, and he ends up leaving early to get to work if a friend hosts, say, a relaxing family get-together.  We have some Christian friends with a pile of kids who are getting trained now to cut the birthday cake by 3pm so Mr. Boy can sing, eat, and run.  Everyone else can stick around for hours of heavenly conversation and camaraderie, exactly like St. John Paul II writes about, but the boy gets to go to work.

How Do You Use Your Servants?

The reason he gets to go work is because other people want to eat.

People need to eat.  Every single day, even multiple times a day.  There are situations in which people have good reasons to need to hire someone to prepare food for them on a Sunday, and many more situations in which people have good reasons to want someone to prepare that food.

There are other services we likewise avail ourselves of on a Sunday, for various good reasons.  I do this.  You’re not the only one.

When we do this, it causes the people we hire to work for us to lose a bit of their Sunday.

This is an Evangelization Problem

There are people like my boy who aren’t under a ton of pressure.  Sunday is not a high-traffic day for his restaurant.  He is only working part-time, and if he were fired for not being available when the boss wanted him, he’d still have his parents at home gainfully employed.  He’s not supporting himself, let alone a family, on this job.

Other people aren’t so lucky.  If they are Catholic, they end up scrambling just to find an hour to run into Mass sometime during the weekend.  If they aren’t Catholic and you tried to invite them to join you for Mass, or RCIA, or that fun thing you do on Sundays, they’d chuckle-cough and say, “Yeah. Sure.  I’ll let you know when I get an opening.”

It is extremely difficult to evangelize someone who literally cannot go to church.

You Only Control a Slice of the Problem

There are parts of this problem that you can’t control.  Some services (medical, police) are non-negotiables.  Unless you’re in charge of the hospital or what have you, you don’t decide what the shifts will look like; unless you’re in charge of the parish, you don’t decide whether Mass times will line up with the local police and hospital and pharmacy shifts.

If that’s not your responsibility, it just isn’t.

Likewise, you probably don’t set restaurant hours.  You’re not the one who decided to keep the amusement park open until midnight and then re-open at 8AM.  To a certain extent, you can’t control whether the worker-bees get an opening for Mass or not.

But you do control a small slice.

When you make the decision to go out to lunch after Mass, you are making the decision that two or three people will report to work a couple hours before you arrive, and they’ll stay on a couple hours after you leave.  What does that do to their day?

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Photo: © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar, via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Movies for Grown-Ups: Room

People will tell you that this or that deplorable book or show or song requires depraved content in order to explore “mature” themes.

So here’s a tip: Watch the film Room.  (Wikipedia has the full plot synopsis here.)  It’s the story of a teenage girl whose kidnapper keeps her in a storage shed for years, and visits nightly to rape her.  We meet her as the twenty-something mother of a five-year-old son, still locked in that shed and now raising her child in captivity.  Movie topics don’t get a whole lot darker than that.

Do not watch this film when your little kids are home.  (Do watch it with your teenagers – parental guidance required).

But guess what?  In the hands of a good director, you can swim deep into some very nasty, brutal crimes without anything of the gratuitous voyeurism that so many lazy producers lather on like cupcake frosting.   You can have your (plot-essential) rape scene without actually having to watch someone get raped.  You can show terror, desperation, and suicidal depression without morbid violence. The very light touch on the use of foul language is a textbook case study in when and how such words might properly belong in a script.

***

In addition to being a study in How to Handle Extremely Dark Topics, the film is also, as any good film should be, about the true, beautiful and good.  If you are a writer, you should watch this film for its genius use of the breadth of the English language.  For any human, the very last lines of the film are stunning in their ability to sum up one of the greatest struggles of the human heart with piercing simplicity.

FYI – It was streaming for free on Amazon Prime when we watched it.

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Film poster via Wikimedia, used per fair use guidelines.

50 Shades of Donald Trump

Among conservative Catholic Republicans on Facebook, there’s a meme being passed around that keeps ending up in front of people like myself and Scott Eric Alt, though neither of us can possibly be the intended target.  The argument is that the popularity of novels such as 50 Shades of Grey proves that women don’t, in fact, object to Donald Trump’s lewd behavior; any objections are political calculus.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss responds to another variation — same argument, different famous incident:

“But Bill Clinton…”

Oh yes. And I opposed him, and criticized him, at the time. Anyone else who did so must, in order to be morally consistent, do likewise with Trump. If you don’t, it just sends a message that you never really cared about sexual abuse of women, but were just appropriating morality in order to make your opposing team look bad.

Before my next sentence, let me reiterate: I do not think you should vote for Donald Trump.

Next sentence: There is some validity to the observation that Donald Trump’s lewd behavior is indeed representative of the American public at large.  I said so here.  This is a representative democracy, and our two candidates do in fact represent America.

Dear friends, if Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump represents you?  You can change that.

You can’t change the candidates, but you can change yourself.  You don’t have to be a person who winks at sin.  You don’t have to be a person who creates convoluted defenses of BDSM. You don’t have to be that person who justifies exposing kids to porn.

You can stop that now.  You do not have to be enslaved to the person you were yesterday.

***

Pro-life friends, another minute of politics: When people give sorry mealy-mouthed justifications for voting for a pro-abortion candidate by explaining that solving poverty or immigration or global warming will somehow fix abortion, those people are dangerously deluding themselves.  There exists a hierarchy of priorities, and cold-blooded murder is a far graver and more pressing issue than good roads or good tax policy.  When someone says I don’t like abortion but I’m voting for the person who advocates tirelessly for abortion, what I hear is: Actually, I’m fine with abortion.

I understand, therefore, the Republican Impulse.

I have grave reservations about Donald Trump’s sincerity on pro-life issues, however, because his life is one long series of promotions of the actual, real-live causes of abortion.

Food stamps don’t cause abortion.  Adultery? That causes abortion.

***

Quick aside on modesty.

When people like me talk about “modesty” we tend to hit a few topics related to girls’ clothing.  That matters, of course.  But for those who are trying to get their heads around about what immodesty looks like in someone who is neither female nor scantily-clad, Donald Trump is the poster boy.   He models immodesty not just with regards to sexuality, but also with regards to wealth, power, and personal accomplishments.  

It is easy to excuse his unseemly boastfulness by saying that he needs to prove his leadership potential or share his legitimate accomplishments with voters.  Not so.  It is possible to communicate one’s ability to lead without behaving immodestly.

Below in the links I include some examples of SC’s governor Nikki Haley in action, for other reasons.  But in her hurricane Matthew press conferences, she’s a vivid example of the counterpoint: A leader who is both a strong, decisive, competent leader, but who also conducts herself with modesty.

***

Link Round-up.  Here are all kinds of loosely related links.  At the bottom are a few of mine, but first here’s the pile I extracted from my reading list.

Timothy Scott Reeves, an evangelical Anglican philosopher with strong ortho-catholic leanings writes on our tendency to rely on chariots and horses instead of trusting in the Lord.

Simcha Fisher has an excellent piece on why consent alone is not sufficient.

Nathaniel Peters at Public Discourse writes:

Many young conservatives have been disheartened to see the leaders of their movement endorse Donald Trump. I am one of the disheartened ones. Let me explain what these leaders taught me and why their endorsement of Trump betrays those principles.

Faithfully Catholic, orthodox, conservative Katie O’Keefe catalogs her series of encounters with so called “locker-room talk” sexual abuse, and how she learned from an early age that protesting was futile:

5 years old – In my own backyard. I was stopped by a man in a car in the alley behind my house who showed me “what (he had) in his pants” and then offered me the opportunity to put my mouth on it. I declined but never told anyone because I had no idea that it was anything but just gross. . . .

12 years old – On my paper route, I was collecting for the monthly bill. An old man who had been very kindly toward me and had several grandchildren that he looked after, grabbed my breasts (which were more impressive than they were when I was 8) and humped me. He told me I was a good girl and he’d take good care of me. I quit carrying papers that month. I never told anyone because I figured that no one would believe me. . . .

Father Longenecker has sensible, hard-nosed advice on what to do after the elections, which promise us four years of disaster no matter what.

And here is a short, heartening story on seminarians already following that advice.

Erin Arlinghaus writes about:

Mary Pezzulo writes about the bad news for feminism that will come with the election of our first female president.

To which end, here’s a refreshing antidote: Watch a conservative, pro-life female governor in action, successfully managing a natural disaster. I don’t know how long the SCETV archives will be up, so here’s a link to the governor’s YouTube channel where you can find most of the videos.

(Tip: If you skim ahead to the Q&A’s with the whole executive branch team, a few of the press conferences contain striking examples of the linguistic diversity among educated, standard-English speaking southerners.  And that’s just a beginning.  Armchair linguists, this place is a treasure trove.)

Here’s Meg Hunter-Kilmer saying what many of us are saying:

A friend of mine attempted to defend Trump by pointing to his daughter’s respect for him and saying that he must be a good father. I don’t care what she says. I don’t care how marvelous he was every single time he was with her. Owning strip clubs makes you a bad father. Being a serial adulterer makes you a bad father. Treating women like objects for your sexual gratification makes you a bad father. And it will make him a bad president.

To round out the reading, from a man who’s no slouch on Catholic faithfulness, Archbishop Chaput shares his thoughts on faithful citizenship:

But 2016 is a year in which two prominent Catholics – a sitting vice president, and the next vice presidential nominee of his party — both seem to publicly ignore or invent the content of their Catholic faith as they go along.  And meanwhile, both candidates for the nation’s top residence, the White House, have astonishing flaws.

This is depressing and liberating at the same time.  Depressing, because it’s proof of how polarized the nation has become.  Liberating, because for the honest voter, it’s much easier this year to ignore the routine tribal loyalty chants of both the Democratic and Republican camps.  I’ve been a registered independent for a long time and never more happily so than in this election season.  Both major candidates are – what’s the right word? so problematic – that neither is clearly better than the other.

And finally, a few links from my own archives:

Adultery is Not the Only Option: Five Things You Can Do to Keep Your Vows Intact

Here’s a patron saint for those who’ve fallen for the idea that Catholics need to be all sophisticated and cosmopolitan.

And to close, here’s my report from the field on how our Trump-Clinton society plays out among middle schoolers. In Sexual Bravado vs. Sexual Maturity, I share some of the real-world evidence parents like to ignore, then discuss the underlying issue:

In our popular culture, sex-status is the big thing.  The kids have learned from their parents that the purpose of sex is to gratify one’s desires, and that a girl’s worth is measured in sexiness.  The kids have adopted that philosophy wholesale. . . .

. . . Why is there such a market for teenage girls in a sleepy Bible Belt town, to the point that pimps are willing to risk kidnapping charges and worse in order to abduct upper class girls and sell them locally?

You can almost hear the eighth grade boys scoffing at those pathetic men who have to pay for what they can get the girls to give them for free.

There is no magic remedy that will guarantee your teens will live chastely and stay out of harm’s way. But you can be certain that if your understanding of human sexuality is all about the quest for gratification and sexual status, your children are going to learn that from you.

 

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Photo Collage by DonkeyHotey (New York Primary 2016) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Physician Assisted PTSD – When Bad Medicine is Disguised in a Mental Health Diagnosis

Rebecca Frech wrote last year about her doctor-induced case of PTSD:

And in that moment, I can tell by her face that no one has updated the chart. It still says Conversion on the line for diagnosis. Nobody has put in the test results and new diagnosis from last October. I can see it as plainly as I can see that her eyes are brown. We’re still suspect, and this still isn’t over.

This week she updated with the news of the definitive diagnosis for the medical reasons behind her daughter’s paralysis.  It would be easy to think that Ella Frech’s case is an anomaly.  We might think that it’s unusual for a serious medical condition to be dismissed as a pscyhological disorder.

It isn’t.  It is woefully common, and there’s a reason for it.

The Diagnosis that Doesn’t Discriminate

It isn’t only Acute Motor Axonal Neuropathy that gets the nutcase treatment.

Stephen Gaudet writes here about being accused of faking his severe asthma:

Feeling proud about what I had accomplished through daily exercise, I shared my marathon story with one of the intern doctors who was assigned to me. Rather than congratulating me, he basically accused me of faking my asthma. His words were ” There’s no way you could’ve walked a marathon if you have severe asthma.” I found out later that in my chart he actually wrote, “patient presents with factitious asthma, claims he walked a marathon“. That probably explains why some of the nurses were treating me so strange during the hospitalization. A rumor had spread that my asthma was very mild and probably psychosomatic in nature. I remember some of the medical staff trying to convince me that my breathing difficulties were all in my head and that I had some kind of generalized anxiety disorder. Are you freaking kidding me! And even scarier, this happened at a well respected teaching hospital.

That incident caused me a lot of grief and took over 3 years with lots of letter writing by my pulmonologists to have that false information removed from my medical record. The reality is that these are the kinds of screwy preconceived generalizations that people have about the way sick people should look and behave. And if I want to be completely honest here, there have been times when I’ve guilty of the same.

For background: Gaudet is a respiratory therapist who is treated by one of the top pulmonologists in the nation.

Here’s Dr. Michelle Roger, a neuropsychologist, writing about the mental health misdiagnoses of patients with dysautonomia:

Just about every Dysautonomia patient with whom I’ve spoken over the last few years has, at one time or another, been told that the symptoms they were experiencing were all in their head. Diagnoses such as Anxiety disorders, Depression, Conversion or Somatoform disorders, and even Bipolar disorder are haphazardly applied to patients when no clear aetiology can be discovered to explain their symptoms. Normal reactions to abnormal situations, and purely medical/physiological symptoms are over-pathologised or misdiagnosed with alarming regularity, and to the detriment of the patient.

When unfounded these diagnoses leave a mark on the patient, a wound which if left untended will follow and influence all future relationships with the medical professionals. It also leaves a glaring mark on medical records that will be incorporated into future investigations and the overall diagnostic process. Even when unsubstantiated or proven to be untrue following psychological assessment, it can prove extremely difficult to remove such diagnoses from a patient’s medical file.

Here’s a summary of Dr. Alex Flore’s presentation on the problem of mitochondrial disease being misdiagnosed as Munchausen syndrome by proxy:

It is possible that what may be interpreted as “red flags” of Munchausen’s may alternatively  be attributed to the demands and anxiety related to care of a very sick child.  For example, anxious parents may not give a good history, or may “doctor shop” because they are unsatisfied and may be unhappy with the care their child is getting, especially when they feel that no one can actually diagnose, treat or understand the problem.  Certain conditions, especially mitochondrial disease, will present with intermittent symptoms, and it will take a skilled and patient clinician to arrive at the right diagnosis – one that is an illness not Munchausen’s by proxy.

Psychologists have described that the population of patients and parents of children with Mitochondrial Disease are much more vulnerable to a false Munchausen’s by proxy accusation simply due to the nature of the disease.  In fact, a hallmark characteristic of mitochondrial disease is the presentation of several unrelated symptoms that together, “don’t make sense”.  Clinicians who feel that a parent is intentionally making symptoms appear, is behaving to insure that the illness continues, and consults multiple physicians may suspect Munchausen’s – but should still “trust, then verify.” In other words, believe the parents, run appropriate diagnostic tests, seek the input of every part of the child’s team, and take very seriously the responsibility to the child to act as an advocate and do no harm.

Non-psychiatric misdiagnoses happen, too, of course.  It is frustrating when a physician (or team of physcians) flubs a diagnosis through honest error — we humans aren’t ominiscient, so it’s bound to happen.  It’s galling when the misdiagnosis involves dismissing serious serious symptoms as some much more benign illness that doesn’t fit with the case history.  But pushing off a poorly-substantiated mental health label on a patient with an atypical presentation is both physically and emotionally harmful to the patient.

Unfortunately, this dangerous habit is actually enshrined in medical practice.

I Guess You’re Just Nuts, Then?

Many misdiagnoses are just idiocy.  Some popular lazy-diagnoses include fibromyalgia, depression, and anxiety disorders.  All of these disorders have specific criteria you can use to evaluate yourself (or your patient) and see if they apply.  It’s almost helpful when a physician throws out with confidence, “I think it’s probably just ________” and inserts some illness utterly outside his or her specialty, and which a quick Google search would immediately rule out. Then you know you have a stupid doctor, done.  It’s wearying, and can put you off the medical profession for a while, but it’s possible to come to a definitive conclusion one way or another.

There’s at least one mental health diagnosis, however, that can’t be ruled out by logic and good medicine.

Conversion Disorder, which is what Ella Frech was persistently misdiagnosed with (despite presenting with symptoms of a known side effect of one of the medications she was taking), is where modern medical practice bares its hubris.

Here’s the Mayo Clinic describing how Conversion Disorder is diagnosed:

There are no standard tests to check for conversion disorder. The tests will depend on what kind of signs and symptoms you have — the main purpose is to rule out any medical or neurological disease.

In other words, and you can read the whole page and see for yourself, if you’re definitely sick but no one can figure out why, then conversion disorder.

That’s it.

Dr. Allen Frances writes at Psychology Today about the failed effort to get the DSM to attempt even a modest stab at valid diagnostic criteria above and beyond heck if we know:

Many of you would argue that I didn’t go nearly far enough- that there should be no ‘Somatic Symptom Disorder’ at all in DSM 5 because there is no substantial body of evidence to support either its reliability or its validity.

. . . I am sympathetic to this view, but realized that it would have no traction with the work group and chose instead to lobby for what seemed to be clearly essential and relatively easy changes that would solve most, if not all, of the problem.

. . . My letter cautioned DSM 5 that it was invading dangerous territory. Here was my warning to the DSM 5 work group:

• ‘Clearly you have paid close attention only to the need to reduce false negatives, but have not protected sufficiently against the serious problem of creating false positives. You are not alone in this blind spot—in my experience, inattention to false positive risk is an endemic problem for all experts in any field. But your prior oversight needs urgent correction before you go to press with a criteria set that is so unbalanced that it will cause grave harms.’

• ‘When psychiatric problems are misdiagnosed in the medically ill, the patients are stigmatized as ‘crocks’ and the possible underlying medical causes of their problems are much more likely to be missed.’

• ‘Continuing with your current loose wording will be bad for the patients who are mislabeled and will also be extremely harmful to DSM 5, to APA, and to your own professional reputations.’

I also raised the point that this could lead to a boycott of DSM 5. Pretty strong stuff, I thought. But totally ineffective.

Somatic Symptom Disorder (which is the umbrella term in the current terminology under which Conversion Disorder falls) is thus a particularly hazardous diagnosis because it has no symptoms of its own.

It is literally a disorder whose defining symptom is, “We the physicians don’t know what you have.  Therefore, it must be psychological.”  This is an awkward assertion for a profession that has evolved more in the past century than any other field of human endeavor.  The developments in medical research just in the past twenty years are astonishing and marvelous.  My children’s high school biology textbooks are utterly different than mine, because the depth and scope of our knowledge about human cells and the chemistry of the human body is orders of magnitude past what we knew a generation ago.

It seems, therefore, ludicrous that any sane person could hold that our knowledge of medicine is now perfectly complete.  But this is the implicit assertion of somatic symptom disorders.

***

I sometimes joke that idiopathic means that you and your doctor both agree the other person is an idiot.  But really it just means we don’t know.  That happens.  Humans aren’t all-knowing.   What is the sane response to ignorance?  It isn’t to fabricate some fanciful explanation to cover over your lapse.  The sane response is to humbly admit, “I’m sorry I don’t know.”  And, where the stakes are high, the sane person adds, “And we should keep investigating until we get a solid answer.”

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Illustration contains a bit of humor in the fine print, [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Animal-Human Embryo Ethics Simplified

A hot newish thing in scientific research is combining human and animal genetic material in order to do something-or-another.  Here’s a quick rundown of the moral issues involved, including “What if there were Cat-People?”

Principle #1: If it directly kills an innocent person, don’t do it.  Some of the procedures under scrutiny involve removing genetic material from human embryos (for whatever purpose, noble or otherwise), and thus killing the embryo in the process.  A human embryo is a human being.  A very tiny, very young, very immature human being, but a distinct human person all the same.  Just because your friends can’t drive or hold down steady jobs doesn’t mean they’re disposable.

Don’t kill the innocent humans.  That’s a hard-and-fast rule.  Therefore, any procedure that requires the direct killing of any innocent person is a no-go. Always and everywhere.

Principle #2: Human beings have eternal souls. Now let us imagine you acquired your human genetic material through some moral means.  A question that then arises is: Does our use of that human body-part cause a new human being to enter into existence?

We have situations in which no such thing happens.  You can donate your kidney and liver and heart and all kinds of stuff to some other person, and the recipient remains one person, the same person as before, and you remain the other. (You might be dead, but you’re still you.)  No new human is created via organ donation.  We can conceive of situations in which the use of human genetic material works in a similar way — the donated body part does what it does, but it doesn’t cause a new human person to come into existence.   In such a case, as long as other criteria for moral action are met, there’s not a problem.

We have, likewise, situations in which the pro-creation of a new human person does or could happen.  It is not necessary for us to analyze the state of science at this very moment.  All we need to know is that if a new human being is made via cloning, genetic donation, or what have you, we’ve violated a moral law.  It is immoral to procreate outside the bonds of marriage.  But, like all the other immoral ways people procreate, we also know that every human person is endowed with inherent dignity that comes from being an eternal soul created in the image and likeness of God — regardless of the circumstances of conception.

Therefore, though it is patently wrong to create new humans via cloning, IVF, rape, adultery, and whatever else science might devise other than the marital act, the new humans so-created still must be treated with all the same rights and privileges the rest of humanity is owed.

Principle #3: When in doubt, err on the side of protecting the sanctity of human life.  People are stupid, though, and sometimes evil. We can envision, therefore, some dreadful situation in which scientists create part-animal-part-human hybrids.  Is this new creature a human being?

Well, that would be hard to know, wouldn’t it?

We could be quite certain that if, say, you donated a human lung to a pig, the pig is still a pig.  We know that because that’s how it works when you donate a human lung to a human.  The recipient remains what and who the recipient always was.  There are moral problems with donating human tissue to animals, for example: Why was a perfectly good human lung wasted on a pig?  Those issues must be dealt with, but they are different from the question of whether the pig just became a human person. The pig is still a pig.  Not one you want to barbecue, though.  Ick.

In contrast, let’s say we created an embryo in-vitro (don’t do that, it’s wrong), but rather than using 100% human genetic material, we used some portion of non-human tissue as well.  The resulting being might be obviously “human” or might not be.  But here’s the rub: You could not count on appearances alone to know whether you had a human person.  Does it look mostly like a human, but really it’s a dog-soul animating a modified dog-body, more like the animal recipient of human organs?  Or, in contrast, does it look mostly like a dog, and lack many of the characteristics we take for granted as being “human” but in fact it’s a human soul animating a damaged human body?

It is quite probable that we might find ourselves in the situation of having to say: Who knows?

And in that situation, the moral response is to assume it’s a human person until proven otherwise.

Conclusion: Baptize the Cat People.

Should you create human-animal hybrid creatures? No!  You shouldn’t be procreating humans in the laboratory at all, unless it’s you and your spouse up late going at it the old fashioned way.  But in the event that hybrid-creatures are produced, we would be obliged to treat them as if they were human, no matter how miserably inconvenient that turned out to be.

 

Related: 

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Artwork: The Ball of Yarn (1854) by Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Best Practices: Getting Parents Involved in Kids’ Religious Formation

Last week was our parish’s first week of religious ed, and my 7th grade daughter came home with an example of ordinary catechists in a traditional classroom program doing a great job at supporting parental involvement in their children’s faith.

There were three parts of the memo-from-the-teachers that made me swoon with gratitude.

1. Invitations (lots of them) for parents to come join the class anytime.  

I’ve known our DRE for many years and she’s always had a very warm and open attitude towards parents’ involvement in their children’s formation.  But to have the teachers repeatedly invite parents to come sit in class any time at all communicated an important message: They want us!  They’re happy to have us.  They’re happy for us to see what the kids are learning and take an active part in weekly faith formation.

Inviting parents to class does change the dynamic.  It takes confidence and good teaching skills to be comfortable working with an audience.  (And the reality is that watching people teach religious ed isn’t always the most exciting way to spend an hour.  It can be, but sometimes you’re maxed out on sacrament charts and so forth.)  But I love that my daughter’s teachers want me to know I’m not getting in the way.  Me showing up and being involved is a good thing, not a hindrance.

That’s a rightly ordered relationship (even if I never take them up on the invitation), and I think their understanding of that relationship is why they did such a stellar job on the other two very simple helps they added to the class.

 

2. Weekly bring-back-to-class assignment: Noticing God’s action in our lives.

I’m sure the day is coming when we all bring in mini-tubes of toothpaste for the homeless, or spare change for missions, or whatever other project it is the kids are undertaking this year.  Corporal works of mercy are good.  But those works have to spring from a lived relationship with God, or the Catholic faith becomes just another option for Ways to Be Kind to People.

So every week, the teachers are asking the kids to report back one instance when they became aware of the presence of God in their lives — whether in prayer, in the created world, in the action of others, whatever it be.

Does this sound too Spirituality Lite?  Let me offer firm correction:  This is an age-appropriate way for kids to start crossing the bridge from an inherited faith to personal ownership of their faith.  It is an age-appropriate way for the kids to become comfortable with talking about their relationship with God.  It is an essential exercise, because awareness of God’s action in our lives is the foundation of the spiritual life.

Not Lite at all — it’s rock solid stone.  The beautiful twist on this assignment is that by getting the parents involved, my daughter’s teachers are handing us, like a weekly subscription to the spiritual goldmine, an easy way for we parents to get comfortable with talking about discipleship with our kids.  If you actually take the teachers up on this opportunity for the next twenty weeks, they’ll have helped you the parent build a habit of discussing the faith in a profound, personal, and non-adversarial way with your teenager.

This is the catechetical mission lived large: Genuinely assisting parents in their role as the primary teachers of the faith.

3. Weekly do-at-home assignment: A question for parents.  

But that’s not all!  Our catechists are taking it one deeper by sending home a second discussion question as well, which will change every week.  Week One’s question was about promises: What promise have you made recently, and what was the outcome? What was something someone promised to you, and what was the outcome?

I liked this question a ton because it fits totally with the topics that came up in class (vocations and sacraments), it fits with questions about the moral life, and it’s not a “religious” topic even though it’s a religious topic.  It’s not a question that has a “right answer” for the kid to parrot back.  It’s a question, though, that hits a big tender spot in the faith.  If you habitually break promises, or the people who are forming your faith (Mom and Dad) are flagrant promise-breakers, you’ve got a cracked foundation you’re building on.  There’s repair work to be done.  Healing work.

In contrast, if the question reveals you’ve got a solid foundation, then look what’s coming: We need to keep that relationship of trust strong through the next five or ten years.  Further, for you my child who’s preparing for confirmation in the next few years? We need to think about what it is your baptismal promises mean, and what they entail.

That’s a lot impact for a discussion that took about five minutes in the car when I happened to get a snatch of time alone with my daughter for uninterrupted conversation.  Twenty of those through the course of the year?  The possibilities are breathtaking.

Inviting the Parents to be the Parents

The beauty of these assignments is that they help us parents do the part of the job that only we can do.  Catechists can review facts and fill in gaps in the kids’ knowledge, but discipleship is parent-work.  (We were also gently encouraged to get our kids to Mass regularly — another job that only a parent can do.)

I was very impressed by our first week because I felt like my daughter’s catechists understand what’s important and how this all works. When I went by the classroom, they were visibly happy to meet me and get to know me.

As far as I know, my daughter’s teachers are just a couple of ordinary catechists — goodhearted people who love God and love the kids and want to give it their best, but just normal people.  And that to me is a very hopeful thing: Normal people are out there doing smart, simple, easy things to help me raise my child in the faith.

File:Cobh St. Colman's Cathedral South Aisle Window 4 Detail Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain 2015 08 27.jpg

Photo by Andreas F. Borchert [CC BY-SA 3.0 de, CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Parish Communal Life – When Dysfunctional is Normal

So here’s a weird story that was a wake-up call for me:

I was getting the high school kids signed up for youth group, and one of the forms was a bit of information from the parents — contact info, are you available to chaperone, does your kid have dangerous food allergies, etc.  Necessary stuff.  Now right after the parent email and phone number lines was:

Preferred method(s) of contact: ____________________________________

Because I am a bad person, I answered the question honestly.

Preferred method of contact: In person.

Now allow me to say right now that I don’t actually expect our youth ministers to personally hunt down me and every other parent of a student in the program just to let us each know that they need someone to bring plastic cups this week, thanks.  I do live a little bit in this century.  (And I solemnly promise to clarify that on the form before I turn it in tonight.)

But this lapse of mine got me thinking.  Why was my writing that answer such a radically crazy,  even potentially offensive or alarming thing to do?

Let’s review the facts:

  • The youth ministers and our family attend the same parish.  We’re part of the same Christian community.  (We even show up at the same Mass most Sundays — which defies the odds, but we’re lucky that way.)
  • The youth ministers are taking on the task of mentoring our children through their final years of Catholic youth.  Next stop is full-fledged adulthood.
  • These are the years when kids make tremendous decisions about their vocations, their relationships, and even whether they’ll continue practicing the faith.
  • For the next few years, it’s quite likely that after my husband and myself, the kids’ youth ministers will be the other set of practicing Catholics with whom my children have the most frequent and most significant contact on a regular basis.

This is a big deal.

What youth ministers do — their role in the work of the Church — is huge.

But our concept of communal life in the Church has become so watered down that I feel brazen for even suggesting that such significant persons in our children’s lives should speak to my husband and me in-the-flesh as an ordinary, habitual mode of communication.

***

We’re used to this.  In my years as a catechist in a traditional religious ed program, I typically met my students’ parents one- to -three years after the school year ended.  (Format: I’d run into the kid at a parish event and ask, “So are these your parents?” and that’s how we’d finally meet.)

Once I had the chilling-but-fortunate experience of being in the room while a parent explained to the DRE about a problem in my religious ed class the previous year.  [Sadly: A problem I could have fixed if I’d known about it, but it was the sort of thing you can only know if the parent or student tells you.]  The reason the mother felt so comfortable laying out her problem right there in front of me is that she had no idea I had been her child’s teacher.

Not knowing people is the norm in parish life.

***

This is wrong.

There are many causes of this problem and only one complicated, difficult solution:  We Catholics need to spend more time living with each other.

That’s all I know for now.  If our youth ministers hadn’t posed that foolish question, I probably wouldn’t have even thought about it, I’m so used to living with this problem, and so used to treating it like normal life.  But at least now I’m more deeply informed of what’s not happening, and can start looking for ways to change my tiny part in all this.

File:Bosque de Piedra, provincia de Varna, Bulgaria, 2016-05-27, DD 73.jpg

Photo: Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Chastity in a Box? (with a Glimpse at YOU from Ascension Press)

Continuing with Book Week.  Box #2 raises a question that doesn’t get asked often enough: What part do chastity-education programs play in teaching teens (and grown-ups) about the right use of their bodies?

My thoughts follow, but first you should show know what was in the box:

YOU from Ascension Press.  I reviewed AP’s Theology of the Body for Teens: Middle School Edition some years ago, and liked it immensely.  A first glance at YOU is similarly positive.  It’s a much bigger and deeper program, and from everything I’m seeing among teens in the circles I run in (church-school-sports), YOU looks like a solid answer to a very serious need.

As I flipped through the books the other night, several things caught my eye:

  • The advice for how to teach teens is dead-on.
  • The parent booklet gets right to first things first.  It’s like they know they only have a paragraph to win us parents over.
  • The curriculum, as will the best Theology of the Body presentations, starts with the bigger picture, lays the essential groundwork on the dignity of the human person, and leads from there into a positive message about the goodness and appeal of chastity.
  • YOU is working off ideas that have been tested with teens over and again and found to work.  (Not surprising, given who the authors are.)

It’ll be a while before I get a chance to read the leader’s guide and parent guide (leader’s guide contains the full text of the student book) cover to cover, as well as watch the whole DVD series.  Thus I wanted to flag this series now, because I’ve got a very positive impression at first glance, and if you’re planning programs for your parish you might want to request your own review set rather than waiting on someone else’s opinion.

Where do ready-made chastity programs fit into the big picture?

If you phoned me this afternoon (please don’t) and asked me what I recommended for taking your generic typical-American-parish from zero to full-steam-ahead on teaching teens chastity, here’s what I’d recommend:

1. Start with a good parent-centered introduction to chastity, such as Family Honor’s Leading and Loving program.  There are lots of options for meeting formats, but (using L&L as an example) I strongly recommend investing the time and energy into spreading the program out over six weekly sessions rather than doing a single big-weekend event.  This gives you time for parents to get to know each other, to have time to talk with the leaders in detail, and to begin to form a small group atmosphere.  It lets parish leadership begin to identify the parents who are in the best position to help other parents.  It also gives lots of time for listening, and thus for learning where parents in your parish are coming from and what questions or difficulties they are having.

–> Make sure you’ve got the depth of back-up resources to assist parents with their concerns.  At a minimum: NFP instruction, good pastoral help with thorny marital irregularities, some resources for dealing with pornography, and access to support for parishioners grappling with same-sex attraction (personally or via a friend or family member’s situation) such as Courage. It’s no fair telling people they need to radically change their lives, then wishing them good luck and washing your hands.

2. When parents are ready to start sharing the message of chastity with their teens, do a parent-teen joint program.  There are any number of options, and many of them (Family Honor is an exception) assume parents won’t be present. Don’t go there.  You need the parents totally involved and on board.  Your six hours in front of an eighth grader are nothing compared to the influence of the parents.  Even if the program you select doesn’t call for parental presence, adapt it to make it a parent-teen program.

3. Keep working discipleship on all the parts of the Catholic faith.  Salvation isn’t about sex-ed alone.

Hint: Check out the Jesus is Lord program, which works for college students too.  Just sayin’.

4. Programs like YOU will have the most impact if you roll them out after you have a critical mass of parents who are actively seeking to foster chastity in the home, and a critical mass of parishioners and parish leaders who are disciples.

I’m not saying there is no fruit that comes from grabbing a random teenager who’s fully immersed in the wider culture and subjecting the child to a few weeks of Catholic teaching.  Good things can happen.  But the reality is that an hour of your life in alien country rarely makes you want to join the aliens, if you were heretofore perfectly happy back home in Depravityville.  More likely, you’ll go home thinking you met a bunch of crazy people and thank goodness you’ve escaped.

Making disciples is work.  YOU looks like it’s got loads of potential as a help in that work, which is why I mention it now.  But making disciples is long, slow, constant work.  There are no short cuts.

Related:  Registration for the Theology of the Body Congress (9/23-25/2016) is still open.

YOU by Ascension Press - Catholic Teen Chastity
Image courtesy of Ascension Press.

Pinterest Parenting: Behind the Scenes of Raising a DIY Pro

I want to show you my daughter’s handiwork and explain how it got this way, because it’s a story about what parenting really is.  When you are comparing your crazy life to some glossy home magazine spread, but it’s a real home inhabited by real people, I want you to understand that it didn’t come from nowhere.

So this is my backyard:

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Isn’t it gorgeous!  That’s the little grilling area off the kitchen.  My daughter (age 14) completely overhauled this space a few weeks ago, with the help of her sisters.  It was her response to the three of them being kicked outside until they’d cleaned the place up, on account of their not being able to be quiet inside for even one hour while I took a nap.

No really, that’s the story.

Here’s a before picture. Just kidding, but yes, the place was pretty much trashed.

To the left, behind the grape vines growing up around the mailbox, is the famous green castle.  When it was first built the castle looked like this:

That’s the top two stories, and in the photo above you’re looking at a portion of the bottom floor.  It’s a bit worn down now, and we’ve replaced boards and added shade over the years.  We built it because we only had this teeny-tiny strip of private, fenced backyard area when our kids were little, so we had to build up-not-out for the play structure.

Part of parenting is using the talents you have (my husband did the carpentry) and the resources you have to give your kids some space to grow. This is what we had to give.

Even after this month’s clean-up, there’s still some trashy-looking stuff behind those red doors, but at least it’s down to all purposeful trash.  An example is an upside-down plastic flower pot that serves as a table during “City,” the kids’ economics game that is the successor to the even trashier (literally) “Medieval Game.”  They make up all kinds of sociological experiments when I kick them outside.

More history . . . See this cute wooden bridge leading to the seating area?

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We went to Las Vegas to visit my parents some years ago, and in the early morning while it was still cool out, we’d walk around the neighborhood.  The front yard landscaping in suburban Las Vegas is incredible – just gorgeous.  The kids took photos of yard ideas, because they wanted a pretty yard.  One thing they all liked was a wooden bridge over a rock riverbed formation.  Superhusband built them this bridge for the play yard, and it connects to a second patio where we have a laundry sink.  That area is not very pretty, though it’s now 90% less trashy than it was a month ago.

Lesson in parenting: We’ve had all these moments where the kids recognize and appreciate beauty, and we build on that . . . and our yard is still mostly trashed.  They’re still kids.  Their aspirations exceed their self-discipline.  We’re still tired parents who don’t make them clean up enough.   But slowly the beauty-to-trash ratio improves, year by year.

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Here’s some lemon balm my daughter totally stole out of my part of the yard, and put into a terra cotta pot she also stole.  I’m good with that, she didn’t mess anything up.

I love to garden, but I basically stink at it.  My kids have variable amounts of love of gardening, but it’s not like we’re this amazing family out singing hymns while we hoe all afternoon in the pumpkin patch or something.  We buy plants or seeds, stick them in the ground, and most of what we plant dies of drought or flood or some horrible fungus you don’t want me to describe.  But a few things survive, and we learn more about what will grow in our actual yard (the garden books are wrong and the internet is wronger), and slowly it fills with things that aren’t entirely dead or pestilent.

Every living plant you see in these photos was a gamble.  Life is a gamble.  You just keep trying things.

 

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Aren’t these hanging cacti adorable?  They are a little freaky if you look closely, because they are leftovers from a life science lab on grafting plants.  She has to have franken-cacti because non-school plants are expensive.  She took kimchi jars (I know! We buy it! We don’t make our own!) and sawed off the tops, then made the hanging knotwork out of string that came from who-knows-where.

If you want a kid who does DIY’s, you have to let that kid just raid the supplies and try stuff.  This is how my home gets trashed. Yes, my home is mostly-trashed in the pursuit of either beauty or laziness, one or the other.

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We fought bitterly over where she was allowed to hang her hanging candles.  All supplies totally stolen from other parts of the house or yard.  Hobby Lobby made zero money on this one.

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Look at this pretty sitting area!  I got those curtains cheap when the girls were little, and they get used when you want to hang pretty curtains someplace — like if you’re having a princess-themed birthday party or something.  They are hanging over the clothes rods and clothes lines that were our attempt to make a place to store all our whitewater gear, but it didn’t work out and was a fetid mess.  Blech.

I still don’t know what to do with the whitewater gear.  It’s piled in my laundry room waiting for a new home.

All furnishings and accessories in this photo were raided from another part of the house or yard.  In some cases there was a weak attempt at either covering up the gaping hole or putting an almost-as-good item in place (like: a bathmat set down by the front door where that rug used to be).

Also, I got yelled at because that rustic wooden box had yucky insects in it.  It was super disgusting, I agree with her there — but she totally wanted me to drop everything and decontaminate just so she could have her coffee table.  Darling, part of growing up is learning to battle insects all on your own, thanks.

 

Final thing: The monogrammed pillow.  That was made by the 14-year-old express for this project.

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Let me explain to you about this.

My kids have had virtually unfettered access to sewing supplies, including a varying number of rescued sewing machines, over the years.  Prior to the massive clean-out, this porch was heaped with a crazy-mountain of every kind of craft thing.  I don’t even have any sewing things, at all, any more, because my children have stolen them so diligently that now it’s easier to just make them do the sewing, done.  (I was never any good at it anyway).

If you want kids who craft — who really get good at developing their own style (I never, ever, monogram anything, no child picked up that habit from me), and thinking up a project and giving it a try, and eventually get to where they’re producing good adult-quality work — you have to let them make a mess.

Maybe you’re good at having them clean up after, maybe you’re not.  (I’m not.)  But you have to give them space, and let them experiment, and not be horrible about insisting every project be perfect all the time.  As I write this, my nine-year-old is baking cupcakes.  I just stay out of the room, and she can come ask me questions, and I’ll help her with putting things in and out of the oven when the time comes.  If they don’t turn out — whatever.  It was only cupcakes.

I let my kids play with paint, and now when I needed a patio table re-painted, I could trust a child to paint it as well as anybody.  I let my kids play with food, and now my son cooks dinner as his primary household chore.  My kids aren’t perfect.  Everything they do doesn’t turn out golden every time.  When my daughter took these photos, she carefully framed them to not show the less-pretty parts of our life.

That’s real life: Part beauty, part mess.  Sometimes you really need to pay attention to the mess, and sometimes you need to sit back and enjoy the beautiful.

Photos by E. Fitz, used with permission, copyright 2016 all rights reserved.