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

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.

Update on the Radio Silence

Short version, since last I wrote:

  • The kids started school! 3/4’s are being farmed out to TOTAL STRANGERS, and 1/4 is home with me, thriving in the silence that comes from emptying the house each day.  So I was offline for a bit, focusing on the transition and all that.
  • Then 1/4 of the children came down with the wicked nasty evil virus you don’t want.  Thank goodness it was the homeschooled child, I think I would have cried if I had to pull a kid out of school for a week with an uncontrollable fever during the child’s first week of school ever ever ever.  Instead: Documentaries were watched.
  • Then 1/2 of the parents caught it (me).  Not as badly, actually!  More tropical depression than cat 5 hurricane.

So all that sucked up three weeks right there! Whoohoo!

I’m doing better now, thanks for asking, but am having to catch up on all the regular-life business that got neglected, and continue the transition to school year activities.  (Example: This week, I’m going to REMEMBER THAT ORCHESTRA STARTED and actually bring my children!  That will be neat! Teachers love it when you do that.)

That’s all I’ve got time to say now.  Headed to Adoration this afternoon while a child is at PE, and as always I keep my readers in my prayers!  I will write soon, I think.

 

File:Flamencos andinos (Phoenicoparrus andinus), Laguna Cañapa, Bolivia, 2016-02-03, DD 63.JPG
You know who takes good photos? Diego Delso. That’s who.

PS: Let me just say that if you have the option of sending your child to a good Catholic school or a good Catholic homeschool? Do that.

 

Photo: Andean flamingos (Phoenicoparrus andinus) in the Cañapa lake, Bolivia. Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 4.0

Can You Be Too Tired to Pray?

I noticed for the first time, just this morning looking at the readings, that the Transfiguration was something of a warm-up for Gethsemane:

Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake,  they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.

(From Luke 9, via the USCCB daily readings.)

Fittingly, when I made that observation I was laying in bed with the iBreviary resting on the mattress next to my face, just barely awake enough to pray.  I might be saint-material yet.  I’ve got the “before” thing going on, anyway.

File:Lincoln City seal.jpg

Photo via Wikimedia, CC 2.0.  This week finds me in greater metro Portland, OR for my niece’s wedding.  We went to the coast, where there were no seals, but I have been doing my best baby-seal imitation in my sister’s backyard since I got back.  Little icons of the apostles, that’s what we baby seals are.

Culture, Evangelization, and a Free E-Book: Getting Along with Traditionalists

In a conversation on a private forum, the topic of culture and evangelization came up.  The discussion question was whether the concept of “Engaging the Culture” is relevant in a society as diverse as our own.  Can we even say that there exists “a culture” to engage?

Excerpts from my response:

I spent a year of my undergrad work in International Studies sitting in a classroom on another continent with a 100 classmates from around the world, all expats using a second language for their coursework. Did my thesis on a question of “cultural exports” in international trade. Since that time I’ve been living immersed in one of the most diverse and misunderstood American subcultures on this continent (to which I am bi-cultural, or probably more accurately quad-cultural), at a time of tremendous demographic change in the region where I live . . .

Trust me: There is an American Culture, there is a “Western” Culture, and there are myriad national cultures, ethnic cultures, religious cultures, and social-sub-cultures within all the different lumped-up mega-cultures.

Knowing where someone is “coming from,” by which I mean knowing all the forces that form and shape them, is very helpful in being able to connect with them. It doesn’t shortcut the process of listening and learning from the individual, but to the extent that you are fluent in the culture of the person you are evangelizing or discipling, you have way more ability to recognize and address unspoken needs and concerns, and way more ability to understand what the person is trying to say.

Being aware of cultural gulfs — even if you’re only aware that there is a possibility of one, but don’t know where it lies — is a great help in avoiding disastrous misunderstandings.

All that was one train of thought. For a nice book recommendation (not mine) concerning culture and thus indirectly the question of evangelization, see my review of The Culture Map over at New Evanglizers.

Then I concluded with a remark in the other direction, because you can really trip yourself up by leaning too heavily on cultural assumptions:

. . . interestingly, every single inter-personal disaster I have seen in church work over the past decade or so stemmed from watching one person assume all sorts of crazy things about another person based on the fact that the second person came from or identified with this or that ethnic or social sub-culture.

 

Which reminded me there was a book I’ve been meaning to write.  I hear so many times about how difficult is to get along with Traditionalists and other foreign-types.  I’m sure someone else has the Getting Along With People From Other Countries That Speak Spanish segment sufficiently covered, but what about the much more pervasive and feared Radical Traditionalist?  Not everything in a mantilla is a sweet little immigrant grandmother just doing her special immigrant customs, you know.  So I had to write a new book.

I thought it would fit on an index card, but it’s a little bit longer.  Here’s the galley of the first in the series, which is my free gift to you, my loyal readers:

How to Get Along with Traditionalists

Click the title-link to immediately download the PDF, no ads, no shopping cart, no mailing list.  It’s yours for the clicking.

Be sure to the check the last page for more titles in the series, because rad-trads aren’t the only dangerous beasts in parish life.

Enjoy!

File:President and Mrs. Reagan meet Pope John Paul II 1982.jpg
President and Mrs. Reagan meet Pope John Paul II, The Vatican, Rome, 1982. [Public Domain] via Wikimedia. Listening is important, because not every person in a mantilla is the spouse of the President of the United States, either.

On Meeting the Rich Young Man

This past Monday the Gospel was from the story of the Rich Young Man. We read it this year in Mark chapter 10, but you can find the account in Matthew 19 and Luke 18.

A week in, I still want to write about it, so I will.

MK 10:17-27
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

A lot of people are recorded in the Gospels asking our Lord questions, or asking Him for other stuff. The first thing I notice here is what the question is: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Now it’s possible that the man is just trying trip Jesus up or start an argument. But there’s evidence to follow that this is the thing he wants to know. Asking this is commendable, because I think a lot of us just don’t even care about the question or the answer. We assume we already know the answer – whether eternal life is possible, and if so, what it’s like and how we obtain it. But here’s someone who isn’t presuming.

Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

This initial answer has obvious rhetorical bearing on the fact that Jesus is God. But for we mere humans, the question of goodness comes around at the end, back to the question of eternal life.

Our Lord proceeds to lay out what goodness looks like:

You know the commandments:

You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother.”

Now here’s this shocking answer that I don’t think shocks enough:

He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”

How many people can you say this about? Some, I’m sure. But most of us? I don’t think so.

Jesus, looking at him, loved him

Catch that? I infer from this exchange a series things:

  1. The man was telling the truth. He really had been keeping the commandments.
  2. He knew that it wasn’t enough. That’s why he approached Jesus and asked the question: He’d been keeping the commandments, and was stirred by a sense that there was something greater for him. That being satisfied with his (impressive) observance of the law was not the way to eternal happiness.
  3. Jesus isn’t about to go all table-flipping. What follows isn’t a rebuke. It’s the next thing. Here’s someone who wants the next thing!

and [Jesus] said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

So this is the next thing. The man’s reaction isn’t all zip-a-dee-doo-dah:

At that statement, his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

This is the moment when people love to hate the rich young man. But really? Have you done this? Have you done something close to this? Because if you’ve freely given up everything you owned and all your security and all your safety, you’re in rare company. You probably don’t read this blog, and you probably do know that it’s a big thing.

I don’t mean it was taken from you. I mean you gave it up freely.

Everything?

Even the women who followed Jesus and supported the disciples from their wealth didn’t give up everything – hence that wealth. The Apostles still had their livelihood to turn back to. After Jesus died, they went back to fishing.

I would hazard that most serious Christians disciples whom I know personally are already feeling the pinch just by taking a bit of risk, or choosing to live a little more simply, or choosing to give a little more generously.

Now think about the man’s reaction from another angle: Why did his face fall?

Because the man took Jesus at his word.

He didn’t convert the command in his head to something less – something easier to live with. Nor did he take it to mean, “Here’s a suggestion, but you might have other ideas and those could work too.”

The Gospels tell us the man went away sad, but we don’t know what decision he made. What we do know is that when he left, he was actually wrestling with the decision. He was taking it seriously. He was counting the cost.

It’s really easy to follow Jesus when you’ve got nothing to lose. It’s a lot harder to convert when it means necessarily giving up things you’re not sure you can live without, or not sure you want to.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!”

This comment should scare you. You probably have things left to lose.

The disciples were amazed at his words.

So Jesus again said to them in reply, “Children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”

They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, “Then who can be saved?”

Even the disciples had things left to lose, at that point. Eventually they’d get down to nothing, but that was later.

Meanwhile, back to that question of goodness:

Jesus looked at them and said, “For men it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”

Sooner or later, we reach the limits of our human perfection. Some of us are sufficiently bad that we hit the wall early and hard. Some, like the rich young man, have to be squeezed to find out where the faults lie.

Christianity isn’t the worship of our human goodness. It’s the worship of the Goodness that comes to rescue us when ours is fresh out.

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Artwork: Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich man (Mark 10) – 1879, Beijing, China [Public Domain] via Wikimedia.

#TOBTalk – Because It’s All About Sex

Another girl in the accounting department and I both reverted to Christianity after we got married.  (Recall – I actually converted at work.  By which I mean, literally in a meeting with the customer.  Yes indeed.) So one day we were standing there in the cube farm when I learned this fact, and I knew enough about her past life and mine to be able observe in solidarity, “It’s a lot easier to become a Christian after you’re married.”  She knew what I meant, and she agreed on the spot.

Mortal sin is a potential hindrance to conversion every time.

Just being married, though, didn’t put me out of the woods on that point.  The priest who ushered me back into the Church helped the spouse and I get our marriage convalidated, introduced us to NFP, and generally kept us pointed in a safe direction.  I was finally learning the fullness of the Catholic faith.

A couple years in, Family Honor hosted a Theology of the Body conference in Charleston, not unlike the one coming up this fall in Southern California.  I packed up the baby and went.

A decade and some later, I’m still unpacking it all.

The trouble with Christians is that we’re both body and soul. The tendency is to treat Christianity as being only about your soul, as if it were the “real” prize and your body were just the packing peanuts.  Don’t ingest, don’t expose to open flame . . . just kind of keep the packaging from making a mess and you’re good.

Our bodies aren’t packaging.  Our bodies are an integral part of us, and how we live in them is what our Christianity is.  When we say humans are made in the image of God, male and female, the human body is part of that divine image.  We literally can know something about God by looking at our bodies.  Our bodies and souls, together, provide a snapshot of God.  That’s what it means to be an image of something.  My photo isn’t me, and it doesn’t tell you everything there is to know about me, but it is an image of me. It does reveal things about me you wouldn’t know if you didn’t have the photo.

Even when we talk about mortifying our bodies, in pious Christian language speaking of “hating” the flesh, what we mean is this: Use it properly.  Live a rightly ordered life.  To prepare your soul for heaven is to prepare your soul for your heavenly body.

One of the things I do is teach sex-ed.  I write about a lot of things, but I write about topics like porn, and BDSM, and name-that-thing-nice-girls-don’t-talk-about, because what we do with our bodies is what we’re doing to ourselves.  You matter.  You were created to be treated with love and respect.  We live in a world where people have no idea what that looks like.  They don’t know what it means to be loved and respected.

That’s what the Theology of the Body is about.

What does love really look like?

***

Sometime in the months leading up to my conversion, I failed to fill out my time card at work properly.  The department secretary, a Christian, came and told me I hadn’t given her the form I owed her.

I started making excuses in my defense.  She said, “I forgive you.”  I kept making excuses.  She kept repeating: “I forgive you.”

This was utterly foreign to me.  I had no understanding — none — that it could be possible that I did something wrong, and someone would acknowledge it was wrong and simply forgive me.  No recriminations.  No gloating.  Nothing.  Please just fill out the form now, our relationship is restored.

There’s a long list of before-and-afters for me as a Christian.  People who knew me before my conversion can vouch for the fact that I was no picture of saintliness.  People who know me now will observe that my principles have radically changed, but my ability to live up to those principles is still woefully lacking.  We call ourselves “practicing” Catholics because we still don’t have it right, even after years of trying.  We’re still practicing.

Studying the Theology of the Body doesn’t make me holy.  But what it does do is make it possible for me to try — because I finally understand what it is I’m supposed to be trying for, and why, and how it works.   We can’t practice a skill we don’t even know we’re supposed to have.  And when that skill is living in the half of your being that is integrally connected to the other half your being, well, wow.  It’ll change your life.

#TOBTalk image courtesy of http://kennedybrownrigg.com/tobtalk/.

 

 

When You’re a Catholic Who Doesn’t Have It Together

I have this friend whose job is to hold my life together.

I don’t mean that she’s a kind, caring, conscientious person — though she is that, too.  I mean that I pay her by the hour to take care of some non-negotiables in my life that would otherwise fall by the wayside.

I think one of Satan’s more pernicious lies, and it cuts two ways, is other people have their act together.

Well, some of us do, some of us don’t, and on our best days many of us are half-n-half.

How Do You Know When Someone’s Life is Coming Unglued?

There are people who do their best to keep their public face together despite inner collapse, and people who brandish a veener of chaos but secretly have their act together.  In my experience, people who are losing it exhibit a few common signs:

  1. The friendships get erratic.  If someone you had every reason to believe was your friend suddenly loses his temper, quits coming around, gets cagey about commitments, or won’t take your calls, unless you’ve really done something to deserve it, it’s probably not you.  Psychopaths will give you good reasons for why you deserve to be maltreated.  Your friend who is coming unhinged, in contrast, is the person who knows better, doesn’t have an excuse, and is probably too tired or overwhelmed to even explain why.
  2. Simple stuff goes out the window.  “Simple” is relative of course — if your friend never did keep up with the dishes, dishes in the sink are just a sign of situation-normal.  When your friend is losing it, what tends to go are the things that hit either the low-priority-high-pleasure corner of the spectrum or the should-do-usually-do spot.  Doesn’t get a thrill out of changing the oil, but always managed to do it before without any difficulty.  Always loved sending Christmas cards, let it go this year.
  3. Small requests seem monumental.  You’re unlikely to see this one overtly, because it often shows up indirectly.  Your friend probably won’t come out and say, “I was hoping to attend, but if they make everyone find a White Elephant gift I’m just not coming to the Christmas Party this year.”  It sounds so lame.  How hard is that?  Instead, the friend just doesn’t come, or else the friend values the event enough to pull off the cost of admission, but there’s a spike in #1 and #2 behaviors to go with.

I’d like to pause here and say that while these “no longer have it together” behaviors can be associated with depression, a lot of people who don’t have their act together are not depressed.  These are things that you see among people who are the opposite of depressed: People who are working their tails off to hold their life together and do as much as they possibly can, despite the fact that the odds are against them.

Confounding Situations

There are a couple things that can make it hard to really believe your friend is going over the edge.

Your friend still accomplishes quite a lot.  Demanding vocations abound.  If someone’s running a parish, or a business, or a family, there will always be one more thing to do.  As your friend is working like crazy to hold together as much of that vocation as possible, you’ll see results.  You’ll see activity.  You want to know why Father just lost it in his private meeting with you (see #1, above)  about the candle budget, when he didn’t have any problem pasting a smile on his face through the entire two hour long Vacation Bible School songfest?  Because he just endured the songfest, and it used up every ounce of willpower he had.

Your friend doesn’t talk about his problems.  There are people who just love to talk about their problems, and there are people who don’t.  It’s a spectrum, and for a lot of people who are overwhelmed by significant, difficult, persistent life problems, there are some common reasons they aren’t going to bring up those problems in conversation:

  • The situation is confidential, embarrassing, or involves another person whose privacy would be infringed.
  • There are in fact no real solutions to the problem (and yes, they’ve investigated).
  • The problem is the sort best discussed only with those few people who have experience with it.
  • It’s depressing talking about what’s going wrong when you could be enjoying hearing about something good.

It’s easy to spout platitudes about the importance of “sharing one’s burdens” or “talk therapy,” but consider the hubris involved in appointing yourself the one person who must be informed of your friend’s every moment of difficulty.  Consider instead the possibility that your friend loves and values you, but still doesn’t care to talk about the situation right now.

Your friend continues to pursue personal interests, even impressive ones.  A difficult life isn’t necessarily an unhappy life, nor a life devoid of all talent.  There’s a tendency to say, “Gosh, she’s able to take care of that dumb horse of hers, how come she can’t help out with the church picnic like everyone else?  She’s just malingering.”  That dumb horse, as it happens, is the thing that keeps her sane, the one thing she’s going to hang onto until the bitter end, because when your whole life is a train wreck, you want a little refuge of sanity.

In the same manner, an overwhelming life doesn’t mean all your talents suddenly dry up and blow away.  If your friend was always perfectly capable of spitting out a copy of a Dutch Renaissance Master on a leisurely Sunday afternoon, unless his hands fell off, he’s probably still going to be able to do that (and even if his hands fall off, he’ll probably find a work-around and get back at it).  That he does something he finds easy but you find astonishingly difficult doesn’t mean he’s got his act together.  It means he’s still capable of doing some things that are easy for him.

The Two People This Matters To: You and Everybody Else

I write about all this for two reasons.  The first is that it’s easy to think everyone else has their life together, and therefore you’re a crappy person and a failed Christian if you do not.

Can moral failure be the reason your life isn’t working out? Sure.  But it’s also possible that your life is hard regardless.  For most people, moral failure is the bitter rind that surrounds our life, no matter how good or how bad the rest of the fruit is.  It’s the seed you spit out and eat the rest.

Your life can be going to pieces despite no particular uptick in sin, just an uptick in lousy life circumstances.  Don’t confuse the two.  Keep working on the holiness, but don’t measure the holiness by your outward success.

The second reason is that it’s easy to think everyone else has their life together, and therefore they are crappy people and failed Christians if they do not.

Pastoral Perspectives on Apathetic Catholics

There are categories of Christians who get a pass.  If they have some obvious or publicly acknowledged excuse for their inability to meet spec, the whole parish pats itself on the back for winning at the Welcoming and Accepting contest just for letting the miserable slobs in the door.

Meanwhile, there’s this cycle of desperation that causes the rest of the parish to eat its young.  It goes like this:

  1. Parish leaders are falling apart at the seams because they can’t do it all.
  2. Therefore they beg pewsitters to step up and do it all.
  3. Pewsitters were already falling apart at the seams themselves.
  4. Leaders burn out, pewsitters either develop a talent for ignoring pleas or else they give up and go home.

There are other types of dysfunction, but this is one I keep seeing.  Are there people in your parish who would step up and help out if only they understood the need and were invited to help?  Yes there are.  Invite them (and very often they go uninvited because they have some outward reason you think they won’t meet spec, when really they’d love to be wanted and put to work).

But there are other people who seem to have it all together and they simply do not.  They cannot help you, or they cannot help you in the way you are asking of them.

Suffering is Not New

Let’s quit talking about the modern world.  For a hundred years and more, people have been writing about about how the pace of the modern world is the problem.  Well, it is, in the sense that none of us have to live in any other world, so this world’s the one that’s going to give us trouble.

But life isn’t difficult because it is modern, it is difficult because it is life.  Not having your act together is one of the facets of human life since shortly before we got kicked out of the Garden of Eden.   The poor will be with us always, and when we get a turn at experiencing some sort of poverty, that’s just us having our turn at being those poor.  Not having your act together is, technically speaking, a sort of blessing.

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Edvard Munch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  I think Gary Larson’s Wiener Dog Art version is a little better, though.

Effort & Illness: The Confusing Habits of Sick People

Since I surround myself with people who know better, no one’s yet given me the dreaded words You don’t look sick. Even people who do look sick often don’t look as bad as they feel*.  As Jen Fulwiler explained it last year:

I feel self-conscious that I’ve been doing better, and have no visible symptoms of being ill. . . . I worry that the folks dropping off the food are starting to suspect this is some kind of scam. The other day a super sweet lady from the parish came by with a steaming gourmet dinner for our entire family, complete with appetizers and dessert. I had just gotten back from a doctor’s appointment so I was dressed up and wearing makeup; I’d been resting most of the day so I was unusually energetic. She seemed tired from having worked so hard to cook for our entire family in addition to her own, and I used my Neurotic ESP to determine that she was wondering why I wasn’t cooking for her.

I told Joe that I should get some crutches for when I answer the door for people delivering meals, as a symbolic gesture to assure them that their efforts were not wasted. He looked at me like I was insane, and pointed out the obvious fact that my problem is with my lungs and that I would have no use for crutches under any circumstances. I said that I know, but they sell them at the grocery store, and I didn’t know where to get my hands on a ventilator — and, again, it’s all for symbolism anyway. He backed away from me slowly and went to pour himself a large glass of wine.

Yes.  This. I put a short section in my catechist book on invisible disabilities, because it’s something that comes up in religious ed more often than you’d think.  Mostly among catechists, but among students as well.  That one chapter is the one I get the most thank you letters about.

You can be seriously ill without being 100% incapacitated.

It’s pretty rare for someone to be completely felled in a single blow.  This causes confusion, because you see people wandering WalMart who look like they’re going to collapse any second now.  So if your sick person still has good balance and coordination, and manages to answer the phone in a cheerful manner, you think, “Must not be that sick.  There are people at WalMart who look much, much worse.”

The people at WalMart might be worse.  But that doesn’t cause the sick person to be less sick.

Some people are good at putting on.

I knew a lady once who would answer the phone cheerfully even if you woke her up at 4AM.  It wasn’t that she wanted you to call then.  She just had excessively good phone manners.  And thus the Perceived Illness Paradox: Some people complain a lot, other people don’t.  Some people are good at masking their symptoms, other people aren’t.  Some people are good at coming up with clever work-arounds that keep them high-functioning, other people aren’t.  You really can’t judge how someone feels inside by how they’re acting outside.

Rest makes a difference.

Anyone who races knows you manage your training schedule so that you peak when it counts.  There are days when you can ride hard and fast, no problem, and days when you can’t.  Depends on how much sleep you got.  What you did the day before.  What you did the week before.

Illness doesn’t change that, it just changes the scale.

Figuring out an unpredictable body is exhausting.

Normal people spend most of their time operating well within the margins of their abilities.  If you knew you had to ride 100 miles on your bike sometime soon, you’d have to plan ahead to make sure you could do it.  You’d strategize how to make it happen with as little trouble as possible.  But you wouldn’t feel the least bit of guilt if you misjudged: “Wow, that was easier than I thought it would be, why did I make such a big deal out of it?”  Or conversely, “I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t realize how hard!”

Sick people have to figure out the 100-mile ride about everything they do . . . and then get in trouble if they misjudge.  “Why’d you spend half an hour answering e-mails? You should have rested up so you could talk to your mother on the phone!”  Or “Why’d you put off that phone call, look, you talked for twenty minutes, no problem!”

It’ll make you bonkers.  You hear the mail truck go by, and you think to yourself, “Should I walk to the mailbox?  Or get a kid to do it for me?  What’s the best thing here? How will this decision impact my family life?”

What you like is easier than what you don’t like.

Sick people are confusing because their gifts don’t go away.  Okay, if your gift is watching football on TV, everyone will think, “Look he spends all day watching football games, he must be sick.”  But what is hard for you is effortless for someone else. What is easy — even fun — for you is difficult for someone else.  It’s not about the sheer physical energy required.  It’s the mental energy.

So my son might say to my daughter, “I see you have plenty of time for scrapbooking.  Why don’t you research computer components?  What’s wrong with you?  Just lazy, I see.”  And she’d point out to him that he received a photo album for Christmas, and he’s supposed to put his photos in it.  He had time to build a computer, and even more time for playing computer games . . . why so lazy with the photo album?

Everything costs.

There’s service to your fellow man, and then there’s letting your fellow man turn you into his servant. We live in a hyper-critical age.  What you wear, what you eat, what your hobbies are, how you spend your money — all of it is subject to the approval of seven billion self-appointed guardians.  That doesn’t change when you’re sick, it just becomes harder to please the seven billion, because you’ve got less to please them with.

Normal people might say, for example, “Is it worth it for me to give up an hour of my time to visit my crotchety uncle who invited me for dinner tonight?”  When you’re sick the question becomes, “Is it worth it for me to set aside an entire afternoon to rest, and give up getting any chores done, at all, the entire day, so that I can physically pull off the feat of visiting my uncle for an hour?”

In normal life, a dysfunctional friend is the one who makes inordinate demands on your time and energy.  In sick life, everything is an inordinate demand.  But some of those demands are very gratifying, so you organize your life to make them possible. The chief sin of sick people, I suspect, is in gratifying too many whims.

Order in all things.

Sick people are confusing because of the scale change.  With so little room for covering-over, it becomes obvious what the sick person values most.  It becomes obvious where the conflicts lie, because there’s no margin where you can quick slip in a nod towards other people’s priorities.  As in academia, the rivalries can be so bitter because the stakes are so small.  “Just a few minutes of your time” is now also, “all your time”.  How are you going to spend all that time? The way you want?  The way I want? Something in between?

The Darwins have a novena started on just this question.

*Sometimes things look so bad that you assume the other way, “It’s not as bad as it looks, I hope?”  To which I’ll observe: A badly scraped knee looks horrible.  But it feels even worse.