So the reason I vanished from the internet like I’d been kidnapped in broad daylight is that I had to quick plan a massive trip to Europe. (I know!) A different day, I will write more about the how-to’s of pulling off that feat; for now just know that yes, it consumed my every free minute from the moment the opportunity opened up until the transport, lodging, and insurance were firmly established.
You understand, because you, too, have something you want to do that, if you were suddenly given the chance, you’d drop everything and make it happen. I want to talk about what it takes to make that thing happen for you.
The One Big Thing
I think “bucket lists” are nonsense. Life isn’t like that. My list of priorities looks like this:
My vocation as a wife and mother.
#1 and #2 are inseparably intertwined — doing one means doing the other, always. #3 is composed of all the other things that might be important, but that when push comes to shove you can pout all you want, I’m not available to do that thing you think I should be doing, if it interferes with #1 and #2.
Still, there’s a pile of good stuff behind door #3, including a long list of, “It would sure be nice if . . .” items. It would sure be nice to have a bigger, prettier house. It would sure be nice to visit New England. It would sure be nice to take the kids to Mount Vernon (God-willing, that’s next summer). The One Big Thing also sits behind door #3, but in a different corner of the Everything Else room.
We have a friend whose One Big Thing was to invest in a large, well-appointed home for his eventual wife and children. It was so important to him that he started saving up for that house while he was still in college. It’s not that he would have felt like he’d failed in life, or “missed out,” or that his happiness depended on having that house. It was just important enough to him that he was willing to sacrifice a lot of other good things in order to make it happen if he could. (And he did.)
You have some things like that. Things that maybe are achievable or maybe they aren’t, but if you do get the chance, you’d be willing to set aside a lot of other good stuff in order to make your One Big Thing happen.
The Things We Set Aside
So I’ve been thinking about taking my kids on this trip since I was sixteen years old.
(Yes, that’s right: I wasn’t dating anybody, I hadn’t yet met the man I’d eventually marry, it would be another decade before the first child was even born. I was sixteen years old and walking along a misty tree-lined alley leading up to a historic French chateau, and I knew that one day I wanted to share that moment’s experience with my future children.)
Everybody has a different financial picture, so this isn’t a talk about how if you just do what I do you can have your big thing. But I want to make it clear that there’s a long list of good, worthwhile things we’re forgoing to make the One Big Thing happen. On that list:
All superfluous purchases. I was going to bring home flowers for Valentine’s day, but I need that $2.99 to be in the bank this summer.
A laptop that works. My trusty Surface Pro has given it up, and thus one of the reasons I don’t write as much lately is that I don’t have a computer I can take to another room when the family’s all home, and I do have to jockey for time on the shared machines. So basically I’ve made the decision that something I really love, writing, is just not going to happen as much as I’d like, for a while.
A new-used car. Our minivan has 170,000 miles on it. The doors either don’t lock or don’t open or sometimes both. The paint job is Green and Black Cheetah because we’ve filled in with primer where the original finish is rusting out. There is no interior carpet anymore, just bare metal with strategically-placed rubber mats. We’d been planning to upgrade to something conceived this millennium, but my mechanical engineer tells me we can get that baby to 200K, no problem. So that’s what we’ll be doing.
Living room furniture. When we updated the circa-1985 paint in the living room and hallways this Christmas, we donated our couch and recliner, from the same era and in the same general condition, to other worthy recipients. What’s there instead? Lawn chairs. Really nice ones, yes: They’re the ones we got from Lowe’s on clearance and had previously been using to kit the screen porch. They just got promoted to a full-time, permanent gig as Chief Living Room Furniture.
More house space. Eventually that minivan is going to need to be replaced. Good thing we just painted, because this family of six is going to be squeezed into the three-bedroom ranch for a long time to come.
I mention that last one not because it’s a big deal (I know larger families living in smaller houses), but because to a lot of people, a spacious home is their One Big Thing.
You just have to know yourself and know what trade-offs fit the kind of person you are. No matter how rich you are, you can’t have everything you’re able to want. We all have to prioritize, and give up some good things in order to have other good things that are more important to us.
Seizing the Day
I’m not omnipotent nor omniscient, and neither are you. There’s no telling what will happen between now and the end of June. Perhaps our plans all come to naught. One of the ways you know you’ve hit your One Big Thing is because you can honestly say to yourself: Even if this doesn’t work out, I have to try it, because I will always regret not having taken my chance when it came.
[Tip: If you are making a significant financial investment in anything, get that investment insured. You can insure a house, a car, a boat, a musical instrument, and yes, even a trip.]
In our case, what happened is that we were thinking about taking a much more reasonable, but still-ambitious, stateside family trip. That was another thing we’ve always wanted to do and here we were: The kids were at the ideal age, my health was finally decent again, there was a slot when we could take the time off and make it happen.
So we talked about a variety of other, much more sane choices. Then one day I came to my senses. I told my husband: I would rather not go anywhere this summer, and save up for as long as it takes to make my One Big Thing happen.
And he briefly set aside all reason and scruples and determined that he really, really loves me, and that maybe we should talk about this. I pointed out that I’ve been talking about doing this trip since as long as he’s known me, and also there has not been a single time in the past decade when I was physically able to make it happen. Our son graduates high school next year. If I wanted to do it, now was literally the only time.
So I did it. Trip is booked.
This is where we’re going. Photo by Fr_Antunes (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons. And no I won’t be live-blogging it, because: I don’t have a working laptop. That’s fine. My One Big Thing wasn’t “taking the internet on this trip,” it was, “taking my kids on this trip.” I don’t recall ever giving birth to a computer, thanks.
Yesterday I wrote about why ever-expanding parishes are a sign of trouble. This does not mean that a big parish is a bad parish; it means that if a diocese is growing in pewsitters but not in religious vocations, it’s growing spiritual fat, not muscle. The good news is that stored energy, in the form of pewsitters, can be converted into a healthy Body of Christ just as soon as the head makes up its mind to start doing the things it takes to regain spiritual vigor.
You should come visit St. William in Round Rock, Texas. We are the largest parish in the diocese with no sign of growing slower. Our post confirmation program retention rate is 4x the national average . . . and our parish faith formation programs (pre-k through high school) are thriving in ways that make our “mega church” work. We are also blessed to be a 100 year old parish in which the founding family still attends (and can often be seen in the trenches of service oriented work). We come from humble beginnings, have a multicultural background, and are rich in heritage – Mexican/Anglo/rich/poor, etc.
You should come talk to our priest, Father Dean Wilhelm, our adult faith formation director Noe Rocha and our high school and middle school youth ministers, Chris Bartlett and Gwen Bartlett (they are brother and sister). They are also co-founders of a mentoring ministry called Next Level Ministry, designed to help youth ministers get the most out of their programs.
Martina is behind the Jesus is Lord program, one of the key elements of St. William’s success, and which you can read about in detail:
FID and BPID are both best suited to intermediate-level lay readers. You don’t have to be a genius or on staff at the parish, and both books are eminently readable, but when my own discipleship group read FID, some of the members found the density of the book a little overwhelming. After you’ve read the book yourself, if you want to communicate and discuss the ideas in Forming Intentional Disciples with a broader audience of parish lay-leaders and future lay-leaders, the free CatholicMom.com study guide for Forming Intentional Disciples provides a snapshot summary of the key ideas and a few discussion questions for each chapter.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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. . . .
(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.)
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
What’s with the radio silence? Let me just tell you.
But first, the reason I’m breaking it: My friend Sarah Reinhard asked me to blog on Theology of the Body stuff in the lead-up to this fall’sTheology of the Body Congress, which you should attend if you have the opportunity. The line-up of speakers is stellar, and yes I would go myself if I possibly could. So put that on your calendar.
The expression Theology of the Body among Catholics is a bit of a code word for, “Let’s talk about sex now.” I usually stick to code on these things. But there’s more to your body than just the parts and processes that make you a boy or a girl, as Susan Windley-Daoust will remind you periodically. I’m going to write not-about-sex today, and come back to racier topics here and over at Patheos in the next few weeks.
Now back on topic. A little Applied Theology and the answer to the question, “Why on earth has Jen Fitz completely dropped off the internet?”
Short answer is: I’m not doing as well, physically, as I would need to be doing in order to both take care of my primary vocation (marriage, parenthood) and this secondary vocation as a writer. So first things get to be first, and the rest has to wait.
The very, very, long answer:
But here is something completely cool, because God is like this: Just in time for me to have something someone really wants me to write about (instead of just me running my mouth off, which is my usual niche), I can totally sit at the computer and not be light-headed! Isn’t that cool?! I keep forgetting this new fact, and thus my e-mail is way behind. June was a pretty long month, computing-wise.
I theorize in part it was positional, which means I probably need to rearrange the workstation. Here’s an interesting link about cartoid sinus hypersensitivity, which might cause you to suspect I’m really an old man just posing as a pleasantly-plump middle-aged housewife, but you’ve seen the photos, so whom do you believe? Sports Illustrated or my cartoid sinus barocepter? Anyway, my parlor-trick for June was that I could drop my pulse twenty points just by, um, taking my pulse. No true cartoid sinus massage needed, just touch the thing.
It quit doing that, though, as far as I can tell.
Some other interesting body-things for this summer:
Dang it I can’t talk anymore again. The speaking-part works fine, don’t panic, it’s the getting light-headed while I do it that is at about 80% of the time. This is pretty common in tachycardia-themed autonomic dysfunction. (POTS people talk about this all the time in conversation, even though it never seems to make any list of medical descriptions, not sure why there’s that disconnect in the medical literature.) 80% isn’t 100%. On a good day I’m completely normal, on a lousy day I’ve given up even lip-syncing at Mass.
–> Autonomic dysfunction creates these weird eddies of backward expectations. Mass is pretty much my least pleasant activity, because it involves sitting still then standing still, with positional head changes (bad — I keep being reminded not to bow the head, just don’t do it), combined with talking. So on a miserable Sunday I can feel extremely overwhelmingly bad by the end of the hour. But because the problem is not at all with my heart’s ability to pump blood or my blood’s ability to hold oxygen, I’m the person who’s desperate to lay down while standing still, but will then escape without difficulty at full speed to the car and feel better as a result of the vigorous activity.
Basically I have this cardiovascular problem that makes being still feel worse and being active feel better.
Patients might be able to muster adequate energy for periods of time but it is usually short-lived and they tire quickly, not unlike a battery that discharges too rapidly. . . . A period of rest or sleep is generally required before energy levels are restored. Following rest a patient may demonstrate apparently normal stamina and a clinician will not detect weakness on examination . . . .
This is me completely: Do something, then flop on the floor utterly exhausted, and then in a bit I’m fine again. Happens hour-by-hour, and then also from day-to-day. More on that below.
I don’t know whether or not I have a mitochondrial disorder (very difficult to diagnose) but I get this, too:
Impaired oxidative phosphorylation [don’t know my cause] not only causes muscle fatigue but also muscle cramping with or without tenderness, or a feeling of extreme heaviness in the muscles. These symptoms are especially severe in those muscle groups being used, and patients often complain of discomfort in the legs or even muscle spasms.The discomfort may be felt immediately following the activity or later on, waking up the patient from sleep.
Funny story: I mentioned to a relatively new acquaintance that I’m prone to decrepitude, and the question she asked was, “So are you basically in pain all the time?”
The answer is that at this writing, no I am not. But I have picked up what is turning out to be mild-but-intractable intermittent pain (in my legs, if you’re curious), and yes it keeps me from sleeping well, and yes, I’ve tried all the things, and the things help quite a lot. (Other than deep breathing to relax, like the kind that works so well for childbirth — used to be my go-to, but now it just gives me a headache. Which stinks, because it’s a good method if your autonomic nervous system functions properly.) But I think it’s very funny because the words “every day” and “intractable” do apply even if the pain itself is not very bad. So if you use those adjectives, it sounds way worse than it is. I think most other people can also use those adjectives.
[By “intractable” I mean “intractable using means that don’t require a prescription.” I haven’t gotten around to being bothered enough to plead for the good drugs. So no, nothing to worry about at this time.]
And this cracked me up, because every receptionist I’ve ever met knows this about me now:
Exercise intolerance is not restricted to the large muscle groups in the body but can also involve the small muscles. Writing can be a challenge; too much writing leads to fatigue and/or cramping or spasms. The quality of penmanship can be observed to deteriorate over the course of a writing assignment with letter formation becoming more erratic and messy.
This is why you don’t want to receive handwritten correspondence from me. Nothing new, story of my life. Interestingly, I always take handwritten notes in classes, and if I don’t have a computer I’ll do my other writing longhand — but the writing degenerates fast into this baseline scrawl that’s just barely legible to me, and only because I already know what’s written there. Once it gets down to worst-level, I can sustain it for a long time.
And one last one which caught my attention, from the same source:
. . . Debilitating fatigue can occur with infectious illnesses, may outlast the other symptoms of the infection, and the recovery time can be very prolonged.
This thing I hate. I never know whether a cold is going to cost me a few days or six weeks. Weirdly, I used to go into nasty bronchitis every few years following a cold, and knock on wood that hasn’t been a problem lately. I just get all the fatigue. (Um, and I always have a cough. So, gosh, I don’t know. Don’t make me laugh and we’re good.)
Exercise does help. The supreme challenge is in figuring out how much to do. Too little, and you sleep poorly and lose conditioning. Too much, unfortunately, is not evident during the exercise. I can work out and feel great and be sure I’ve figured out a great balance between rest and exercise, and then at the end of the week completely collapse and require days and days of recovery before I’m functional again.
–> The convenient thing here is that I can in fact borrow time. If I know I want to be up for something, I can plan ahead, build up reserves, stretch them during the event through the clever use of pharmaceuticals, and plan to pay back afterwards. Difficulty being that the mortgage interest is steep. There’s no getting more out of the body than it has to give.
The inconvenience is that all the things I do are exercise, but some exercises are more valuable than others. So if I want to work on my core muscle strength, which is key to preventing the injuries to which I am prone, then I have to not work on helping you out with that thing you wanted me to do. Your thing is also exercise, but it’s a lower priority exercises, so out it goes.
Yes, I tried that thing you suggested.Not being snarky there. I’ve had a number of good friends recommend possible ways to improve the situation, and some of the ideas have been very helpful. (Even if the idea came after I’d already come across that suggestion and tried it, and thus could immediately report, “Yes! Thanks! That does help! Excellent idea, glad you mentioned it!”) Some things people have suggested and that I tried did not help for the reason proposed (I am not, for example, allergic to wheat) but do help for a different reason (minimizing wheat products makes more room in the diet for intensely potassium-rich foods, which help a ton).
So a thing that’s got me occupied this summer is obsessively managing all the micro-factors that can make the situation as better as possible. I think (but can’t be certain) that I’ve got the diet tuned to a spot where I can happily live off the things I seem to do best with, but also get away with deviating from the Ideal Thing at food-themed social events and no disaster ensues. If all that proves to be true, I’ll chat about it later. It might be just lucky coincidence.
Meanwhile, here’s the surprise of the summer:
It took me a long, long time to figure this out. Here’s the difficulty: The heat doesn’t bother me.
I live in a warm climate. I don’t mind being sweaty. I know how to dress for the heat, how to acclimatize as the hot season arrives, and how to get the most use out of a hot day. Since I cultivated these skills, I’ve never had any difficulty with the heat whatsoever, other than some mild irritation about the truly obnoxious portion of sauna-season, which you just have to deal with and move on. I even know the trick about watching for Seasonal Affective Disorder when the heat starts getting so annoying you hide indoors despite yourself. (Same solution as per winter – bright light & vitamin D).
The problem I had in figuring out this one is that (a) I’m still functional above the temperatures when people from up north start whining profusely, (b) I still don’t mind the heat or being hot, and (c) since I have any number of other things that also make me feel terrible, it’s not like I was able to say to myself, “Gee, I feel wonderful all the time except if I’m someplace hot.”
It’s a perfectly manageable problem, it just came as a bit of a surprise. Amusingly, my cold intolerance is getting worse, too.
The hardest thing: Not being able to concentrate. Since I’m a master-complainer, I don’t know that we’d call this my “chief complaint.” But it’s certainly my loudest. As in: If I told you I NEEDED the house to be QUIET so I could do this thing, that’s what I meant so please go OUTSIDE. This is the #1 reason I haven’t been writing. I’m home all day with four kids. There’s noise. There are interruptions. Note that my entire career as a writer has been carried out under these exact same conditions.
What happens therefore is that I drift through the day doing tasks that are super-easy, and then if I find myself in some unexpected situation like trying to cook while other people are in the room, it’s alarming to everyone just how badly things go (until I communicate my distress so emphatically that everyone goes and hides). And then I go back to easy things, and wonder why things that take my full attention just never get done.
So that’s the answer to the perennial, “How’s it going, Jen?” topic on this blog. I’ll emphasize here that as much I just used my crotchety trans-old lady powers to moan about the ailment for very many words, it’s not as bad as all that. But here’s a story that sort of sums up the situation:
Yesterday I was halfway through this post when I had to leave and get ready to go to a social thing at the lake. Sunday had been horrible, Monday was not that great, and Tuesday wasn’t impressing me. I was only going to this thing because (a) I wanted to go to it, and (b) my kids really, really, really wanted to go to it, and they’d done all the things I told them they had to do if they wanted to go.
So we went. And I was fine. Dreamy fine. No problems. Felt completely normal for the full three hours I was there, conversing, walking around, standing around, watching kids, etc. Some of the time, I’m completely, totally fine.
Moments like that can make you think you’re crazy. Maybe I just need to relax at the lake more often? Two reality checks:
Part of being fine was that I aggressively managed as many factors (fluid intake, electrolytes, staying out of the direct sun) as I could.
If it comes as a surprise to you that you went to an enjoyable, relaxing, time-limited social event and had no experience of illness during all three hours, probably the fact that this was an unexpected occurrence tells you something.
So we can add this to my list of signs something is not normal: If you get to where it’s a surprising occurrence when you feel well, we can infer that there’s a problem.
And dang my legs were like lead when I dropped a kid off at VBS this morning. So yeah, CAWOG. I’m rolling with it.
I figured since this was the All About Me post, if you made it this far you’re the type of person who wants to see my new haircut. (Hi Mom!) The third one is me posing in front of the dog’s blanket, which is still hanging up to dry on the screen porch a week after I told a kid to put it there. I guess it’s dry now. But I needed the contrast because I kept getting photos where the new haircut looked exactly like the SI photo shoot.
Meanwhile, on the question of whether life is worth living when it isn’t everything you’d always imagined, reprinted below is what I wrote two years ago today on the horrible expression, “I got my life back!” Let’s just say that most people who use that expression didn’t actually experience the separation of body from soul.
PSA, if you get this blog via e-mail or feed-reader: All these links above I shared in my twitter reading-feed, which you can see easily, and any number of other good links, by clicking to through to jenniferfitz.com and cruising the sidebar.
At this writing, I am the poster child for Better Living Through Chemistry. If we were to rely on a drug-ad cliche to sum up the post-prescription transformation, one might reach for the old reliable, “I got my life back!”
And that would be nonsense.
I’m not ungrateful, I’m tremendously grateful. I’m thoroughly enjoying this dramatic change in circumstance. I certainly don’t mean to squash the happiness of anyone who’s experienced some similar reprieve. Nor would I ever dismiss the genuine suffering — far greater than anything I’ve experienced — that others endure with no such relief.
But here’s what: My life has been here all along.
It didn’t go anywhere when I was at my sickest. I was living my life. And don’t understand me to mean, “I was finding happiness in small things!” or “I realized that time with my children was such a treasure!” Oh please. I’ve always been easily amused, and I have the bunny ears to prove it. I wouldn’t choose to spend all day every day with my children if I hadn’t treasured them from the get-go.*
My life is bigger than a collection of accomplishments and abilities and happy moments. Laying very still in a big machine in a cold room, praying abbreviated rosaries to pass the time because I can’t keep track of ten Hail Mary’s without beads or fingers, but I can keep track of three? That’s my life. Part of it, anyhow. Doing routine tasks with no music, no singing, because I needed every ounce of concentration to get the work done? Life. My life. Walking oh-so-slowly 1/16th of a mile around the indoor walking track because the little girls want to go run during their sister’s volleyball practice, but no going up on the track without an adult? Mine. All mine.
When you divide your life into the parts that you’ll claim ownership to and the parts that you reject, you steal from yourself. You miss out on a chance to be everything that you could be. Some of the parts no sane man would choose, but there they are, unchosen but endowed all the same. Are you going to live them, or are you going to waste them?
Bigger on the Inside than the Outside
It matters because we are formed by what we do and what we choose. Given our fallen world, what our bodies do reflects our inner lives imperfectly. The effort to pray, poorly, comes out like so much failure when your body is not cooperating. The effort to work, to think, to love, all of it looks like so much worthlessness. And then one day — in this life or the next — suddenly your body behaves itself, and you discover your soul was growing stronger through all that effort. Effort that seemed, like walking uphill on a too-fast treadmill, to be getting you nowhere but miserable.
The paradox of redemption is that every good is to be sought, but no evil is to be wasted. We work, diligently, for what is good. For healing. For an end to poverty. For peace. For the good of souls everywhere. We become more like Christ the more we work for that good. And yet, like Christ, an integral part of our life on earth is making even the evil be good.
*No aspersions being cast on parents who find their children are best treasured as they get on and off the school bus. Lots of ways to treasure those darlings. Mine do well at home. Except when they don’t.
I don’t really, truly hate Mother’s Day, contrarian posts on the topic not withstanding. There are reasons for this. Two reasons, and they are my patented method for having a good Mother’s Day despite the fact that it is, as it happens, that day. These two steps should work pretty well for most non-mothers, though in some cases the best you’re going to get is not as bad as it could have been.
Step 1: Don’t Expect Things
Evil presumably well-intentioned people use this holiday to sell you all kinds of ideas. The idea that you should want to give or receive a particular gift, or that you should want to go to brunch, or that you should want to participate in their fundraiser, or heaven forbid, but it happens, that you should suddenly take an interest in purchasing greeting cards.*
Marketing plus cultural momentum can cause you to develop any number of unrealistic, unhealthy expectations. Resist clinging to these ideas and others like them:
That your family life is and always has been just like the last five minutes of any episode of Little House on the Prairie.
That you like the food other people cook for you.
That today the weather is going to cooperate.
That you are going to get that nap you’ve been really wanting.
That the homily at church is going to be any good, and the Ave Maria is really going to hit that special place in your heart this time.
That the lady who gave you that really weird statue of Mary had better aesthetic sense than you after all.
That your kids are going to spontaneously give up fighting for twenty-four hours.
That your life is pleasant.
That you are going to enjoy this day.
Best Mother’s Day reading? The Silver Chair. Puddleglum has it going on.
Cultivate the right attitude, and when people ask you Monday morning, “Did you have a good Mother’s Day?” you’ll be able to respond quite honestly, “Well, it was almost exactly like the descriptions of the Second Coming, only heavier on stinging insects and with a conspicuous absence of an actual end to time and beginning of eternal life, which I’d been looking forward to — but hey, now I feel totally like the real Second Coming is going to be great. So yeah, it was good. How about yours?”
Step 2: Get Yourself a Present
Bacon is traditional, but you can totally branch out on this one. Waiting for other people to figure out what floats your boat is overrated. Take the initiative. The only rules are that it be something you actually want, and that it be something you can afford. Driving yourself deeper into debt is not Mothers’ Day compliant.
Wait a minute? You’re not a mother? Hah. Who said that had anything to do with it? You have a mother, and that’s what counts. Get yourself a prize.
Note to Skeptics: I am not kidding. Try the method for yourself and be amazed at the results.
* I know many people who purchase greeting cards and are otherwise upright citizens with precious gifts to share with the world. Don’t judge, guys. Don’t judge.
The Charnel House, located in a corner of the graveyard at St Helen’s Church in Cliffe, Kent, England. The Charnel House was built during the mid 19th century. It was used as a make-shift mortuary until the bodies were taken away to be buried. Its location close to the river Thames is key as bodies found were washed up or floating along the Thames were retrieved and taken to the charnel house to be stored awaiting identification and burial.
The building continued to be used until the start of the twentieth century, when a series of Public Health Acts forced buildings such as this to become redundant. After this, the Church used it for storage and at one time a hive of bees was also put in there to deter intruders. It is now classified as a Grade II listed building by English Heritage.
And why is it the Wikimedia Image of the Day on the vigil of Mother’s Day? Because Wikimedia knows. Yes, indeed. What you need is a cottage full of bloated corpses, or angry bees as you prefer, and then your holiday will be shiny and bright just like it ought to be.
Here’s a question forwarded to me by Simcha Fisher, because she knows I sometimes write about this stuff. If it sounds like your parish, it’s probably not. Anecdotal evidence from parents and catechists suggests this happens pretty often.
Updated:Here’s the link to the US’s Virtus program, for those not familiar with the concept. Since every diocese sets its own additional policies, for the purpose of this Q&A, just think, “safe environment practices.”
This is my question: What is a parent supposed to do when the Virtus requirements aren’t being followed in his or her parish?
This is an actual problem in my parish right now . I don’t have any reason to suspect anyone of any wrongdoing, except for the lack of judgement being shown by our young priest who runs the youth groups. The problem is lack of chaperones. It’s a two-fold problem because (1) no parents are volunteering to chaperone the regular meetings, and (2) he holds the meetings anyway, even when no parents show up and he is the only chaperone.
All the advice I’ve been getting from the various people I’ve asked is to work with the priest to get chaperones. I’ve been trying to do that, but it doesn’t sit quite right. Obviously, if there’s abuse, you’re supposed to report it to the police. Hopefully we all know this by now. But is there an actual protocol or reporting structure that’s supposed to be followed for a problem like this?
Some opening thoughts:
The first thing to keep in mind is that the number one reason people ignore rules is that they don’t think there is a problem. It’s possible Father Lackadaisical is up to no good, but other explanations are more likely.
Second thing: There may or may not be a strict requirement of more than one adult in the room. With older students, alternate accepted practices may include:
Adult avoids being alone with students — at least three people in the room who are able to speak for themselves, but that might consist of one adult and several students;
Door stays open (only works if there are other people in the building);
There is a window into the room, and other adults in the vicinity who could look in at any time;
Event is entirely in public, such as if the leader meets the youth at a restaurant and is never alone with a student.
Your parish or diocese may have specific guidelines, or your pastor or program director might be given some latitude in assessing the situation and making a judgement call.
Even if none of these alternatives are accepted standards in your diocese, and in fact there is a strict requirement that two Virtus-trained, background-checked adults be present at all times, the most likely explanation (not the only) is that the youth group leader feels he is nonetheless creating a sufficiently safe environment, and therefore would rather not cancel an important program for lack of other volunteers.
How to Intervene
There are some basic standards for addressing safety violations of any kind, and after running through the list we’ll talk ramifications below. Assuming there’s no reason to believe anyone is in actual danger (you’d call the police), your primary option is to run up the chain of command. Who does what, where, and how will depend on your parish and your diocese, but it’s something like this:
Talk to the youth group leader directly (which you’ve done). Offering to help out is excellent.
Bring the issue to the attention of the next higher-up in the parish. This could be a parish Virtus coordinator, the director of faith formation, or some other administrator.
Bring the issue to the attention of the pastor.
Bring the issue to the attention of the diocesan administrator responsible for implementing your Virtus program. This could be the diocesan director of youth ministry, a diocesan child-safety coordinator, or some other person. Ask around.
Write the bishop.
FYI, experience speaking here, it’s easy to do this wrong, or to do it right but still end up not getting anywhere. You may accidentally be referred to the wrong person, or to the right person but who doesn’t know what they’re doing. It happens. Never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.
Some Things that Might Happen
Depending on your situation, this could all turn out any number of ways. Here are some possibilities:
Your intervention is received with gratitude. Some people know they are overwhelmed, and appreciate all the help they can get. Some people are conscientious enough that when they unwittingly err, they are thankful that others have their back and save them from disaster. This is the ideal, and you have to act with the charitable assumption that it will be the case.
If this is the case, what you can expect is:
Father Naive will make an effort to reform his ways;
He will still some times screw it up, unless a superior (not you) manages to instill some serious fear into him.
Just keep patiently helping him out. People who want to be helped will generally let you help them.
However, be aware that this might not be the case.
You unleash a nasty wave of gossip and backbiting. If your parish or diocese is dysfunctional, you may already know this is coming, or you might be stepping into the mire for the first time. If you happen to have a great parish, you might get away with just some temporary unpleasantness and then the restoration of good relations.
One or more administratively incompetent persons persist in carrying on as they’ve always carried on. Of all the spiritual gifts, the gift of administration is the one talked about least but needed most. Consider a novena to the Holy Spirit — no I am not joking.
You discover the joy of working with psychopaths. If this happens to you, you’re basically out of luck. If you were good at dealing with amoral, self-centered people who were masters at manipulation, you probably wouldn’t have written to strangers on the internet for advice. Assume the psychopath is going to convince everyone that you’re the crazy one, done.
–> If there’s no crime taking place, once you’ve done your part to bring the problem to the attention of those in authority, you are free to move on. You will probably want to find some other activity for your family. You will definitely want to share your experience with a trustworthy, clear-thinking person who can help you sort out whether or not you’re the crazy one.
It turns out the youth group leader is a predator and there is in fact an abusive situation in the works. This will make you dream of the joys of working with garden-variety psychopaths. Expect a messy, long, painful ordeal that completely changes your life forever — and since you’re only the bystander, you’ll count yourself lucky. This is, statistically speaking, pretty unlikely. But if it is happening in your parish, as much as you don’t want to be the one who has to get involved, thank God you’re there.
And finally, prepare yourself for one very likely outcome, regardless of how well or poorly everyone else responds:
You don’t handle the situation with grace and aplomb. You’re an ordinary mortal with a limited set of gifts. If you don’t happen to have that perfect combination of patience, wisdom, fortitude, diplomacy and pixie dust, there’s a good chance you’re going to at least partly screw this up. Cut yourself and everyone else a little bit of slack. When the other people who end up involved in this don’t handle it as well as you’d like, remind yourself they are mere mortals, too. If you haven’t done so already, cultivate an abiding love of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
Best wishes. Readers, in your charity please take a moment to say a prayer for all those who have to get involved in confronting problems of this nature. Thanks.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
Parish leaders are falling apart at the seams because they can’t do it all.
Therefore they beg pewsitters to step up and do it all.
Pewsitters were already falling apart at the seams themselves.
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.
Edvard Munch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. I think Gary Larson’s Wiener Dog Art version is a little better, though.