The Personalist Project

Let me tell you a story.

Years ago, I watched a young friend go through a dramatic few years trying to make things right after getting his casual just-for-fun girlfriend pregnant. With effort, he dissuaded her from aborting their child, offering to single parent if he had to so that his daughter would live. He moved in with his girlfriend during the remainder of the pregnancy with the idea that they could be a family. At first, it seemed like it might work out for them. But the relationship fell apart a few months after their daughter was born. Undaunted, my friend continued to spend every moment he could with his daughter, but as his relationship with his ex deteriorated, that became harder and harder to do. 

For a while, he thought that even if he couldn't be in his daughter's life, he could at least avoid being a deadbeat dad. So he signed up to join the army, and went back to his home state for basic training. Three quarters of the way through training, a previously undiagnosed medical weakness was discovered and he was released. The temptation to stay in his home state, near his family and familiar stomping grounds, must have been pretty strong. But he couldn't pretend he wasn't a father. He wasn't a person of any particular moral convictions except for a strong, midwestern family loyalty. No matter how messed up things get, you don't give up on family. So he headed back south to be as close to his daughter as he could be. The last time I saw him, quite a while ago, he was working two jobs, paying child support, and seeing his daughter every other weekend.  

Never would he have said that he wanted his daughter to grow up without both parents around, amidst division and confusion. It wasn't what he intended when he first hooked up with a cute girl, sowing his wild oats while trying to figure out what he wanted out of life. He didn't realize he was choosing the mother of his daughter with this "not at all serious" relationship. When his girlfriend became pregnant, all he wanted was to make it right, for her and for their child. But in the end, it wasn't something he could make right. 

There are things we can break that we are not able to fix.

I thought of this story yesterday while reading the reactions on FB to this open letter by a friend of mine. Many of the responses were attempts to "fix" the situation described---people talking about how troubled marriages should be solved or abandoned. Monica's marriage was labelled, dissected on the basis of the limited information in the letter, diagnosed, and treatments were prescribed by combox strangers. 

The letter itself, if you read it, doesn't ask for a solution. Monica does not ask to be fixed. She asks only for support from the pulpit and from fellow Catholics, that we walk beside her on this difficult road she is travelling. Monica knows something that I learned watching my young friend those years ago: there are things broken that we cannot fix.

Am I advocating despair? No. But these broken places in people's lives are where Francis's call for compassion and pastoral care is most relevant. For while it is true that we cannot heal one another's every wound, nothing is beyond God. And while we wait for his action, we can and should follow his command by loving one another, even in the broken places. 



It isn't comfortable, to walk with someone and help carry their cross. We'd much rather whittle the cross down to size, or tell our friend helpfully that they need not carry this cross (there's a much more comfortable alternative cross just over there, after all), or shout tips from the sidelines on cross-carrying technique. We don't want to look too closely at the inescapable suffering that faces another for fear that we might learn that living well and truly requires that we also suffer, that we also may someday face a cross that seems too large and too cruel to carry and be asked by Christ to bear it for Him. 

In all the coverage of the synod, there's been a tendency to focus on changes in discipline and implications for doctrine. What is the Church going to do to remove people's crosses? What is she going to teach? But the focus of the synod on the family has to be primarily pastoral, and the perennial pastoral concern is this: to feed the hungry, to console the afflicted, to clothe the naked, to see each person and to love and serve them and the image of Christ within them. As a pastoral document, I expect that whatever guidelines might come from the synod will be concerned with giving pastors the guidance and tools they might need to best serve families as they are, not cracking down on error or loosening doctrinal teachings to pretend the faith-filled life is easier than it is. 

My young friend's story, his life complicated and enriched and burdened, all in one, by his daughter's birth and the impossible task of making right the circumstances surrounding it, could be used as a neat, pat explanation for why the Church teaches what she does about sexual morality. And that would be true, and possibly helpful for many. But we cannot love the man or the child by holding them up as examples of life gone wrong. Nor can we love Monica by declaiming on what her marriage should and should not be. At the end of the day, Monica still has to face what she and her husband and her children are, in reality, not in the abstract, and choose each moment what best serves them. 

There may be no single right solution, no one "the answer" to these broken hearts and broken families. But there can still be so much that is good in choosing to love and sacrifice even when it cannot make things right; even when there is no easy answer or perfect happy ending to be achieved. 

I borrowed my title from a Waugh novel, but it's a different novel by that author that I am most inspired by. Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite novels, not despite its lack of a conventionally happy ending, but because of it. What is redeemed in Brideshead is not the happiness of the protagonists; nor are they saved from the consequences of their mistakes. Charles and Julia don't get to have the "might-have-been" of a happy ending together. Their sins and errors have had lasting consequences, and there is no way to take them back and try over. Like my friend, the young father, they cannot make things right.

But while their lives and their sins cannot be redeemed, they themselves may be, and are. There is another story underlying the surface, in which all can be perfected. This is a story we cannot write for each other, but may only witness as companions and as friends on the journey.  

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Comments (7)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Oct 11, 2015 8:34am

Kate, thank you for this moving and important reflection!

It reminds me of what I was trying to get at a while back in post on a new, more dangerous kind of atheism, viz. the kind that claims that religion is abusive.

I still need to follow up on that one, but you give here a good instance of what I had in mind. A person—like Monica—is suffering and pleading for help. And instead of help, she gets judgment and instruction from fellow Catholics. The ones doling out the judgment and instruction think they're helping by "speaking truth," when really, they're alienating and ill-using.

Your post also dovetails nicely with Devra's below on the limits of teachable moments. There too, imo, we see the master/slave dynamic discretely at work. To assume a teaching posture over another is to implicitly assert superiority. Even where there is an objective superiority (like parents over children), the assertion of that superiority is, I'm coming to believe, more often than not a mistake. Where there's no objective superiority, it's abusive.

The kind of "accompaniment" the Pope is calling for involves much more profound humility and respect for the inviolability of another's subjectivity.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Oct 11, 2015 8:50am

It also involves, as you say, a willingness to be uncomfortable and to accept the "unfixableness" of many human situations. 

We are constantly tempted to play God, when we're called instead to love and serve.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#3, Oct 11, 2015 9:46am

There's a place for advice and instruction--and to be fair, I think many of the people doling out advice to Monica really are motivated by concern for her obvious suffering--but it has to come from a place of knowledge, not merely of the Church and the law, but of the people involved.  And, of course, it really is an unkindness to leave someone in ignorance of truth--but before you can enlighten, you first should ascertain whether there is ignorance to begin with.

A more accessible example may be that of parents of children with particular disabilities or challenges. It's horribly common for parents of medically fragile children to be given reams of well-meant advice (and sometimes less well-meant judgement) by those around them. But the very giving of that advice presumes that the casual acquaintance--you or I--knows more about *that child,* their medical condition, their needs, and their parent's efforts and history than do the parents. It's insulting, and as you say, it implicitly asserts superiority.  

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Oct 11, 2015 1:36pm

Kate Whittaker Cousino wrote:

I think many of the people doling out advice to Monica really are motivated by concern for her obvious suffering--but it has to come from a place of knowledge, not merely of the Church and the law, but of the people involved.  And, of course, it really is an unkindness to leave someone in ignorance of truth--but before you can enlighten, you first should ascertain whether there is ignorance to begin with. 

 I agree but I guess I'd go even farther. It's not just a matter of ascertaining whether there is ignorance involved, but whether we have a right to speak at all. 

I think usually we don't.

A year of digging into the material and sitting in the rooms of Adult Children of Alcoholics has persuaded me that one of the root causes of our alienation from one another is the habit of judging and advising and fixing, when what is wanted is sympathetic listening, acceptance, trust (in the other and in God's work in him or her) and respect for the mysterious depths of subjectivity standing before us.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#5, Oct 11, 2015 1:50pm

I've been greatly blessed by other people sharing their wisdom and knowledge with me, so I'm hesitant to deny the goodness in that!

I really think that the error is not in wanting to inform or advise others, but in arrogating superiority to oneself while doing so, or in being unaware of our own ignorance and unwittingly spreading darkness or confusion instead of light. Somewhat ironically, those best equipped to advise are often least inclined to do so, while those least well equipped to offer wisdom are, in their arrogance, often in a hurry to put themselves forward. 

We won't often go too far wrong if we seek understanding and relationship first and foremost. 

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Oct 11, 2015 3:29pm

 

Kate Whittaker Cousino wrote:

I've been greatly blessed by other people sharing their wisdom and knowledge with me, so I'm hesitant to deny the goodness in that!

I have too. 

On the other hand, I've also seen a lot of damage done by ill-advised and out-of-bounds advice, even though well-intentioned.

The key, in my opinion (and as you suggest) is in knowing what you don't know. And when it comes to another person's subjectivity, the cases are few and far between that we know enough to advise well.

I remember a teacher of mine once saying that he tries never to offer advice to another person, unless he's explicitly asked, and even then, he is reluctant and hesitant. It's because of his lively sense of the mystery of subjectivity.

I should make clear that I'm speaking here of the subjective realm, namely what another person should or shouldn't do, should or shouldn't feel, etc. in her circumstances.

I'm not talking about the objective realm. I don't mean general statements like, "I'd advise anyone to wait to have children until they're married." Or correcting an error or misunderstanding, "It's actually not true that it's a sin to divorce."

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#7, Oct 11, 2015 3:42pm

I should make clear that I'm speaking here of the subjective realm, namely what another person should or shouldn't do, should or shouldn't feel, etc. in her circumstances.

I'm not talking about the objective realm. I don't mean general statements like, "I'd advise anyone to wait to have children until they're married." Or correcting an error or misunderstanding, "It's actually not true that it's a sin to divorce."

 An important clarification! Yes, I agree completely that it is very rare that one person can give another subjective advice without overstepping. And even in close friendships where such advice might be solicited, it's best to qualify it strongly: "Perhaps you might consider... I think I would be inclined to..." etc. I try to clarify options rather than advise a course of action--sometimes all that is needful is to say out loud what the choice actually is. 

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