Amen, Amen, Amen.
Salt image via Pixabay
Spring water image by Gaius Cornelius via Wikimedia Commons
Amen, Amen, Amen.
Salt image via Pixabay
Spring water image by Gaius Cornelius via Wikimedia Commons
A dear friend wondered aloud recently, after a prolonged illness, "What is my mission? What is my goal?"
"As my energy returns, every decision on how to spend my time feels laden. It's all potential energy. All choices on spending my energy feel like a gamble."
I think...the good we produce with our time and energy and attention often comes out of the small choices and incidental encounters even more than our initial intentional choices. And there is room in every path for those fruits. The HOW we do what we do moves the world as much or even more than the WHAT. The world needs the person you are. You give that by acting, but it is the acting person that is the gift.
And that's all true enough, as far as it goes. But there's more to this anxiety over choices than just worry about going down the wrong path.
It's comforting to an extent to know that God can bring good out of evil, and that there is no road that can take us out of his reach.
The real dilemma though is the finite quantity of life here on earth. Every decision we make uses time and energy that could have been used elsewhere. Every choice involves the choice NOT to pursue other options.
If you choose the left-hand fork on a path, you may someday find yourself back at the same intersection, free to try to right-hand fork. But when you do, YOU won't be the same. You will be older, with different hopes, different challenges, different capabilities. The path may look different--perhaps more overgrown, less accessible.
So my friend has put her finger on a real difficulty. When we choose, we don't only choose the positive good we are moving towards. We also choose not to pursue any of the goods that lie in other directions. We are finite, and that bears its own kind of grief, because we will never know what could have waited for us down the path not taken.
This is the root of decision paralysis.
When I was a student, we called young men and women who waffled for years over the choice between religious life and the vocation of marriage the Brothers (and Sisters) of Perpetual Discernment.
These earnest young men and women were well-meant and sincere, but their lengthy state of discernment and hesitant attempts to test one path without giving up the option of the other led to more than one broken heart or frustrated vocations director.
It turns out that a sweetheart wants to be more than an "option," and a religious calling needs to be more than a flirtation.
I don't mean to denigrate the process of discernment. A wise gardener will put some thought into the best place to plant an apple sapling, considering the sun, the wind, the potential for pollination, the quality and depth of the soil. We all need slightly different conditions to bloom, and what is good for one may not be as good for another.
But sometimes there is no obvious best choice. There are only good choices, each good in its own way. We have to choose, and place our roots in the soil, and get on with bearing whatever fruit we can.
Sometimes we face a choice where we can sample more than one path. We can be torn between two or more good endeavours, knowing that we are only giving part of ourselves to our tasks, that we aren't doing as much as we could.
I think women express this often when they talk about the difficulty of combining different callings--mother, homemaker, employee, wife, volunteer, etc. We say, "I feel like I'm doing too many things, and I'm not doing any of them well."
When caught between competing tasks and roles, the temptation, I think, is often to gravitate towards the calling or the work that produces the most positive feedback--the promotion at work, the gratitude of those you serve as a volunteer, the plaudits and praise of peers.
These things seem like measures of success, and thus measures of the worth of our choices.
But what if we used a different measure altogether?
Early last week, I saw a smattering of articles marking the twentieth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana. These retrospectives were respectful and reflective, and seeing them, I started keeping my eyes open for similar pieces to mark the twenty year anniversary of Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who had died the same week in one of those remarkable confluences that would make for great fiction if they weren't real.
They didn't materialize.
But maybe this is fitting for the woman who said of herself, "I do not pray for success, I ask for faithfulness." She began her work in obscurity, and the world-wide attention it eventually attracted changed little about how she understood her task--to love Christ in a personal, concrete way through loving the person in front of her.
Saint Teresa has been criticised for not using her fame or her ability to raise donations to fund foundations and initiatives to address systemic issues. These critics allege that she failed to make a large enough difference by choosing to focus on simple acts of care towards the poor rather than working to change the world the poor live in. They judged her by the standard by which we often judge ourselves--am I making an impact? Will my actions have lasting effects? Will my accomplishments be recognized and respected by important people?
Saint Teresa of Calcutta used a different measure.
"It is not the magnitude of our actions but the amount of love that is put into them that matters."
When she encountered volunteers and visitors with dreams of grand, ambitious works, Teresa counselled them to start with small, hidden acts of love in their own homes.
It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start.
Ultimately, love is the heart of vocation, and the measure of our lives. Whatever course our lives take, we will never lack opportunities to love those closest to us.
Love can call you to leave everything, like Agnes Gonxhe did when she joined the missionary Sisters of Loreto, and as she did a second time when love called her out of the convent school and into the streets of Calcutta to serve the poorest of the poor as Mother Teresa.
Or love can call you to drop your plans and projects and open your home to a friend or family member in crisis.
Love can call a man to leave behind his job search and care for his children while his wife earns an income, because that is what best serves his family.
Love can move you to share your passions and talents for art, for music, for ideas, for a craft--as a performer, a volunteer, a mentor, an academic, or an entrepreneur.
Love isn't limiting. But it is clarifying, because it is personal. The question in our discernment between good things becomes not, "what will have the biggest impact?" but "where does my love lead me?"
The call to love is immediate. It is always before us.
"Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin."
Doors image via Pixabay
Love quote image by BK via Flickr
Image of Mother Teresa by Manfredo Ferrari (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
This summer I got to spend some quality time with a beloved friend of 30+ years.
We had gone to college and graduate school together. She is godmother to our first two children, and she and Jules defended their dissertations on the same day high up in the alps of Liechtenstein.
Life going the way it goes, though, and living many states apart, we've been very little together in the last 10 or 15 years. Even telephone conversations are few and far between. But we found it easy to pick up where we'd left off, as if time and distance are of no account at all between true friends.
My thinking has changed in rather fundamental ways over the last decade, alienating me from many people and groups I used to be close to. Sometimes it seems to have gone so far that I feel a little alarmed at myself. Am I still myself with so much changed? In strong, healthy moments, I see that only what was false and unreal about me has been stripped, while the deepest truths and commitments have become clearer and stronger, with new insights and experiences seamlessly woven in. In sicklier moments, though, I can worry that maybe I'm just undergoing a gradual dissolution of the self.
So it was deeply reassuring to notice how much her thinking has changed and developed along lines similar to mine. What makes it particularly reassuring is that many of her personal excellences coincide exactly with my worst shortcomings. She is highly disciplined in her prayer life, for instance—in all areas of her life, really—while I am wretchedly indolent and disorderly. So, nothing about the changes in her thinking can be attributed to lack of prayer or faith or discipline. And on point after point, issue after issue, principle after principle, we were of one mind.
In a few places, though, I was disconcerted to discover how radical I seem to be becoming.
One of those places is the issue of modesty. In recent years (see here and here for more) I have found in myself an increasingly strong reaction against the very word and concept—not the virtue itself (who can be against a virtue?), but against the travesty that is everywhere (among Christians) preached and taught in its place. I notice myself resisting practically all attempts to establish it by way of clothing rules for girls, no matter how comparatively moderate. Such rules now strike me as inescapably demeaning and controlling. They are (as I see it) bound up with the subordination of women to men. And they (practically always) do more harm in terms of a girl's developing sense of self than they do good in terms of protecting her from objectification by others.
My friend's obvious intention to follow my reasoning carefully and sympathetically was clear and beautiful. (If only we all had friends like that around us every day!) Even so, I struggled to communicate my thoughts, and to express the "why" of my intense internal resistance to even very modest "modesty rules."
Today, re-reading a book by Kay Bruner called As Soon As I Fell, I came upon a section that helped me understand myself better. The book is about her life and the painful midlife crisis (not completely unlike my own) that involved bitter disillusionment, profound changes in her thinking, and then a better, freer, happier, fuller way of living her faith and her relationships.
Kay Bruner and her husband were Protestant evangelical missionaries sent as Bible translators to the Solomon Islands. (Both had been raised by strict evangelical parents, in whose footsteps they were following with zeal.) The onsite training they and other missionaries underwent involved some "cultural sensitivity" instruction. They would be living and working in a highly sex-segregated society.
I learned that as a woman, I could not look a man in the eye during a conversation. I was required to wear dresses that covered my knees, and the skirt needed to be full and flowing, so that I wouldn’t expose my legs. That first day, we learned how to hold our skirts so that we would never accidentally flash anyone while getting up from the floor, where everyone sat. I could not step over anything that a man might afterward handle, because I might contaminate things with my menstrual blood, even if I wasn’t currently menstruating. If I went to the produce market, where food would be lying on the ground, I needed to hold my skirt close to my body, because even my skirt floating in the air over the food would contaminate it. I would swim in long shorts down to my knees and I would hike in long skirts down over my calves.
She was no feminist, and so accepted all of it.
On a surface level, I could go along cheerfully with these cultural norms. It was required, and I was going to succeed. Besides, I was a guest in this culture, so it seemed respectful and appropriate to do what the locals did. Wearing a skirt, wearing a pair of shorts over my bathing suit, these were small sacrifices to make in light of the important task we were called to do. It really shouldn’t matter that much.
But still, it affected her.
Deep down, though, these extra rules for women became a subtle reinforcement of the self-condemning framework I already lived in. Every time I had to remind myself not to look someone in the eye, every time I was worried about where my skirt was, or if my shorts were long enough, it whispered in my head that I was not an acceptable person, that there was something inherently offensive about me, and that it was up to me to protect other people from me. [my bold]
I hope it comes through that the issue isn't the excessive strictness of the rules (this is a country where women normally go topless). It's the underlying attitude toward women. And it's the subtle effect of those rules on an individual woman's personal subjectivity. It has an effect on men too—inducing or reinforcing a sense of entitlement when it comes to women's dress. "We are entitled not to be disturbed by women's bodies. If we are disturbed, the woman is at fault."
In Islamist societies, this general principle goes so far that the victims of rape are considered responsible for the lust the sight of them incited in their attackers. So the victim has to be lashed or killed or given in marriage to her rapist.
I don't think we fully escape this violent mode of inter-sex relations unless we recognize that it is nothing other than an extreme manifestation of the evil effects of the fall in Eden. I mean to say: that same tendency to blame and shame women for male lust is in us too.
I have come around to the opinion that much of the "modesty talk" in the Christian counter culture springs from that evil tendency, and girls feel it, even if they don't know how to articulate those feelings. They experience themselves as being illegitimately controlled by other people's rules, which were written for other people's convenience, and they resent it. I even think at least some of the in-your-face immodesty of today's fashions represents a valid protest against that control. "You have no right to tell me how to dress, and to prove it, I'm going to dress in exactly the way you say I can't."
I don't mean there's no such phenomenon as girls or women deliberately or thoughtlessly provoking lust in men. I mean, rather, that when it comes to what we could call the subjectivity of immodest dressing, the issue is highly complex and delicate and can't be addressed—or rather, gets aggravated by—the application of modesty rules-for-girls.
Of course, the most important reason for dressing modestly is self-respect. But two key things about self-respect:
1) It has to come from the self. We can't induce it in others by establishing rules for them to live by. On the contrary, pressing others to conform to rules they don't understand and don't agree with almost always causes deep injury to their self-respect.
2) It will take radically different outward forms, according to individual cases. So, for instance, for a young woman raised in a household with authoritarian parents who insisted she always where skirts below her knees and sleeves below the elbows, a choice one day to wear a short, sleeveless dress to a college dance may be exactly a brave act of self-assertion and self-respect. "I am my own person. I don't have to live by my parents' rules. I can make choices for myself." Meanwhile, for another woman—like Wendy Shallit—who grew up absorbing the libertine mores of the surrounding secular culture, and who had become accustomed to feeling like a sex object—the choice to wear longer sleeves and hemlines was a courageous act of self-empowerment.
The point is, it was self-empowerment.
If we want to heal the culture—this culture, the one we actually live in—we have to begin by understanding that. And we have to conscientiously rid ourselves of our long-standing habits of disempowering self and others. It was those habits, I claim, that led to the mess we're in now.
I was raised to be kind of stoic. Well, no, stoic's not the word...we did plenty of complaining, sometimes raising it to a genuine art form. But we valued being tough. No, that's not it, either--not tough, just--not spoiled, not soft, not hoity-toity--not imagining we were suffering hardship if we lacked luxuries. As my mother used to remind us (even when my father was delivering sandwiches to support us all and we were living on stale- sandwich casseroles), "Compared to most of the world, and compared to most people throughout all of human history, we're very, very rich."
That's unquestionably true, and startlingly easy to forget. I think I enjoy my life a lot more than people trained to believe that their happiness depends on their material comfort rising a certain exalted level. I want the same for my children: I never want their contentment to be at the mercy of their ability to maintain a hoity-toity lifestyle. I want them to keep firmly in mind that It Could Always Be Worse.
"It Could Always Be Worse" actually became our family's official motto one day when I was a kid. By "official," I mean, as my sister Simcha recounts:
[M]y older sister announced that she was supposed to bring in a poster depicting our family crest (we didn’t last long at that school). As I recall, the finished product showed our brand-new motto rippling proudly under an escutcheon divided into four tinctures, each with a charge; to wit: a Star of David, the head of Groucho Marx, an open book listing our favorite authors [from Dr. Seuss to Tolstoy], and a Bagel Rampant.
(Unfortunately, the original, with my father's calligraphy and my mother's drawings, has been lost to posterity, unless it's buried somewhere in the Book Room. What you see above is Simcha's clever digital reconstruction of its essence.)
"It Could Always Be Worse" has stood me in good stead all these years.
On the other hand...
Twenty-six years into raising my own kids, I remember another side of my upbringing I want to make sure to pass on. When my children are suffering and in need of help, I hope they'll be able to say so. I do want them to keep their troubles in perspective, shaking it off, toughing it out. And I want them able to enjoy simple pleasures, not continually pining for the more complicated, more expensive sort. But I don't want them to feel like failures if they can't muster up cheerfulness, if they find themselves just plain unable to shake things off sometimes. I don't want them to imagine that seeking help is a sign of weakness, something to despise in themselves or in anybody else. And even if what's troubling them is a "first-world problem"--well, it's good that they realize that, but, as my sister Rosie points out:
Have you ever tried to stop feeling sorry for yourself by thinking about how much worse other people have it? Does it work for you? When I use it to remind myself to have a sense of humor, sometimes it works. ... But if I try to pull myself out of self-pity by thinking about starving children in Africa or homeless people in the city, it usually doesn’t work. All it does is make me feel guilty on top of everything else, and start me off on a train of thought about how crummy the WHOLE WORLD is, anyhow.
The problem with this way of thinking is that it assigns each human pain a ranking. Upset that you live in a tiny apartment? It’s better than a clay hut in Africa! Upset that you live in a clay hut? It’s better than being homeless! Upset that you’re homeless? Be grateful–you could be dead! If you keep going this way, there’s probably only one person in the world who has a right to feel bad, because everyone else has at least some advantage over him to be grateful for.
I don’t think that’s how God sees it. I think he cares about your “first world problems,” even if they’re small or silly, because He knows what it’s like.
So, neither stoicism, nor Princess-and-the-Pea-style fragility, nor self-righteousness, nor self-loathing. It's a tricky balance.
How do you manage it?
My friend, Rebecca Ryskind Teti, offered the following observation on Facebook recently:
Words that make my heart absolutely ache: "This is not a free country," spoken by a Salvadoran immigrant who was replacing our disposal and hooking up an ice maker. He's a neighbor who makes his living doing all kinds of odd jobs and repairs, each class of which requires a separate certification or license, each of which has to be renewed relatively frequently and with hefty fees, and many of which involve skills not dangerous enough to be worth licensing -- the state's just making $$ off him and people like him, and competitors are making the bar for entry into the market high. Here is an honest man who came here honestly (under asylum), who has valuable skills and is unafraid to work hard, and he is learning the opposite lesson of the one we want immigrants to learn -- that this a noble and free country, where honesty and hard work pay off.
This is what Pope Francis means when he talks about economies that exclude the poor from the circles of exchange rather than inviting them in. That kind of "welcome," in addition to being inherently unjust, is not likely to turn immigrants into lovers of their new country.
I think it's worth talking about because, for one thing, it avoids two particular assumptions: that immigrants are lazy and ungrateful, and "the more regulation, the better."
When I shared Rebecca's words, my friend and fellow TPP writer Kate Cousino said it reminded her of "Let America Be America Again," by Langston Hughes, which begins:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
He continues in the same vein, mourning the way the promise of America never lived up to the legend, at least not for a lot of people, and hoping against hope that it will someday:
O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
Or anyway, he looks to the day when such things become real--maybe not in any earthly political future.
I think his view's too dark. Easy for me to say, right? But my mother-in-law came from El Salvador (just like the man who installed Rebecca's ice maker). She worked as a hat-check girl, then an accountant. My father-in-law, from the Dominican Republic, took a job at the post office (he was accepted at Columbia University, but there wasn't scholarship money for him in those days). They married, and she surprised him one day with a down payment for a house (she'd been secretly saving up her housekeeping money). They settled down and raised two children, whom they sent to Harvard and Yale.
My great-grandfather came from a shtetl somewhere around Kiev to New York, where he manned a pushcart, selling a few tools. The pushcart morphed into a full-blown store, Boro Park Hardware, which lasted for decades, supporting and employing Pop Pop, his descendants, and many others over the years. I remember relatives of my grandparents' and great-grandparents' generation telling us over and over, "This is the greatest country in the world."
I don't by any stretch mean to say that the excluded, then or now, are to blame, or that American was perfect in the old days. My family's Jewish and Latin forbears had plenty to put up with, but it's not as if they would have fared better under the Czar or in the countries they'd fled. Then and now, in America and (let's not forget) in every country on the face of the earth, too many people are excluded from the circle of exchange. Then and now, overly comfortable politicians and business moguls have made an industry of exploiting immigrant labor. These days they may feign more concern for the human dignity of the laborers, but they're as indifferent as ever to the fate of any handyman and his family.
Fittingly enough, this post has no happy, snappy ending. Our best hope, I guess, is to stop jerking our knees in unison with our political allies and attend a lot more closely to how our intentions, even our good ones, play out in the lives of people like Rebecca's neighbor.