An Encouraging Word for Mother’s Day

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Why do our children turn out the way they do?

Dr. Ray Guarendi, psychologist and media personality, says it’s like a three-legged stool:

  • the way we bring them up
  • the way they’re wired
  • and the culture they’re brought up in the middle of

Does that sound like common sense? It does to me—now. But it’s a far cry from the crazy-making assumption lots of new mothers have lurking in the backs of their minds—one which still rears its ugly head in my own brain sometimes, 28 years into the child-raising business—and it’s this:

How my kids turn out is all my doing.

This is false.

Doesn’t it matter how we raise them? Of course it does—but most of us don’t need to be reminded of that. We’re all too aware of it already. We’re trying! We’re working on it!

How they’re wired also matters. Of course we’ll want to make the most of their wired-in strong points and overcome or compensate for their wired-in weak points—but it’s not 100% under our control. It never was.

Finally, there’s the (deranged, fascinating, bizarre) culture they’re being raised in. Again: something we didn’t invent and in many respects never would have invented. Something that the Almighty, for His own inscrutable reasons, has arranged to coincide with our childrearing years, and without consulting us. It’s one more facet of the hand we’ve been dealt: the raw material for us to make of what we can—but it’s not our doing.

This, considered rightly, is good news. We help our children make what they can of their wiring and the surrounding culture, but we didn’t invent either one. We don’t have to shoulder all the blame or snatch all the credit. As the saying goes, You’re not as good as your best kid, and you’re not as bad as your worst one.

I hope this is an encouraging thought to all my readers. Many mothers still have reason to grieve when they look at their children’s lives, but they don’t need to add to that grief the guilt of imagining they’re the one and only cause of whatever’s gone wrong. Many of us—I count myself here—see our children turning out surprisingly nice, or see their lives running surprisingly smoothly—and we should take care not to pollute our joy with self-righteousness, as if that were all our doing.

Let me end with some excellent advice someone gave me when I was once consumed with worry about one of my own kids: whenever you catch yourself worrying, say a quick prayer for that kid. Not a long, complicated, time-consuming prayer: just a quick one. Then get on with whatever’s on your plate, and try to do that for the glory of God. You’ll end up praying for—and therefore doing something constructive for—your kid a lot more often than you otherwise would. And you’ll be less likely to neglect everybody else who’s counting on you. Everybody wins!

So happy Mother’s Day! And try not to worry!

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A Personalist Argument Against the Death Penalty

Almost a year ago, Pope Francis approved a modification of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: the death penalty is now “inadmissible.” In announcement of the update, Cardinal Luis Ladaria was at pains to insist that it’s in continuity with previous teaching, not a disruptive novelty foisted on the faithful. He says it “expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium” and that the prior teaching “had developed in an environment in which it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not repeat his crime.”

Now, many knowledgeable peopleMonica Miller among them—aren’t buying it. Others—like Robert Festiggi—find it more convincing. Many, whatever their theology, disagree with the empirical claim that prison security these days—especially in the developing world—is reliable enough to secure the safety of the innocent.

I’ll leave such questions to the experts to sort out. What I would like is to beg all my friends on both sides to listen impartially as I address a claim that many find absurd on its face: that our understanding and appreciation of human dignity has progressed to the point where it’s clear to us, in a way it wasn’t to previous generations, that the death penalty goes against human dignity.

This has driven some of my friends to distraction-– and you can see why. This supposed appreciation of human dignity comes on the heels of the bloodiest century ever, with its giant-scale military conflicts, its outbreaks of terrorism and its trivializing of abortion, together with its nightmare of all varieties of euthanasia, sneaky, misguided, or blatant. If we’re so enlightened about human dignity, why is there so much human trafficking? Why are we inventing and defending ever-more-bizarre methods of self-mutilation? How could anyone possibly claim that we understand these things better these days?

Sed contra [but on the other hand], as St. Thomas would say, here’s a quote from my old grad school professor, John F. Crosby. It’s in the “About” section of The Personalist Project, a blog I contributed to for six years. (Do read the whole thing here.)

The men and women of our time are ever more aware of themselves as persons.  We experience as never before the incomparable worth of each person.  We are alive to our inviolability, that is, we know in a new way that none of us is ever rightly used and destroyed for the good of others.

I think this is true. I think this is why the collectivism of both Naziism and Soviet-style communism was rejected (though lately our clarity of mind about them has certainly been slipping). He goes on:

We are more sensitive than our ancestors to all the forms of coercion that threaten our personhood.

This rings true, too. I think people are more awake to all sorts of different forms of manipulation, even the subtle ones, even in the name of a good cause. Granted, we’re generally more indignant about manipulation when we’re its targets, not its perpetrators–but it’s s start!

Crosby continues with another astute observation:

We reject the ancient distinction between Greek and barbarian; we know that the birthright of a person belongs not to a select few but to every human being.  This awakening of human beings to personal existence is an epochal event, a sea-change in the way we understand ourselves.

What difference does it all make in everyday life? He explains:

Our personalism has the effect of transforming the way we understand our social lives.  We can no longer live in the social solidarity that was natural in earlier times.  Parents no longer choose the profession and the spouse of their children; they acknowledge that these are choices that can only be made by their children.  We can no longer share the faith of our group merely out of loyalty to the group; as persons each of us acts in his or her own name in making basic commitments of one’s life.  This is because persons are never mere parts in any social whole; we never exist in a social whole in the way in which organs and cells exist in a body.

I think our new understanding of human dignity is real but genuinely hard to recognize, because in many cases it exists as the grain of truth hidden in a grotesque tangle of error. For example:

  • We’re newly “sensitive” to the human dignity of people with physical or intellectual limitations. We rightly refuse call anybody a “retard” or a “cripple”—while at the same time destroying babies in the womb for possessing the very attributes we won’t call by unkind names.
  • We affirm the dignity of women by rejecting forced sex and arranged marriages, but we appeal to that dignity as the foundation of an imagined right to destroy our little ones before birth.

Our affirmation of human dignity is real but caught fast in a web of falsehood and sheer evil.

I’ll let others address questions of prison security and the development of doctrine. But the growing awareness of human dignity–there’s something to that.

Image credit: Flickr

Seven Quick Takes: What I’m Working On

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Why this picture? See end of post.

These are some projects I’m currently having fun with:

  1. Editing down the transcript of a LONG interview with a friend who—well, it’s still a secret, but I guarantee you, you never read a conversion story like this before!
  2. My memoir! Who am I, you might be wondering, to be fancy-schmancy enough to merit a memoir? Nobody at all—just a person who has (so far) lived a bizarre and interesting life without being an especially bizarre or interesting person—and someone who’s learned a lot of things the hard way and is anxious to help others avoid doing the same. In fact, this blog was going to be called “Doing It The Hard Way (So You Don’t Have To),” but I was advised that an unknown person looking to break into blogdom probably oughta choose something a little more optimistic-sounding.
  3. A book review of God Through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery: a ” spiritual memoir and travelogue…about where you go when you have nowhere left to go. After a difficult childhood and a series of tragedies and misfortunes, author Danusha Goska finds herself without hope for the future. Supported by her passion for travel and discovery, as well as her commitment to Catholicism, Goska decides on a retreat at a remote Cistercian monastery. What results is a story about family, friends, nature, and God; the Ivory Tower and the Catholic Church. God through Binoculars is utterly naked and, at times, politically incorrect. Some readers will be shocked. Others will be thrilled and refreshed by its candor, immediacy, and intimacy. Her previous, highly-rated book, Save Send Delete, was enormously well-received, and readers will find that Goska’s ability to tell a masterful story with a powerful message continues in God through Binoculars.” At least that’s what the Amazon page says. Stay tuned!
  4. The autobiography of my mother, Marilyn Prever. There’s a short version already published as a chapter in Honey from the Rock: Sixteen Jews find the sweetness of Christ (Ignatius Press), edited by Roy Schoeman. It’s full of great stories, but my mother’s is without a doubt the most hilarious of them all. However! Only us relatives know that she wrote a longer version, which has so far only been read by those of her eight children and umpteen grandchildren old enough to take it in. But it deserves a larger audience.
  5. A blog post about how covering up wrongdoing for the sake of the reputation of a person or institution doing good work is not only wrong but will sooner or later blow up in your face and threaten to negate all the genuine good stuff you were trying to protect.
  6. Everyday Personalism: A collection of my favorite posts—or, better yet, the ones most likely to be my readers’ favorite posts—from the six years when I was blogging just about weekly for The Personalist Project.
  7. You tell me! What would you like to read about?

Thanks to Kelly Mantoan at This Ain’t the Lyceum, host of 7 Quick Takes. You can write your own Seven Quick Takes post if you like—less laborious than crafting something with a beginning, a middle, and an end—just make sure to link back to Kelly’s page here so we can all enjoy it!


This image is from a painting that my daughter-in-law, who has a gift for finding wonderful stuff,  picked out to hang in her and my son’s living room. I don’t know what the artist had in mind, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s me as a writer, accompanied by, I don’t know, all the people who’ve helped me along the way, or my Guardian Angel, or maybe God the Father Himself. I’ve decided I want to row this boat, but now that I’ve taken hold of the oars, I realize I might be needing a LOT of help.

You Might Be a Hebrew Catholic If…

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  • You find yourself looking up whether it’s really so terrible to use corn starch instead of potato starch in the sponge cake, because you live in a Hispanic neighborhood where potato starch is hard to come by, and you want to get the seder baking done before Good Friday.
  • You find out that Ashkenazi Jews prohibit cornstarch—but Sephardic Jews don’t! You wonder if you can consider yourself Sephardic even though 23andMe just revealed you to be (not making this up)  99.5% Ashkenazi—but, hey, your husband is Hispanic, so therefore your kids are half Hispanic, and you’re related to them, ergo, there’s enough of a mischung going on here that you could be considered the Spanish kind of Jew for purposes of this particular seder, at which there will be 25 people, if they all show up, and time is running out, and uh-oh, you forgot to get the grape juice for the little kids!
  • You further find out that Ashkenazim ban cornstarch because corn is the kind of grain that might be mixed up with wheat, which might be mixed up with leavening, which would certainly count as chametz (prohibited for Passover), and their rule is, “When in doubt, prohibit.” The Sephardim, on the other hand, are more easygoing. Why are you not surprised? The whole thing reminds you of the contortions your Hispanic relatives put themselves through to get to “Prefiero pedir perdon que permiso” (“Better to ask forgiveness than permission”). It’s the same spirit that made your husband’s illustrious ancestors (and your own, to be fair) establish the tradition of the minute-past-midnight mini-feast on Holy Saturday.
  • You schedule your seder early to make sure you have plenty of time to get to the Easter Vigil.
  • On Good Friday you all fast and abstain from meat. Although some of you are so young or so old that they don’t technically have to, your Jewish mother genes kick in and you launch into a speech about how guilty one ought to feel if one is not willing to do this one little thing for TWO DAYS OUT OF THE YEAR for Someone who died in agony to save you from your own evil and stupidity.
  • On Holy Saturday you make everyone get up early to do the Easter eggs before the seder, because it doesn’t seem right to do them on Good Friday and you certainly don’t have your act sufficiently together to do them sooner than that.
  • You kind of feel like you ought to do like your mother did once and go all eight days of Passover without any bread at all. You remember bringing peanut butter and jelly on matzo to school in fifth grade and how messy that got. You declare, by the authority vested in you as Domestic Popess, that, never mind, just do the two days of fasting and abstinence and make a good-faith effort to locate potato starch and you’re good.
  • Your kids get mixed up and translate Chag sameach! as He is risen! And they wouldn’t be so far off as you might think.

But more on that later, in some far more scholarly future post. Time to go make sure the sponge cake’s not burning.

 

People, Not Props

Prom season is practically upon us. And coming soon to a social media platform near you is a story about somebody who invited a classmate with Down Syndrome, or autism, or a disability of some kind, to be their prom date.

Inspirational, right?

Well, let’s hear what one of the people concerned has to say. Here’s Karin Hitselberger, writer and activist:

Disabled people don’t exist to inspire non-disabled people or remind them life could always be worse. We are not props for feel-good stories or self-satisfying acts of charity. We are people living our lives just like anybody else.

Writing at “Claiming Crip,” she also warns:

If you or someone you know wants to go to the dance with your disabled friend, that’s awesome! Do it and have a great time.

Do it because you genuinely want to go with that person.

Don’t do it because you want people to think you’re a good person.

Don’t do it out of pity.

AND FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON’T TURN IT INTO A STORY ABOUT HOW YOU’RE A GREAT PERSON FOR SPENDING TIME WITH SOMEBODY WHO HAS A DISABILITY.

Stories like those are super dehumanizing, and they ignore the fact that disabled people are, in fact, people, with a myriad of qualities that make us worthy of real satisfying relationships.

It’s a simple point, but lots of us have a blind spot about it. The people doing the inviting, I’m guessing, have good intentions. The people who enjoy the stories, like I always did, do, too. Who could have anything against something so heartwarming?

But there are two separate problems here: what you’re doing to the people you’re using as props, and what you’re doing to yourself (especially if, God forbid, you’re a mother who sets up the whole scenario for the purpose of publicizing it and making yourself out to be some kind of viral Instagram virtue queen.)

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The point doesn’t need belaboring: disabled people are— people. Nobody should be defined by, or reduced to, their disability. Nobody should be used as a prop.

So why is it so tempting?

This particular way of using a person is peculiarly appealing, I think, because we human beings will always jump at the chance to draw a sharp line between ourselves and those who “have something wrong with them”—physically, mentally, or spiritually. We feel a lot less uneasy if we’re confident that we’re on the right side of that line.

In the same way, we want to reassure ourselves that we’re “the good people.” Not the evil ones. No one says it better than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

We want to feel satisfied, too, that we’re a different from people who are sick and suffering—we’re the “normal” ones—so secure in our normalcy that, if we like, we can even choose to reach out to the sick and suffering and be “nice” to them. As John Janaro says in a long-ago post on his blog, Never Give Up, other people’s suffering 

…makes us want to distance ourselves. It tempts us to isolate the sufferer, because otherwise we might have to look at him or her and see the reflection of ourselves, and our own suffering.

Here is a challenge for our culture that no one wants to confront. Here is a form of discrimination that everyone practices and no one denounces…. One might even coin a sociological term of reference for it, although it’s not likely to catch on:

Pathophobia: …The fear of suffering. The dread of suffering. The full-scale flight from suffering, or the cover-up of real suffering with fake solutions, and then the marginalization of those whose problems we cannot pretend to have solved.

It might seem that inviting someone with a disability—BECAUSE he has a disability—to the prom is just the opposite of marginalization. But it’s not. It’s including him under the condition that we draw a bright line between him, the beneficiary, and us, the benefactors. It’s not shuffling him aside, but it’s not really admitting him as one of us, either.

If this seems overly complicated, there’s a simpler approach: Just consider: How would you feel if it were you?

Because you might not always be as “normal” as you are now. You might not now be as “normal” as you think you are.

And that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

For Mother’s Day: Candy from a Baby

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I remember fighting to keep my balance on a city bus, clutching a baby and toddler with one arm and a flimsy, folded-up umbrella stroller, festooned with dangling plastic bags bulging with groceries, with the other. A well-meaning lady noticed my predicament and, deciding her help was needed, handed my toddler a large, purple chunk of hard candy, just large enough to block his little windpipe.

I snatched it out of his hand, and he dissolved, predictably enough, into immediate despair. The nice lady looked over in annoyance. But my son wasn’t just upset about losing the sweet—he was heartbroken, because, the way he saw it, Mama didn’t love him anymore. I got a sudden insight into how God must feel about us.

So that’s the first Mother’s Day thought: sometimes God snatches attractive things out of our hands because He loves us—because He can see, as we can’t, that they’ll choke us and maybe kill us. We have to grow up enough to see that the snatching is an act of love.

The second Mother’s Day thought is courtesy of my pastor, Fr. Scott:

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says of us:

No one will snatch them out of my hand.

Father has a lot of nieces and nephews, and he’s done a lot of babysitting. Much of that consists of snatching things—Legos, paper clips, hard candy, other priceless treasures—out of their hands. As he noted drily, whoever coined the phrase “like taking candy from a baby” obviously never tried actually doing it.

So it should be comforting to us to know we have Somebody omnipotent seeing to it that no one snatches us out of His hand. Throughout our earthly life, the world, the flesh and the devil keep on trying to do that, but they’re doomed to failure—unless we cooperate with the snatching.

 

 

 

In Praise of the Boondocks

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“Look! That’s where the bridge washed out.”

“See those gullies by the side of the road? The river’s back down now, but that’s from when it was up to here.

“Hey, is that snow? in April?”

I spent a couple days in the magnificent boondocks of western Wisconsin last week, and it got me thinking.

It’s an art, and an accomplishment, to live out here. You have to be creative, even ingenious, at finding ways to work with nature—the wind, the snowstorms, the floods. You have no choice but to cultivate a healthy respect for reality the way you find it—something that was what it was before you ever got there, and will still be what it is when you’re long gone. Something you didn’t create and can only tinker with up to a point.

Sure, you can be reckless if you like. My son’s mother-in-law pointed out an enormous cement waterway designed to divert the surging runoff away from the highway and the houses. She told me how once, at the height of the flooding, she’d spotted a guy kayaking along it.

You’re free to do stuff like that, if you like! But the kayaking guy knew his game might prove fatal. You can defy nature, sure; you can test your skills against it—but you can’t  just ignore it. You can’t play make-believe. You don’t have the luxury of pretending you don’t need to take it into account.

Now, in the city, on the other hand…

Don’t get me wrong. City life is full of irritants and complications, but you’re sheltered, or detached, or cut off, from a certain kind of reality. If the crops fail, the price of your meal kit might rise, but you won’t starve. If the weather gets too extreme, you’ll pay extra to crank up the air conditioning or the heat, but you don’t have to run out and get the livestock to shelter. If the bridges wash out, you’ll be inconvenienced, and you’ll have extra fodder for Instagram, but you won’t be cut off from civilization altogether.

People who grow up way, way out in the country seem to have an immunity to certain kinds of ideas—the kinds that are so silly only an intellectual could find them plausible. I’m thinking of ideas like:

  • Hormones and surgery can turn a man into a woman.
  • Everything came into existence by chance.
  • Men can get pregnant.
  • Children don’t need a father and a mother.
  • Machines will one day have souls.

People from all over can fall for these ideas.  Wifi can beam them into the living room of the remotest farmhouse. But they don’t originate with people enmeshed in the natural world—a world full of what philosophers call “the given.” They don’t ring true the way they might for people who’ve been lulled into believing that everything’s up for grabs, that we’re one technological leap away from a fundamental transformation of The Way Things Are.

You don’t have to be from Wisconsin to see things that clearly. But it might help.

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Image credit: a picture I painted on a wooden block while in Wisconsin

 

 

The Silliness of Emmanuel Macron

mama baby     Last fall at a Gates Foundation shindig, poor Emmanuel Macron, President of France, blurted out:

I always say, “Present me the woman who decided, being perfectly educated, to have seven, eight, or nine children.”

As usual, the context was fertility rates in Africa.

Somebody called him on it, I’m happy to say, and he responded.

“The French president, who has come under fire over his views on Africa in the past…insisted it was ‘pure bullshit’ to suggest he was telling African people from New York what to do with their lives.”

The bones I would like to pick are the following:

  1. Standing (or lack thereof). The guy is childless. Not his fault. I’m not judging him. But it means he literally doesn’t know what he’s talking about and has no business offering counsel to an entire continent of people who do know how to value their children.
  2. This sad old template wherein Eurocrats tell African women what to do with their bodies and insinuate that a little education would wise them up is getting exceedingly tiresome.
  3. Think of the isolated bubble a guy would have to live in not only to say such a thing but to announce smugly that he “always” says it! A person living among a minimally diverse mix of human beings would never end up “always” saying such a thing. SOMEBODY would have shut him down–maybe not the first time, but surely before he got to “always.”
  4. What the heck does he mean by “perfectly educated”? I’m not one to engage in amateur psychoanalysis over the internet, but Wikipedia does note that he failed twice to get into a selective and prestigious school in Paris. Who knows, maybe the silliness he’s spewing these days has its roots in some deep-seated insecurity about his own academic inadequacies. Then again, he’s certainly succeeded in plenty of other rarified environments—he was, after all, the youngest president France ever elected—so maybe not. I suspect the success which led to his imprisonment in the bubble he currently inhabits explains more about his dopey remarks than his failures do. (Note: “perfectly educated” is one translation; “thoroughly educated” might be a better one. But still!)

On the other hand, I do see one sign of hope and one grain of truth. I really, really, really don’t aspire to be one more platform for snide and accusatory thoughts, so I want to make a point of mentioning these, too. For example, look what else I found about his early life:

Raised in a non-religious family, he was baptized a Roman Catholic at his own request at age 12.

Unusual, right? I’m a great believer in the power of baptism, consciously requested or not, but I sure do wonder about the story behind this, and how it will play out throughout his life. Who knows? There could be more going on here than meets the eye, even if what meets the eye right now is boilerplate Eurocrat rhetoric.

The grain of truth I want to acknowledge is this: he also said

Please present me with the young girl who decided to leave school at 10 in order to be married at 12.

Yes: we can agree that forcibly truncated education and child marriage are destructive. By all means, let’s work together to address real problems of disrespect for women and girls and barriers to education.

But when you lump that together with the insinuation that large families only happen to women who don’t know any better, here’s what it looks like: it looks like you’re not so much encouraging education out of concern for girls—with the side effect of lower birthrates. It looks more like you’re using the promise of education to achieve your real aim, which IS those lower birthrates.

I feel bad for the guy. But that’s no reason to leave his twaddle uncontested.

Be Like Chema!

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My family and I have run into some inimitable people. A recurring feature of It Could Always Be Worse will be an introduction to one or another of them. This one is about our friend Josemaría Postigo, “Chema” to his friends, who died a couple years ago this week. It contains no exaggerations.

You might expect that a father of 18 would run a tight ship, and Chema did…kind of. When necessary. Rosa mostly took care of that. Chema was more often seen pleading the case of the toddler who’d just scribbled all over the foyer walls. I remember him holding his daughter Lolita on his lap, poking her in the ribs to make her giggle and whispering that she had to remind us to pray for the healing of her heart condition. No dinner guest got away without agreeing to do this, and Chema and Rosa had a lot of dinners and a lot of guests.

When I heard he’d died, I thought a good motto for our family might be: Be Like Chema. What I had in mind was his cheerful presence, his big-heartedness, and how wildly generous he was with his family and everybody else’s. And how reliable. And hardworking.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that might be biting off more than I can chew. Being like Chema means being cheerful, bighearted, and outrageously generous in the face of repeated family tragedy and unremitting physical pain–the sore back, the ulcers, and finally what turned out to be cancer, diagnosed two weeks before his death–decade in and decade out, down to the last ounce of his strength.Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, sitting and eyeglasses

This post was originally published at Mercatornet. Read the whole thing here.