Sunday, January 22, 2012

Brother's Keeper: In Defense of Caring.

Rarely does Facebook's format serve the interests of human discourse. Facebook is for letting the world know what you ate for breakfast, keeping in touch with old friends, sharing thought-provoking articles (where something resembling discourse can happen), and--primarily--for "saying the good things that men need to hear." Encouragement. Camaraderie.

Once in a while, a question appears in a status that demands more respect than the FB can give. For example, here is a good question, although it was probably intended rhetorically. It appeared in the status of a friend (what does it mean?):

Here it is, paraphrased:

"Why do people care? So what if your next door neighbor takes birth control ...? Who cares if the guy down the street holds the hand of another man when they take their morning stroll? Who cares if some woman has sex with multiple men? How do their choices affect you?"

It's a good question and a common question. I'm going to take a blind shot and assume that it's a common reaction to traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs. Why do I care whether the gay couple down the street just adopted two children? Why do I refuse to call a legal partnership "marriage"? Why can't I just do my thing in my house and leave the rest of the world alone? I assume that I should also refrain from teaching my children to believe what I believe--because then they, too, would care about other people's private lives.

It's a good question--don't dismiss it! The answer you give could destroy or cement your dearest friendships and family relationships.

Given the recent, state-sponsored, all-out attack on the religious freedom of Roman Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and some Protestant groups, my first reaction was, "I don't care. But if I leave y'all alone, will you just the heck leave the Church's schools and hospitals alone?" I know the answer: no. We won't be left alone, because what we believe is offensive and freakish--and we believe that we should care.

But that was a bad answer to an honest question.

Here is the good answer.

First, let's define what we mean by "care." "Care" is not "morbid curiosity." My friend is absolutely right: It is twisted for anyone to investigate and watch (MTV?) what goes on in someone else bedroom. I can mask the ugliest, nosiest prying under the veneer of "Christian charity" (you know, you want to know so you can pray for her!). But just "wanting to know so I can be entertained by my own disgust" is ugly and wrong. And, no, in that sense we should not care.

I also do not care in the sense that I want to impose my convictions on the minds of my fellow citizens. Because, you see, dear friend, the heart of my conviction is a free and total submission to the Triune God. The very idea that "caring" for another human being involves imposition of certain behaviors, or even judgement of the state of another's soul, is nonsensical to the Catholic heart. The Church never "cares" by imposing. In that sense, you are alone. Only you can impose the form of the Cross on your heart.

But there's something equally perverse in saying, "Just leave me alone, I'll leave you alone, and we'll all do whatever the F*** we want as long as we don't hurt anybody (or don't get caught hurting anyone)."

That is because no man is an island.

I will always "care" in the sense that I will forever propose to every man I meet that vision of a life lived in conformity to the Cross and in hope of the resurrection. That is the sense of caring that the Church demands of her children:

"No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were... any man's death diminishes me." ~John Donne

Human beings are weak, dependent creatures. We need to care and be cared for by other human beings. Every human act--hidden or plain--affects the happiness of every other human being. (In fact, is that not why the idea that someone is "imposing" her morality on her neighbor so repelling? We know that to judge someone else is not to care, but to kill.)

Ignoring each other, not caring, this is inhuman.

We hear in Schindler's List that, "If you save one man, you save the whole world (the original is in the much more poetic Talmud)."

A human being should care what his neighbor does, because his neighbor is as himself. I am man. She is man. He is man. The whole of what is good and worthy and beautiful lives or dies in the life of a single human being.

Now, I know very well that this view carries no resonance with most of the world I live in. If there is no heaven, if God has no mercy, if there is no hope of happiness in this world, if Christ did not come... then no one should care. In fact, no one will care about the woman down the street who takes birth control and sells Marie Osmond. No one will care to ask her over for lunch. No one will care to bring her a meal when she's sick. No one cares after she dies (except for the annoying sense of grief that afflicts the living--the dead don't care, anyway).

But if God did make us, he made us to be together. In this month's Touchstone, Anthony Esolen provides a much more profound defense of caring. Read the whole thing, but here's the heart:

'In other words, the good of a man is the good of man, and the good of man is the good of a man;and both find their fulfillment in God. This is not an equation to be solved, but a mystery of love to be lived. The man who understands it does not say, “My good is in its essence inferior to the good of a million others taken together,” nor, “My good is my own, and I will pursue it, and let the other millions pursue theirs.” Human society is a whole, says Maritain, made up of wholes, and the wholes are persons, meant for the joy of love. That means that we can never purchase our good at the price of another person; his good is mine.

But we may, for the good of others, engage in heroic acts of love: “And when the person sacrifices to the common good of the city that which is dearest to it, suffers torture and gives its life for the city, in these very acts because it wills what is good and acts in accordance with justice, it still loves its own soul, in accordance with the order of charity, more than the city and the common good of the city,” just as the hermit, who, “seeming to forget the city,” contemplates beauty and truth, and in so doing, “still serves the common good of the city and in an eminent fashion.”

How does my neighbor's sexual behavior affect my life, today, right now? I don't suppose "breaking my heart" counts. The truth is, I don't think we can claim to know how any one, isolated human act affects the lives of human beings--now, in the past, or in the future. We're too small.

But we can know THAT every action affects every human being who ever existed or will exist. I know that what Margaret Sanger--even though she never imagined that I, Erika, would exist--believed 100 years ago changed forever the world in which I live every day. I know what St. Peter did on Good Friday before dawn changed forever how I can hope in mercy--even though he lived worlds and ages away. I know that what the Russian Tsar did to a little village in Lithuania in 1904 frightened my grandparents into leaving, and that means that I exist (thank you, Russian Tsar?). I know that because my parents cared about what I chose to do with my body, I became a woman who could marry Todd and have three beautiful girls. We cannot know that immense good, or evil, our choices bring to other human beings.

But we know with certainty: No man in an island.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A little Hopkins for a Thursday.

The words are wild.

'The child is father to the man.' 
How can he be? The words are wild. 
Suck any sense from that who can: 
'The child is father to the man.' 
No; what the poet did write ran, 
'The man is father to the child.' 
'The child is father to the man!' 
How can he be? The words are wild!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Chicken and the Egg.

Sunday evening, the Philosophical Family sat down to a simple meal of pasta, salad, and hard-boiled eggs.

Bella (age 3) observed matter-of-factly, as she peeled her egg, "We arwe eating the baby chickens!"

To which Ana (age 1) replied, "BAAAYY-BEE!"

Miriam, the prescient 6-year-old, however, was not so sanguine.

"Dad, are we really eating baby chickens?"

"No, there are no babies in these eggs. They are unfertilized." Scientist Dad replied. "Do you know what 'unfertilized' means, Miriam?"

"Uh. No." She took a bite, refusing to pursue the definition of "unfertilized."

I could see it coming, and--after a prolonged but thoughtful munch on the not-baby-chicken--The Question came.

"Dad, why are there no babies in these eggs, but there are babies in other eggs?"

I did what you should never do: I giggled.

Scientist Dad did what you should do: "Well, what do you think, Miriam?"

"I have no idea!" She really didn't.

I stopped giggling and, as penance for my sin, stepped in.

"Well, Miriam, who lays the egg--the girl chicken or the boy chicken?" I asked.

Now she was back on familiar ground, "The girl chicken!"

"Who has babies--girls or boys?"


"And if there isn't a daddy, can a girl be a mommy?" (Chickens don't deliberately use IVF, to my knowledge. Scientist Dad confirms this to be so.)

"No, she can't. There has to be a boy chicken, too."

"It's like that with these eggs: the mommy has the eggs ready for the babies. But if there's no rooster nearby, there will be no babies in the egg."

"Oh!" she saw. "I see! If the Daddy Chicken doesn't live near the Mommy Chicken, then there are no babies in the chicken's eggs!"

And that, my friends, is how it is.

I repented my giggle, Miriam got her answer, and the Scientist Dad enjoyed a good meal. Be ready the next time you boil an egg for your child. You never know where the dinner conversation will go...

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Plato on the well brought-up child.

The well-trained child is one "who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart.

All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her."

How beautiful. How true.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ghost sex.

That Bad Catholic has written a fabulous post on "How Descartes Ruined Sex." It's pithy, it's simplified, and it's hilarious (you laugh or you cry).

I was a bit miffed because he's made my latest idea, "Descartes' Bad Sex," moot. But that's just vanity. This, however, is just dead-on:

"Biology and anatomy are a bit brusque with this issue: Sex is the reproductive act, all else is imitation. In fact, if one must qualify sex as to its location, use mechanical devices to have it, or otherwise separate its form from its function, then it is specifically defined as being ‘not sex’."

He doesn't quite explain the leap here:

"But notice what its advocates use in its defense, or in the defense of any other exotic form of foreplay being ‘sex’ itself. They will, in one way or another, split the body and the soul. They must. It’s impossible to argue that parts of the body besides the genitalia were meant for reproduction, so they will move on to “sex is what the partners make of it,” or something of the sort. What your body is doing isn’t important, whether it be anal sex, oral sex — whatever. You can have sex without sex. The union of the sexual act can be achieved without the true, natural union of your body. You can have the soul without the body."

I think what he's arguing at the very end is this: The "soul" of sex is that union of two persons, the "body" is the physical act of reproduction (or the simultaneous use of the reproductive organs--yes, they're physical organs. But the world of the flesh (as in, sarx) tries to divorce the union of the reproductive organs--which normally leads to reproduction--from the union of the whole persons. They try to have the soul of sex without the body.

And it's all Descartes fault?

No. But he sure did help the whole durned thing to collapse.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

All gifts that are given.

The most prevalent mantras I've encountered in the "parenting magazine" world have to do with "gifts."

"Gifted children."

"We need to discover our gifts."

"Moms need to have their own time to use their own gifts."

"Time! Talent! Treasure!" (That's from my "Catholic pew" world.)

"Everyone is special."

"Allow the child to explore her talents."

The idea is that your happiness in life is predicated on the identification of your YOU and then your freedom to explore and exploit these gifts to their utmost. This will result in a life "with no regrets," a "full life."

This is well and good, but the Philosopher Mom can't shake the question, "What about after the life fully lived?" It's a conversation stopper in most playgroups: "What about when the child dies?"

If all those talents are somehow financed and honed so that the child can excel enough to make a living from them, or even leave behind a "classic" for future generations of gifted children, what becomes of the gifted child when her skills grow dull, her mind weakens, and her body fails?

As a mother, I wonder, is there a danger that I am encouraging my child to place her hopes in a false promise? When the glory and energy of life have faded, how will my daughter find herself?

I do not believe that children should be taught to identify themselves solely in their gifts (anymore than we should tell them they are only their faults). The gifts are not an end in themselves; they are not the end-all and be-all of our selves. They are a means to an end and a tool given freely in order that the child might discover her true dignity and worth.

So, if talents and gifts are tools--beautiful tools, but still merely tools--then what is their purpose? Why do we work so hard to leave time for a child to enjoy herself and become good at a certain habit or skill? Why do we train them to do good works, to pray, to give?

The end purpose of all skills, talents, and gifts is quite simple, but almost impossible to find:

It is love.

All gifts will vanish. They are given and they are taken away. Only love and its free reward remains: "Prophecies will end, languages cease and knowledge fail, but love will never cease." (I Cor. 13.8) A child's talents and beauty are given for a time for the sole purpose of cleansing her heart and training the eyes of her heart: They exist for a brief moment so that she may behold God forever.

As we parents train our children up in the ways they should go, we must also teach them (and ourselves) that all that we do right now is a means. It is only a looking-forward to the things to come, which will never fail. If I am investing in my child so that she will have a brilliant career, a good living, and a vast array of skills, then my goals for her are short-sighted and beneath her true dignity.

Noticing that gifts--dancing, music, languages, teaching--are for a purpose beyond themselves is not to refuse to enjoy them. When the joy of dancing transforms into the joy of dancing for our Creator, when our dance joins the dance of the stars and all Creation, then the enjoyment of our gift is complete. There is nothing so thrilling for a physicist as the moment--and there may be only one--when his research breaks through time and space and touches the Other Side of the universe. There is nothing so lovely as the artist who has painted the face of a child only to find that her heart has become that Child.

If I help my daughter to grow in goodness and truth and beauty for no other purpose than that she might one day see her Creator and love Him, pure and without stain, then I am truly helping her to realize her gifts and surpass them.

Lord, have mercy. I think I need a glass of Merlot.