Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Places We Can Reach

For the past several days, it's been impossible to get online or go out in public without hearing about Joe Paterno. People are upset that abuse went unaddressed for so long; some are sad, some are sickened, some are outraged. Some urge one another not to rush to judgment and examine records and transcripts trying to decide with whom the true fault lies

I can't help thinking that it's all a waste of time and energy.

There are people within the system who need to analyze that information to figure out how things went so horribly wrong and make sure it never happens again. I'm not one of them. Probably, you're not either. And while people like us are investing so much energy and outrage and emotion in something that happened long ago and far away, real people are sitting right next to us with real, present needs.

Twenty years ago or so, when I was still in school, a middle-aged woman told me that the world was too big and too full of problems for her to fix, and that all she could do was light her little corner of it and hope that some of that light and warmth spilled out and shone on someone else.

I, of course, still believed that I could save the world; it's what I was going to school for. I thought she was rationalizing, that what she offered was simply an excuse to live her comfortable life and not worry about those outside "her little corner". And, as an adult, I've certainly seen people make that sort of rationalization. But now that I'm middle-aged myself and have both made a run at saving the world and narrowed my focus to raise a family, I think I understand better what she meant.

I think she meant to say that we can't undo the damage someone far away might have done to a child years ago, however much we might like to. But we can make a difference in the lives of those around us, and they can make a difference in their own circles, and in that way our light and warmth can spread far and wide. And that, surely, serves a greater purpose than joining the tens of thousands of voices on the Internet arguing about how much culpability Joe Paterno might have and who should have been fired along with him or in his place. That, surely, serves a greater purpose than sinking into depression at the ugliness in the world that sometimes seems too big to combat--or even contemplate.

Maybe the best thing we can do, every day, is simply to love the people we can reach--or reach further for people to love.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Essentials of Everyday Christian Life - Revisited

This morning, I had breakfast with a friend whose most important role in my life has been to show me the truth about myself. I'd been trying to explain to him, or perhaps to myself, why it seemed to me that I couldn't really maintain my spiritual life and live in the world at the same time. To illustrate my point, I mentioned Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil.

To grossly oversimplify for anyone who has neither read the book nor seen the movie, the main character is a woman married to a doctor, but having an affair with another man. Her husband is not enough for her; she has different values and aspirations. Her husband, after learning of the affair, takes her on a mission trip to a remote, disease-ridden part of China. It's intended as a kind of punishment, but becomes instead her redemption. She begins, ever so slowly, to open herself to the people, to find joy in service, to love those she would once have considered far below her station.

But could this sustain? I suggested not. My friend pointed out that in fiction, it did just that, but I persisted. Was that credible? Did he believe she'd have gone back to London and eschewed the society she once aspired to? Would we have found her playing the piano in an orphanage there?

He conceded that it did seem a bit contrived.

Well, there. That was exactly my point, and the problem with the world we live in today. There are too many distractions; life moves too fast. When life is stripped back to the basics, when we're in rural China in the days before modern medicine or sifting through the rubble in Manhattan, our cores emerge - we are closer to the people we were meant to be and happier being those people. But it does not sustain in everyday, modern, fast-paced, trivial times.

It was, I thought, an important revelation. It was clear in my mind what I needed, although not how to achieve it. Isolation, a different community--somehow to find a world more basic, where I could remember who I was meant to be. Wasn't that, really, what we all needed?

"It sounds to me," my friend said, "like you're saying that you would be better if only God would make it easier for you."

That wasn't, certainly, what I'd meant to say. I'd meant something very different, something about there being a world in which it was natural to be our best selves, and how we don't live in that world every day. Not, of course, that I'd believed it to be beyond our control: it seemed to me that we could always choose to opt out of the world we live in and choose the better one--the one we always hear isn't "realistic" in modern times.

What I hadn't believed was that it was possible to take that step without moving to the mountains or joining a convent or going to work with orphans in China. That it was possible to stay right where we are, to work at our same jobs and live in our same houses and maybe even fly to DisneyWorld and still make the simple choice to live in that better world where it's more natural to be our best selves. We are, after all, called to be "in" the world but not "of" it. And that must mean that we don't need a cleaner, more elemental place to let our better selves out.

That brought me almost full circle. Once again, I knew "what", but the "how" escaped me. The first half of this post sat for nearly a week while I alternately thought about how to end it and waited for inspiration. And then, yesterday, a strange thing happened. What looks like an answer came back to me in the most ironic form: My own words, written nearly two years ago and long forgotten.

For one of my other blogs, I sift through the search strings that bring people to all of my sites, and yesterday, I found this one: "list of things a Christian should do every day". Apparently, I'm the #4 result for that phrase, and it leads to a post called "The Essentials of Everyday Christian Life". Interestingly, despite that placement, I've never had a hit on that term or a closely related term before; I haven't seen or thought of this post since shortly after I wrote it.

So, in the end, I was reminded of several important things--not just the contents of this post, but the fact that on some level, we already know the answers. And, more importantly, that God is always willing to point us back to them when we lose our way, if only we're willing to listen.

Monday, November 3, 2008

On the Eve of the Election

Long ago, I wrote about the challenge of voting our faith in today's society.

I've thought long and hard about this post today, because this isn't a political blog, and because I know that what I have to say here will not be popular with some of my regular readers. But God calls us to speak the truth in all things, even when it's unpopular, so speak I will--and you can take it or leave it as your own prayerful reflection deems appropriate. But consider that if you're in doubt, you might have landed here for a reason. One of the reasons I'm writing this post is that I've gotten a huge amount of search traffic over the past couple of days on terms like "vote your faith" and "voting your faith 2008". It's obviously an issue weighing heavy on our minds.

There are, of course, issues and arguments on both sides of the fence. As I pointed out in my earlier post, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans, neither John McCain nor Barack Obama, sets forth views that are entirely in line with Catholic teaching. Many Catholic voters are focused, and have been focused for many years, on the issue of abortion. That's unfortunate, since aside from appointing Supreme Court Justices, the President has almost nothing to do with the issue of abortion--it's a matter of state law. And, of course, the Supreme Court rulings on abortion issues haven't changed significantly since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, despite several changes in administrations. That's 35 years of wasted votes.

And sometimes even that goes wrong. George W. Bush somehow managed to garner support as a "pro-life" President despite signing the most egregious futile care statute ever enacted in the United States. I'm pretty sure that Andrea Clark's family didn't view President Bush as "pro-life".

Because the issue of abortion is so stark, it sometimes overshadows other issues that are just as important to our society. Issues like how we think of and treat other human beings, how we discharge our responsibility to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and whether we put value in loving one another or in profit and prestige. Maybe we overlook these things because they're not so dramatic and obvious and in-your-face as issues like abortion...or maybe we overlook them because they're uncomfortable.

Why are we worried, for instance, about tax increases? Doesn't the Bible tell us to give Caesar what is Caesar's, and not to store up our treasures on earth? The Bible tells us, also, to feed the hungry, to tend to the sick, but we want to do it our way. So many good Christians respond to this point with a mental (or actual) foot stomp, a "yes, we're called to do that, but AS WE CHOOSE--the government shouldn't be making the decision for us."

Perhaps. But what are we holding on to? Control? Possessions? The ability to judge who among us is worthy of help? Is any of those things a valid attachment? And isn't the root issue bigger than that, anyway? Isn't the root issue about the kind of society we want to live in, about whether we want a leader who believes his mission is to tend to all sheep or to maintain and intensify a system that has us competing against one another for success--for our very survival--rather than viewing our fellow man as something precious regardless of his station in life?

I'm in favor of life, and life means much more than outlawing abortion. It means and end to capital punishment (as the Catechism teaches), an end to unjust wars, an end to statutes that allow doctors to decide it's not worth caring for someone anymore, an end to people dying of curable diseases because they can't afford medical care, an end to women thinking abortion is their only option because they lack emotional support and medical resources and a means to feed their children, an end to a legal structure that makes it profitable for major corporations to injure and even kill consumers and so very much more. It means painting a world where the phrase "not my problem" is recognized for the nonsense that it is.

Lets take a step toward creating that world tomorrow.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Gentle Power

I have a confession to make.

I've always found Mary a bit intimidating.

Crazy, I know, but there's something about her being the only human who ever lived without sin that's always made me feel like she couldn't possibly help but frown on the rest of us. I've always marveled at those who were able to call on her for comfort, because it seemed to me that her glow of purity couldn't possibly function as anything but a glaring spotlight on how flawed the rest of us were.

My mind, I must confess, still rather sees it that way. But recently I had an encounter that reminded me that the highest knowledge doesn't come from my mind.

Back in May, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe visited my midwestern church. The story of Juan Diego has always been a favorite of mine, and if I have thought vaguely of traveling to Mexico to see his miraculous cloak. If that's possible, it won't be for many years, so I was delighted to learn that the image was coming to me. I couldn't wait to see it, but I must admit that I was entirely unprepared for the actual experience of it.

Her gentleness was undeniable; I puzzled over how I might ever have seen her as aloof and intimidating. Her words to Juan Diego--"am I not your mother?"--suddenly rang true in a way that they never had before. I could have sat at her feet forever and simply absorbed the peace and gentleness that she radiated, and I know that I was not alone in that. Nearly everyone in the church was moved to tears at one time or another, or continuously.

It's really impossible for me to describe the way that the power of her gentle, loving spirit washed over everyone in her presence--it's certainly nothing I was prepared for in viewing an image, and I have delayed making this post for weeks in hopes that words would come to me that would allow me to share something of what I saw and felt in that church that day, but they have not come. I can only say that I cannot even begin to imagine the experience of someone like Juan Diego, or Bernadette, to feel the full force of her presence--it is on one hand difficult to imagine surviving such intensity and in another quite easy to understand how their lives were so completely transformed.

Perhaps, in the end, it is just as well that the experience defies description. It is one everyone should experience firsthand.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Value of Punishment

I wrote this post nearly a year ago and never posted it. I started out to say "I don't know why" at the end of that sentence, but I don't think that would be entirely accurate. I think that I never posted it because it was uncomfortable, because it was too personal, because it's something none of us like to think too much about as it applies to our own lives. It's fine in the theoretical, as we talk about raising children or reform in our criminal justice systems--two things that I, as a parent, former criminal defense lawyer, and legal writer think about a lot--but not so much when it comes closer to home. I ran across it again today and decided that I thought what I'd written was true, and important, even if it wasn't entirely here it is.

I had to be punished yesterday. In one sense, I think that self-imposed punishment is the least valuable. It requires discipline, certainly, and a deep level of acceptance, but it is still in some sense chosen, still within our control. Receiving punishment from some just authority—whether we want it or not, whether we agree with it or not—is beautifully humbling. Or it can be, if it is well conceived and well received.

Unfortunately, both of those conditions seem to be sadly lacking in society today. In our criminal justice system, punishment is imposed seemingly at random; some sentences seem outrageous in their lenience and others in their severity. Most sentences have nothing directly to do with the crime in question. It doesn’t seem to be intended to inspire reform, and where it is the inspiration seems to be expected to come from fear of future punishment, from having “learned your lesson” about what happens if you behave like that. True reform, as we well know, requires a change of heart, not simply an aversion to punishment.

And, in fact, the aversion to punishment itself can undermine its effectiveness. When punishment is accepted—and I mean accepted internally, not simply conceded to—it can open the door to wonderful growth in obedience and humility. Unfortunately, the flipside—and the much more common scenario today—is that resistance to punishment (though it might not be escaped) builds a fortress of pride and an illusion of being “in control of our own lives.” The “they can’t do that to me” attitude has become so instinctive that it is nearly impossible for the value of punishment to penetrate the rejection of obedience and humility.

One summer morning several years ago, I was lying on my bed reading with my daughter when the power went out. I got up and checked the breaker box and looked out the window to see whether the neighbors had power, and then, with a bit of a sinking feeling in my stomach, I went to check the front table where we kept the outgoing mail.

You see, I’d just returned from Las Vegas, and before I’d left I’d written out the utility check and put it in an envelope on the table where we put the outgoing mail…but I hadn’t actually mentioned to my husband that it was there and needed to be mailed.

At one time in my life I would have been angry: angry with my husband for not sending out any mail during the whole time I was gone, and angry with the utility company, because the bill couldn’t be more than ten days late and this seemed a bit hasty. I was just back from this long trip, and I was tired. We only had one car, and my husband had taken it to work. That meant a trek uptown—about a mile and a half—on foot, and it was in the nineties.

But I made a conscious decision that morning. I didn’t get angry. I took responsibility for not having either mailed the bill myself or explicitly pointed it out to my husband, and I recognized that three mile round-trip walk in muggy 90+ weather as the price I had to pay for that carelessness. My daughter, then five, wasn’t responsible, so when she began to complain of being hot and tired on the walk, I put her on my back and carried her. She shouldn’t have to suffer for my mistakes, after all, and if carrying her made the whole thing a little harder on me, so be it. Maybe next time I wouldn’t get so caught up in the excitement of my travel plans that I overlooked the obligations of everyday life.

By the time I arrived at the utility office, I was glad that we didn’t have a second car. It was clear to me that if this had been a minor inconvenience cleared up in five minutes in my air conditioned car, I wouldn’t really have taken time to give any thought to the way I’d just assumed someone else would take care of the details while I floated in the lazy river at the MGM Grand.

Although I was already in my thirties that day, it was the first time I’d thought to be grateful for consequences, to really open myself up to fully experiencing them instead of letting resentment interfere or trying to find ways to mitigate them.

There seems to be a “never give in” attitude in our society that makes it a point of pride to stand your ground even when you’re clearly wrong. “They can’t do that to me” extends so far that when it turns out that they can—when one finds himself in jail, for example, or without his driver’s license—“not letting it get to you” seems not only to be the norm, but viewed as somehow heroic.

I say, let it get to you. If you’re in jail for something you did, suffer. Don’t live inside your mind so that you can be “free” even behind bars—live behind bars and acknowledge your restrictions and the reasons for them every minute of every day. If you’ve lost your driver’s license, don’t drive. Accept the inconvenience of having to leave earlier and walk and take buses as part of the punishment you know you deserve, and give up places you don’t really need to go so that you don’t make someone else pay the price for your crime by requiring taxi service. And above all, be grateful. Realize you’ve been given an important opportunity to grow in virtues, to learn your place in the world and in God’s plan.

C.S. Lewis said once that every man we encounter will one day be a creature of such beauty that we should be tempted, if we saw it today, to worship it, or of such horror that we’ve never seen the like even in our nightmares. He pointed out that in every encounter, we help our fellow man along one path or the other. But there is perhaps no man-made circumstance in which that is so true as in punishment. It is never ignored, it is never without affect: it strengthens humility and obedience or it strengthens pride and rebellion.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Hijacking Jesus

I was always bothered, when I was working in the city, by the people on the street who held up pictures of Christ while they begged, who wrote Bible verses on their signs. It seemed exploitative to me; I was less likely to give them money than to those who simply claimed a need. Jesus, I said once to a co-worker, is not a marketing device.

What I meant, of course, was that I thought that Jesus SHOULDN'T be a marketing device. That's all I could mean, really, because there is no denying that in today's society, Christ is a marketing device every day, all around us. What began as something sincere in the days when we knew the members of our parishes has become the frequent tool of the unscrupulous. I'm not just talking about the credit repair people advertising on Relevant Radio, giving the impression that they're just there to help. I'm not just talking about people advertising on the back of the church bulletin and offering a 10% discount to parish members simply because it's a cheap way to draw in business. I'm talking about something much more sinister, and much more pervasive--something a single example should clearly put into perspective.

Google "Christian payday loans". No really. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Yes, there are more than 8,000 results.

I must admit that even cynic that I am, even with the experience I've had in researching and writing consumer protection information about payday loans and payday lenders, I held out a moment of hope. I just had to. I thought that maybe, just maybe, Christian payday loans were a moral alternative to the payday lenders who command fees equivalent to 400% interest or more in storefront offices and over the Internet.

So I clicked on a few links. I read some information. I filled out a few forms. And I learned that Christian payday loans are different from regular payday lenders are different from other payday lenders in one way: they write "Christian" on their websites and marketing literature.

What is Christian about charging 400% interest to working people in such dire straits that they can't afford to wait for their next paychecks to arrive? And what, exactly, is Christian about using the word "Christian" to sell something without letting Christian principles alter your business practices in any way? Jesus as a marketing device is bad enough, but Jesus as a marketing device for deceptive and destructive practices is more than we should tolerate.

Recently, in the name of Christianity, we've seen protesters disrupting the funerals of fallen soldiers and slain college students. Now, we see businesses that exist only as a means of taking advantage of the working poor selling their virtually unbreakable cycle of debt with Christ's name. This list could go on, and I'm sure that you don't need me to spell it all out. We see it all around us every day. But what are we going to do about it? How are we going to reclaim Christ's name and insist that it stand only for the principles HE taught and works truly done in his name?

Monday, February 18, 2008

"My Soul Has Adjusted"

A colleague mentioned to me recently that he doesn't sleep much—never more than a few hours at a stretch. "That can't be healthy," I said, and he told me that his body had adjusted.

That happens. The human body is a remarkable thing; it's made to function one way, with a certain amount of sleep, within a certain temperature range, with a certain kind of fuel. And yet, if those things aren't available, it adapts. And we recognize that adaptation—we know that our bodies were meant to have nutritious food and a minimum amount of rest and all that, and that if they aren't getting it and they're still functioning, something fundamental has shifted in order to accommodate that, to keep operating as best it can in the absence of optimal conditions.

For better or worse, the human soul seems to work pretty much the same way. The dangerous difference is that we’re not so quick to recognize it. When the soul doesn’t get what it needs to thrive, when it doesn’t get the fuel it was meant to run on or the environment it was created to thrive in, it adjusts as well. It finds a way to get by in less than optimal circumstances, without the food and water and fresh air that it needs to be all that it was meant to be.

But just like the body, it has to change to do so. Just like the body, it doesn’t work as well without the conditions it was created for, doesn’t grow to its full strength, doesn’t become exactly what it was meant to be…what it could have been if only the sunlight hadn’t been obscured or the water hadn’t been polluted or any of a hundred other possible contaminations or missing pieces. And I think that for the most part, we don’t notice. It’s not so easy to see our souls shriveling as it is our bodies, not as easy to detect that something isn’t working quite right. Our souls adjust.

And unless we recognize that that’s what’s happening and find them the right food, the right sunlight, enough fresh air, they shrink into something very different from what they were designed to be.

But finding the right food and re-adjusting to it isn’t always easy. It seems, perhaps, that if it’s what we were made for, if it’s what was made for us, then it should fit, should feel right, should be as natural as breathing. And without those adjustments, that might well be true. But breathing fresh air is painful if we’ve become accustomed to a different atmosphere, and vegetables are hard to digest after a steady diet of processed foods. It stands to reason that if we’ve been feeding our souls a lot of junk and they’ve adapted, the good stuff isn’t going to go down easily—that’s going to take another round of adjustment.