Post 29

Chesterton vs. Cornford:
Reflections on “The Fat White Woman Speaks”

Sometimes we’re so shocked by someone’s comments that we are left speechless – it’s only later that we think of a fitting reply.  But if we think of that checkmate answer right away, do we say it?  Nancy Astor says to Winston Churchill: “If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee!” and he replies, “And if I were your husband, I would drink it.”

You have to pity those with razor-sharp wit – how much self-restraint they must exercise to keep silent at such times!  The choice retort is so often at the tip of their tongue, yet they allow good manners and charity to rule the moment, and they say something gentler and less witty instead.  St. Josemaria Escriva sometimes referred to the ‘sharp remark’ that ‘went unsaid’ as a real mortification.  It’s something that he himself would know about very well.

Chesterton was constantly in debates, and although he could have easily attacked his opponents personally, he was always a gentleman, and confined himself to logical debate.  So I found it fascinating to read a poem where he’s quite biting; you can tell he was angry.  But, of course, before showing you his work, I must give you the poem that provoked him in the first place:

To a Fat Lady seen from the Train (1910)
by Frances Cornford

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?

As it happens, Frances Cornford’s grandfather was Charles Darwin.  She was the recipient of a poetry prize, but I’m not a fan of her work, because in general I find it to be bitter and bleak, and because she makes rhymes like this: “With what attentive courtesy he bent/ Over his instrument.” (This is from her poem about a guitarist, but it sounds wrong to me.  Did IN-stru-ment actually used to be pronounced in-stru-MENT?)

Here is Chesterton’s reply – some have called it a parody, but it seems to me to have more in common with a defence brief:

The Fat White Woman Speaks (1933)
by G. K. Chesterton

Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves and such?
And how the devil can you be sure,
Guessing so much and so much,
How do you know but what someone who loves
Always to see me in nice white gloves
At the end of the field you are rushing by,
Is waiting for his Old Dutch?

So there you have it.  To me, it’s a perfect reply.  He chose to write as the woman, and in so doing, strikes me as a worthy advocate.  An advocate gives words to those who are wordless, lending a voice to those who need one.  Chesterton didn’t use the triolet here (though he used it elsewhere), and I’m glad; most poems with that structure seem lackluster, at least in English.  Maybe they’re better in French.

But there’s even more to his poem than that, which would make for fun blogging.  Where do I begin?  And what about the idea of keeping this post under the 1000-word mark as I had mentioned in my last post?   Hmm.  I’m already at 610 words, so perhaps I should quit while I’m ahead.  In that case, I wouldn’t talk about:

  • the modern prejudice against those who ‘ruin their health’ by smoking or by being inactive, and
  • the Catholic attitude towards food and wine and other ‘indulgences’ and how this stands in contrast to the puritanical religions – and here I’d be tempted to mention that episode on the Simpsons about ‘Catholic heaven,’ and
  • our lack of knowledge about those we observe – in particular, how we fail to understand the context of their actions and their intentions, and the fundamental importance of our intentions; and, closely tied to this,
  • the method by which Chesterton reframes the context of this poem, and
  • the gravity of the insult, ‘nobody loves you,’ and
  • the role played by the articles “a” and “the” in the two poems, and
  • labels in general, and how certain classes are identified pejoratively – for example, ‘dead white men.’

Alternatively, I could go ahead with these topics, and you can sneak out at any time; I’ll hardly notice.

Okay, so let’s start with modern prejudices.  There was a time when cigarette smoking was really quite popular; nowadays it’s far less common.  Of course, I’m glad that fewer people do it, because the tobacco companies put a lot more than tobacco into their products – they lace them with chemical compounds to increase the addictiveness and so on – but I think that in the name of health, a lot of people were made to feel needlessly guilty.  I say this as someone who never smoked.

The first change was that smoking was banned in most indoor workplaces – so smokers went outside on their coffee breaks (on cold days you’d see them huddled near doorways).  Later, the rules changed so they could not smoke within 15 meters of the building’s entrance, and nowadays, I see that smoking is sometimes prohibited over the entire property area of a public building.  Meanwhile, car engines are spewing toxic fumes all over the place.

But anyway, as the anti-smoking campaign gained momentum, the smokers found themselves increasingly marginalized.  Naturally, more and more people quit.  But those who couldn’t quit were often embarrassed to admit that they smoked, for fear of being judged.  And for a while now, people have had less sympathy for those with lung cancer than any other type of cancer.  VeraciousOne mentioned just a few weeks ago that lung cancer patients are remarkably meek and quiet. When I was confused as to why the type of cancer would make a difference, she said, “They were smokers.”  So then I understood: these people blame themselves for their predicament, and they know that the general sentiment is unsympathetic towards them.  I find that sad.  After all, isn’t it the case that all of us are making or have made choices which adversely affect our health?  I think the whole issue is rather messy – we have varying levels of knowledge and varying levels of control over our environments, and our own behaviour, for that matter.  And when it comes to knowledge, there are powerful interest groups, such as pharmaceutical companies and food processors, who would like to keep the general public in the dark.  Rather than admit the horrible effects of sugar, Coca-Cola wants you to think it’s all about how much you exercise.

Years ago I was absolutely shocked by something in Healthy Women, Healthy Lives. This book discusses findings from the Nurses’ Health Study, “the longest-running and largest prospective observational study of women’s health questions . . . currently includes more than 120,000 women who have been participants for more than two decades.”  This study found that the contraceptive pill was associated with numerous health problems, including breast cancer:

The use of birth control pills moderately increases the risk of breast cancer in those women who are currently using them.  In the Nurses’ Health Study, we found that women who were currently taking the pill had a 50 percent increase in risk compared to women who had never used the pill.  Moreover, how long a woman had been on the pill did not seem to change the results . . .

[Then they jumped outside the Nurses’ study to mention other data.]

Although the pill seems to slightly increase breast cancer risk in current users, it also has many benefits.  In addition to preventing unwanted pregnancy, it lowers the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancers.  Also, when women use the pill, it is during a time in life when their absolute risk of breast cancer is low, so even though a 50 percent increase in risk is substantial, it will actually result in only a few extra women developing breast cancer who otherwise would not have.

I found this really alarming, and this section of the book was presented in such a confusing way that I had to re-read it several times.  After stating the startling findings from the Nurses’ study, the authors distract the reader by quickly mentioning data from elsewhere.  Are they frightened of what their own study proved?  They seem to be, because their language is all over the place: in one sentence, they call the risk ‘moderate,’ but soon afterwards, they call it ‘slight’ and then finally, “substantial.”  Well, which is it?  And what about this: “only a few extra women”?  What kind of approach is that?

These authors argue that even though the pill increases the risk of cancer, it’s important to focus on the pill’s advantages.  They thereby suggest that many women (and girls, let’s be honest) would still choose to use the pill if they knew the risks.  But I wonder. How would the popularity of this contraceptive be affected? This study is unique in the world in its comprehensiveness, and it identifies a very significant connection; what would happen if this information were better publicized, the way the risks of smoking were publicized?

And I wonder whether these authors would follow the same reasoning, and extend the same liberal attitude to smokers, who also have their reasons for their choices?  They also don’t all get lung cancer.

I somehow doubt they would, because the attitude towards smokers nowadays (at least in North America) has reached the point where there’s no defence; it’s considered as bad as torturing cats.  On Thursday I was talking to a woman who said that when she posted her online-dating wish list, she initially stipulated that he had to be a non-smoker.  I bet that’s a common requirement.  But later, she realized that a man’s character was more important, so she altered her wish list to focus on certain values.  She mentioned kindness and reliability.  Sure enough, she’s married now, and her husband does smoke, but she sees the bigger picture of who he actually is.  And this makes me think of DiligentOne, who never complained about her husband’s use of chewing tobacco (he later quit on his own initiative).  And that reminds me of someone who wondered whether it was okay to smoke while praying.  The good man who answered (was it Fulton Sheen?) said that he wasn’t sure, but certainly it was fine to pray while smoking!  But anyway, in its aggressive approach to smokers, it seems that our society displays confusion about what behaviours it should be shaming.

Similarly, wearing fur is now proof that you’re cruel and really clueless. I always feel quite conspicuous when wearing mine to the organic grocery store, where I buy bacon and sausages, shopping beside those who are vegan.  I know wearing fur is considered ‘wrong.’  If I were wearing fake fur, made from plastic, the ‘soy’ version of fur, then that would be okay.

The modern world, which considers itself so tolerant now that it’s non-religious, continues to come up with its own list of taboos, mostly based on current health notions.  And so society’s values go all over the place like fashions.  Those denominations which try to keep up with the times by throwing out their traditions and doctrines become nothing more than social clubs. Did I mention that a local church is called “The Enjoy Life Church”?  That’s basically what it comes to.  The other day CharitableOne knew I’d be astounded to hear that ‘sitting is the new smoking.’  And if you know how negatively smoking (and smokers) is considered, you’d know that this means that people who sit excessively are being ‘bad’ – they wreck their health, which is, of course, an unpardonable crime.   Shame on them!  Take away their chairs!  Remove their couches!  Strap Fitbits to their wrists and graph their steps!  Slather them with sunscreen!  No wait – that’s a different rule.

And as for you, I hope you’re standing while you read this.  They say sitting is the new smoking, you know. (And when it comes to morals, white is the new black.)  I’m sitting as I reach 1984 words. 

So anyway, there’s already a prejudice against those who are overweight, the perception being that they’re not doing what they should be doing to take care of their health.  Certainly the poet Frances Cornford used the word “fat” pejoratively.  As for Chesterton, he said that he didn’t mind being called fat – he said that if he were not fat, he’d be taken seriously, which in itself is interesting.  He put his finger on another truth: people with certain body types (overweight or short) are not given as much credence as those who are thinner and taller.

However, I’m sure that he wasn’t impressed by Cornford labelling her subject a “fat white woman” because it was intended as an insult.  Doesn’t it remind you of the modern disparagement, “dead white men,” which is often used to condemn the rich western heritage of art, music and literature?  Ironically, although it’s a phrase used by people who deplore discrimination, it’s a really discriminatory phrase, since it disqualifies peoples’ contributions on the basis of their date of their death, their gender and their race.  I recently came across an attack on the institution of marriage; someone called it ‘paternalistic.’  And that was basically the beginning and end of the attack – just that word, because nowadays that has a sufficiently negative flavour to it.  I thought about it afterwards – what did she mean, paternalistic?  Too fatherly?  I suspect she probably meant that it was too male, and of course, that’s nearly an insult nowadays too.  But I must ask, as I pass the 2000 word mark, that if it is true that marriage is such a male institution, then why is it that women seem more eager to enter into it than men?  Please don’t tell me that these women have ‘bought into a lie.’  Give them more credit than that.

Moving along, Chesterton’s poem points out that we really don’t know anything about the context of other peoples’ lives. I’ve written recently that people have whole landscapes inside of them, and the thing is that these landscapes are hidden from the rest of the world. We can’t see why people do this or that.  We see the actions, but we can’t see the motivation.  I came across the idea that everyone makes internal sense.  In other words, if you knew what they had been through, and what their internal landscape was, then you’d see how their latest action makes a lot more sense and is a lot less ridiculous or evil than it appeared.

And at the end of the day, it’s our intentions that really matter.  Do we want the best for the other?  Do we wish them well?  Even if we mess things up in our lives and in our relations with others, the main thing is that we’re trying:

It is the [Catholic] thesis that there are no bad things, but only bad uses of things.  If you will, there are no bad things but only bad thoughts, and especially bad intentions.  Only Calvinists can really believe that hell is paved with good intentions.  That is exactly the one thing it cannot be paved with.

-G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, Chapter 4

And I really liked the section in Jacques Philippe’s book about good will, but I can’t get that quotation just yet because I’ve lent that book out.  (VigilantOne warns when you lend a book, you never get it back, which is of course an exaggeration, but it’s true they don’t all come back.)

In his poem, Chesterton points out that Cornford is clueless as to context and intention.  The woman walks through the field wearing gloves; Cornford says it’s a waste of an opportunity, but Chesterton says it could even be about romance: the man who loves her, and who liked to affectionately call her his ‘Old Dutch’ (duchess/wife), is waiting for her at the edge of that same field.  He loves to see her wearing “nice white gloves.” With this defence, with this alternate context and intention, Chesterton explains the gloves and silences the cruel phrase “whom nobody loves.”

He also can’t resist pointing out that Cornford has a far worse appreciation of this field than does the woman she attacks.  After all, the title of Cornford’s poem shows that she’s in a train (probably sitting).  Notice how the dueling poets differ in their use of articles.  Chesterton says that Cornford races through the field in “a” train (for Cornford it’s “the” train), and that Cornford is being hypocritical of “the” woman who walks through it (for Cornford she’s “a” woman).  For Chesterton, the objects are referred to using “a” (i.e., one of many) while people are referred to using “the” (i.e., particular, special).  Chesterton wouldn’t be like the authors of that medical book, who said, “only a few extra women.”

But before we condemn Cornford utterly, we must admit that we all come to conclusions about each other without knowing all the facts.  We guess at motives based on our past experiences and our mental data banks of human behaviour, and we so often get it quite wrong.  I like the quotation about how we need to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, from St. Josemaria Escriva, I think, but now I’m feeling too lazy to go and find it, and besides, I’m over 2800 words and I still haven’t mentioned the Simpson episode.

It was JustOne who told me about it years ago, before everything was online, yet even without seeing it, I thought it was funny.  You see, Catholicism has a reputation for saying ‘no,’ too much, but it all depends on the context of the times.  Liberal times accuse it of being unduly restrictive, and stricter times accuse it of being too indulgent, of saying ‘yes’ too much.   Jesus noted that some people called him a drunkard.  I’d say Catholicism walks the middle road, always locating that sweet spot in the middle, a place of equanimity and balance.  In contrast, many of the Protestant faiths have prohibitions on liquor and dancing – perhaps Cornford’s Puritan background coloured her views on eating and body size too.  The Catholic approach to liquor (and dancing, for that matter) has always struck me as wholesome and happy, something like, “We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them” as Chesterton says.  The Simpson clip is here.

3170 words.  More than three times longer than I planned, and my new longest post.  I need a smoke.

Post 28

What’s the Magic Word?
Reflections on Prayer as Unmannered Asking

In some ways, the inarticulate infant is the best ‘asker’ the world has ever known.  A baby’s sobs are not as high on the decibel count as they seem, but they have a way of affecting us really quickly.  I heard of a study where a recording of a baby’s cries was played and people were asked to estimate the length of time the baby was crying.  The estimates were way too high – people thought the recording was a lot longer than it was.  There’s a reason people dread sitting next to a baby on an airplane – that cry is, well, uniquely effective at pushing our buttons, especially at close range, which is where it often is. (And once you add the visuals of the red face, flailing arms and tears spilling everywhere, it’s even more effective!) You could call it evolution: it’s a cry perfected through the ages in order to get results.  The quiet babies didn’t survive – at least that’s how I understand the application of the theory.  Survival of the Loudest.

Anyway, when this infant becomes a toddler, the methods are a little different: ‘Papa! Papa! Papa! Papa!’  ‘Mama! Mama! Mama!’  These requests are simple and spontaneous and not particularly polite either.  As a matter of fact, they are often complaints more than requests.  “Hungry!” we said when we were toddlers, or “Milk!” or “Up!”  But the incessant, repetitious pleas are indisputably effective.

As the toddler gets better at talking, it’s a top priority for parents to get these requests under control.  “What’s the magic word?” say the parents.  “Please” says the child.  “And now what do you say?” “Thank you” says the child.  My mother’s first language wasn’t English, so I never received the lesson about using “May I?” instead of “Can I?” but a lot of children learn that too.

In any case, as we get older, we internalize the rules of polite asking.   As it turns out, there are many unwritten rules.  And for the most part, that’s okay.  All the politics of asking, in general, have the effect of keeping our day-to-day relations more peaceful.  But it’s complicated; personal pride gets mixed in here too, of course, because asking suggests weakness.  And it’s interesting how some people get really good at asking, and know exactly how to spin their requests and get all the doors opened for them.   I liked this quotation: “You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question.” (Albert Camus)

And aside from charm, there are other ways of asking which are quite artful.  The Socratic method is education based on asking, and our litigation system is built on calculated asking.  By the time we’re adults, our asking has certainly changed from that bald-faced demand for a glass of water that we made when we were a meter tall.

And I guess what I’m wondering is whether our grownup, sophisticated rules of asking make us less capable of praying. After all, prayer is a way of asking that breaks some fairly basic rules.  Consider what we’re supposed to do, when it comes to prayer:

Ask for gifts: A young child will ask his parents for everything and anything.  He’s not shy.  He doesn’t say to himself, ‘well, my mother knows perfectly well that I would like a puppy, so there’s no point in asking;’ he just goes ahead and asks, again.  The little girl will ask to have cookies for breakfast and will ask you to carry her all around the house, until finally your arms fall off.

Contrast this with adults; we know better than to ask for gifts.  A woman won’t demand signs of affection, but this doesn’t mean that she or the relationship has somehow progressed ‘beyond’ such things – it’s too bad that many men don’t realize the secret power of well-timed flowers or cards!  Perhaps such men don’t realize it because they themselves have little interest in birthdays, and their male friends also don’t make a fuss about them.  It’s so different for women – most of them keep track of such dates in order to act upon them; they know that forgetfulness of another woman’s birthday might have consequences.  And so you can see the problem with the male-female difference in approach: a woman knows when St. Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day is just around the corner, but the man is just coasting along, blissfully ignorant of the upcoming relationship test.  Hopefully he has programmed a reminder into his phone so that he can wake up before the day arrives!  Indeed, for many men, the calendar is a minefield of unspoken expectations.

So consider how different it is with prayer.  If we believe, then we believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful being, who already knows what we want and what we need.  He is not Santa Claus who needs a list, surely?  So how odd it is to make requests to someone who already knows everything!  Christ even said God knows what we need before we say it.

Yet isn’t this child-like asking precisely what we are taught to do?  Jesus says that if people, who are as flawed as we are, are capable of giving good gifts, then “how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”  Notice how it says “to those who ask him.”  So in the case of prayer, we’re actually supposed to ask for gifts.

When you look at the gospel stories, you’ll find a catalogue of all the artless and clumsy (childlike) ways of asking – sure, some people were careful and very respectful, but it seems to me that they were in the minority.  Story after story show people being reckless and wild and (literally) pushy in their asking.  Short Zaccheus climbed a tree to get a better view, the woman with the hemorrhage reached and touched Christ’s garment, and the four buddies removed part of the roof so that they could lower their friend down right in front of Christ’s nose. Then there was the blind man who cried out, which prompted those nearby to tell him to please settle down (which made him even louder, feisty fellow).

Constantly the people surrounded Jesus and asked for his intervention.  They were often really bold.  And Jesus was never critical of this needy behaviour; he never complained of it; he had compassion.  But he did complain about those who didn’t ask; the people in his home town, for example, thought they had him all figured out and were pretty dismissive.  They didn’t have much interest in him and did not come asking, and so nothing really happened for them.  Asking is valuable because it shows faith, and faith is, for whatever reason, the precondition for a miracle, usually.   I say ‘usually’ because I am thinking about this story, which recently hit me as if I had never heard it before:

Jesus [referring to the man’s son]: How long has he had this?

Man: From childhood.  And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.

Jesus: If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.

Man [immediately crying out]: I believe; help my unbelief!

– Mark 9: 21-24

I like a lot of things about this passage, but I especially noticed the way Jesus repeats the man’s words back to him, showing him that he is doubting: “If you can!”  I wonder if Jesus said it like this: “if you can!” or like this: “if you can!”  Then the man’s response is so moving and so true-to-life – I can just picture the scene.  He knows what he’s supposed to say to Jesus in order to obtain help for his son and in front of all these people (“I believe!”), but he’s honest too, and he can’t help but exclaim as well, “Help my unbelief!”

The point is, God wants us to ask for his gifts.  He waits for that; it’s the way it’s supposed to go.  Even Jesus made requests.  The point is to at least ask.  But if you insist on being more ‘mature’ about it, then you’re still supposed to ask, but then add this at the end: “nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”

As long as we remember that we’re asking for a gift, all will be well.  It’s when we act like the Pharisee in the temple, who thought he was so good that he deserved it, or the elder son in the prodigal son story, who thought he was so good that he deserved it, that we’re in dangerous waters.

Ask for the small things too:  Another thing we learn in life is that we’re not supposed to bother people about the little things.  Be sensible, and save your requests for the times when you really need help.  If you pester people when the need is small, then they’ll start ignoring your requests, or – even worse – you. The tale of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” had a moral, of course, but was the moral that you mustn’t request help on false pretenses or was the moral that you mustn’t request help until there’s an emergency?  We sometimes get the message that you really shouldn’t bother other people unless it’s of wolf-level significance, which perhaps explains a man’s reluctance to ask for directions. The last thing you want to do is cash in your goodwill needlessly.  Wait until you have a biggie, because then it’s okay, maybe.

Yet with prayer it’s just the opposite.  We’re supposed to pray about everything, and not just about the emergencies.  That typical behaviour, to pray only when we’re really stuck (no atheists in the trenches), isn’t ideal.  We’re supposed to strengthen our relationship with God by bringing all aspects of our lives to him in prayer.  There’s no request that’s too small.  In fact, I think God delights in giving us these tiny tokens of his love.  And when we look at the prayer life of a child, it’s full of cute requests.  But God will strengthen this budding faith by bending down to hear and answer a disproportionate number of such requests, even if they seem insignificant to adults: like getting the right roll of the dice or finding a lost marble.  If it’s a big deal to the child, it’s a big deal to him.  But even when, as children or adults, we know something is not really important in the universal scheme of things, he will often answer with a surprise.  I like the story about how St. Teresa of Avila was gardening in the heat and she was complaining to God about the scorching sun; she was so astonished because then a cloud came and covered it up.  And which saint was it who was longing for asparagus like his mother used to make?  Suddenly he saw a little bundle of it on the rock beside him.  Sometimes we say, “God has a sense of humour” – yes he does; he made it.

And in addition to strengthening the relationship, praying about all the different aspects of our life will have the effect of making us bring these areas into greater accordance with his will.  We are more likely to mess up the areas of our lives that we think don’t have spiritual significance.  If we’re going to be true Christians, then it’s actually wrong to compartmentalize our life into spiritual and non-spiritual zones.  Do we think that God cares that we go to church, but that he doesn’t care how we drive there and back?  He cares about everyone and everything.  (This is why a Christian will always bring his religion into the public arena; his values should permeate his whole life.)

Skip the line: We also learn that we can’t or shouldn’t approach those who are ‘above us’ in the pecking order.  We learn pretty early on that you run the risk of humiliation and shunning if you don’t correctly direct or phrase your request.  Approach those who are ‘in charge’ at your own risk.   When you are in grade ten, don’t expect that someone in grade twelve will have any time for you.  And it goes beyond high school; in the ‘real world,’ boundaries are based less on age than on job titles.  The executive is behind closed doors and layers of staff members.  Perhaps if you ingratiate yourself to his secretary, you will be able to have your request considered.  (For this reason, those in power can easily become gradually more conceited and arrogant, just because they are so used to having people fawn on them and approach them with such delicacy.  It messes with the brain!  I guess that’s why saints warn it’s safer to be the servant than the master.  And to go on a tangent from a tangent, I suspect that those people who are the ‘prize’ on The Bachelor or The Bachelorette will never recover from the imprint of that experience!)  We’re supposed to take our place at the back of the line.

But anyway (where was I?), we bring this notion into our prayer life, because we may have a sense that we aren’t really in a position to ask God for anything because we’re not ‘good enough.’  It’s kind of like St. Peter saying to Jesus, “Leave me, for I am a sinful man.”  Plus there’s a notion of inconsistency – how can we approach God when we’ve neglected him all this time?  We’re not even on good terms with his secretary!  But here again, Christianity emphasizes that everyone has ready access to God, and as a matter of fact, the more sinful we are, the more we are ‘qualified’ to have his ear.  It’s the sinners who get a ‘Skip the Line’ pass. After all, he said, “I came to call sinners.”  In fact, the better we think we are, the more in danger we are – then we’re the Pharisee in the parable, who said, “I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector.  I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.”  No – it was the tax-collector who got it right, when he said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  Jesus says, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other . . .” (Luke 18:9-14)

In the end, Christianity is not a religion where the only thing we can do is stand in awe, and bow very low, fearing to pronounce his name.  It’s a religion about relationship with a three-person (even God is in relationship!) God.  He has demonstrated his love for us in the person of Christ, and he’s not done yet.  He desires to show that love to each of us, but he’s not pushy.  He waits for us to ask, to give him a chance to show us that love.  So let’s set aside our grownup reluctance and our grownup complexity, and behave like unmannered children.  Let’s be the little child who runs into the grand hall, past all the stoic diplomats and guards, and flings himself into the king’s arms.  Let’s be simple and trusting, and tell him what’s really on our heart.

Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them.  But Jesus called them to him, saying “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.  Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

Luke 18:15-17

 

[My longest post – so far.  Next time I’ll aim for under 1000 words, in order to ‘facilitate consumption’]

Post 27

Addicted to Statistics:
Reflections on Increasing Blog Readership

So the truth is, I don’t actually know how to post any of my posts.  I write my own stuff, of course, and I have opinions about the appearance of things too, but when it comes to anything the slightest bit technical, well, that’s a place where I don’t want to go.  You have heard how a horse will stop at the edge of a cliff when it senses danger and refuse to go any further?  That’s me when it comes to technology.  I love how SympatheticOne put it: “I am roadkill on the Information Super-Highway.”

I don’t know how to change my words into the WordPress format where certain things are <strong> and certain things are <em> and then </em>.  Instead, I do my documents in Word and then I email them to EfficientOne who translates them from English into HTML and makes WordPress happy.

So it’s probably no surprise that I also didn’t know how to check my statistics nor how to see if anyone was subscribing to the blog.  I wasn’t all that curious about these things either, being convinced that I was probably writing to myself.  I had submitted a link to my blog to one Catholic site and sent links to only a smattering of people.  But just recently, I got curious about these things and I asked EfficientOne to show me how to see them.

Well, this is very interesting!  I see that I’m not alone; I see that you’re reading, along with other Americans, Romanians, Poles and a bunch of people from other countries.  Hello!  I wish I could meet you!

There are three effects of seeing your statistics for the first time:

  1. You’re happy that people have enough interest in the blog to come back once in a while,
  2. You’re surprised – “How on earth did these people find my blog in the first place?” “Who has time to read blogs on a regular basis?” and,
  3. You start to care about your statistics.

It’s this last aspect that I’ve been puzzling over.

Is it good for me to think about my statistics?   And connected to that, to what extent should I try to improve them by publicizing my blog?

I have always disliked the work of self-promotion, whether it’s the promotion of a professional service or an artistic endeavor.  Some people like sales and marketing, but I don’t.  And unfortunately, the way life works is that so many professions and businesses require you to ‘drum up business’ in order to be able to do what you’ve learned to do.   You can’t just start fixing teeth; you need patients.  You can’t just start medical research; you need a grant.  You need clients before you can litigate and customers before you can work as a plumber. So then the marketing begins, and how many professionals have unhappily realized that, whether they like it or not, they need to throw themselves wholeheartedly into issues of sales and marketing!

I think the same thing happens to many bloggers.  They start writing and they enjoy it but their statistics show them that they’re the only one reading what they’ve written.  They get concerned, and try to figure out how to change this.  They begin to self-promote, using all the ways that they know of: Twitter, Facebook, etc.  Soon, just as much time is spent marketing as is spent writing in the first place!

I have looked into how to promote my blog, with the idea that I probably should, and I see that I am doing everything wrong.  In the first place, my posts are too long for the modern attention span and pace of life.  Mind you, this is something I knew even before I read any articles, but now I have the terminology to describe what I should do: I am supposed to ‘format my blog posts to facilitate consumption’ and I should ‘structure my content so that it can be consumed quickly.’  Blogs should be written so that people can ‘snack’ on them while they quickly check their mobile device.

Beyond that, I am supposed to have many links in each of my posts, linking to other posts that I have written even though they are in the same blog.  For some reason, if I make my readers swim in circles all over my blog, that’s better.   I am supposed to set things up so that you can’t see more than the first few lines of any post; it’s better if I require you to click, “Read More . . .” because that reduces a blog’s ‘bounce rate.’  I am supposed to have photos with each post.  I should give you a Site Map.  I should ‘leverage my blog’s real estate,’ by having at least one sidebar, so that while you’re reading the post, you’ll notice the nifty distraction on the side, and you’ll start clicking on it too. Basically, I am supposed to bombard you with data inside the blog so that you can’t stop clicking. Even links that take you completely outside the blog are good for my statistics too, from what I can tell.  Click, click and keep clicking.  Of course, it’s blog-popularity-suicide to not have a comment section, because comment sections will keep readers on the site even longer, even though most comment sections of blogs are mainly (I know, not entirely), ‘Great post!  Really enjoyed it!’ once the blogger has pre-screened and deleted all the blog spam and the nasty remarks.   The point is that I’m basically supposed to keep all readers on the blog for as long as possible, and keep them clicking.  And that’s just the site design.

But the advice gets worse, because I also came across the idea that went like this: you may think that you are saying what you want to say, and you may think that blogging is about “lovingly crafting each post,” (do I detect a sneer?) but the practical reality is that you must think about what your readers want, and write the kind of content that they want.  So instead of thinking what I think, and writing what I think, I’m supposed to figure out what you want me to think, and how you want me to think about it, and then think and write like that.  I am supposed to know – or quickly find out – what your “hot buttons” are and create a “marketing persona” to understand your “needs and priorities.”  I should evaluate my statistics and notice which types of posts are the most popular and which generate the most comments, and then write more just like that.

It reminds me of my school days, when I would write precisely what the instructor wanted to hear, and I wasn’t the only one.  All over the world, students are using their brain cells not to figure out the subject, but to figure out what the teacher or professor’s opinions are.  You never learn to develop and defend your own ideas because you’re so busy analyzing someone else’s and figuring out how you’re going to gather them together, rearrange them, season them, garnish them and then serve them back to the professor as an entirely new dish: voila!  (Yes I know that’s supposed to have an accent but I’m not good with my symbols either.)  It also reminds me of the Catholic priests who are so petrified of alienating their worldly parishioners that they never tell them the truth about what the Church teaches, so they wind up talking in such generalities that the homilies don’t influence anyone’s behaviour.  As a matter of fact, it’s those priests who boldly preach the real message who are able to change hearts.

And as for knowing your audience, I’m wondering whether my readers have anything in common with each other which is so easily traceable or lump-togetherable in the first place.  Are you all Catholic?  Are you all religious?  (All questions on a blog that doesn’t take comments are rhetorical, right?)  I kind of hope you’re not, because I’ve always been interested in engaging with those with active minds who are good-willed and interested in thinking about bigger things, regardless of religious background.   For this reason, I liked how Chesterton began his biography of St. Francis.  He said that he was writing to a secular audience, the “ordinary modern outsider and enquirer,” which is what he himself used to be:

This is the only controversial condition that I shall here assume; that I am dealing with the sympathetic outsider . . . A materialist may not care whether the inconsistencies are reconciled or not.  A Catholic may not see any inconsistencies to reconcile.  But I am here addressing the ordinary modern man, sympathetic but skeptical . . .

G.K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi, Chapter 1

And if that’s the kind of person I’m thinking of too, then where do I start?  Where are these people?  Are you all hanging out at the same bar?  Do you all wear the same kind of cologne or use the same toaster oven?  According to the experts, I better find out!  I better create a “social media persona” (not the same as the “marketing persona”) so that I can figure out ‘where you congregate and interact on social media.’  That’s the first step – once I know that, I should go to these places myself and entice you to my blog.  One suggestion is to go and interact on these forums or on these blogs by leaving supportive comments for a while, and then casually mention that I have my own blog and here’s the link, by the way.

And that’s just the beginning.  I am supposed to tweet three or four times a day (after all, as they point out, the readers are in different time zones) when I have written a new post, telling you that I have written a new post.  And – this one I think is the best of all – I am supposed to go on Facebook and ‘like’ my own posts!

Sigh.  I’m already exhausted.  But there’s more.

I am supposed to stay aware of ‘what my competitors are doing.’  I didn’t realize I had competitors.  If they have a new way to promote their blog, I should keep up by doing the same thing.  One website declares that ‘being famous is the new rich.’  I am supposed to aim for fame.  Yeah, I’m going to be this really famous mostly-anonymous person.

So I wonder.  If I believe that my message is good, then do I have an obligation to promote it?  You know, in sort of an evangelical sense?  After all, I must admit that if people like Fr. Robert Barron didn’t work to get his message out, then I might never have found the things that he has produced.  And for that matter, so many of the good products and books that I enjoy have come into my hands due to promotional work being done, and being done well by those whose talents lie in that direction.  I’m also aware of the notion that you can’t sit back and wait for good things to happen without effort.   So initially, I thought I should hold my nose and try to do this, you know, as sort of the yucky side of blogging.  But on the other hand . . .

The fact is, this isn’t my livelihood.  It’s an avocation (I just learned that word, so I’m happy to use it), and to be totally honest, it’s something which I am enjoying even more than I thought I would (I’m ‘into it’) and which (therefore) takes more time than I thought it would.  Am I to increase the amount of time spent on it by devoting additional hours to the sub-project of maximizing my readership?  And as for the notion of spreading a good message, well, that’s kind of tricky, but isn’t it the case that I can’t control the ultimate effectiveness of anything good that I try to do anyway?  Mother Teresa said that God calls us to be faithful, but not necessarily to be successful.   If I go as far as I can go, based on my abilities and available time, then certainly that’s enough.

And then there’s the advice of Chesterton.  Have I ever mentioned that I really like Chesterton?  He was a journalist.  In his autobiography, completed a few weeks before his death, he talks about his success:

On the whole, I think I owe my success (as the millionaires say) to having listened respectfully and rather bashfully to the very best advice, given by all the best journalists who had achieved the best sort of success in journalism; and then going away and doing the exact opposite.  For what they all told me was that the secret of success in journalism was to study the particular journal and write what was suitable to it.  And, partly by accident and ignorance and partly through the real rabid certainties of youth, I cannot remember that I ever wrote any article that was at all suitable to any paper.

On the contrary, I think I became sort of a comic success by contrast.  I have a notion that the real advice I could give to a young journalist, now that I am myself an old journalist, is simply this: to write an article for the Sporting Times and another for the Church Times, and put them into the wrong envelopes . . .

G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, Chapter 8

 

Of course, Chesterton’s success derived from more than this – it didn’t hurt that he was brilliant and that he could separate what was true from what was false.  We don’t know the names of all the advice-givers that talked to Chesterton, but now it’s Chesterton’s voice and not theirs that thunders down through the years, becoming more popular with each passing year.  (And I’m not saying I’m like Chesterton either; I’m smart enough to know when others are light years ahead of me.)

So anyway, I’ve learned that a blogger is often more than a blogger; they’re often also salespeople, who are thinking (more than you’d ever know) about their target audience.  I understand this; after doing the work of writing an article or an essay and choosing pretty photographs or whatever, it’s natural to want a reader.  And having access to statistics heightens this preoccupation.  In the short time that I’ve had access to statistics, I’ve been mesmerized by them too.  These statistics are fascinating, and they are as powerful as any other addiction, because they seem to quantify, with charts and numbers, how interesting or appreciated you are.

Accordingly, between the time of beginning this article and finishing it, I have asked EfficientOne to hide the statistics for MinedGems somewhere where I can’t find them.   The deal is that I have to deliberately request to see them, and he’ll reveal them, but I won’t ask for them often, if at all.  I know that I can’t trust myself to have easy access to them and not peek.  Like any addiction, you’re only in control when you start; after that, you find yourself drawn like a moth to the flame.  So I asked him to put them up on a high shelf out of reach for me.  A few moments later, he emailed me: “Please try now.”  So I went to the Dashboard and attempted to check my stats.  Guess what?  I couldn’t find them.

Post 26

Damaged Goods:
Reflections on the Four Ways Language has Deteriorated in the Modern Culture

If every language is shaped by the culture that uses it, then it would be bad news for English and other languages if we are living in a “culture of death,” as Pope John Paul II named it in Evangelium Vitae.  A culture of death will do damage to whatever is true, good and beautiful already existing in that culture.  One asset and expression of a culture is its language.  In the language we will find the heritage and history of that culture.

Every culture has a ‘voice,’ a way that it sounds.  My premise is that the modern voice is irreverent, disrespectful, lewd and inexact.  And, speaking of inexact, I’m aware that generalizations are always sensational, as Chesterton says.  For everything that I say, there are many exceptions.  But here I go anyway.

Irreverent

The other day I read, “The Lord’s Prayer is the most perfect of all prayers . . . This prayer teaches us not only to ask for things, but also in what order we should desire them” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, as quoted in Navarre Bible, Commentary on Matt. 6: 1-18).  I don’t think I had come across that idea of the sequence of this prayer being important before, but here it is, and it’s St. Thomas Aquinas.  So, in the pole position is the request is that God’s name be respected as holy: “hallowed be thy name.” That’s just like the Commandment to not use God’s name without reason: “Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain.”

Previously (recently, even), in keeping with our culture’s Judeo-Christian roots, nobody mentioned God or Jesus in an offhand and unconscious manner.  To do so was in extremely bad taste.  A whole pile of substitute expressions (which now seem quaint), like ‘Jeepers Creepers’ and ‘Jiminy Crickets’ and ‘Holy Cow’ were coined expressly to avoid saying what should and could not be said.   But when things started to change, they changed almost overnight, and “Oh my God” entered the world of prime time television, to be imitated by families.   Nowadays, even children will text “OMG!”

I know that those who use this expression are not trying to be irreverent, and it must seem extreme to argue that this ‘ordinary’ expression is so problematic, but if I could change one thing about our current culture’s use of language, I would change this.  Even if we deny that there is a God who requires our respect, then let us at least be polite to those around us who are trying to practice their religion, and not pointlessly do what is expressly forbidden by the Jewish and Christian faiths.  Consider that in the Jewish faith, God’s name is never even spoken.  The Catholic documents respect this and will use the unpronounceable designation “YHWH.”  Yet the modern culture, instead of simply avoiding or ignoring God’s name, uses it all the time, but only in the way which is expressly prohibited!  Sadly, we use our gift of language and the tools that we have in order to offend him.  Chesterton describes one of his poems which “conceived the scoffer as begging God to give him eyes and lips and a tongue that he might mock the giver of them.”  (Autobiography, Chapter 4)

Disrespectful

And speaking of politeness, the modern discourse has become noticeably ruder. EquitableOne points out that the format of internet discussions – you cannot see the face of the other – can create a situation in which ill-intent is presumed where it doesn’t exist, and the hostility escalates.  The anonymity provided by the internet has an impact, in the same way that normally-considerate people will behave rudely when driving.  In any case, if you go to the comment section of an online newspaper article or a popular YouTube video, then you don’t have to scroll down very far before you’ll find examples of extremely hostile and vulgar language.  But even outside the internet, in the approach of newspaper editorials and popular radio commentators, there is a marked coarsening of speech.  The less-educated tend to use the blunt instruments (expletives, profanities and one-word attacks, such as ‘srsly?’) to attack the people and ideas that they dislike, whereas the educated pride themselves on the cleverness of their sharper tools (sarcasm, sneering and belittling).  This second group is more articulate, but nevertheless usually still avoids the heart of the argument and instead ‘scores points’ by quibbling about details and discrediting their opponent.  SincereOne says that the combative style is a way of drawing attention to the speaker and increasing the number of viewers, who are always interested in a fight.  Chesterton observed that genuine argument was becoming rarer – how much more so today!  Even our humour has changed.  “It is striking, for example, to see how humor in the media is less and less the humor of tenderness and compassion, and is instead the humor of derision.” (Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom, Chapter 1).

Lewd

Previous generations were flesh and blood too, and had all the same natural impulses that we have today, but they did not have a one-track mind, or speak as if they did.  It was considered in bad taste to speak of such things casually, and the written language reflected this.  But nowadays even when you go to pay for your groceries, you’ll see that the text on the front of the magazines is about as explicit as could be – or so it seems.  With each passing month, the magazines go a step further, competing for readers who do not protest as everything goes to the next level.  The music industry offers us a cornucopia of new slang words, but they’re all about the same thing: money, drugs and human anatomy.   And since a person’s willingness to use vulgar words is taken as a sign of virility, candour and creative wit, some of these slang words enter the mainstream and degrade the language a little further.  Even the government jumps on board, to show how ‘culturally relevant’ it is too.  The billboard campaign, “Crotches kill,” aims to dissuade people from looking at their phones while driving, and the public library’s tote bags proclaim: “Library lovers never go to bed alone.”  Chesterton wrote that in the pagan era, every “innocent and natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex:”

What had happened to the human imagination, as a whole, was that the whole world was coloured by dangerous and rapidly deteriorating passions; by natural passions becoming unnatural passions.  Thus the effect of treating sex as only one innocent natural thing was that every other innocent natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex.  For sex cannot be admitted to a mere equality among elementary emotions or experiences like eating and sleeping.  The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant.  There is something dangerous and disproportionate in its place in human nature, for whatever reason; and it does really need a special purification and dedication.  The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology . . .

– G.K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi, Chapter Two

St. Josemaria Escriva advises:

Never talk of impure things or events, not even to deplore them.  Look, it’s a subject that sticks more than tar.  Change the conversation, or if that’s not possible, continue, but speaking of the need and beauty of holy purity – a virtue of the men who know what their souls are worth.

The Way, no. 131

How lovely it would be, if as a society, we could “change the conversation”!  After all, in the encyclical, Pope John Paul II wrote, “The trivialization of sexuality is among the principal factors which have led to contempt for new life.”

Inexact

It used to be that the written language was written, and not typed.  The slower speed meant that more thought and effort inevitably went into the process.  And since language is expressed thought, more thought can be only a good thing.  Now we write, but we don’t think as much, or as well.  We grab the first convenient word that roughly represents what we mean, and we hit ‘send.’

Chesterton writes that every technological improvement has its disadvantages:

Thus, I would say, having even then a tendency to moralise along such lines, every mechanical improvement brings a new problem with it.  I do not demand faith in the fable, but I have not been discouraged in the moral, by seeing motoring lead to massacre, aviation destroy cities and machines increase unemployment.

G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, Chapter 5

In the case of Facebook, texting, tweeting, and even email, there has been a huge cost in terms of our language.  We have dumbed down our language tremendously, by reusing the same simple words so often.  It’s a heavy price to pay for the speed and efficiency that we idolize so much.  We’ve gone from precise, well-chosen words to mass-produced language that is one-size-fits-all.  We’ve forgotten how it feels to search for and find that perfect word, because we don’t do it anymore; we can’t be bothered.  It’s all about getting that message sent fast.  We’ve consequently lost so many words, and with them, the ideas that they represented.

When you consider the popular phrases in our culture, you can see the dumbing down effect quite clearly: “It’s not about you,” “get with it,” “new normal,” “my bad,” “he’s not that into you,” “get out of here!”  These phrases catch on because they’re easy and fast, and we start using them without even realizing it.  One blogger speculated that bloggers aren’t to blame, as much as Facebook users, for the deterioration of the English language because “bloggers are usually really into writing.”  I missed her meaning initially, so I went back to examine the sentence.  The use of the preposition ‘into’ here – is it the verb? – is another example of the increasing vagueness.  I’m not saying that it’s sinful to use these phrases, of course, and they can serve a different purpose, but certainly, it’s not an improvement in the English language.   Indeed, if you were to try to translate these phrases into another language, you’d find that they are conveying more of a mood than a precise idea.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s that unclarity that comes from the use of jargon.    Chesterton mentioned how Churchill was very clear when talking about something trivial, but if the subject “had been a sensible question about a super-tax, he would have adopted, however genially, a fencing sort of swordsmanship . . . he was very public, as public men go; but they all seem to become hazier as they mount higher.  It is the young and unknown who have decisive doctrines and sharply declared intentions.  (Autobiography, Chapter 5) And indeed, hazy language is used to hide the truth.  One thing I love about Catholicism is that you can always find out exactly what the Church’s position is on important issues; the words may be difficult, but they are precise – almost scientifically so.

Jargon, on the other hand, is maddening.  Give me any day the unintentional misspellings or grammatical errors that we all make rather than this intentional confusion!  There are so many important but meaningless ‘catch phrases’ which are intended to give you the impression that serious work and thought are happening, but you are not more informed by the time you finish deciphering their code.  Here’s an excerpt from a Canadian (Manitoba) document which attempts to describe what students will learn in ‘Language Arts’: “Combine Ideas (1.2.3.): Structure and restructure ideas to extend current understanding and to broaden personal perspectives of the world.”  What?  Or how about this: “Express Preferences (1.1.4): Discuss with peers preferences for texts (including books) and genres by particular writers, artists, storytellers, and filmmakers.”  (The fact that they must mention that Language Arts will include books – or, to be more exact, a chat about which books the student liked – is particularly telling.)   In any case, jargon is maddening and suspicious, and just another way of saying ‘blah blah blah.’  Matthew Arnold, English essayist and poet said: “Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can.  That is the only secret of style.” 

Conclusion

“Walk as children of light … and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph 5:8, 10-11). In our present social context, marked by a dramatic struggle between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death”, there is need to develop a deep critical sense, capable of discerning true values and authentic needs.

Evangelium Vitae (March 25, 1995)

In sum, any language is a treasure, but it’s not the kind of thing you can put into a museum.  It’s like a mist or a cloud that follows us around, and it adapts.  When we pollute our culture, the language deteriorates. In turn, we breathe the atmosphere that we’ve created – we hear our own ‘voice’ in our ears and it affects us too, causing a further change in us.

I have found it discouraging to observe the English language lose its beauty, and to shrink in its collection of words (words represent truths, and with the loss of words, we lose valuable pieces of truth) and so naturally I looked around: “Who or what will rescue our language?  What will prevent the further degradation which seems inevitable?”  And initially, I thought I found the answer: in my experience of those who have immigrated to Canada, and in my very limited interactions with non-native speakers in foreign countries, I found language that was not encumbered by these negative traits.  But now I am told, and I concede, that the problem is more complicated than that, as other nations unfortunately face the same struggles that we face.  “With men this is impossible . . .” (Matt. 19:26)

So I turned to the Church’s encyclical which started the phrase “culture of death” in the first place (Evangelium Vitae).  I looked for the message of hope, and of course, it was there – in abundance, and the very last few words of the whole encyclical talk of “resolutely” building, “together with all people of good will, the civilization of truth and love, to the praise and glory of God, the Creator and lover of life.”

The civilization of truth and love will be a beautiful one.  And this passage indicates that anything that is done by “people of good will” in order to live good and upright lives will have the effect of building up such a civilization.  And from that civilization will flow all the proofs of health, including language (and art and music and so on) which is noble and dignified.

In the midst of all this thinking about language, I had managed to forget that another name for Jesus is “the Word:”

“Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

                                Revelations 21:5

Post 25

Until Next Time?
Reflections on Connections in a Fast-Paced World

On a recent trip, I was waiting in a subway station.  It wasn’t clear whether the last train had already come and gone, so we strangers started talking with each other to try to figure out what was going on.  I met a woman from China who was travelling alone, having taken a very brief side-trip once the business part of her travels was done.

How is it that with some people you just instantly get along?  It’s as plain as day, and it’s there in the body language – an instant sympathy in the eyes, the smile.  There’s ease and empathy.  One time WiseOne was talking about being able to feel what another person is thinking without even looking, and she described the sensation as feeling like waves, which struck me as an interesting choice of words.  So I don’t know exactly what it is, whether it’s something visual or if it’s something we sense with ‘a sixth sense,’ (i.e. our souls?) but the point is that on first meeting some people, you sense that here’s someone you’d have a blast getting to know better.  I don’t think that first impressions are everything, but I agree with Chesterton when he says that we rely on such instincts in human relationships as our primary way of assessing each other, more than, for example, paperwork or other ways of knowing.  I’ve always maintained, for example, that a job interview is basically usually about whether the employer likes you or not.

In any case, the subway woman and I both knew that any conversation would be the last we’d ever see of each other.  And sure enough, within ten minutes, the train had arrived, we boarded and then it was my stop and I was leaving.  We pleasantly said “goodbye,” a word which had to signify any and all of the sentiments that we might have had at that moment (English seems so impoverished in the parting wishes department, at least nowadays), and I stepped off the subway.  At the last second, I turned back to see her and she was watching me too.

It’s enough to make a person want to weep.

Tell me, what kind of life is this that we always have to say goodbye to people without properly getting to know them?

I know, I know: “We should accept things as they are.  Life is good and beautiful just as it is, including its burden of suffering.” (Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom).

But still!  Our interactions on earth are so fleeting and incomplete!

Even when we’re not on a vacation an ocean away from home, the circumstances aren’t always favorable to really talking.  When we see each other at large gatherings, for example, these are often unsatisfying, because everything almost always stays on a superficial level, and you leave feeling that you’ve spoken to so many people but haven’t had a proper conversation with anyone:

What dullness there is in our life arises mostly from its rapidity: people pass us too quickly to show us their interesting side. By the end of the week we have talked to a hundred bores; whereas, if we had stuck to one of them, we might have found ourselves talking to a new friend, or a humourist, or a murderer, or a man who had seen a ghost.

– G.K. Chesterton, “The Inside of Life”

I suppose some people love such an environment, where things never go beyond small talk, and where you never get to know what the other really thinks.  But for the rest of us, it’s just an appetizer, not a proper meal.  I treasure this description:

Again, the surprised expression crossed his face.  He had not imagined that a woman would dare to speak so to a man.  For me, I felt at home in this sort of discourse.  I could never rest in communication with strong, discreet, and refined minds, whether male or female, till I had passed the outworks of conventional reserve, and crossed the threshold of confidence, and won a place by their heart’s very hearthstone.

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, Chapter 22

And then there are so many people whom you can see only occasionally, for various reasons.  You have, as usual, a wonderful time with them, and you hope that next time the visit will be after a shorter interval, and yet – and yet, life goes by so quickly; it’s so full (Chesterton says in the same article, “Life is too large for us as it is: we have all too many things to attend to”). Couldn’t we just hit the ‘pause’ button and finish all those conversations?  Instead, the time inevitably comes when we must smile outwardly while we say goodbye again.

Or what about the project that’s ended?  When some projects end, the participants scatter for good, never to be in the same room all together again.  It would be pleasant to build some tents, as St. Peter suggested, or have some tea, as Chesterton’s poet-friend Edmund Clerihew Bentley wrote (“We could have had a pleasant afternoon”) but instead, it’s another farewell because life must march on.

And even in the best case scenario, where you have frequent and more leisurely chances to catch up with the people you want to talk to, isn’t it the case that there’s not even enough time to be with one person properly?  There’s always so much to talk about; so much has happened – so many emotions, so many thoughts.  And of course, the more you see of someone, the more attuned you become to the drama of their lives – now you want to hear how such-and-such turned out, and what they thought of it.  But even while the conversation takes place, the clock is ticking and other obligations are becoming more pressing.  It’s time to move along, again.

I can’t believe there’s no eternity, for many reasons, and one reason has to do with the way people themselves are so eternal.  They are so big and complicated, with whole landscapes inside them. Are we to meet so many wonderful, captivating people and yet have this little time to be with them? And what about all those kindred spirits that we don’t meet?  No, it couldn’t be – we have eternity written into the very fibre of our being: there must be more.

In other words, the limits and restrictions associated with living for a certain amount of time in a certain circumstance, do not seem to fit with the infinite desires of the human heart.  It’s almost as if this plane of existence doesn’t match who we are.  Animals fit like a glove with the natural world, but for us, it’s not enough.  We want all of everything and then we’re still looking for the missing piece.  Unlike the animals, we aren’t easily contented; we’re restless, as St. Augustine says.  We’re so much more perverse and complicated and extremely good and bad than the animals, because we’re more than simply natural beings – we’re supernatural.

At a recent funeral that I attended, the son spoke about his mother and said, “We’re not a religious family, but I know that I’m going to see her again; I don’t know how and I don’t know where . . .”  How I agree with this sentiment, this instinct!

Is it wishful thinking? If it is wishful thinking, it’s a very particular kind of wish, which I think is interesting in itself.  And if it is wishful thinking, it’s a kind of thinking which has been validated, or at least expressed, by many religions throughout the ages, including Catholicism, which is most definitely not a religion of wishful thinking, containing, as it does, many difficult teachings, including the necessity of embracing the cross.

Christianity teaches that the human instinct of an afterlife is correct and that there will be a time when we will have more time – lots of it, and the nature of this extra time is dependent on how we use our earthly batch of time.  It also teaches that our connection with each other surpasses all the bounds of space and time, and that even death does not separate us from other people, provided that we are with God.   One aspect of the doctrine on the communion of the saints refers to our spiritual connection with each other, including those who are already with God (or, in the case of purgatory, preparing to be with God).   And another aspect refers to the ability of saints to ask God for things on our behalf.   Amazingly, in his goodness God has arranged things so that we can ask the saints to intercede for us, and he arranges things so that we will often be able to notice that our prayers have been answered.  It’s like supernatural Skyping.

There are so many saints, and there are so many requests.  It would be neat to see a tally of which saints got the most requests.  In Our Lady of Victories Basilica in Paris, one of the amazing things is that the walls are covered with marble plaques, over 37,000 of them.  But they aren’t requests – they’re thank-you notes for fulfilled requests, usually to Our Lady of Victories, but some express gratitude to other saints.

Most Catholics know about praying to St. Anthony (of Padua) when you lose something.  One priest, whose mind is practical and theological-philosophicalish, gently pointed out that the parking spots that I had been praying to St. Anthony to find for me weren’t technically lost, as in misplaced, which is true, but the prayers did work.  And another priest mentioned that whenever he needs a parking spot, he asks St. Josemaria Escriva.  He said it’s never failed, even in Toronto.

And speaking of miracles, is it the case that those who believe in them are somehow less realistic, and less aware of how things ‘really work’?  On the contrary, a belief in miracles is predicated on the fact that you are grounded in reality.  Even a child learns pretty fast all the patterns of life, and the predictability of certain outcomes.  We all learn life’s familiar tune, day after day, of what you can expect in different situations.  So when a miracle happens, the normal melody kind of skips into a different key, and you say, “Hey, wait a minute – those aren’t the notes that I was expecting!”  It’s usually subtle enough that you can argue around it, but it’s there.

In any case, these little or big miracles are favours which strengthen our affection for these saints, who, after all, are real people.  These miracles are a saint’s way of showing their care for us.  It also serves to remind us of how real and active they still are.  When you look at an image of a saint, now all frozen into a statue or a stained-glass window, it’s easy to forget that these people are now even more alive than they were while on earth.

And the big or little miracles that happen when others pray for you also strengthen our affection for each other.  (And speaking of waves, I once had many people praying for me and the weird thing was that it was actually tangible, which I did not expect; it felt like a powerful wave sweeping in.)  This leads me to consider the interesting fact that Christianity firmly believes in our ability to genuinely care for someone whom we’ve only briefly met, or even never met, who is still on earth or in heaven.  And it’s not a matter only of admitting of its possibility, but also of encouraging it. With respect to those in heaven, the Church invites us to disregard the apparent immovable barriers of space and time and says that we can ask for the help of the saints at any time.  And with respect to those on earth, we are encouraged to pray for each other (even if a subway conversation was the beginning and the end of our acquaintance).

And when it’s our turn to cross over into the next life, we’ll still be who we are now – same soul, same body (just shined up a bit), with an eternity to enjoy God and – finally – each other.

Post 24

Got Talent? Reflections on the Imbalance in Talents

I once watched as two housecleaners disagreed about vacuum cleaners.  One said Miele was better but the other said Dyson was better.  They went back and forth, each bringing forth an anecdote to prove that her own vacuum was superior, but neither convinced the other.  Then the Miele advocate stopped, because she knew that if it went any further, it would get ugly.

Nowadays, you can kind of get away with saying that one product is better than another, or that such-and-such a band or reality television show is better than another.

But when it comes to the really important things, like religion and belief systems, well, you can’t even get started.  These topics are off limits, verboten.  It’s an unstated rule that anybody who knows anything must not speak of such things, and we cordon them off: beyond this line, you must not go.  We can discuss anything else under the sun except the things that really matter.  So long as it doesn’t matter, we can talk about it.  That’s why nowadays we can talk in a casual manner about every aspect of human sexuality, because we’ve pushed it into the category of things that don’t matter.  The only things you’re allowed to be earnest about are the trivial things.  About the serious things, you can only joke.

But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy.  This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period.  General theories are everywhere condemned; the doctrine of the Rights of Man is dismissed with the doctrine of the Fall of Man.  Atheism itself is too theological for us to-day . . . we will have no generalizations.  Mr. Bernard Shaw has put the view in a perfect epigram: ‘The golden rule is that there is no golden rule.’ We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature.  A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter.  He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost.  Everything matters – except everything.

– G.K. Chesteron, Heretics, Chapter 1

It’s partly because of relativism.  The dominant assumption is that truth depends on your point of view, and that, in general, all religions and belief systems are pretty much equal.  It’s a flattening out of everything, in a false equality.  You can’t say that one idea or set of ideas is better than another.  Use the word ‘better’ at your own risk!  After all, those who utter this word prove that they are judgmental, arrogant and, of course, wrong.

And then this spills over into other areas, where we are afraid to say that one student is better than another student (hence the assigning of grades is now considered damaging and outdated), and we of course can’t say that one person is more talented than another person, except in the context of a TV contest.  If you were to say that, then you’d be quickly corrected.  Someone will point out:  “Ah, but everyone’s good at something; everyone has their special talent!”

Is everyone good at something?  Does everyone have that special talent?  Are we all kind of the same that way?  You’ve got your thing, and I’ve got my thing?

I don’t really think so (even though I think that many people are a lot more talented than they realize) and for a long time, I’ve disagreed – secretly of course – that things are so neat and tidy like that.

The whole issue of talents seems to me way more messy and complicated.  Indeed, from what I can tell, talents are like almost anything else on this side of heaven: distributed very unevenly, like fresh water or any other natural thing.  Some people have a lot, and others don’t.

I mean, you don’t have to know much history to know that there were some people who were head-and-shoulders above their contemporaries.  And when we consider the people that we’ve met in our own lives, it’s easy to bring to mind individuals who are incredibly gifted.  These individuals could barely choose a profession because their gifts were so diverse.  Shall I pursue a career as a physician or as a concert pianist?  Physical engineering or ballet?  Go to any medical school or law school and you’ll find that many of the students are also athletic, attractive and really likeable.  And JustOne and I have on occasion talked about how, on the whole, the stereotype about the unintelligent athlete is inaccurate (after all, outward health, beauty and ability can signal inward health and mental balance). But in any case, these talented people have so much of everything, they’re almost unbelievable – except, they are real, and we’ve met them.

Turning to the other end of the spectrum, to those who, from birth or from later in life, have suffered with various disabilities or who seem generally less talented, it is futile for me to argue that they do not have at least one special talent (it’s always impossible to argue definitively against the existence of something; I don’t know how atheists can be so sure).  After all, we can redefine ‘talent’ to include latent talent, hidden talent, unused talent, undeveloped talent, compromised talent, damaged talent, area of strength, area of interest, so that the statement continues to be true, but my point is that the saying emphasizes and suggests sameness, when the reality is difference.  The reality is that the distribution looks pretty much haphazard, and, to be frank, unfair: one person can do so much so well, and another person can barely do one thing to the level of his peers.

When we deny the differences, when we flatten them out and pretend they’re insignificant, we do not tell the truth about those people who have been blessed with superabundant talent.  And conversely, when we deny the differences, we do not tell the truth about those people who started out with very few, or no, visible talents.  Does every biography begin the same way?  Does every story of a saint’s life begin by identifying the person’s primary talent and then build from there?  Of course not.  There are those saints like Pope John Paul II who were multi-talented, but then there are saints like St. Joseph Cupertino who were not.  Everyone is given very different internal and external components from conception.  God’s talent, so to speak, is in raising up saints from every starting point.  The apostles’ ordinariness, for example, is an essential part of the New Testament narrative for many reasons, including the fact that it shows how we can be completely transformed when we follow God’s plan for our lives.  A genuine relationship with God will always involve “total regeneration.  His spirit is too new, too vigorous, to be forced into old moulds, which are ceasing to be the proper ones.”  (Navarre Bible, Commentary on Matt. 9:14-17)

But the other thing that I dislike about this idea of equality of talent is that it seems to carry within it the notion that people should have (at least) one talent.  I think it over-values talent, and it’s a way of saying that everybody is special because they’re equally talented.  You have a special talent, and I have one, therefore you’re special and I’m special.  The idea is that everyone brings something to the table, everyone is contributing something.  On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like a negative, but I think it’s an unfortunate mix-up.

It’s a mix-up that our modern society would tend to make, because we do value people based on their abilities and usefulness.  It’s becoming dangerous in our society to be seen as not productive.  The disabled, the elderly, the unborn, the unemployed, are vulnerable in a society that measures you by what you can do and by what you have, materially and otherwise, instead of by what you are.  And this is becoming increasingly the case. (Hence it’s not considered a bad thing to be busy, because that means you’re part of the game.)  People are more and more being evaluated for their functionality and features, as if they were vacuum cleaners.  It’s no wonder then that we rush to say everyone’s got their gift.

And furthermore, it’s a mix-up that our modern society tends to make, which is to say something false because we so badly want to say something good and true.  We say something stupid, like men and women are the same, because we want to say men and women are equal.  It’s true that they are equal, but it’s not because they are the same.  There is equality even where there is difference.

After all, if two things are not different, then it’s a piece of cake, to say that they are equal.  Being somewhat lazy, then, we keep looking at things that are obviously different and saying, ‘these are the same’ because then we can just move to the desired conclusion, and say they’re of equal value or worth.  It’s back to the fear of saying that something is better than something else.

That’s why the teaching of the church is startling.  The church teaches that the equality of persons persists despite the differences.  A slave is equal to his master.  A woman is equal to a man.  A child is equal to an adult.  An unborn child is equal to a born child.

If there were no differences, then it wouldn’t be so shocking to say these different people are equal.  And it is shocking.  The Church always sounds shocking in what she teaches, because the teachings are not in accord with the current fashions of thought. In one era of human history, people did not see that a slave was equal to a master, and so we scorn the blindness of that era.  Do we acknowledge how Christianity enabled that thought process to take place?  Meanwhile, in our current age, it seems outrageous to claim, as the Church does, that the unborn child over here is equal to that child prodigy over there.  It seems outrageous to claim, as the Church does, that the old woman with a feeding tube over here is equal to the Hollywood darling over there.  We have our modern blindness.

The Church’s claim brings our attention to something deeper.  How can these people be equal if they are superficially so different?  How can that promising, well-rounded Rhodes Scholar be considered of the same worth as the unemployed beggar who sits near the bank machines?  Aside from the fact that life can amazingly change the one into the other, the Church will answer that it’s because their equality arises from something more profound than their external circumstances or even their different internal qualities.

And here’s the crux of it.  Our abilities are, at the end of the day, just something that we have, not who we are.  Our talents are always in flux, waxing and waning as we journey through life.  They are subject to all the limitations of our human bodies and can be irreversibly lost to us when we cross the street at the wrong moment.  No, this is not the source of our value.  These things can be as different as day and night, and we remain utterly equal to each other.

It doesn’t matter that there is incredible disparity and inequality in the raw materials of our lives, because our equality arises from our equal dignity as human beings.  That’s what we are: human, with body and soul, no more, no less, and that’s enough.  It’s nothing shocking or scandalous to point out all the ways that we’re different, and we can even celebrate these differences, provided that we keep in mind that we are nevertheless completely equal because we have equal dignity.

The biblical parable about the talents illustrates how different we are in what we’ve been given, but it also shows that the call or invitation is the same to each of us: to serve our master with purity of intention and to the best of our ability.  This call does not depend on how ‘good’ or ‘great’ we are. “When God calls us, he does not expect us to have great qualities; he wants us to listen carefully, and to be prompt in our response” (Navarre Bible, Commentary on Matthew 9:9-13

Post 23

Looking Forward to It:
Reflections on Anticipation, Ambition and the Big Dream

It’s so natural for us to look ahead into the future, seeking happiness just beyond the horizon.  I came across this:

The Beatitudes are a map of the route to human happiness, and one reason they are such a good one is that they express the dual desire that God has written on the human heart – to attain true happiness on earth and eternal bliss.

Navarre Bible, Commentary on Matt. 5:1-12

The essential teachings of Christianity aren’t given to us in order for us to have a miserable life on earth followed by a sublime afterlife.  No – they show us the (counter-intuitive) method of how to be happy both on earth and in the life beyond.  The quotation says that it’s God who has “written on the human heart” the desire to be happy, both on earth and after death.  God therefore gives us the tools to attain abiding happiness in our everyday lives.

Lately I’ve been thinking about this human inclination to look forward – indeed, if you don’t look forward to anything, it can be a sign of depression or other dysfunction – and specifically to the differences between anticipation, ambition and dreams.

Anticipation is when you look ahead to something you’re pretty sure that you’re going to get.  You might not know exactly how it’s going to play out, but you figure it’s going to happen, and you’re going to like it.  From a spiritual point of view, there’s nothing wrong with anticipation, as Fr. Jacques Phillipe writes, provided that you can still accept the graces of today:

Sometimes, though, it isn’t worry that causes us to focus on the future, but the hope of something better or happier.  It may be a very specific event, like a reunion with someone we love or coming home after a long, tiring journey.  Or it may be less well-defined: the time when things will go better, circumstances will change, life will be more interesting.  At present, we tell ourselves, we don’t really have a life, but later we will ‘live life to the full.’  There is nothing wrong with that, but it does contain a certain danger.  We may spend our whole lives waiting to live.  Thus we risk not fully accepting the reality of our present lives.  Yet, what guarantee is there that we won’t be disappointed when the long-awaited time arrives?  Meanwhile, we don’t put our hearts sufficiently into today, and so miss graces we should be receiving.  Let us live each moment to the full, not worrying about whether time is going quickly or slowly but welcoming everything given us moment by moment.

Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom, Chapter 2

Then there are ambitions.

An ambition is further down that continuum of likelihood.  Unlike the objects of anticipation, the passing of time does not guarantee that you’ll fulfill your ambition.  Nevertheless, ambitions are, for the most part, attainable and rather concrete.  Here, the attainment of our goal seems to depend very much on how we play our cards and there’s a strong sense of ‘earning’ when it comes to our ambitions.  Do x, y and z with the right amount of effort and in the right amount of time and you stand a good chance of getting what you want.  St. Josemaria Escriva encourages us to have a healthy dose of ambition, and he’s not speaking only of ambition for heaven.

He emphasizes that we gain credibility by our reputation for good work in our field.  He says we are supposed to do natural things, like work, with a supernatural motive.  It’s part of being a good Christian: you have to put your heart into what you do.  St. Josemaria even laments those who view themselves as holy while doing shoddy work.

And then there are dreams.

A dream is a mixture of the attainable and unattainable.  It’s a dream because it’s out of reach for you right now in some significant way.  You lack the necessary mix of circumstances to get what you want.  Waiting, in and of itself, won’t bring about your dream, and there’s a lot less that you can control to make it happen.  The notion of ‘earning’ isn’t as strong, because so much of it is not within your power.  It’s more like a prayer answered, a wish granted.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a young man who made his living as a rickshaw driver.  He pedalled tourists around using an electrically-powered bicycle.   He said, “Sleep is death,” – obviously an ambitious fellow.  But I was curious – with that amount of drive, he must be heading somewhere.  So I asked him what his life’s dream was (first time I asked a stranger that).

Chesterton says we tell the most important things to the complete stranger, since in them we see unadulterated Man.

The rickshaw driver told me that his dream was to design a certain type of app, which he would then market.

You usually would never guess what a person’s dreams are because their current line of work gives you no hint.  I can think of several instances in just the last little while, where people have mentioned – without my asking – what their dream jobs would be, or would have been: the dental hygienist told me she had dreamed of being a forensic scientist, the lawn care worker told me he would like to support himself as an actor, and my friend told me that her engineer husband always wanted to be an artist.  (Probably the most popular hidden dreams relate to the less ‘practical’ pursuits.)

I was surprised that St. Josemaria Escriva commented about the big dream, about the kind of forward-looking which gropes for the unattainable.  But why not?  Dreams are an important part of the human condition. We aren’t dogs on a couch who think only of our next meal – we so easily begin to think of more; we yearn.  Even the ‘couch potato,’ outwardly idle, has his idea of the dream career – he watches sports imagining himself as one of the athletes, or at least as the commentator.

Anyway, it was this quotation that stopped me in my tracks:

Persevere in the exact fulfillment of the obligations of the moment.  That work – humble, monotonous, small – is prayer expressed in action that prepares you to receive the grace of the other work – great and wide and deep – of which you dream.

The Way, no. 825

I find this fascinating.  Does it suggest, counter-intuitively, that the faithfulness of the rickshaw driver to his bicycling duties will ready him for making and marketing his app?  Indeed, it says that the critical preparation for “the other work” can be accomplished in the context of something which appears utterly at odds with it.

If so, then achieving our dreams isn’t as dependent on all those factors that we first think of, and which we can’t control – our present circumstances and all those external things like knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time. Instead, it’s more like a mysterious underground seed, waiting for certain conditions.

St. Josemaria Escriva is saying that fulfilling our dream depends on what is internal and invisible.  We need to make ourselves ready, by continuing in our duties of the moment with the right motives.  And this behaviour will, according to this quotation, have two effects: first, it will change us inwardly to make us better suited for our dream work, and second, it will act as a prayer, a request for the grace of “the other work – great and wide and deep – of which you dream.”

And I see that this has the passive elements of anticipation, where you must wait patiently, but also the active elements of ambition, where you must work with diligence and precision.   Ultimately, though, it’s still a gift, a grace.

Post 22

My Pizza is Ruined! Reflections on the Small Battles

So let’s say you order a pizza.  You’re not a vegetarian, so you’ve gotten the one with the bacon.  You’ve paid the pizza delivery man, opened the box, and it hits you: they’ve left off the bacon.  Just completely omitted it, as if you didn’t make it abundantly clear when you placed your order. And, as if that isn’t enough, they’ve added insult to injury, and covered the pizza with green peppers that you didn’t even order.  What’s going on?  Didn’t they hear you?  Did the pizza place do this on purpose to save money?  That boy who took the order didn’t seem like he knew what he was doing, and here’s the proof!  Should you send it back and wait another forty minutes? This is terrible!  What are you supposed to do now – pick out each string of green pepper?  The indignity!  The outrage!

Is this an important moment?  Or is it just ‘small stuff?’  We’re supposed to stay cool and collected and laugh it off as the trivial moment that it is.  In the big picture, it’s nothing, so why are you so worked up about it?

I like what Chesterton says about “the little things.” When one character says, “I do not know that I would make away with courtesy, but only with all these small points of politeness, all these little things,” the hero of the story disagrees utterly:

JOHNSON: [interrupting with a roar]: Madam, that is all stuff. Reason will tell any one but a fool to attend to little things. The bullet that kills a man is a little thing. The pill that saves his life is a little thing. It is by his consciousness of little things that a man proves himself to be properly alive. He who is proud of being unaware of his surroundings, be he a sage of the east or the west, is proud of being a stock or a stone. A turnip is unaware of its surroundings.

— G.K. Chesterton, The Judgment of Dr. Johnston

I’m glad there are books and speakers who will encourage us to rise above occasions of frustration, but I differ in my characterizations of these tiny frustrations.  I’d say they’re the opposite of ‘small stuff.’  They are big moments, because they’re moments of suffering, and that’s when the real battles happen.

Suffering is when you get what you didn’t want (green peppers), and you didn’t get what you did want (bacon).

Now I know that such a word seems out of place and melodramatic in this hypothetical (I like green pepper, though red pepper is better) context. To say you experience suffering when you didn’t get the right topping sounds, well, a bit much, but isn’t that what it is?  Isn’t that the proper word for all those situations – big or small – where you were unexpectedly deprived of something which you wanted / expected / ‘deserved’ (I really dislike that word) / earned, and were instead given something else which you did not want / expect / deserve?

I don’t think it’s enough to call it a problem, a let-down, a disappointment, a bummer, a rip-off and so on, because those words are really external.  They make it sound like the problem is solely ‘out there.’ You can envision a problem without a person, but when you hear the word ‘suffering’ you know that there has to be a sufferer.  You can envision a crisis without a person, but you can’t think of a cross or a burden without visualizing a person under it.

These heavy-duty words, like ‘suffering,’ ‘mortification,’ ‘burden’ or even ‘cross’ show that the issue is both inside you (the way you wanted things to go) and outside you (the way things went).  We suffer because they don’t match.

And these situations of suffering are tests.  They are actually the battlegrounds where we show what we’re made of.  You are tested to see how you react.  Today I noticed how Matthew says that Christ “was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”  In other words, I see that it was someone good who led him to that place where he’d be tempted.  It wasn’t a bad thing that he was going to be tempted; it was the whole point!  A test is a test, no matter what disguise it wears.  But usually they are pop-quizzes, a test in a moment and about something that you weren’t expecting.  You can’t choose the type of test, the only thing you can control is how you perform now that you’re taking it.  And are you ready?  Are you able to stay pleasant and charitable?  Can you keep your peace?  I bet you probably can maintain your composure when you have friends with you and you don’t want to make a fool of yourself.  And it helps if you’ve had enough sleep and you’re looking forward to a fun evening.  But how about if it’s not friends, and ‘just’ family?  How about if you’re super hungry, tired and still annoyed about what happened at work?  You may not pass this test with flying colours.

But the word ‘suffering’ is useful. It’s a special word signifying a moment in our life where we’re in some turmoil.  It would be a mistake to underestimate how important these situations are simply because the situation wouldn’t ruffle the feathers of an outsider.  If you watch children get into an argument, you’ll see that it usually arises out of something which seems so unimportant to the adults in the room.  For that matter, if you’re ever on the outside of any conflict, it seems like much ado about nothing.  But to come along and say that it is unimportant because it should be unimportant is to altogether miss the human drama that is happening here.

Any situation which causes you to suffer is an important moment.  It’s big stuff, because now you’re being tested.

The saints talk a lot about these moments, and how difficult they are.  They understand what’s at stake, and so they use words like ‘battle,’ ‘struggle,’ ‘fight.’  And indeed it’s the most difficult battle of all, because we’ve met our match when we fight ourselves.

The saints are admirable because they fought themselves day in and day out for the sake of a higher purpose. They kept trying to do the better and more difficult thing; they kept trying to resist their impulse to complain, to criticize, to make that snarky remark, to be lazy – and they resisted these things over and over again.  They are just like us, in that they have all the same urges and weaknesses and temptations.  They are different from us because they tried so valiantly to be the better version of themselves.  They were heroic in their moments of suffering.  And they would totally understand how an objectively tiny thing can be the cause of a lot of suffering, requiring tremendous self-control.  They’re human; they’ve had their pizza moments too.

St. Therese of Lisieux describes how she was in the process of putting away the keys when another sister wrongly tried to take them from her, on the grounds that Therese would be too noisy:

Then what we feared happened.  The noise we made woke you and all the blame fell on me! The sister I had opposed hastened to make quite a speech, the gist of which was: ‘It was Sister Therese of the Child Jesus who made the noise.’ I burned to defend myself, but fortunately I had a bright idea.  I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that if I began to speak up for myself I should lose my peace of soul; I knew too that I was not virtuous enough to let myself be accused without saying a word, my only hope of safety was to run away.  No sooner thought than done: I fled – but my heart beat so violently that I could not go far and I sat down on the stairs to enjoy in peace the fruits of my victory.  It was undoubtedly a queer kind of courage, but I think it is better not to fight when defeat is certain.

— The Autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux: The Story of a Soul, Chapter 9

Many people would say that Therese ‘lost’ because she didn’t contradict her accuser; she didn’t win the argument and then made a fool of herself by running away, kid-style.  (As an aside, Chesterton points out in his biography of St. Francis of Assisi, “It is a curiosity of language that courage actually means running.”) St. Therese knows that she won a big victory in that little incident, and she mentions it for that reason.

I also liked this part:

. . . I see how far I am from being perfect.  If, for example, I settle down to start painting and find the brushes in a mess, or a ruler or a penknife gone, I very nearly lose my patience and have to hold on to it with both hands to prevent my asking bad-temperedly for them.

(I like her description of ‘holding onto her patience with both hands.’)  Every saint can sympathize with the natural feelings that rise up during things like the pizza topping fiasco.  In one case, bacon is missing, in another, the penknife is missing.  Both are instances of suffering, cases where we don’t get what we want, and suddenly unwanted emotions and thoughts rise up in us, and we have to regain control over ourselves in order to do the right thing.  It’s very difficult, but I’ve seen it successfully done.

I remember one time I was watching DiscerningOne when she poked her head in the door to ask her husband for two cloths.  She wanted them to wipe down and dry something in the back yard.  But instead of giving her what she asked for, he told her that she didn’t in fact need what she thought she did.  I could tell that she was trying not to lose her patience as it went back and forth a bit.  But then she agreed to his plan B and gave him a smile.  It wasn’t the best smile that a person could pull off, you can be sure.  It was one of those my-mouth-is-stretched-but-my-eyes-aren’t-buying-into-this kind of smiles.  But it was the best that she could do given how she felt, and that little victory of her better judgment over her natural response impressed me.

The point is that it’s not right to view things like the pizza disappointment as insignificant.  Any moment where we experience suffering is a test of character.  And any test of character is a big deal, a big moment.  The saints call these tests battles, because that’s what they are.  It doesn’t matter what it was that sent you onto this battlefield; the fact is that you’re here now, and you’ve got to do your best.  Indeed, let’s get our game face on, because a battle is a battle, and it’s time to conquer ourselves.

Post 21

Charlie Charlie: Reflections on Summoning a Demon

The Catholic Church, referred to as Mother and Teacher in Catholic documents, is attacked on all sides – it has largely been discredited by the modern secular media and by Hollywood, and then the modern love of scientism has made Christianity seem incompatible with intelligent thought.  And she is attacked from within when she is betrayed by those who are Christian in name but not in conduct.  Beyond all this, however, is the fact that this Mother, like other mothers, requires adherence to certain standards of behaviour, and that’s not very appealing for a world that sees rules about morality as pointless, suffocating and almost offensive.

But even when people are no longer listening to her as an authority on morality and other spiritual matters, they are still attracted to spiritual things.  They just turn their focus from Christian practices to non-Christian ones.

Indeed, nowadays paganism is quite fashionable.  Since we come from a Christian past, what is pagan is unfamiliar, and is utterly romanticized.  It’s glorified as something mysterious and attractive.  (The current trend is to identify a pagan precedent to whatever is Christian – that there are such precedents is not denied – in order to suggest that the pagan religions were better than Christianity, and in order to suggest that Christianity plagiarized other belief systems.)

Details like child-sacrifices and the grotesque self-mutilation that accompanied many of these pagan religions, for example, are not taken into account.  In fact, the whole climate of paganism isn’t understood.  It’s an idealized vision of paganism that is imagined nowadays, where the icky bits are deleted and all the rough edges of those religions are softened by our experience of a world shaped by Christianity.  As Chesterton says, Christianity didn’t invent religious impulses, it regulated them.

Because we haven’t yet dismantled all the effects of Christianity in our society (would this even be possible?), we see things through a Judeo-Christian lens for the most part.  When we envision the pre-Christian societies, it is almost impossible to avoid projecting onto them the Christian-based ethics we’ve inherited, such as ‘do unto others,’ and ‘everyone has equal dignity.’  We erroneously visualize a pagan world that contains a good portion of these ethics. We don’t realize what an incredible difference Christianity made; the Christian values moved humanity great strides away from what is cruel, inhumane and barbaric.  Society’s attitude towards the poor, the sick, the unborn, the infants, the disabled, women, prisoners, refugees, was radically improved.  True, sometimes it’s talk more than practice, but there was a time when the talk wasn’t even there.  Even warfare was changed by the Christian doctrine. We can’t experience the barbarism and cruelty of the pre-Christian world because we haven’t lived in it.

When we look back on history, it’s hard to remember to remove every last modern element.  And it’s always like this, even if we’re trying to think back ten years ago – when things change, you can’t imagine how it was before the change; you can’t go back, even in your imagination, unless you lived then and there. Things were different in so many ways even so recently. Do you know how things went and felt before the internet?  Before the cell phone and the cordless phone?  Before the phone?  And the further you go back, the more foreign it gets.  It’s the same with the pre-Christian times.  They didn’t look and feel at all like how our Christianized cultures feel.  Sure, people are people, but Christianity was a revolution like nothing before or since, and it left such an enormous footprint that we’re living in the contours of it without even realizing it.

But as we move away from Christianity, something has to take its place.  After all, people are spiritual, and most people have an intuition that there’s more to our lives than what meets the eye.  So enter paganism.  It sounds like a good idea to many modern minds; it sounds progressive even.  People sometimes say, “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious.”  With paganism, you’ve got spiritual stuff without any rules!  How convenient!  How entertaining!  And there are variations on paganism – some practices approach occultism.

So one thing that’s becoming increasingly popular are the practices of spiritualism.  Spiritualism encompasses a range of practices, including the use of ouija boards, psychic readings, channelling, séances and so on.  Chesterton says that the increased modern fascination with all these things turned the corner during his lifespan.  In his childhood, barely anybody in his area believed in ghosts, but as he reached middle-age, “great men of science of the first rank claimed to have studied spirits as they might have studied spiders . . . At the time I write, the thing has grown into a considerable religious movement.” 

When they were younger, Gilbert Chesterton and his brother Cecil experimented with “planchette, or what the Americans call the ouija board.”  He writes in his autobiography, “I dabbled in Spiritualism without having even the decision to be a Spiritualist.”  They played with the ouija board as a diversion, asking it questions about various things.

Nowadays, in keeping with our love of convenience and our decreasing literacy, even the ouija board is too much of a hassle and has too many letters, and so yes-no versions of spiritualist practices are more popular.  Charlie Charlie was one of these.  The point is that there’s nothing really new about such games; we’ve just dumbed them down and made them more accessible. Or, for a legal analogy, we’ve gone from examination-in-chief to cross-examination style.

I found four things interesting about Chesterton’s discussion of spiritualism.

In the first place, he defends spiritualism against those who will say that strange occurrences related to these practices are not caused by anything supernatural.  Such people will say that there’s no such thing as the supernatural, and anything that seems odd has a natural and scientific explanation.  Against this, Chesterton’s own experience at the time, recalled in his autobiography at the age of 62, proved to him that something was definitely going on; something beyond the ordinary was taking place:

I saw quite enough of the thing to be able to testify, with complete certainty, that something happens which is not in the ordinary sense natural, or produced by the normal and conscious human will.  Whether it is produced by some subconscious but still human force, or by some powers, good, bad or indifferent, which are external to humanity, I would not myself attempt to decide.

G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography, Chapter 4

And with these words, he is not demonstrating ‘blind faith’ or superstition.  Chesterton relies on, and trusts, his senses – what he has seen with his not-blind eyes – and his own intelligence and reasoning powers, in order to reach the conclusion that what he experienced was not part of the natural order.

And when he considers those people who deny the existence of a positive and real evil, he excuses their naivety:

But when they say, ‘Evil is only relative.  Sin is only negative.  There is no positive badness; it is only the absence of positive goodness’ – then I know that they are talking shallow balderdash only because they are much better men than I; more innocent and more normal and more near to God.

As for himself, he mentions his pride in Catholic beliefs and then says:

But I am not proud of believing in the Devil.  To put it more correctly, I am not proud of knowing the Devil.  I made his acquaintance by my own fault; and followed it up along lines which, had they been followed further, might have led me to devil-worship or the devil knows what.

And with this as his introduction, he begins his discussion of the spiritualism that he experienced in his life.

The second noteworthy thing he says about his communications via planchette, is that it deceives:

The only thing I will say with complete confidence, about that mystic and invisible power, is that it tells lies.  The lies may be larks or they may be lures to the imperilled soul or they may be a thousand other things; but whatever they are, they are not truths about the other world; or for that matter about this world.

Chesterton gives a couple of examples, where his father tested planchette with questions that neither Cecil nor Gilbert would have known the answer to.  The answers that appeared on the board were entirely wrong but also entirely mischievous: Chesterton points out that if they had believed and acted on these lies, serious harm would have resulted.  In one case, when they asked planchette, in a spirit of fun, what advice it would give a certain British politician, the answer had nothing to do with politics: “Divorce.”

And the third thing which I find interesting, is that Chesterton wonders whether his involvement with these practices had something to do with this problematic phase of life, which was characterized by indifference, inertia and detachment.  Chesterton points out that his planchette activities were during “what I may call my period of madness” and during “a period of drifting and doing nothing; in which I could not settle down to any regular work.  I dabbled in a number of things; and some of them may have had something to do with the psychology of the affair.” Did the dabbling in spiritualism contribute to this state of mind?  He cannot say for sure, but wonders:

I have sometimes fancied since that this practice, of the true psychology of which we really know so little, may possibly have contributed towards the disturbed or even diseased state of brooding and idling through which I passed at the time.

And last, Chesterton would undoubtedly agree with the Church’s direction concerning divination and such practices – to avoid them.  He writes that he “would not touch her [planchette] again with a barge pole.”

The Catechism sets out the Catholic Church’s teaching on this point:

All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to ‘unveil’ the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm readings, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 211

Charlie Charlie, a game along the lines of the ouija board, is now being called a hoax, a mere publicity stunt to heighten interest in an upcoming Hollywood release.  But the word ‘hoax’ doesn’t apply here – the game didn’t just happen once on a television show.  It was repeated over and over at home by regular people, just like the ice bucket challenge.  And like the ice bucket challenge, there may have been less known about it than was later revealed, but the fact is that real people participated and they are the best judges of whether what they saw was natural or not.  The wild popularity of it suggests to me that people were getting results more unusual than they could explain.  But in any case, the ice bucket people poured water and got wet; the Charlie Charlie people called on a demon, and got – perhaps – what they asked for.

Chesterton said, in reference to these activities, that he was not taking them seriously, but he also says that this doesn’t change what they were doing:  “We were among the few, I imagine, who played in a mere spirit of play.  Nevertheless I would not altogether rule out the suggestion of some that we were playing with fire; or even with hell-fire.” 

No matter how such games start, and no matter what the intention is of those who play, those involved can get more than what they bargained for.  To experiment with these things is like heading into dry bush with gasoline and lighters. We are unaware or dismissive of what Mother would say about this behaviour; her rules might cramp our harmless fun, and so we proceed. We set a fire without knowing how to put it out; we call a demon without knowing how to send it back.

And if the fire rages, then let us do as many others have done: put aside our prejudices against the Church and request from her the kind of help that only she can give.

Post 20

Bystander: Reflections on the Context of Suffering

One of the components of suffering is the role played by those around us; their knowledge and reaction have an impact on what we experience, on how much we suffer.  From what I can tell, there are four different ‘states’ of the bystander: compassion, ignorance, indifference and pleasure.

Compassion: We are hard-wired for compassion, and fortunately, it’s usually the first reaction we receive in response to our suffering.  The crying baby is picked up and soothed, the child with the scraped knee is hugged, and the kindergartner is consoled and talked through their troubles.  And as grown-ups, we continue to need compassion in distress, and we learn to give it too, saying and doing the things that show we care. In walking with those who suffer, we are living the true meaning of the word compassion – ‘to suffer with.’ And when we suffer, it makes all the difference in the world to have that other person to share the suffering.  (It’s why we want to complain – we bring to life the story of the hurt, with all the gory details of what so-and-so said, and what so-and-so did.  If we have a female listener, she will probably know how to put balm on that wound; a man in this moment might do the same, or he might helpfully and reasonably point out what you could have done differently.)

Ignorance: But the most common context within which a person suffers is ignorance – people don’t know what is really going on with those around them; they don’t know the ‘real deal.’  There’s a poem by W. H. Auden: “Musée des Beaux Arts.”  He saw a painting in an art gallery by the painter Breughel.  Breughel, in turn, was inspired by the myth of Icarus, and, it seems to me, by the line referring to the simple labourers who see Icarus soaring through the air.  Breughel’s painting shows everyone going about their business while Icarus disappears from view, plunging into the water to his death.  And Breughel’s other paintings, also referred to in the poem, show the same phenomenon; normal life happens during King Herod’s massacre of innocent children (the Holy Innocents) and also while Mary and Joseph seek lodging.

Musee des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I find this contrast to be very noticeable in the context of a hospital.  Inside people are fighting the fight of their lives, and family members wait, and wait, and then intently watch the doctor’s expression as he delivers the news, but then when you step outside, you see that everyone is going about their business, completely oblivious to all the life dramas unfolding inside that building, stories that won’t make the evening news.

And it’s normal that we don’t know everything that’s happening around us, or even with the people that we think we know.  I read somewhere that St. John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, who used to spend hours upon hours hearing confessions, said, almost as a summary of what he knew about human nature, that “People are much sadder than they appear to be.”  How true!  For the most part, we hide our sufferings from each other.  We hide our disappointments, our addictions, our struggles, and our sins.  Instead, we present a façade of cheerfulness and carefreeness.

And so, is it any wonder that some people feel that they are the only ones with such-and-such a problem?  I laughed when a friend wished she had a normal relationship with her parents, “like other people do”! Yes, she actually said that! And one time DiligentOne was saying how different it would be if everyone wrote out signs naming the type of struggle they have, and put these signs on their front lawn.  You could walk from house to house, and you’d say, “Hey, look, we’re not the only ones dealing with dealing with bankruptcy / addiction / abuse / chronic illness / disputes about inheritance / etc.” Because people don’t reveal their problems, they think their problems are much rarer than they are.

Truly, we should remember that every person with whom we interact is fighting hidden battles.  For the most part, we’ll never learn what these troubles are, but honest conversations do happen, and the more such conversations you have, the more you find that everyone is dealing with a few issues at any given time, and these issues are not radically different from one person to the next; it’s more like variations on a theme.

Indifference: The third context is indifference.  The more our culture becomes self-absorbed, the more people will find that the disclosure of their problems does not yield the response they were hoping for.  Instead of compassion, their plight is met with indifference.  People know something of your troubles, but for one reason or another, they don’t want to hear more, and they are not moved to action.   They are wrapped up in their own world, and they don’t want to ‘get involved.’  And I’m convinced that the more affluent the community, the less inclined people are to care.  But having said that, indifference isn’t unique to the suburbs of North America.  In the story of the good Samaritan, there were the others, who kept on walking.

Pleasure: So ignorance is pretty typical and indifference hurts, but the most painful context is that of pleasure: sometimes bystanders take pleasure in your suffering.  Consider the Christians who were brought out into the Coliseum.  Their death was a source of amusement, fascination and entertainment for the Romans attending.  (But of course not all the people felt that.  The steadfast faith of these early Christian martyrs was on public display, and it was a statement that these Christians valued something – Someone – more than life itself.)

But I’ve wondered how it must have felt to be surrounded by thousands of people who have no compassion for your suffering, who are watching so intently but with no desire to rescue you.  If you were drowning, struggling in the water, you would have been so relieved to see another person; here is succour!  To see another human face is to see your rescuer!  But here, at the Colisseo, there’s not only one face, but a sea of faces, and they all see you, but they have no compassion upon you; no, they are looking forward to watching you die.

And so it was.  But where I’m going is to say that the same thing is repeated every day, every minute of every day.  The sad truth of it is that so often people take pleasure in the sufferings of others.  They are not ignorant, and they are not indifferent: they enjoy this trouble that you have.  They want details, not because they feel compassion, but because it adds to their enjoyment.

It’s everywhere.  People enjoy hearing about the rich and famous who suffer; these stories sell.  And the media coverage of people suffering in war, persecution or from natural disasters reach a diverse audience; some watchers are dismayed and full of compassion, but other people just find it plain interesting.

And if you introduce an element of dislike, then the enjoyment factor increases: you feel somehow, that it’s alright, or even fair, or good, that so-and-so has finally gotten their comeuppance.

Or if you introduce an element of jealousy, then again, the enjoyment factor increases: they always had things so good, or so easy, and so this problem seems to level the playing field, and seems right somehow.

And this type of pleasure is also a big factor with lust – many types of pornography are based on watching another person being treated badly (and what a sorrowful thing it is when men, who have in their DNA the predisposition to protect, are drawn into this addiction).

It fascinated me when I learned that the German language has a word for the pleasure that comes from the misfortune of others: schadenfreude – how insightful into the human condition!

Even people who are trying to live holy lives are guilty of it.  When they hear that some wrongdoer has finally gotten his ‘just desserts,’ do they feel compassion or do they feel glad?  Is there a part of them that rejoices in the suffering?  And I don’t think that at that moment they are thinking of the sanctifying value of suffering through participation in Christ’s suffering for the wrongdoer!  No, it’s something a little less lofty that is kicking in right then: they are enjoying the thought of that suffering because revenge appeals to our fallen nature.

And of course, our reactions to the sufferings of others have many permutations, where we mix a bit of ignorance with pleasure, or indifference or whatever.  But at the end of the day the Golden Rule is still the fastest way to check whether our response is right: if I were in that difficult situation, what reaction would I want from others?

Compassion (n) mid-14c., from Old French compassion “sympathy, pity” (12c.), from Late Latin compassionem (nominative compassio) “sympathy,” noun of state from past participle stem of compati “to feel pity,” from com- “together” (see com-) + pati “to suffer”

[May 27, 2015]