I have four kids, and each of them is in a different school this year. (Long story.) Two of them are in seat (one because parochial school, one because special ed), the other two are all online so far.
Today is the first day I have to have one of my in-seat kids at home for learning, and since I’m groaning internally about it, I want to stop to acknowledge the great blessing that my two highest-maintenance kids have, in fact, been able to have relatively normal schooling all the way to October 21st. I have been on fire in my writing–laser focused and accomplishing a lot.
At the same time, some really beautiful things have come out of having two kids at home for school. I’ve gone running with my 6th grader a few times. Taken afternoon walks with him at other times. Eaten lunch with my high schooler, who, in an ordinary year, we’d barely see because he’d transition between school and marching band and be gone for ten hours and do homework the rest.
Also, I have a lot better picture of what my kids are doing at school this year. I’m puttering around the kitchen during middle school zooms and for that reason I know all the teachers by voice and name and I know that one teacher has a chirping smoke detector in her house, and I can hear the banter in the class. I can ask intelligent questions about the things the kids are studying, because I have some clue what they are.
It’s a give and take. There are plenty of things that feel constraining about this mode of education, and keeping spirits high… or, well, in the neutral range or better… requires constant vigilance. I feel much more guilty for going to take my hike/bike/sit/pray times when there are kids at home. But there are things to love about it, too.
This past summer, I was honored to be invited to speak at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians national convention. Among the presentations I gave was this one, “Being Catholic in a Messy World.” I was asked to give a fifteen-minute reflection on what I mean by “Intentional Catholic.”
I have so many thoughts, I never imagined it would be a difficult talk to write, but it was–because the topic is so huge. The through-line that eventually emerged was how I wrestled with being “pro-life” in the wake of giving birth to a child with Down syndrome. I’ve often said that my daughter’s birth was the earthquake that changed everything for me, though I didn’t know it at the time. This is that story. It encapsulates many of the difficult issues we’re wrestling as a nation (badly). I hope you’ll set aside a quarter hour to listen!
My kids’ school district finally decided last night to go online. We knew it had to be coming, but the uncertainty has been punishing. It’s a tough thing, living with delay and uncertainty. And as long as it wasn’t certain, it was hard not to keep hoping. Hoping for a couple days’ normalcy a week.
2020’s been a punishing year. For all of us. For the most part, we’re not handling it well. I firmly believe the ugliness and rush to the extremes that we’re seeing has been exacerbated by stress. When you feel like you can’t handle one thing more, that one political nugget just sends you over the edge. Certainly it’s been happening to me. I’m at the point where I don’t trust my discernment of when to speak and when not to.
Contemplating an all-online school year, or at least a significant start to it (because the carrot is always dangling there: if the cases go down…) has so many really obvious negatives, it’s a real spiritual exercise to #seethegood. I’m going to have to give up so much. My kids are so sick of this house. Of each other. My soul feels suffocated from togetherness, from lack of time to go out in the expansiveness of the universe. I lost the spring for my weekly hikes and bikes, but I clung to the fall, and now the fall is gone too.
But there is this: going back to school was always going to increase the exposure exponentially. As long as we’re virtual, we can still rest secure that our kids’ friends, who are also virtual, are low-exposure, and that’s one good thing, because it means we can continue to carve out time for them to be together with less worry (not “no” worry, but “less”).
And all virtual means, paradoxically, more instruction. The hybrid schedule involved two days of in-seat and three days of independent study, which has been a struggle for my kids. In the virtual model the kids can all be “in class” together.
I suppose there’s also the potential for slightly more flexibility of family schedule, although I won’t know that for sure for a while.
And I suppose there’s another #seethegood so obvious, we’re not really clued into it right now: that all this suffering and upheaval is sensitizing us to the goodness of our ordinary lives. We have taken so many things for granted. If we approach this time exercising our thankfulness muscles, we could be different people when we come out the other side.
It’s been beautifully cool this week, and I left the house on Tuesday before the kids were up to do my favorite bike ride, 12 miles roundtrip, with an hour and a half to sit quietly beside the Missouri River at the turnaround point. This point was my breakfast cafe.
There’s divine magic in the way a drop of dew clings to the tip of a piece of grass.
And there’s something that reveals the mystery of holiness in the play of light and shadow.
It’s been 157 days since this pandemic shut down schools. 157 days of intense parenting and constantly shifting reality and discernments. This is the time of year when I try to get out to be still with God in nature at least once a week. I’ve only managed it about four times. It’s been rough. But I’m so grateful for the times when it’s been possible.
Camillus is a new saint to me. I had to go look him up. He was a gambler with a bad leg and, it seems, a bad temper, because the hospital where he went for treatment kicked him out for being quarrelsome–all this according to Franciscan Media. But once he was converted, he managed to change, and in the end he took care of plague victims. How’s that for a turnaround?
But his “think well” and “speak well,” in particular, really stuck out at me today. We’re living in a time when we’re under stresses we recognize (hello, COVID), but whose impacts upon us we don’t necessarily recognize.
I really believe a lot of the toxicity of social media right now is a sign of people driven right to the edge of what they can handle and then having one more feather put on top of them. Us, I mean. It’s me, too.
We aren’t able to tolerate some things, and other things we might be able to think critically and rationally about, we swallow wholeheartedly, because we’re just that overwhelmed. We simply don’t have the emotional bandwidth to be everything we’re called to be and everything we’re capable of being. So we see things that are wrong, and we totally lose it. We go wild with outrage instead of stopping to think, “Wait… is this clickbait, designed to manipulate my emotions by using loaded words and ignoring context that really matters in understanding the situation?”
I’m talking of social media, but of course it’s in our homes too. I’m so over my kids telling each other to shut up. The count is now 138 days that we’ve spent with way more togetherness and way less structure than we’re built for. What little tolerance they ever had for each other has long been exhausted. It’s a constant battle, trying to call them back to their best selves. Too often the same criticism applies to me.
None of the externals are changing any time soon, but maybe just being aware of it can help us be less reactive, to stop and think instead of knee-jerk reacting to things we think are totally intolerable. Because as the old adage says, what we think and say becomes what we do and who we are.
It has not been pretty in my house, these last 125 days. Have you intuited that from my posts? It seems all I do these days is fret, gnash my teeth, and talk about the lack of peace in my house–the strain of kinda-sorta-not-exactly-quarantine, the lack of structure, the endless snipping and sometimes screaming, the teenage hormones and the childhood overreactions.
The other day I had my youngest two children working on dishes. In their resentment at being forced to work (not that they had anything else to do; they were totally bored), they instantly fell to squabbling. “You can’t use the spray hose that way,” “you’re taking too much space at the sink.” That kind of nonsense.
I turned to them and said, “That’s enough! I don’t want you two to say anything to each other you wouldn’t say to ME if you were working with ME.” Because they are kind to me, if not to each other.
It was a stroke of brilliance–the Holy Spirit’s, not mine, just to be totally clear. They are accustomed to being horrible to each other. To be told to treat each other as they treat the person they trust the most required a hard reset. They didn’t like it, but for one of them, the tone of voice changed instantly. In the other it happened after I said, “Would you use that tone of voice talking to me?”
Yesterday’s readings struck a chord so deep, it resonated in my whole being. Our new associate’s homily tied together the various parables brilliantly. It can be much harder than we realize to judge between good and evil, he said. Which is why it’s not our job to rip out the “weeds,” but instead to be leaven–to live the faith in a way that causes the whole culture to “rise.”
But the words that stay with me the most were those from the book of Wisdom. “You taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind.”
In these heavy, momentous days of pandemic and communal examination of conscience, there are many of us concerned with justice. There’s a lot of righteous indignation, a lot of holy anger at the way huge sections of the Catholic faith have been lopped off, cafeteria-Catholic style, to force them into a political box.
People are speaking up for justice, but too often there’s no kindness involved. I fear that the pursuit of justice will fail, because of the way the campaign is pursued. Without kindness, calls for justice often come across as bullying. Nobody’s heart is being changed when they feel they’re being bullied.
None of which changes the fact that the world is crying out for God’s justice. I want to be clear on that, lest anyone read this post as a justification for dismissing calls for justice. Or for resisting guidelines put in place to protect the life and health of all God’s children. The right has plenty to answer for. Blistering the “mainstream media” for liberal bias makes no sense when one eagerly and uncritically gobbles up sources whose violations of journalistic integrity are far more heinous, if in the opposite direction.
For right and left alike, what we choose to do now–whether we are willing to examine our hearts and work to overcome our biases–this is truly a question of following God versus making an idol of self. Calls for justice, specific to this time and place, are necessary. In fact, they’re an imperative of discipleship. These things need to be said.
But the way we say them matters.
Maybe, in the days and weeks to come, “justice = kindness” can be our guiding principle, the standard by which we measure our online presence. We want justice. But are we actually modeling Godly justice–by our kindness?
What if we all vowed to say nothing we wouldn’t say to the person we respect and honor most in the world? How much more calm, measured, and productive might our national discourse be?
There’s a lot on my mind these days that speaks to how we live the faith in the real world—a world that, at the moment, is defined by crises and division. More now than ever. I didn’t think that was possible.
It seems there is no safe subject; even small talk leads to conflict. This morning on a bike ride, I encountered my kids’ former bus driver, and stopped to chat (from across the street). I asked about coming back in the fall. The answer was a hard pushback on the forthcoming citywide masking requirement—a requirement that makes a lot of sense given that during the first wave, we had practically zero cases, and now we are averaging 30+ per day. “I’m VERY strongly anti-mask,” she said. ”I think it’s a personal choice.”
How does one respond to such vehemence? I know what I WANT to say. I WANT to say that as Christians, our world view is supposed to reflect a Gospel that tells us self-emptying, treating the other’s needs as equal to our own, is the way of discipleship. A Gospel that we believe tell us life is precious, and the right to life far outweighs personal “choice.”
I WANT to say, “Can’t you see that you’re setting aside your prolife convictions? That you’re using the exact same language used by the pro-choice movement for decades?”
But how do you communicate any of that without sounding holier-than-thou, preachy, and generally self-righteous?
It didn’t matter, because all I got out was, “Oh, I’m not.” Then she was pouring out her grievances, and thirty seconds in, I thought, I’m supposed to be home in 40 minutes. I just need to politely say “good luck” and move on.
So I did.
I spent the rest of my ride pondering this exchange and others. So many things have become wedge political issues that have no business being so. A pandemic should NOT be a political wedge issue. Racial justice should NOT be a political issue. Supporting women who have experienced harassment, abuse, or assault should NOT be a political issue. These are things people of faith should be unified on. Certainly the Catholic Church, flawed as it has been in practice, has spoken clearly on them all. How on earth has politics become more important in forming our world view than our faith?
But I realize that a lot of the refusal to budge on these issues is a reaction to scrupulousness–a scrupulousness that leads to making assumptions about people. From there, it’s a short skip to judgment.
There’s a lot of judgment on social media these days.
*I’m* judging a lot. Most of the time I don’t post my judgy thoughts, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.
I think those of us who believe we have a societal responsibility to public health, who care passionately about racial justice and victims’ rights–those of us who care about these issues are so angry, we don’t always recognize that our words and our tone can do more harm than good. That sometimes, in our passion for justice, we cross the boundaries of Christian charity.
I know, that sounds like “tone policing.” I get it. But tone DOES matter, because when we make assumptions about what people are or aren’t doing; when we pass judgment; when we belittle and dismiss and make sweeping generalizations about everyone who (fill-in-the-blank)—
When we do these things, we make everything worse. We aren’t bringing people to a greater understanding of the truth. In fact, all we’re accomplishing is hardening people in their perception of persecution. They become less open to hearing, less open to examining the conflict between their worldly perspective and the Gospel.
Below (in the comments, on Facebook), I am sharing an op-ed that really hit me hard. I don’t often share (or read, for that matter) from the New York Times, because to so many people, it epitomizes the “liberal media.” But I think people across political spectrums will be surprised by what this man has to say.
I know this is kind of a long quote to process, so let me rephrase it to clarify why it struck me so forcefully. If we forget that our personal property has a “social dimension,” we’ll end up making an idol of it, making it all about ME and what I want. Getting resentful at the suggestion that the “social dimension” exists at all.
And when that happens, it’s easy for people to say, “See? This system of private property is corrupt. It doesn’t serve the common good.”
In other words, if we are too grabby about what’s MINE, it’s going to give people ammunition to suggest that the whole system is flawed.
The writers were undoubtedly thinking of giving ammunition to communism when they wrote this, but given the unpardonable and growing disparity between rich and poor these days–underscored by who gets COVID and who doesn’t; who has to put themselves at risk to go do low-income “essential” labor while the rest of us work safely from home–it seems like a pretty spot-on reminder for our day and age, too.
There are basically two kinds of posts filling up my Facebook feed right now. I’m sure it’s the same for you.
On the one hand, there are the conspiracy theories and memes filled with outrage over having to mask or social distance or really, having to endure limits and inconvenience of any kind. The we-should-just-open-up-and-get-herd-immunity posts. The the-numbers-are-always-changing-and-that’s-a-sign-that-it’s-all-baloney posts. Yesterday I saw a meme that bemoaned ruining our economy for a disease with a death rate of only .1%. (FYI: I went to the CDC and did the math, because I’ve been wrong before. The death rate is 6%.)
On the other hand, there are strident posts that imply that it’s universally too soon to open up, that everyone should stay in lockdown, that no church anywhere under any circumstances should sing, because it’s dangerous. Posts that pass judgment on others’ choices, without knowing the circumstances and in some cases, exaggerating the level of the violations.
Those who share the first type of post are almost exclusively from rural areas where the case load has been low. Those who share the second are almost exclusively urban dwellers living with ongoing trauma caused by the exploding body counts in their vicinities.
The thing is, both these points of view contain nuggets of truth. Where I live, it makes no sense to deny assembly singing; we’ve only had one death and a hundred cases since the whole thing began. That would be a precaution that causes unnecessary damage to communities without any benefit.
On the other hand, there *is* real mental health suffering going on because of the shutdowns; I’ve thought since day one that we could have a whole generation in need of counseling after this is over. I have four children. I did counseling myself for the first time in my life during this pandemic. Parenting during this is a nightmare for a person who suffers scrupulousness and, by extension, anxiety. What if I’m the one who ends up passing the disease to dozens of others and causes the deaths of hundreds because I’m too cavalier? What if the hospitals get overrun and my developmentally disabled daughter is the one who has to be denied a ventilator?
But because I’m so sensitized to my children’s mental health, to my own anxieties, and to the high stakes for my own family, I’m really cognizant of the need for balance.
In some places (like where I am), the damage being done by shutdown might, in fact, be worse than the damage avoided.
But maybe not. Because maybe shutting down prevented us from becoming a hot spot. Prevented us from the unbelievable anguish of burying our loved ones without being able to say goodbye or gather to remember them and send them off to Heaven.
The trouble is, we don’t know. We won’t know until it’s over and all the data is in—and maybe not even then. In real time, the situation is always in motion; the numbers change because new information comes to light, not because of some great conspiracy.
There *are* places where the fears are totally justified. As we, out here in the low-caseload areas, start reopening, it’s tempting to assume that what is true here is true everywhere. And then, to judge others for being more cautious. And our lack of sympathy causes people in areas where the danger is real to react more strongly—which makes us lash out more strongly still—which makes them angry…
It’s American tribalism on full display, in all its ugly, unchristian glory.
The beautiful thing about being human is that we are capable—if we will choose to exercise the ability—of adapting our understanding based on new information. But when the stakes are so high, our Christian responsibility to be cautious about what information we choose to partake of is more crucial than ever.
I propose that as Christians, our responsibility—our DUTY, in fact—is to check the bias of EVERY source BEFORE we click through, and to refuse to click through to any source that leans strongly right or left. Moderately left, moderately right, these sources are balanced enough that we can properly form our consciences. Clicking through to extreme sources only encourages greater extremism. If we want our media to behave with integrity, we have to quit rewarding them for misbehaving. If we want integrity in our news reporting, we have to demand it by not supporting those who violate our trust.
Frankly, on this Memorial Day, committing to greater integrity in our information consumption seems like a good way to honor those who gave their lives to protect this country. Don’t you think?
The past two weeks have been really intense for me as it is crunch time/deadline days for preparing presentations for the NPM (National Association of Pastoral Musicians) convention, which went online this year because of COVID-19. At the same time, where I live we are opening up. From this point forward, the discernments get harder. Now we have to weigh our responsibility to uphold the life and dignity of our fellow human beings against the danger of being so overprotective of physical health that we cause lasting damage to the emotional and mental health of ourselves and those we love. To say nothing of causing unnecessary suffering from deepening poverty, as more economic damage happens.
For weeks before opening, we’d had virtually no new cases where I live, so the calculation looks quite different here than it does in many other places. In some ways, it makes it more difficult. How long can we remain isolated from those we love? Yet if we loosen up in some areas and loved ones loosen in others, then we’ve both just multiplied our exposures. My state has been open 2 1/2 weeks now, and naturally we are seeing cases again. Not a lot, but to see regular cases after weeks of almost none makes it clear that we can’t be cavalier.
Which brings us, among other things, to the “do we mask?” question that has become yet another a lightning rod, another opportunity for political division in our country. The reaction of certain quarters of our population (“I’m not wearing a mask! When I woke up this morning I was in a free country!”) is what, specifically, made this Chesterton quote jump out at me this morning. This is one of those moments in which we are challenged to recognize where a worldly value has come to be more important than Godly ones. Has become an idol.
I don’t wear a mask at all times, and in masking, in opening up, every moment requires a discernment for me to make sure I’m practicing what I preach. Or at least, to try. I don’t like it, but it is the spiritual exercise of life right now–for all of us.