High Conflict and Spiritual Attack

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A while back, I heard a discussion on the radio about a book called “High Conflict.” As I listened, I thought, “That’s me. That’s what I’m feeling.” I put it on hold at the library, but I was way down the list. And when my turn came a few weeks ago, my heart quailed. I thought, “This is not going to be an enjoyable read.”

Then I pulled up my big girl panties and read it, praying throughout for openness. Because this, clearly, was God’s next signpost in my spiritual journey this year, toward balancing Godly anger at injustice with detachment. Because—also clearly—high conflict is NOT what God is calling me to.

Or any of us.

It was an incredible book… eye opening for myself, and extremely balanced in calling people across spectrums on the carpet. (You can tell a well balanced book by the fact that reviewers from both sides of the High Conflict that is American politics gripe about how their side was treated more harshly than the other.)

Reading that book did change me. Among the many valuable things she urged was to “muddy the waters.” The fact is that we like to put people in “us” and “them” categories, and we need to remember that we are all products of multiple influences, and just because two people share an identity in one of those influences doesn’t mean they will in others.

For myself, Catholic is my identity above all others. It is the filter through which I view everything. It is the measuring stick by which I gauge my secular work and my advocacy (“Disability Mom” and “writer” are tied for a close second in my identity)– and advocacy is, in fact, one of the red flags she warns of as an indicator of high conflict.

Anyway, the point wasn’t to detail the book, because everyone just needs to read it.

The point is that it helped me. It cooled down the temperature of my passion. Let me tell you, in the past two to three weeks, that cooling trend was critical… and not for any of the reasons I thought it would be. It’s just been a rough few weeks, personally.

And yet, yesterday I found myself triggered again. Multiple times. By multiple triggers, in multiple places. I found myself starting arguments with no one again.

The most bizarre thing was that I had a flashback to an incredibly contentious… and thankfully, defunct… relationship that caused me tremendous mental anguish over the course of COVID. I have zero contact with these people anymore. I have almost, if not completely, removed myself from these people’s orbit.

And yet, suddenly I was there in the middle of the emotions again, reliving the offenses, reliving the, well, anguish of trying to behave in a Christlike manner, cringing at the one mistake I made, raging at the certainty that they didn’t learn a thing from that conflict, that because of my mistake, they never admitted their own.

It was as if it happened yesterday instead of more than a year ago.

And sometime during Mass, as I sat behind the piano, wrenching my mind back to the liturgy again and again, it occurred to me: “I wonder if this is a spiritual attack.”

Because I WAS making progress toward what I know God is calling me to do.

I don’t have a neat and tidy bow to wrap around this post. I am just sharing the journey. Maybe high conflict, itself, is indication of a spiritual attack almost all of us are suffering…

Anyway… here’s that book you should all read, regardless of where you stand on any of the multitudes of points of contention we have all elevated to High Conflicts.

Archbishop Tutu on Christian’s responsibility to address racism

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This quote landed in my email inbox this morning within the Center for Contemplation and Action’s daily reflection*. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words here affirmed the convictions that have been growing in me for the past decade and a half or so: that the political issues of our time are part of our responsibility as Christians to address.

The blatant examples of racism in the U.S. are an easy target–the way in which nationalism has become inextricably (and bafflingly!) tied to racism.

But I would argue that stopping there is the easy way out. If we make the Proud Boys et al the scapegoat, then it’s tempting to give ourselves a pass on the subtler manifestations of racism—the ones that make many of us squirm when we are forced to look at them honestly. Things like inequality of educational opportunity and funding, unevenness in the justice system from top to bottom, the generational ripple effect of redlining and discrimination in housing and the GI bill… and on and on.

The “Learning How To See” podcast episode I listened to most recently explored comfort bias—the idea that our brains reject information that makes us uncomfortable. Information that is inconvenient to us.

For sure, the idea that racism is baked into American society, and that I, as a white person, am benefiting from it, is uncomfortable! To accept that would mean that if I want to be a Christian, I am required, by my faith, to do something about it. And it might even mean working against my own worldly interests, i.e., my own comfort.

The static from certain quarters surrounding critical race theory strikes me as a perfect example of comfort bias.

Which brings us right back to Desmond Tutu, doesn’t it? What is a Christian’s response to evidence of baked-in racism? Will we lean into the discomfort and allow ourselves to be made holier by advocating for just and equitable systems in our nation? Or will we dig in to our biases and continue to “spit in the face of God”?

*The reflection carried this note about sourcing: Desmond M. Tutu, “My Credo,” in Living Philosophies: The Reflections of Some Eminent Men and Women of Our Time, ed. Clifton Fadiman (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 234, 235. Note: Minor changes made to incorporate inclusive language.

Complexity and Confidence

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Our brains prefer a simple lie to a complex truth.
Our brains prefer a confident lie to a hesitant truth.

These are two of the biases explored in the “Learning How To See” podcast. Everything I heard on the first season was like an earthquake in my heart, but these two line up so thoroughly with my own experience, it reaches a whole other plane.

There are so many times when my kids ask a faith question, and I can think of a glib answer that will take three seconds and wholly misrepresent the complexity and the gravity of the issue at hand. But to do so would be to ignore the reality of the situation. More to the point, it would ignore the dignity of the soul that’s seeking authentic truth. Truth that stands up to their lived reality, which is, let’s face it, complex. Because it’s a complex world.

So I reply with complexity and hesitancy. I pause–to choose my words, to pray and think.

Believe it or not, this is me on Intentional Catholic, too. I know I come across loud and opinionated, and I am. But a lot of thought and inner wrestling goes into these posts. A lot of care for how the things I say will feel when read by different people.

Complexity bias, confidence bias. These two have played out so many times in the years I’ve been involved in discussions (and arguments) online. Through blogging, too. One memorable time, I waded into current events with unshakable certainty and ended up with egg on my face. It taught me to value caution and deliberation. Research before reacting. Well. Reacting in words, at least. Reacting in my heart is a whole different matter. I spend a lot of time talking myself down from initial reactions. But the point is, I do it.

The absolute confidence with which some people of faith respond to complex situations, erasing all complexities and nuance, waters down the Gospel. If people feel that the Gospel can’t address complexity, of course they’re going to dismiss it. It doesn’t help them process their own experiences. That’s not a weakness in the Gospel. It’s a weakness in those of us trying to spread it.

It is in our nature to prefer the simple lie, told confidently (stolen elections, anyone?), but I pray that we can all learn to recognize how much damage it does to be satisfied to wallow in the blindness of those biases.

(And if it’s at all unclear, that prayer is for myself, too.)

The problem with Christmas is not “happy holidays”

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve scrubbed my social media feeds or if the ruckus really has died down, but this year I’m not seeing as much about the so-called “war on Christmas.”

I did see one thing, though, as part of a different conversation with someone I love. It was a forward of an email from the Catholic League, which began by condemning that disgusting gun Christmas card Twitter photo from someone who has power in America. I’ll give no more details than that, because that person deserves no amplification.

So the email started in the right place. But it went on to decry the “dumbing down” of Christmas. The corruption of Christmas is, indeed, a huge problem. But the author got the source all wrong. His highlighted example was Christmas cards that don’t say Merry Christmas.

Really???????

Isn’t the ACTUAL problem with Christmas that capitalism has erased Christ and turned it into a moneymaking scheme??????

Hence my illustration this morning.

This is one week’s worth of trash and two weeks’ worth of recycling for a family of six in the holiday shopping season.

Dragging it all outside, I thought, “And Christian culture thinks ‘happy holidays’ is the problem??????”

It feels hypocritical to write this out. The majority of those efficiently-nested boxes are there because we ordered them. The second trash bag is full of styrofoam packing. Normally we only put out 2/3 of a bag of trash a week. (I have no idea how so many households of two and three people put out 3, 4, or 5 bags of trash a week. Where is it all coming from? Even when we were in diapers we didn’t fill a bag a week.)

I don’t like that I’m caught in this consumeristic view of the holiday. Of course, I love giving gifts to my children—as any good parent does. What brings joy to our children brings joy to us.

But it seems so odd to me that when we as Catholics are in the season of Advent, a time ostensibly devoted to simplifying our lives and letting “every heart prepare him room,” what we’re actually doing is piling on more, more, more. Cluttering things up. Both physically and mentally.

Come to think of it, I’ll bet there’s a clear reason Christian culture is so desperate to find a scapegoat that they’ll chase after Christmas cards that don’t say “Merry Christmas”:

Otherwise, we’d have to admit that everything that’s wrong with Christmas, we did to it ourselves.

Rugged Individualism as heresy

I am sharing multiple times from America’s podcast interview with Bro. Guy Consolmagno, because it kept blowing my mind. My last post, in which he pointed out that you can’t have a well formed conscience without FIRST listening to authority, leads naturally into another quote:

“That’s the great American heresy: that we’re all rugged individualists. And the truth is there is nothing we can do that doesn’t affect the people around us.”

HERESY. That’s a strong word.

But it’s so true! We have this (idealized, not terribly accurate) vision of what it means to be American. But who among us has ever stood ruggedly on our own? Not one person I’ve ever met, that’s for sure. We are all standing on the shoulders of parents, grandparents, aunts & uncles, teachers, mentors, etc. People who sheltered us and provided for our needs while we developed the skills we needed to fly the nest.

Even in adulthood, we don’t stand on our own. When we get knocked off our feet (death, hospitalizations, loss of income), our resilience depends in large part on the community around us, who fill our refrigerators, watch our kids, mow our lawns, and pitch in financially. I’ve been on the receiving end more times than I can count—some very recently. And I’m also giving that same support to other members of my extended community—at this very moment.

Being a Christian is the opposite of being a rugged individualist.

But the second part of that quote is the part that brings it all home. Rugged individualism is actually impossible, because everything we do impacts others. Both this quote and the one about conscience & authority were shared in the context of resistance to vaccines and masking. Whatever decisions we make in those areas are not about us alone; they have implications for the life and health of others.

Of course, that’s just the most obvious application. Brother Guy’s words resonate across all the questions that plague us. But if we want to interact with the world as Christians, that truth is important to keep in sight.

Being a Christian is the opposite of being a rugged individualist.

A house divided…

I have not been posting much the last few months. I keep chewing over the same baffling questions again and again, and feeling that I am shouting into a void. So I’ve focused my energy instead on my fiction. There’s precious little time in my life for splitting my focus these days, anyway.

But the US bishops’ daily reflection Friday morning was on the topic of division and unity. A house divided cannot stand, Jesus cautioned. If good work is being done, it can’t be of the devil. And if there’s division, it is not of Christ.

The Church is a hot mess of division right now, just as our nation is. Every time I come up against an entrenched position that baffles me, because it is so clearly contrary to my faith, and it’s being held by people who are using their faith as justification for their beliefs, I think of this question of division. I think, “How can this be, when we all claim to believe the same things?”

Spoiler alert: if you’re reading this post in hope of there being an answer at the end, prepare to be disappointed.

Every time I come up against one of these, I think, “There’s no way God could be calling both of these sides to these beliefs. Is there?” Then I pause to search my own conscience and try to see how I could be the one who is wrong. I frequently find that I am wrong in my anger toward, judgment of, and assumptions about people who think differently than me. But I have rarely found the Spirit nudging me that I am, in fact, wrong in my beliefs. Not given the information I have.

So then I go and do research to see if my information could be wrong. I look at the sources, I think, “Nope, not going to read that, it’s too far left and I can’t trust it to be objective. Nope, not going to read that either, because that’s clearly a group with a dog in this fight. There, that’s a moderately-right-leaning source, that should give me a good counterbalance to my own biases.” Occasionally I moderate a position; I think, “this thing people are freaking out about on the left is probably not as big a deal as they’re making it out to be.”

But not often.

It is deeply disturbing to me that so much of our discourse these days is arguing over things that are so easy to disprove. It really isn’t hard to discern between credible sources and conspiracy-theories.

A good friend of mine recently left Facebook, because it was an exercise in scrolling through things that made her angry. “I feel like we’re conditioned to look for the next thing to get angry about,” she said. “I just needed to get away from that.”

How do we seek unity—Christ—instead of division—the devil—when it seems that so many of our conflicts are based, not on reason, but on appeals to all that is sinful within us—our selfishness, our lack of empathy for others?

Gullibility, Misinformation, and the Ninth Commandment

Long ago, I learned that Albert Broccoli, the producer of the original James Bond movies, was a gardener who invented the vegetable broccoli by crossing cauliflower and something else I’ve forgotten.

My reaction was: “Hey, that’s really cool!” I never even questioned it.

Sometime in the last five years, as political misinformation has become so blatant and unscrupulous, I’ve become unshakably committed to fact checking. But for whatever reason, it did not occur to me that my little interesting trivia about broccoli ought to be fact checked. Until one day a couple years ago when I stopped with my mouth open, prepared to share this interesting tidbit, and thought, “Wait a minute… could broccoli possibly really be that new? Hasn’t broccoli been around for hundreds of years? Come to think of it, this sounds an awful lot like a myth/urban legend. Maybe I should check this before I share it again.”

Shocker: broccoli has been around since the SIXTH CENTURY BCE.

I felt pretty stupid.

Then, a few months ago, my third-born came home from a scout campout. “Mom, did you know that daddy longlegs are THE MOST POISONOUS SPIDER OUT THERE? Except they can’t hurt you—“

“—because their mouths are too small to bite humans,” I said. “Yes, I know that.” Then I stopped. “You know what? I’ve heard that my whole life, but now that I think about it, it sounds like bunch of nonsense. Why don’t we look that up?”

Again, shocker: FALSE.

I’m sharing this kind of embarrassing story because it took me years—YEARS—before I recognized the sound of a falsehood masquerading as legit information.

It made me understand—a bit, anyway—how it is that so many good people, intending to follow Jesus, have fallen into the trap of embracing conspiracy theories. Of sharing memes and arguments so distorted, they’re actually lies. Of writing off fact checkers because if they challenge pre-existing certainties, they must, by definition, be biased and thus can be safely dismissed.

I understand… a bit… which is good, because it also still makes me very, very angry. And I need to cultivate compassion, not anger.

So I am sharing this again today, as a reminder to myself as well as anyone who reads this, that truth telling and integrity are fundamental to our faith. Implicit in the use of misinformation is the idea that the end justifies the means. But that’s not Christianity. Integrity matters. Truth matters. Facts matter. Context matters.

The chicken and the egg (or: double standards in Christianity)

“Hey,” my husband whispered to me before Holy Thursday Mass. “I forgot to tell you. Pew research did a new survey and the number of people who go to church is below 50% for the first time ever.”

My first reaction was: And Christianity will blame the secular culture instead of looking in the mirror and examining whether our own failures are the problem.

Actually, it’s probably a chicken-and-egg situation. The culture is definitely getting more hostile to religion. But then again, religion keeps giving more reasons for the hostility.

I know. Them’s fightin’ words, but painful though they might be, I think they’re fair.

The trouble is that the Gospel tells us we’re SUPPOSED to expect hostility from the world. But somehow, we’ve translated that into a persecution complex. We never stop to examine our own attitudes, words, and behaviors for how well they reflect the Gospel. We just assume that any pushback we encounter must, by definition, be the culture’s problem rather than ours. It couldn’t possibly be that we are misrepresenting our faith.

Meanwhile, Christianity fails to recognize how incredibly uneven we are in HOW we choose to stand at odds with the world. There are these huge double standards.

Like: Christian culture is pro-life, EXCEPT when it requires taxpayer money to support people most at risk of feeling the “need” for abortion (because of generational poverty and inequality of opportunity, etc., etc).

Like: Christian culture is pro-life, except when it infringes on “personal freedoms” (cough-cough-masking).

Like: Government should stay out of my business, except when it’s about homosexual relationships or abortion, and then of course it’s the government’s business, absolutely.

Or: Sexual assault and harassment are sinful, but how dare we ruin the life of the accused? (Never mind the life of the victim. Whatever. We’ve been sacrificing them for millennia.)

Or: Honesty and integrity are fundamental to Christian belief—they’re in the Ten Commandments—but how many people have wholeheartedly, even rabidly, embraced a lie about stolen elections that has zero basis in fact?

I’ve been trying not to write these kinds of posts lately. Nobody needs me haranguing them; it’s not particularly effective at anything except making people mad. So I’ve been trying to focus my posts here on working out my own spiritual journey instead of lambasting everything that’s wrong with the world. I have spent this Lent praying for “enemies,” and more importantly, for the heart to do so authentically while remaining in union with God’s will. So much is happening in my heart this year—I am journaling it, bit by bit, but I’m deep in the weeds and I can’t synthesize it yet.

But there are times when my frustration comes out. And this is one of them. And maybe, after all, Good Friday is not a bad time to have our collective conscience stung.

The First Step

This is part of the conclusion of Pope Francis’ reflections on the Good Samaritan. I find that it’s easy for these parables and teachings to become trite by repetition. It’s not a fault of the story, it’s a fault of human nature: we start tuning out b/c hey, we already know this story. I did a presentation on this parable a year or two ago, and reflecting on it anew really changed my relationship with it. This reflection does the same thing–renews and adds insight to something I’ve known for a long time.

Pope Francis spent this reflection pointing out that this parable is about individuals, but it’s also about groups of people. That it applies in person-to-person situations close to home, but also in communities and nations and the world. And there’s no neutral in this story: at each level, you’re either a victim, a passerby, or a person who undertakes the uncomfortable work of engaging. Most of us end up being passers-by, but we don’t want to admit it, and so we come up with all kinds of excuses. Hence, the bickering over policy that has caused the Church to divide along “abortion” and “everything else.” I see this as a call to recognize that those entrenched philosophies are themselves the problem. A sin.

I’m not sure how to change myself. I still want to point everything I read at others. That’s my sin. And so I begin simply by admitting it. Change my heart, O God.

St. Jude Novena

(If you want to receive the daily email from which I took this screen shot, click here.)

Unity has been on my mind for a long time, but particularly in the past few months. The divisions in our country and among Catholics are profound. What I have come to realize is that nothing I do or say is going to change that. I don’t see a way out of this. Since, oh, October sometime, I have been praying for God to navigate a path none of us can see–a path that will get us out of this toxic sludge pit we’ve dug for ourselves. The one that is drowning us.

Last week, after chewing over all this with a devout Catholic friend, I decided to pray a St. Jude novena. It seems appropriate, doesn’t it? St. Jude, the patron of desperate cases and lost causes (Wiki’s phraseology) or “patron saint of the impossible” (St. Jude Shrine’s phraseology). If ever there were a lost cause, a desperate case, or an impossible situation, it would be the search for unity in our time.

And when Pope Francis’ daily email yesterday sounded the same call–prayer, because unity is actually beyond us–I knew it was a divine nudge.

Today I embark on this prayer and I invite you all to join me. My intention is: “for a path to unity in God’s will for our Church and our nation, and for the conversion of all our hearts to make that possible.”

I will post it daily on Facebook, but for today, here is the link to the prayer.