Isolation: Day 3

Digging through my (long-neglected) filing cabinet the other day, I came across an old paper from my freshman year of college. It was a homemade certificate, evidently awarded to me by my dorm-mates. The honor? Apparently, I was “the ‘if you need it, she’s got it’ girl.”

I don’t remember receiving the certificate, but I wasn’t surprised to read it. Yes, if there’s something College Julie would be recognized for, it would be the ability to search through her stuff to find things for people. Later, my college friends dubbed me “Mama Julie.” I think I must have had the mom purse packed with every possible necessity a good ten years before my first child was born.

That clean-line-loving, paint-everything-white, purge-it-all minimalist who’s so popular these days? I am not her.

There’s something in me that finds comfort in having stuff around. I like the warmth and coziness that comes from being surrounded by a few too many things. I’m not talking about expensive things or fancy things; I’m talking about that afghan from my grandmother’s house. I’m talking about those solid wood chairs that nobody else wanted, that bowl engraved for my great-grandparents’ anniversary, those mason jars that are sure to come in handy someday.

I hate to throw away anything that could be useful. I like to be able to dig into my drawers and find colored pencils and birthday cards and old, empty journals tucked away for moments like this.

I used to say that I had a bit of the Great Depression in me. I have always had the bogeyman of scarcity in the back of my mind. It is in my nature to squirrel away stuff and information in preparation for a leaner time.

I thought of that line today – “a bit of the Great Depression” – as I listened to my favorite newsy podcasts. They said that the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic could be so severe that the unemployment rate reaches twenty percent. That’s Great Depression-level unemployment there.

The thought jived with my anxiety about finding milk for my kids and watching grocery store shelves emptying, quickly and repeatedly. It fit with my worry over my husband’s job. It brought up my usually-unacknowledged concern about whether we made the right decision to rely on a single income.

In all likelihood, my family will be fine. We are more secure than most. But watching the swift decline our country (and the world) has suffered in recent weeks, I am increasingly nervous about what we’re beginning.

And I’m thinking that maybe we could all do with a bit more of the “Great Depression” mindset. I’ve been thinking harder about what my family consumes and what we waste. We’ve been so wasteful, especially when it comes to food. This week I’ve been paying closer attention, looking for efficiencies, strategizing on how to be a better steward of our resources.

Today I made a big, hearty Guinness beef stew. I served it over mashed potatoes and I baked a soda bread to go with it. The work felt right and good. There’s something about feeding people – about providing for that most basic need. It’s tangible. It’s essential. It’s universal.

Assuming this thing goes on for a while (and it sure looks like it will be going on for a while), I’ve got a lot to think about. I suppose a global emergency has a way of refocusing your priorities, doesn’t it?

(On a more mundane level, today I’ll report that the kids and I all watched Mass together, the big boys did some homework, the girls napped while the boys played outside, and I accomplished some laundry/dishes/cooking. Oh, and my kitchen looks far worse tonight than when I woke up this morning. C’est la vie!)

Isolation – Day 2

Today was stressful. Because of the mundane things – the spilled glass of water, the recipe not looked at closely enough, the orthodontic device that decided to detach on the very day the orthodontist’s office closed for two weeks.

But today was also stressful because the enormity of our situation finally caught up with me.

This morning my cousin came to babysit so I could run to the grocery store. I felt guilty bringing someone into our home – I’m trying to take this isolation thing to heart – but I figured it was probably better for humanity to have one adult come into my home than to bring five touchy-feely children into a public space.

Last night when my husband tried the grocery store after work, the milk was pretty much gone.

I’ve never had to worry about not being able to find milk before. But now I did, and I was anxious. Getting up, getting ready, getting on the road – the only thing I could think about was getting that milk. Then there was an almost total lack of traffic – 8 AM Sunday traffic at 9 AM on a Tuesday – and my anxiety mounted.

Later, (back home with my milk, thank goodness) the enormity of what we are facing began to unravel within me. I felt unmoored.

Homework packets be damned. I wasn’t going to worry about that today, on top of everything else. Instead I rushed the girls to naps and the boys outside. I needed to be alone. I needed to restore a little order to my surroundings. I needed to feel like I was in control of something.

Ultimately, I gave up on my complicated, Irish-themed dinner plans and just set the box of Hungry Jack on the counter. Green pancakes it would be.

Then in the early evening, thank goodness, I did the best thing I could in the moment: I went outside. I let two eager little girls lead me out the door and show me the wonder of grass and rocks, of flowers growing where they were never planted. We explored, we marveled, we breathed the fresh, clean air.

Today the boys wrote in their journals again, but did pretty much nothing else of conventional value. And I am completely fine with that. Today was a day for mourning. Tomorrow is a new day. Maybe it will be for getting a grip on this new way of living.

P.S. For the record, I’ve got to share that the kids had Lucky Charms cereal for breakfast this morning as a special St. Patrick’s Day treat. They were super, amusingly excited to try it. It was a joy to watch.

Isolation – Day 1

This afternoon I handed each of my boys a journal and told them that they’re entering a remarkable time – a time that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. I told them how unusual it was for a story like this to be lived by so many people all over the world. Millions upon millions of children home from school, millions upon millions of people confined to their homes, millions upon millions of people worried about the same thing.

I told my boys that when they’re adults they’ll want to look back on what their child-selves thought of this time, and so I directed each to write one journal entry per day. I told the fourth grader to write a page, the second grader to write at least a paragraph, and the Kindergartener to write a sentence. I suggested they might want to sketch some pictures too.

I told them they could write about anything they wanted – what they do here at home while we’re isolated, what they think about what’s going on in the world, what they fear, what questions they have. The boys were excited at the prospect; each set straight to work.

I picked up an old, mostly unused journal of mine and thought of doing the same. But I write better on a keyboard. And anyway, if I’m going to spend time writing up my own thoughts on this remarkable time we’re in, perhaps I ought to share them on the blog. So here we are.

I plan to share a bit here each evening, telling about my day and my own thoughts, fears, and questions. I want to have this record to look back on when (God-willing) these weeks are a distant, dull memory. And who knows – maybe you’d like to have a peek at them too.

For that record, I must note that today, our kids’ first day off from school (and therefore my Day 1), we did decently well. I baked banana bread and pear bread, fed the kids, did two loads of dishes and two loads of laundry, read stories to little ones, guided the five-year-old through some homework, put two children down for naps (one of them multiple times), talked to my grandparents on the phone, made a grocery list, and prepped food for tomorrow.

The kids watched a movie, played with Legos and Lincoln Logs and puzzles, drew, read, did schoolwork, and wrote in their journals. They enjoyed a lunchtime Doodle date with Mo Willems. They played outside for hours. (And they fought too – I won’t deny it.)

They did not play on their tablets, because they lost that privilege the day before by waking their sister from her nap. (A certain Mama might have told one of her boys that she would lose her mind if the girls didn’t nap in these weeks while the boys are home from school. A new rule was instituted: If one wakes a napping child, no one gets his tablet for two days.)

But we (the boys and I) also watched daily Mass together, and that was wonderful. Our archbishop has canceled all public Masses in our Archdiocese, so yesterday (a Sunday) felt strange, and strangely empty. While watching a livestreamed Mass said by our archbishop, however, it occurred to me that if we can’t attend Mass once a week in the flesh, maybe we could attend every day online. And maybe it might be fun to check out different online Masses, celebrated by different priests in different places. Today we watched a Mass said by Cardinal Dolan at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. We’ll see where tomorrow takes us!

Okay, that’s more than enough for tonight. Tomorrow, when I don’t have to intro this whole thing, I hope to get to some deeper thoughts on what we’re all facing.

Good night!

The Elephant in the Room

What to do about the elephant in the room?

I read the news every day. I listen to a ridiculous number of political podcasts and radio programs. I have a near-continuous loop of political commentary running through my brain. And yet since President Trump was elected, I have published almost nothing about him.

There has just been so much – so much to take in, so much to feel, so much to say – that I have had no earthly idea what to do with it all. I’ve had no idea where to begin. The thing feels like a web, a many-legged creature, a patch of brambles on the edge of a wood.

But if one is to write on the issues of the day, one had better well be prepared to take on those elephants.

So I am giving up any notion of addressing this webbish, many-legged, bramble of a subject with anything like adequacy. I am just trying to pare down my thoughts enough to say something.

To put it most plainly: I am grateful for the impeachment inquiry.

I am a conservative. (I’m even technically still a Republican.) I know of no Democratic candidate that I could vote for in good conscience. And yet I feel no loyalty whatsoever to President Trump, to the Republican party, or to their narrative.

What I care about in all of this – in all this intrigue, in all this talk of corruption – is not a person or a party. I care about the Constitution. I care about the rule of law. I care about ethics and integrity and the public trust.

I care about light.

I believe that democracies can only function properly if citizens, regularly and resolutely, shine light on their governments’ inner workings. I believe that credible allegations of corruption should always be investigated. I believe that office-holders (including and especially the president) should be as accountable to the law as anyone else.

I believe that innocent people do not fear the light.

I also care about norms.

Our nation is not held together by magic. It’s not even held together by blood, culture, or religion. Our nation is held together by a set of ideas and our collective willingness to abide by them.

Our system only works because we act like it works.

When someone breaks these norms – when they challenge the notion of checks and balances, when they refuse to cooperate with subpoenas, when they circumvent qualified, vetted, committed professionals in favor of personal friends, when they seek personal gain over national interest – they shake the foundations of our system. They put our rights and liberties at risk.

I care about precedent.

If there is one thing that has surprised me about the way Republican officials have handled the impeachment proceedings (and the Trump presidency more broadly), it is their unwillingness to consider how this precedent will affect future presidencies.

It doesn’t take much imagination to acknowledge that Republicans would have been up in arms if President Obama had conditioned American military aid on a foreign government’s willingness to investigate a Republican rival. It shouldn’t take much more to envision a future Republican Congress’ desire to check a Democratic president.

When that day comes, the Trump presidency will have set the precedent that personal priorities can take the place of U.S. national security interests, that the president can safely consider himself above the law for the duration of his term, that elected officials bear no responsibility to impartially consider the merits of congressional attempts at oversight, and indeed that an administration can outright refuse to cooperate in Congressional investigations.

Today’s Republican elected officials, urged along by vocal elements of today’s Republican base and today’s right-leaning media, are responsible for the future they sow.

We should take great care with where we place our loyalties.

God, country, constitution, democratic ideals, sets of values – these are worth loyalty. But not a person in public life. I am not inclined to put my faith in, or give my loyalty to, any politician. We do not elect kings in this country. We owe our presidents nothing.

It is they who owe loyalty to us.

Elephant picture

A Few Days in August

I am not pregnant, but for a few days in August, I thought I probably was. We were away on vacation for the first time in five years – for the first time in three of our children’s lives.

We’d had a rough beginning to the trip: my husband had come down with pneumonia and my son with bronchitis. (“Can’t we weave wiffout Daddy?” the little stinker had asked an hour before his own symptoms arose.) So I’d done all the packing and loading and driving and unloading and unpacking by myself.

It was a lot.

But there we were, two parents and five kids finally lodged in our rented condo in the Blue Ridge Mountains and I was feeling grateful.

Grateful – and nervous that I might be pregnant.

Two days into the trip, I stole away from my crew for a little time to myself. I pulled out my laptop and sat on the rooftop balcony and wrote up my feelings. I hadn’t thought of publishing them, but re-reading them now, I recognize that they sum up much of my thinking lately.

I get asked all the time whether we’re “done.” (Having babies, that is.) I wonder whether the questioners think about the emotional conflict their curiosity can trigger.

For the first time, we’re about to celebrate a toddler’s second birthday without having another babe in arms or in utero. And for the first time, we’re aiming to be “done.” The idea of another pregnancy is overwhelming, even scary (mostly for medical reasons). Yet the idea of another baby, should one ever come our way, is wonderful.

~~~

8.20.19

I sit here on this balcony, listening to the cars whoosh past and the oak branches rustle in the breeze. (The maple stands mostly still. Why does one tree rustle while its neighbor does not?) I sit on a simple old patio rocker, roofing beneath my feet in this forgotten space. Who will notice this balcony, the owners must wonder, when the view is from the other? But this one is partly shaded at 11am; the other bakes. I lean back in the chair and look up at the swirling clouds, water vapor shifting around, trading places in 3D. A passenger jet soars past. We aren’t that remote.

I sit here, not knowing whether I might be pregnant, but suspecting I am. I am grateful that it’s too soon to take the test. Next week, if contradictory proof doesn’t appear on its own, I will have to get up the nerve to know the truth.

I have been fearful. I have been anxious about the physical repercussions of another pregnancy. I have been feeling greedy about my time. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel: three children in all-day school within days, five children within a few years.

But just now I read a line from Anthony Doerr. “They are miracles,” Doerr writes of his twin boys. “Born from cells much smaller than the period at the end of this sentence – much smaller than that period – the boys are suddenly big and loud and soak the fronts of their shirts with drool.”

I read that line and I look down at my abdomen and I think with wonder on those cells (now perhaps bigger than a period?) that may lie hidden there. I think with wonder on the child who may soon be staining shirts with drool. So many people would think on the logistics we’ve had to go through this week: packing, fevers, bottles, stroller and child wrangling, and think that another child would never be worth it. I know exactly how hard it would be; part of me resists mightily against it. But the rest of me knows that each of my children have been the most incredible gifts life could possibly offer. And that this one, if he’s there, would be too.

Picture of the kids

* The line is from Doerr’s beautiful 2007 memoir, Four Seasons in Rome. I highly recommend it.

The River

I never fell away from the Faith. I was raised Catholic and always remained in the Church. I never felt the urge to rebel. And yet I would not call my faith steady.

I feel like one who was raised on the banks of a river she never thought to enter. Who saw the shining waters, the slow current, and figured they were all there was to the thing.

Growing up, I knew the basics: the outline of Christ and his Church and her teachings. I knew a few prayers. I knew the rhythm of the Mass. I thought it all vaguely pretty: safe, comfortable, lovably boring.

I might have fallen away: I had the same, spare 1980’s catechesis of so many fallen-away Catholics. I had the barest of familial and cultural attachments to the Church. I had no personal experience with truly committed Catholics.

Yet somehow I always felt an obligation to the Church, to the Mass. I felt tethered to them.

That tether, that tug, lead me to a Catholic college, to Catholic friends, and later to a job working for the Church. I had no idea what I was doing in those environments; they felt foreign to me.

I now see that those steps were my first into the river. They were my first substantial encounters with the Faith – when my knowledge shifted from one of observation to one of experience.

They were when I first felt the wet on my skin and the smoothness of water winding around my ankles. They were when I noticed the rocks under the surface, when my legs stung with cold. They were when I came to understand that the water wasn’t boringly pretty: it was lively, it was complex, it was bracing and beautiful.

I took those first steps haltingly, tentatively, feeling around, unsure I belonged. But over the next fifteen or so years I progressed more confidently, wading through the shallows until they too began to seem safe and boring.

My faith lagged. After that jolt in my early twenties, I struggled to maintain my interest. I continued to go through the motions, but my spirit felt like I was walking through waist-high water: all resistance, little progress.

Marriage and babies and exhaustion and loneliness did not help. No doubt I was being taught in those years to serve, to love selflessly, to show mercy. Those are important lessons. But in the slog, it was hard to remember the beauty.

Then, a couple of years ago, another jolt: I was sitting in our parish’s adult education program, watching the Word on Fire Pivotal Players series, when I was just about knocked over the head with the beauty of it. Week after week, my eyes filled with tears as I learned about great men and women of the Church and how they rose above the everyday in pursuit of the ultimate.

It was as if I’d reached the end of the shallows. I’d reached the point where the riverbed falls out from beneath you and all of a sudden you have to swim. That’s where the real work begins – the whole-body work. It’s where the risk and the cost begin too. It’s where you take big gulps of air and submerge yourself and kick and pull and glide.

Pivotal Players threw me off in the best possible way. It was a peeling back of the veil. Life is so much more than an exercise in how to fit it all in. It is so much more than the errands and chores and extracurriculars and intrigues that occupy our minds. Life is a staging ground for eternity.

The series reminded me of our personal responsibility to God, our role in carrying out His work, the innumerable ways we can go about that task, and the variety of gifts with which God equips us to do it.

I have a job to do. (And so do you.)

A big part – perhaps the biggest part – of that job is to get to know and love God. So I’ve been diving in: dedicating part of each day to prayer and scripture readings, undertaking some spiritual reading too, consuming podcasts and videos that address my questions and expand my horizons.

I feel like I’ve finally entered the deep. Swimming and treading, I look around in wonder. I have a better vantage, and therefore a better sense of just how small I am and how little I understand. But I also have a better sense of how big He is.

I am at the point in the river where I know that it is so much more than a glimmer of sun on surface. I am in the thing. I am stretching out, working my way through it, muscle and breath and hope.

About Me

Lately I’ve been having another go at reviving this blog. I’ve been writing again, which feels good and true and useful, no matter what comes of it.  A couple of posts are done and ready to be published next week; others are in the works.

But this one here — this is one I wrestled with for some time.  My old “About” section was super outdated. It hadn’t been fundamentally reworked since I started the blog six years ago. I needed something that expressed who I am now and why I’m writing.

So here you have it: some words about me and the blog. It will reside in my new “About” section, but I thought it might also serve as a wave and a hello to old friends, to let you know I’m still here.

~~~

Hello, my name is Julie, and I am a wonderer. I’m one of those distracted types – the kind who become absorbed in questions of God, justice, and baked goods while I’m supposed to be doing the dishes.

I am a stay-at-home mother to five young children: three school-aged boys and two preschool-aged girls. They and my husband and I live in a charming, 150-year-old Victorian in Maryland, which holds infinite possibilities for imaginative play and home repairs.

I wrestle every day of my life with how to fulfill my obligations to my family and our home while also doing something constructive with all that wondering.

photo of the authors children

I started blogging in 2013, back when I was lonely and craving the sort of community I saw among Catholic bloggers online. I wanted to claim my part of it.

I wanted, too, to share the cute kid stories and the homemaking struggles. I wanted to process the ways in which my life had changed since becoming a mother.

In my single twenties I’d earned a degree in political science, done a stint in the federal government, lived on my own in Washington and Annapolis, traveled much of the United States and Europe, and worked as a lobbyist for the Catholic bishops of Maryland.

In my thirties I got married, quit my job, had five babies in seven years, changed an ungodly number of diapers, and pretty much figured out the baby/toddler/preschooler phase of parenting. (Still working on the school-age phase; trying not to think about the teenage phase.)

This year I entered my forties, and I now find myself trying to chart a course that melds the mind/heart work of my twenties with the hand/heart work of my thirties.

Which brings me back to the blog.

When I started These Walls I wanted to do more than the cute kid story thing. I wanted to use my blog to encourage civility in political discussions. That had been my schtick: I’d prided myself on engaging on contentious issues in a respectful, open-minded manner, and I didn’t see why others couldn’t just up and do the same.

I thought we could communicate ourselves out of this mess. That, if only we calmed down and looked around and sought to understand, we could fix the things that were wrong with our society.

Six years later – six years of wrestling with the issues of the day, of struggling to come to terms with shifts in society and politics, of experiencing the changing nature of friendship and community online, of slugging through difficulties with my writing, family life, and health – I now see that that thinking was very small.

You and I and the folks we encounter online can’t just band together to fix society. No strategy, no movement, no social media campaign can right our wrongs and heal our divides. No amount of communication will fix this.

But I can work on fixing myself.

It’s not just our society that’s broken: I am broken. Sin and pain and perspective and the weight of untold generations of history bear down on me. I have much to work on.

I’ll bet you do too. I’ll bet you have something to fix.

These days I’m as absorbed in the ideas and problems of the world as ever. I’m still chewing on politics and current events while I dig my hands into sinks full of dirty dishes. But I am also turning inward. I am examining my thoughts, my gut reactions, my motivations and desires, and I am trying to order them toward goodness. I am working to point myself toward the good, the beautiful, and the true.

It’s a different kind of small thinking.

Few people will ever impact society in a broad way, but every one of us can work to make our own minds, our own souls, our own families, our own relationships with people and communities more healthy and whole.

Follow along with me here at These Walls to peek in on someone trying to do that work – someone wrestling with herself, thinking things through, seeking to understand, and wanting to improve.

And if you’ve been struggling with the urge to fix as I have – well then maybe you can undertake this wrestling, thinking, seeking, wanting-to-improve work too.

photo of the author

 

Dear Mrs. Homeroom Teacher

Every fall my kids’ school does this thing where they send home forms for parents to fill out regarding their children’s physical activity. Kids are supposed to achieve 60 minutes of exercise every day for a week, parents are supposed to track how much and what kind of exercise their kids got, note it all down on the form, and then submit it to the school. If your kid hits the goal, he gets entered into a drawing for prizes.

I hate the stupid thing.

So this year, our family didn’t participate. I didn’t make the kids exercise, I had nothing to track, and no form worth turning in. I just ignored the thing and hoped it wouldn’t come up again. But wouldn’t you know it: my kids kept coming home saying they needed to turn in that blasted form.

Finally, I snapped. I wrote their teachers a letter.

~~~

Dear Mrs. Homeroom Teacher,*

I suppose I should have reached out to you sooner, but when I saw the note in Johnny’s* planner requesting his Project FIT* form, even if it wasn’t filled out, I figured that a late letter of explanation to you was better than none at all.

The truth is, I hate Project FIT.

And with three kids now bringing home the form, I thought back on our previous four years of Project FIT misery and I made the executive decision not to do it this year.

With five young kids at home, many evenings it’s all I can do to make dinner, get everybody fed, make sure homework is done, help kids review their math facts and sight words, get them to read for 20 minutes, and then get everyone ready for bed. Not to mention fitting in Cub Scouts and religious education and preschool co-op meetings and whatever other extracurriculars we’re currently participating in.

With my kids’ remaining evening free time (and sometimes they have very little), I like to just let them play. They go out in the yard and add onto their fort, or they dig in the dirt, or they track wild creatures. They come inside and draw, or build LEGO creations, or set up battle scenes of little green army men all over the floor. Yesterday Johnny raked leaves into piles and let his little sisters bury him in them.

Kids need that time – that free, unstructured time in which to relax and imagine and create.

I don’t want to take it away from them in order to enforce some challenge that essentially just aims to make the point that physical activity is important. (Shouldn’t everyone know that by now?)

Maybe when other families do Project FIT they can count in soccer practice or the time that their kids are already playing basketball in the driveway. But my kids are not sporty. They don’t choose to spend their playtime kicking around a soccer ball in the yard. When we’ve done Project FIT in the past, it generally comes down to me calculating how much time they had at recess and PE that day, figuring out how much more time they need to get to sixty minutes, and then sending them outside to run laps around the house or something.

It is miserable, and I honestly think it does our family more harm than good.

So this year I decided to be a rebel and not fill out the form. Instead, I made dinner in peace. I did not fill our evenings with more requirements than were good for us. I let my kids play in the dirt and build with LEGOS and not worry about checking off a million little boxes.

It was glorious.

Sincerely,
Julie Walsh

~~~

*Not their real names. Obviously.

**Don’t worry – I included a nice little post script assuring the teachers that I didn’t blame them for the school’s program. And I don’t think they blame me either.

Title image: Dear Mrs. Homeroom Teacher

 

We’re Not Called to Win, We’re Called to Work

Yesterday a Facebook interaction and a couple of podcasts set me into a spiral of doom. I thought on our politics and society and the Church and how we wrestle each other on such things, and I began to despair.

It’s so bad. It’s all so bad.

Trump, with his flouting of norms and rules and even the most basic measures of integrity. Republicans, with their blind devotion to man over principle. Democrats, with their stubborn attachment to abortion.

Social media, with its tendency to reward those who are most outrageous and angry. Us, with our tendency to form ourselves into mobs.

Seekers of justice who dismiss the Right as bigots. Defenders of life and family who cast the Left as villains.

Leaders of the Church who betray Truth with lies. Leavers of the Church who mistake those men for the Church herself.

So bad.

I know, of course, that there are good people everywhere. In my community, in the Church, in Washington, even – but I can’t for the life of me imagine a scenario in which this works out well. I don’t know how we’re going to fix these problems.

How can we possibly move forward? What sort of country will my children grow up in?

But ah, my children. They give me hope. They bring me joy. They make me look up from the doom. Certainly the world can’t be so bad when it contains sweet, chubby baby cheeks and 8-year-old boys who write letters to little sisters who cry because they’ve received no mail.

Image of a simple letter written by a big brother to a little sister

Outside these walls, I see so much darkness. Inside them, I see the hope of an ultimate brightness.

Yesterday afternoon, a couple of hours after I despaired at the state of the world, I saw the following in the day’s readings:

R. The glory of the Lord will dwell in our land.
Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice shall look down from heaven.
R. The glory of the Lord will dwell in our land.

I don’t know when, I don’t know how, but I believe that one day we will know kindness and truth, justice and peace. And that to despair does a disservice to God.

We are not called to win, you and I. We are not called to make permanent fixes. We are just called to work.

We are called to do whatever loving, life-giving, divide-healing, justice-seeking work we can manage. We are called to work hard, our eyes on that time when truth will spring out of the earth and justice will look down from heaven. But we should never fool ourselves into thinking (or torture ourselves by thinking) that we’re responsible for the win.

Title image

The Tragedies We Honor, and Those We Don’t

Given the run of violence and destruction at places of worship in recent weeks, I’ve been thinking again about how we react to tragedy. Not the kind we experience personally – the kind that happens to someone else, somewhere we’ve never been, perhaps somewhere we’ve never even heard of.

How closely do we follow those tragedies? How empathetic are we towards their victims? Which do we mourn, which do we honor, and which do we overlook?

Since March we’ve had the Christchurch mosque shootings, the burning of three Baptist churches in Louisiana, the fire at Notre Dame, the Sri Lanka church bombings, and the shooting at a synagogue in California. And those were just the ones I heard of.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t take all that news the same.

Christchurch and Notre Dame both touched me deeply. I cried over Christchurch, imagining the victims’ last moments and their loved ones’ angst. Oh, how much they will miss! Weddings, jobs, joys, children’s first words – each loss is a universe of possibility, gone. How could someone do such a thing? How is it possible for a person to hunt down his fellow human beings? How could you kill someone engaged in prayer? Christchurch was and continues to be a weight on my chest, pushing me down.

I worried and paced over Notre Dame, made anxious by the importance of what could be lost in that fire. History and culture, yes, but the Blessed Sacrament too. The very body of Christ dwelled there within its tabernacle, safe for who knew how long. The relics, the sacred art, the windows about which Bishop Barron has talked so much. A place that brought God to people, and people to God. That church, one of the best known and most visited in all of Christendom, seemed in that moment an integral part of what it meant to be human. It was a place I’d hoped one day to visit, and suddenly my chance was going up in smoke.

I mourned the loss of the churches in Louisiana too, but I’ll admit that I didn’t feel, or follow, that tragedy as closely. I prayed. I imagined the pain of the people who lost the places where they prayed and wed and mourned. I hated that racism looked to be the cause of their suffering. But I was busy and distracted and news comes at you fast, you know. I moved on too quickly.

On Easter Monday, when I heard about the bombings in Sri Lanka, my heart fell. I mourned, but I was not shocked, and I was not stopped. I monitored, I prayed, I moved on with my day. I revisit the tragedy; I continue to pray, but my heart does not seem to have the capacity to adequately honor any more tragedies right now.

And then the synagogue in Poway, California. Poor Poway, to follow that run, to taste that horror. I am sorry for them. I pray, again. But my heart won’t open wide.

~~~

In the midst of such tragedies, we sometimes stop to examine ourselves and our fellows, to assess our responses and critique how unevenly we seem to value human life.

Why do we turn on the 24-hour news coverage for one tragedy but not the other? What does it take for us to flood our social media channels with links and lamentations? Why are some of our thoughts and prayers offered vocally and others in silence?

As you might guess from my characterization of my own reactions, I think one factor in how we respond to such tragedies is how distinct they seem from the news that preceded them. I don’t think it’s unnatural to tire of tragedy. Sometimes there’s only so much you can absorb.

But is it just the timing of the news cycle? The rhythm of our own personal lives?

Or does our reaction also tack to the victims involved – their race, their creed, their age, their corner of the world?

If those are indeed factors, then what drives us in our reactions? Is it some primal preference for those who feel like members of our own tribe? Is it a failure of imagination? Is it racism, either overt or underlying?

In the tragedies I listed above, we saw Muslim victims of mostly Asian origin in a mostly white, mostly Christian country. We saw African American and Jewish victims in the United States. We saw Christian, mostly Catholic victims in religiously-mixed, mostly Buddhist Sri Lanka.

There is great religious and national diversity in that list, but there is also one commonality: Nearly all of the victims were brown.

Would our reactions have been different if the Catholics attacked on Easter Sunday looked like my children? If they hailed from an affluent white suburb somewhere in the West?

I’m afraid they would. I know my reaction would have been.

Would my Facebook feed have lit up back in March if a Muslim man had attacked two churches in Christchurch, rather than a white supremacist attacking two mosques? Probably.

What of that? Even if it were 100 percent understandable for people to better honor the tragedies of those who look like them, would the difference be morally acceptable?

I don’t think so.

Now, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect people to stop living their lives every time news of a tragedy breaks. We take in more news today than people have ever, in all of human history, had to handle.

But in this historic experience, we have also had the historic opportunity to get to know people and communities across the globe. And maybe that opportunity brings with it the obligation to open our hearts a little.

We don’t live in an age where our experience of humanity is limited to the people we run into on a daily basis. Today, if we take the time to look, we will see it in places, and people, completely foreign to us.

So maybe, when news of tragedy comes to us, we should engage in a little on-the-spot self-reflection: “Do these people feel familiar to me? If not, what can I think of to connect myself to them?” (Family relationships are a great equalizer: Everyone is a son or daughter; most are mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers.) Also, “If the same misfortune had struck a community more like mine, how might I feel?”

As a Catholic, I believe we are obliged to value all human life and we are called to share in others’ suffering. We can do both by responding to the tragedies we learn of – from around the corner, or around the world – with real sadness and sympathy, with sincerely-meant prayers, and with love.

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