Don’t Call Them Animals

Monday evening, as televisions and computer screens showed image after image of destruction in Baltimore, my Facebook newsfeed filled up with them too. Friends and family expressed anger, fear, embarrassment, regret, sadness – all very natural responses to the events taking place in “our” city.

But along with those responses came one awful word, again and again: “Animals!” “The animals.” “Those animals.” “They are animals.”

I scrolled past post after post of people calling other people animals.

(By the way, if you’re wondering whether I’m thinking of you in particular as I write this – I’m not. I saw so many posts I can’t begin to remember who wrote what.)

There are any number of things one might call the rioters. You might call them idiots. You might call them criminals. You might call their actions shameful or opportunistic or simply wrong. Baltimore’s mayor called them thugs.

But you shouldn’t deny that they’re people.

The rioters are not animals. They are people who think and feel and sin and help and hurt. They are complicated. They are capable of great love and terrible evil. Each and every one of them is made in the image and likeness of God. Each and every one is inherently valuable.

Because they are human.

When you call people animals, you buy into the lie that human life is cheap. You judge people’s worth by their utility, by their sinfulness, by their actions in a short, defined period of time.

When you call people animals, you feed anger and mistrust and hate.

And to be honest, when you call a crowd of black people animals, you hearken to a time when society really did – culturally and legally – view blacks as less than human.

So call out the rioters for the harm they’re doing to the City of Baltimore. Say that it’s unacceptable to steal and destroy. Say that it’s mind-bogglingly foolish to cut fire hoses. Say that it’s disgusting to throw bricks and cinder blocks at people.

Say you’re angry. Say they’re wrong. Say that this whole thing is a big, embarrassing mess. Debate thuggery, police violence, gang violence, and racism.

But don’t deny anyone’s humanity. Don’t call people animals.

The term is unworthy of them – and it’s unworthy of you too.

The Lesson They Left

I went to two funerals last week.

The first was so lovely, really – it was for Mary Lenaburg’s beautiful, special Courtney, who had died the Saturday before, on the Feast of St. John the Beloved. The music at the funeral was heavenly, the homily and eulogy were warm, and though there was a real sense of mourning, the church was also full of love and hope. Courtney no longer suffers. She’s free, and in the words of her mother, “She is finally healed and whole. No more seizures. No more pain. Just all encompassing joy and love for an eternity.”

The second funeral came on much more unexpectedly. Mark Pacione, a long-time leader in youth ministry in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, died suddenly on the morning of December 29. His funeral felt more raw to me: it was beautiful, but also strong and real, not unlike Mark himself. The church was packed, filled up with person after person on whom Mark had had an impact. One needed only glance around the space to see it in others’ eyes – his was such a tremendous, personal loss.

P1210803

Given their proximity on the calendar, I can’t help but think of these two funerals together. And really, it’s fitting that I should file them together in my mind. These two amazing individuals, Courtney and Mark, represent the concept of love like none I have ever known.

I’ve already written on Courtney’s love. Hers is one that shows you how to love more deeply, unconditionally, purely:

In this year of knowing Mary (and through her, Courtney), I’ve learned something about love. (An undefined, powerful kind of something that I feel in my chest, but can hardly describe except to say, “I’ve got to love more.”) I’ve learned something about loving your child, your husband, your friends, about loving God. I’ve learned something about loving through hardship, about tenacity and stretching to meet the challenges put before you.

Mark’s example shows you the beauty of loving everyone. As was said during his funeral (and probably hundreds of times in the days surrounding it), when Mark was talking to you, he made you feel like you were the only person in the room. No matter who you were, no matter how well he knew you, Mark made you feel like you counted.

Both examples put into practice what we pro-life Catholics talk about, but which some of us, perhaps, don’t always live – that is, the conviction that all human life is sacred. Each and every one of us matters. That goes for the unborn, the ill, the disabled, those at the ends of their lives, and even that awkward teenager standing against the wall in a basement church hall. It goes for those we know only in passing and for those we pass but do not know.

I once had a pastor who, while shaking hands with parishioners after Mass, never seemed to make eye contact with any of them. He’d hold out his hand and touch it briefly to yours, but he wouldn’t look at you. His eyes would simply scan the crowd, as if he viewed it – us – as nothing more than a vague glob of humanity.

How often do I do the same? How often – in my haste or my distraction – do I brush past people, or if I stop to talk for a moment, give them only the pretense of my attention?

How often do I view people in terms of their utility to me? How often do I judge them by their beauty or their popularity? How often do I dismiss those who don’t meet certain (unworthy) standards?

Far, far too often.

Though my mind and the most honest part of my heart understand that all people are precious, that each and every one of us are made in the image and likeness of God, the rest of me needs reminding. My harried, distracted brain, my snobbery, my jealousy – I need to keep them in check. I need to be present enough, aware and thoughtful and loving enough to treat the people around me like they count.

Because they do.

Thank you, Courtney and Mark, for your beautiful examples to us. Thank you for letting God’s love work through you. Thank you for showing us how to do the same.

The Blue Sky Day, Revisited

I wrote this post last year as an attempt to deal with my memories of September 11, which continue to trouble me. I re-post it now because I find that it still represents my feelings about that day. And because I don’t know whether I’ll ever again be able to bring myself to write on the subject. Maybe I’ll simply re-post this piece every year, until this little blog is done.

~~~

Twelve years ago this morning, I was sitting at my desk in Crystal City, Virginia, about a half-mile south of the Pentagon. I was a month into my first job out of college, working in a government office, in a block of buildings filled to the brim with government and government contractor offices. I’d joked to my friends that I’d never frequented a more polite place in my life: Everywhere you turned, there were military personnel and former military personnel who held doors for you, offered you their seats, and called you “Miss” or “Ma’am.” To a nervous, small-town girl alone in a big city for the first time, it was reassuring.

The weather that day was absolutely gorgeous. I had noticed it on my metro ride into work. I’d blinked at the bright sunlight as my train emerged from its Washington, D.C. tunnel and climbed across the bridge over the Potomac, into Virginia. I’d searched the brilliant blue sky for a cloud and couldn’t find even one before we descended again, the Pentagon looming on our right.

P1160248

Thank goodness today’s sky has a touch of cloud.

I had watched people get off the train that morning at the Pentagon station. I’d recognized a few of them; you start to do that when you commute on public transportation at the same time every day.

Sitting at my desk, happy and proud that I was settling into a real, grown-up job, I was unprepared for the horror and fear that the day would bring. Who wasn’t?

Along with the rest of the country, I soon began to learn, bit-by-bit, what was happening. First in New York. Then again in New York. Then horror turned to fear: There was an attack in my own backyard. Then – was another one coming? Would it hit the White House? The Capitol? If it aimed for the Pentagon, could it overshoot and get us instead? No, that one went down in Pennsylvania. Guilty relief. Are there more?

My boss made his way back from a meeting at our main office, near the White House. Roads were blocked and no public or private transportation was moving anyway, so he walked. He walked for miles, at midday, an overweight man nearing retirement-age. He looked so red-faced, exhausted, and stricken when he arrived that we were sincerely afraid he would have a heart-attack. But I suppose that’s what you do when structure breaks down, when you fear that the place you’re standing in at the moment might soon be under attack: You walk. Even if it’s from downtown Washington, D.C., across a bridge, to Northern Virginia. You walk a route that is normally only driven at high speed, in much traffic.

And then there was the heartache of the World Trade Center collapsing. The slow realization of the enormity of the event that was unfolding around us. The tears and the near-hyperventilation. The world turning upside down as I watched the streets outside my building fill with people, the highway clogged with cars that wouldn’t move for hours, police with big guns emerging from what felt like nowhere. And worst of all: the acrid smoke that hung in the air. In it, I felt the horror physically – stinging the back of my throat.

P1160246

And there were the questions. Not just “Who did this?” but “Is it over?” And “Will our highways or our bridges or our metros be attacked next?” “Will we be able to get home?” “Should we scrounge for food and prepare to stay in the office overnight?” “Should we evacuate?” And the loneliest question: “Where will we be safe?”

Much later, when it had been hours since the last attack, a touch of the normal came back. The metro reopened, allowing me to return home, albeit via a detour. We were rushed, without stopping, through a Pentagon station that smelled strongly of smoke. All were numb, quiet. It was beyond strange to know that every single person I saw was thinking about the same thing. It was awful to know that our glances at each other were both sympathetic and suspicious. We didn’t know who was at fault, or if they were done. The weight of it all was oppressive.

But still, that sky was blue. It was blue and horrible and sickening. It shouldn’t have been so pretty. It should have cried.

P1160251

That night I stood outside in the dark next to my uncle, looking at the big sky from the vantage of his small farm, where I was living at the time. He’d brought me out there to make me look at that awful, clear expanse. “Look; there are no planes in the sky. You’ll never see this again,” he told me.

I went back to work the next day, because We’re not going to let those terrorists get to us! I crossed that bridge over the Potomac once again. The sky was still blue, but this time I saw large white clouds of smoke or dust or steam billowing up from the Pentagon. We sped through the station again, smelling the smoke. We would do so — speed through without stopping — for days, perhaps weeks. Every time we did, I thought of the faces I’d seen getting off at that station that morning. I wondered where those people were, whether they were safe. I never saw them again.

The following day, I stayed home. I was exhausted and I needed to process what had happened.

I think I’m still working on it.

I know that my experience is nothing compared to that of those who escaped the Twin Towers, or who were injured in the Pentagon, or who searched frantically for information about their loved ones on that awful day and the ones that followed it. I don’t forget that thousands of people were lost and that thousands more continue to feel those losses acutely. I know that countless people feel like their lives were ripped apart that day.

Mine was not. I lost nothing more than some peace of mind.

And yet, to this day the sight of a clear, cloudless sky just about sends me into a panic attack. I don’t dwell on the yearly memorials, because I can hardly handle them. Re-reading my journal entry from that day, hearing a mention on the radio, seeing a “never forget” bumper sticker or Facebook meme – even just thinking about September 11th – it causes the anxiety to mount. I have to switch gears before it overwhelms me.

Why do I write all this? Because oddly enough, it’s countering the anxiety that always rises to the surface this time of the year. And because it’s my way of saying “never forget” without relying on the memes that sucker-punch me. Never forget: that day was real; its impact lives on; those lives were valuable.

I suppose it’s some long-overdue processing.

P1160254

God bless those who were lost that day. God bless those they left behind. God have mercy on those responsible.

And please? Don’t forget the Pentagon.

Yes, I Worry About Religious Freedom

This past Sunday at mass, our priest told the story of a conversation he once had with a taxi driver. The man had noticed Father’s clothing and collar. “You’re a priest. I am a believer too.” Father expressed his approval and the man went on, “My faith is very dear to me, for it was handed down by blood.”

The man continued, “When my child tells me he doesn’t want to go to church, I tell him he will go, for his faith was won for him through the blood of his grandparents and great-grandparents. They paid with their lives, and here is my child in a place where he is free to worship. So he will go.”

Father went on to recount recent stories of Christians attacked, murdered – hacked to death, even – on account of their faith. Iraq, Pakistan, India, Nigeria – the examples go on and on. Yet, as Father noted, our eyes are dry. We look away. We do not mourn.

We should be feeling such atrocities acutely. Both for the sake of the people involved and because such crimes strike at the heart of what it means to be a free, thinking, feeling human. Our right to live in accord with our faith is as, if not more, fundamental to our freedom as our right to free speech. When I am able to speak freely, my mind is free. When I am able to worship freely, my heart and soul are free too.

When you look at the totality of the world’s population, true religious freedom is almost an anomaly. Billions of people live in countries where one is legally required to adhere to a certain faith, or permitted to belong only to select, approved sects, or, though legally free to worship as one chooses, restricted in practice by violence or intimidation.

Millions more live in Western societies that are increasingly, insidiously, hostile to religious practice. They look down on religious speech in public forums or prohibit religious garb in public spaces or compel religious people to act in conflict with their faith-informed ethical principles. They give notice that faith is only appropriate within the four walls of a church. And they maintain that a particular set of public values is somehow more valid and important than the individual’s right to determine his own way, in accord with his own mind, heart, and soul.

I’m no Chicken Little. I don’t think the United States is a modern-day Roman Empire teetering on the brink of collapse. I don’t think our government is two steps away from nailing “CONDEMNED” signs to all the church doors and requiring citizens to profess adherence to modern, secular liberalism.

But I do think we should be honest enough with ourselves to acknowledge that this thing can be messed up. This accident, this anomaly in human history – this brief period and narrow place in which we have been free to think and speak and pray and do as we like, without fear of legal or violent reprisal – this can, and probably will, pass away.

If our society can entertain the notion that climate change will eventually cause oceans to rise and landscapes to be altered, it should also consider the possibility that creeping infringements on our rights will eventually cause us to lose them altogether.

Because yes, that’s what we’re experiencing: creeping infringements on our rights. (Our real, most fundamental rights, that is – not our popularly-claimed, pseudo-rights to free contraception and abortion.) And yes, that’s what HHS did when it told Hobby Lobby’s owners that, despite their deeply-held and religiously-founded belief that human life is precious and worthy of protection, even from the moment of conception, they must pay for their employees to receive forms of “contraception” that can end real, precious, human lives – in the humble form of embryos – almost (not before) they have begun.

(Please note that Hobby Lobby already provides coverage for most types of contraceptives. Its owners have objected to four particular “contraceptive” methods because they can act not as true contraceptives – that is, by preventing conception – but rather as abortifacients, preventing an embryo from implanting in its mother’s uterus and thereby killing it.)

Many Americans seem to think that religious freedom is an issue for the history books. You’re given a blank stare if you express your concern for religious freedom abroad and you’re viewed as an alarmist or a zealot if you’re concerned that it’s under threat at home.

Nobody’s bombing churches here, right? The government doesn’t support a Church of America with our tax dollars and require all citizens to be its adherents, does it? So what is there to worry about?

I worry that we take too much for granted. That we vaguely recall a story about pilgrims… something, something… Church of England… something, something… and we think that concerns about religious freedom belong to another time.

I worry when so many of my friends and fellow Americans hear that the government aims to force people to do things that violate their deeply held religious beliefs and they… don’t care. Or worse, they fly to the defense of the government and demonize those targeted by it because the things that are to be done involve those most sacred of secular cows, contraception and abortion.

The fact is, there are slippery slopes all over the place. It’s quite fashionable to be concerned about government overreach insofar as it applies to email and phone records. But what about government overreach concerning what we believe and how our everyday lives reflect those beliefs?

I worry that we might not realize we’re on a slope until we’ve already slipped.

~~~

“Reason recognizes that religious freedom is a fundamental right of man, reflecting his highest dignity, that of seeking the truth and adhering to it, and recognizing it as an indispensable condition for realizing all his potential. Religious freedom is not simply freedom of thought or private worship. It is the freedom to live according to ethical principles, both privately and publicly, consequent to the truth one has found.” (Pope Francis, June 20, 2014)

The Blue-Sky Day

Twelve years ago this morning, I was sitting at my desk in Crystal City, Virginia, about a half-mile south of the Pentagon. I was a month into my first job out of college, working in a government office, in a block of buildings filled to the brim with government and government contractor offices. I’d joked to my friends that I’d never frequented a more polite place in my life: Everywhere you turned, there were military personnel and former military personnel who held doors for you, offered you their seats, and called you “Miss” or “Ma’am.” To a nervous, small-town girl alone in a big city for the first time, it was reassuring.

The weather that day was absolutely gorgeous. I had noticed it on my metro ride into work. I’d blinked at the bright sunlight as my train emerged from its Washington, D.C. tunnel and climbed across the bridge over the Potomac, into Virginia. I’d searched the brilliant blue sky for a cloud and couldn’t find even one before we descended again, the Pentagon looming on our right.

P1160248

Thank goodness today’s sky has a touch of cloud.

I had watched people get off the train that morning at the Pentagon station. I’d recognized a few of them; you start to do that when you commute on public transportation at the same time every day.

Sitting at my desk, happy and proud that I was settling into a real, grown-up job, I was unprepared for the horror and fear that the day would bring. Who wasn’t?

Along with the rest of the country, I soon began to learn, bit-by-bit, what was happening. First in New York. Then again in New York. Then horror turned to fear: There was an attack in my own backyard. Then – was another one coming? Would it hit the White House? The Capitol? If it aimed for the Pentagon, could it overshoot and get us instead? No, that one went down in Pennsylvania. Guilty relief. Are there more?

My boss made his way back from a meeting at our main office, near the White House. Roads were blocked and no public or private transportation was moving anyway, so he walked. He walked for miles, at midday, an overweight man nearing retirement-age. He looked so red-faced, exhausted, and stricken when he arrived that we were sincerely afraid he would have a heart-attack. But I suppose that’s what you do when structure breaks down, when you fear that the place you’re standing in at the moment might soon be under attack: You walk. Even if it’s from downtown Washington, D.C., across a bridge, to Northern Virginia. You walk a route that is normally only driven at high speed, in much traffic.

And then there was the heartache of the World Trade Center collapsing. The slow realization of the enormity of the event that was unfolding around us. The tears and the near-hyperventilation. The world turning upside down as I watched the streets outside my building fill with people, the highway clogged with cars that wouldn’t move for hours, police with big guns emerging from what felt like nowhere. And worst of all: the acrid smoke that hung in the air. In it, I felt the horror physically – stinging the back of my throat.

P1160246

And there were the questions. Not just “Who did this?” but “Is it over?” And “Will our highways or our bridges or our metros be attacked next?” “Will we be able to get home?” “Should we scrounge for food and prepare to stay in the office overnight?” “Should we evacuate?” And the loneliest question: “Where will we be safe?”

Much later, when it had been hours since the last attack, a touch of the normal came back. The metro reopened, allowing me to return home, albeit via a detour. We were rushed, without stopping, through a Pentagon station that smelled strongly of smoke. All were numb, quiet. It was beyond strange to know that every single person I saw was thinking about the same thing. It was awful to know that our glances at each other were both sympathetic and suspicious. We didn’t know who was at fault, or if they were done. The weight of it all was oppressive.

But still, that sky was blue. It was blue and horrible and sickening. It shouldn’t have been so pretty. It should have cried.

P1160251

That night I stood outside in the dark next to my uncle, looking at the big sky from the vantage of his small farm, where I was living at the time. He’d brought me out there to make me look at that awful, clear expanse. “Look; there are no planes in the sky. You’ll never see this again,” he told me.

I went back to work the next day, because We’re not going to let those terrorists get to us! I crossed that bridge over the Potomac once again. The sky was still blue, but this time I saw large white clouds of smoke or dust or steam billowing up from the Pentagon. We sped through the station again, smelling the smoke. We would do so — speed through without stopping — for days, perhaps weeks. Every time we did, I thought of the faces I’d seen getting off at that station that morning. I wondered where those people were, whether they were safe. I never saw them again.

The following day, I stayed home. I was exhausted and I needed to process what had happened.

I think I’m still working on it.

I know that my experience is nothing compared to that of those who escaped the Twin Towers, or who were injured in the Pentagon, or who searched frantically for information about their loved ones on that awful day and the ones that followed it. I don’t forget that thousands of people were lost and that thousands more continue to feel those losses acutely. I know that countless people feel like their lives were ripped apart that day.

Mine was not. I lost nothing more than some peace of mind.

And yet, to this day the sight of a clear, cloudless sky just about sends me into a panic attack. I don’t dwell on the yearly memorials, because I can hardly handle them. Re-reading my journal entry from that day, hearing a mention on the radio, seeing a “never forget” bumper sticker or Facebook meme – even just thinking about September 11th – it causes the anxiety to mount. I have to switch gears before it overwhelms me.

Why do I write all this? Because oddly enough, it’s countering the anxiety that always rises to the surface this time of the year. And because it’s my way of saying “never forget” without relying on the memes that sucker-punch me. Never forget: that day was real; its impact lives on; those lives were valuable.

I suppose it’s some long-overdue processing.

P1160254

God bless those who were lost that day. God bless those they left behind. God have mercy on those responsible.

And please? Don’t forget the Pentagon.

7 Quick Takes Friday (Vol. 13)

7 quick takes sm1 Your 7 Quick Takes Toolkit!

— 1 —

Well, we survived the first day of school! Though by “survived,” I mean something different than most parents do in referencing that Big Day.

As expected, our big 3-year-old (and his parents) had no problem with the drop-off. He was so busy building with blocks that he barely even acknowledged our goodbyes. (Our 2-year-old, however, cried angry tears and shouted “No bye! No bye!”) Big boy did fine in class; I did fine without him (though it definitely felt strange to only have one child with me); and little brother did tolerably well. He was a little sullen and kept asking for “Beh boys” (his nickname for his brother), but there were no more hysterics.

So. No real problems there. It ended up being the pick-up, post pre-school day that we had to survive. While all of my boy’s classmates ran to their moms with shining, happy faces at pick-up time, my guy ran straight past me, grumbling and grumpy. As we neared the car, all became clear: “I don’t wanna go home!” Now there were tears. And wails. And refusals of my attempts to take yet more pictures of the poor kid: “You already did dat!” I had to wrestle him into his car seat (no small feat; the child weighs 40 pounds) as he continued to sob, “I DON’T WANNA GO HOME!” (What must strangers have imagined of our home life?)

On the drive home, he huffed, “But, I didn’t want to weave!” Once home, we barely made it through the door before he flung himself onto the floor – an action borne of exhaustion and an unwillingness to move himself further into the place where he did not! want! to! be! A few minutes later, when I told him that I’d missed him, he answered, “I didn’t miss you!” (Ouch!) It continued. Him: “Did Daddy miss me?” Me: “I’m sure he did!” Him: “Did my brother miss me?” Me: “He missed you very much. Did you miss him?” Him: “Nope.”

You’d think he’d take a really good nap after all that, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong. Two hours! Two hours I left those boys in their room before I finally gave in and retrieved their annoyingly-awake little selves. They talked and whined the whole time, except for the few minutes, here and there, where they’d be totally quiet, probably teasing me: “Shhh! Let’s pretend we’re asleep… Shhh… Wait for it… Wait for it… Ha! We’re awake! Fooled her!” Their beautiful behavior continued well into the evening.

I’m now torn between wanting him to go back to school again ASAP because it’s clearly where he wants to be, and never wanting him to go back again, because then he’ll never want to leave.

Here are the before pics:

P1160172

P1160178

And here are the after:

P1160181

Sobbing because he doesn’t want to leave.

P1160183

— 2 —

Speaking of our 3-year-old and grumpiness… it’s been his M.O. lately. Evidence:

Nina, from the Sprout Goodnight Show: “Sproutlets, are you having a good night?”
Him: “No, I’m NOT havin’ a good night.”

He and I have been having a tough time of it the past few weeks. He shouts a mean-spirited “No!” or is otherwise obstinate in the face of my efforts to get him to… do normal things. Like go to the bathroom. Or wash his hands. Or eat. Or get in the car. So I get angry, and he gets put in time-out, so he melts down, and I get more angry… It’s been a little rough. (But please, do not tell me that “It’s not so much the terrible two’s as the terrible three’s!” At the moment, I cannot take the suggestion that this is going to last for another year.)

— 3 —

Per the above, the other day I happened to re-read a post I wrote a couple of months ago: A Love That Changes You. (If you haven’t read it yet, I hope you will. The re-read pushed it way up my list of favorites.) I wrote it right around my boy’s third birthday, and though the post hammers away at one of my favorite points – that each and every individual person is infinitely precious – it’s filled with love for this little guy in particular. It was good for me to revisit. In this season of “NO!” and “I didn’t miss you!” and “I don’t wanna go home!” it was good for me to recall that image of the rocking chair. It was good for me to read about my boy’s soft cheeks and long eyelashes. It was good for me to focus on my love for him, rather than my frustration.

— 4 —

That same post also touched me in a different, much sadder way, given recent events in Syria. More than a thousand people – many of them women and children – were killed in that chemical attack a couple of weeks ago. More than a hundred thousand have been killed in the two years since the fighting began. Millions have had to leave their homes, to live as refugees, to wander in search of safety.

I thought of them yesterday afternoon as I walked the trails of a local park with my boys. I looked out over the idyllic, peaceful scenery: forest, rolling hills, green farmland. I watched my boys run and squeal and crouch down to investigate small creatures, without a care in the world. We were safe. We were relaxed. We had the luxury of taking for granted our home and our family and our very lives.

Luxury. It’s easy to forget what a luxury such security is. But for millions of people living today, and for countless millions who lived before us, life has not been so much about seeking happiness as it has been about surviving.

There are mothers very much like me in Syria today. Mothers who dare not walk outside with their children for fear they will get caught in a crossfire. Other mothers who feel compelled to walk with their children, seeking refuge from a home that has become too dangerous. As I wrote in that post, “I hear about atrocities and I think of mothers rocking their babies.” It’s a powerful image for me.

I hope you’ll join me in answering Pope Francis’ call to prayer and fasting tomorrow, Saturday 7. Please pray for peace in Syria.

1236925_10151628469952285_826182560_n

— 5 —

The reason I re-read “A Love That Changes You” the other day is because I heard a compelling, sobering program on NPR’s Fresh Air. The story, called “Program Fights Gun Violence Bravado With ‘Story of Suffering,’” focused on a program at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. “Cradle to Grave” brings small groups of at-risk youth into the hospital to show them the repercussions of being shot. It traces the story of a 16-year-old who was killed in 2004, sharing the gritty details of the treatment he received, the instruments that were used on him, and the impact his death had on his family. To me, the piece pounded away at the “every life is precious” theme from my June post. It was at once sickening, sobering, edifying, and hopeful. It did something to recognize the victims of violence in our own country, to remember the communities in our own backyard where people can’t forget that security is a luxury.

— 6 —

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love Simcha Fischer. This week, I particularly loved her post, “The Allure of Either/Or.” In it, Simcha discusses recent debates regarding rape, modesty, men and women’s sexual attitudes towards each other. She notes how the debates tend to focus on one side or the other: either the burden for good behavior falls entirely on women or entirely on men. She writes:

Why does it have to be one or the other?  Why does it have to be either/or?  What ever happened to both/and?  I have boys and girls.  I tell my girls that they need to pay attention to what they wear, both for their own safety and sense of self-respect, and so as not to make trouble for people they meet.  And my husband tells my boys that they must respect women no matter what they wear; that somebody else’s dress or behavior, whether it’s intentional or clueless, is never an excuse for bad behavior on their part.  Both/and.

As Simcha points out, “both/and” applies to lots of issues. I feel her frustration all the time. Sometimes I shout at my radio: “Why do I have to choose a side? Why can’t both sides be a little right and a little wrong? Why can’t the answer be more nuanced?” I don’t feel that on every issue, of course, but there are an awful lot of political/societal issues that just aren’t easily answered. We shouldn’t feel compelled to answer them in an either/or fashion. I touched on this, on a very basic level, in my abortion post. One doesn’t have to be a pro-life Catholic or a social justice Catholic. It’s both/and. One is incomplete without the other.

— 7 —

Well, this 7 Quick Takes was a little heavier than my usual. So let me wrap up with a nice, simple little story.

Lately when we’ve encountered other families at the park (pretty rare, actually – we tend to go at everybody’s else’s naptime or dinnertime, I guess), we keep experiencing the same scenario: Our three-year-old is so excited to see the children that he follows them around, wanting to play with them. Inevitably he starts chasing them, roaring. He’s three. The kids, who are a few years older than him, plea to me with a whiny little “Can you tell him to stop chasing us?” I agree and then have to go break my little boy’s heart, because the wimpy eight-year-olds can’t handle some roaring. (Or more like it, they don’t want to play with a “little kid.”)

So when I saw a large group of older elementary and middle school kids, accompanied by a teenager, arrive at the park the other day, my heart sank. I braced myself for my little guy’s excitement and the big kids’ scorn. Perhaps with some disagreeable behavior and questionable language thrown in for good measure. But it never materialized. The big kids started straight in on a game and asked my boy if he wanted to play too. One took his hand and showed him what to do. They all talked to him and praised his ability on the playground equipment. (“Wow! That’s awesome! I can’t even do that!”) They commented, repeatedly, on how cute both of my boys were. Before I knew it, they’d taken the almost-two-year-old under their wings too.

Moreover, they were so nice to each other. There was no mean-spirited teasing, they were polite and kind, and they seemed genuinely concerned with each other’s wellbeing. It was enormously refreshing to witness – such a nice, simple little breath of fresh air for the middle of my week.

20130905_141450

Well, I guess that’s it. Have a great weekend, everyone, and don’t forget to stop by Jen’s to see all the rest of the Quick Takes!

On Abortion: Paul Ryan and Two Simple Questions

Almost a year ago, I was watching the Biden/Ryan Vice-Presidential Debate on television when the following exchange occurred:

MS. RADDATZ: I want to move on, and I want to return home for these last few questions. This debate is indeed historic. We have two Catholic candidates, first time on a stage such as this, and I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion. Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that. And please, this is such an emotional issue for so many —

REP. RYAN: Sure.

MS. RADDATZ: — people in this country. Please talk personally about this if you could. Congressman Ryan.

REP. RYAN: I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, about how to make sure that people have a chance in life.

Now, you want to ask basically why I’m pro-life? It’s not simply because of my Catholic faith. That’s a factor, of course, but it’s also because of reason and science. You know, I think about 10 1/2 years ago, my wife Janna and I went to Mercy Hospital in Janesville where I was born for our seven-week ultrasound for our firstborn child, and we saw that heartbeat. Our little baby was in the shape of a bean, and to this day, we have nicknamed our firstborn child, Liza, “Bean.” (Chuckles.)

Now, I believe that life begins at conception.

That’s why — those are the reasons why I’m pro-life.

Now, I understand this is a difficult issue. And I respect people who don’t agree with me on this. But the policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortion with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.

Before I tell you my reaction, let me point out that you can find the whole transcript here. And you can watch a video segment on this part of the debate here. Ryan had a few more comments after the ones I excerpted, but they all dealt with Biden and the Democratic party. And of course Biden gave his answer to Raddatz’s question, which is another topic for another day.

Though it goes without saying, let me also note that abortion is a highly controversial issue and that there are plenty of very real, very important emotional elements to the debate over it. But like Biden’s answer, I consider those elements to be other topics for other days. In this here blog post, I want to stick to the basic logic at the heart of the debate. And I want to give my reaction to Ryan’s answer, which is:

FUMBLE

What a terrific opportunity he missed! Sure, the “bean” story was cute, but Ms. Raddatz asked a question that gets right at two of the most precarious fault lines in American political discourse: (1) abortion and (2) religious influence on matters of public policy. Here’s what I think Representative Ryan should have said:

Reason and science informed my understanding that life begins at conception. My faith taught me that life matters – that human life is valuable and worth protecting.

For all the angst and gray areas and moral confusion over the issue of abortion, I think the logic at the heart of the debate is really very simple. It involves answering two basic questions: (1) When does life begin? And (2) (When) does life matter?

Here’s my thinking on that first question:

  • Conception is the only dividing line to which you can look for a clear differentiation between being and not being, therefore it is the only logical point at which life can begin.
  • That is, on this side of the line we have an egg with Mom’s DNA and a sperm with Dad’s. On that side we have a new being, a “zygote” with half of the DNA from each. Never again in our development do we see such a fundamental change.
  • From that point on, our cells divide and multiply. We grow exponentially. But we do not, in essence, change. We do not require anything but shelter, nutrition, and time to develop into a form that is easier for our eyes to identify as human.

If you were not to define conception as the point at which life begins, at precisely which other point on the continuum of development would you settle on?

  • Are we not alive when we look like a simple cluster of cells but we are alive when the cells have organized themselves into a spine and brain and heart?
  • Are we not alive when we’re free-floating embryos, but we are alive when, a moment later, we attach to our mother’s uterine wall?
  • Are we not alive before a physician can detect a heartbeat, but we are alive once our heartbeat has been witnessed?
  • Are we not alive before the 24th week of our mother’s pregnancy (the point at which today’s medical technology is capable of keeping us alive outside the womb), but we are alive once we’ve reached that 24-week mark?
  • Were we alive at 24 weeks a hundred years ago, when we would have died from being born so early?
  • Are we not alive when we’re lodged in the birth canal, awaiting our final exit from our mother’s body, but we are alive moments later, lying in her arms?
  • Or, are we alive when our mother wants us, not alive when she doesn’t?
  • Does our life depend on our physiology, or others’ perceptions of us?

20130726_192855

Okay, that’s enough with that one. Let’s move on to the second big, basic question: When does life matter? Or perhaps even, Does life matter? As far as I’m concerned, this is really the crux of the abortion debate, as well as the other life-related controversies: capital punishment, euthanasia, how we view people with disabilities, etc. The real question regarding abortion is not so much, “When does life begin?” It is, “At what point do we think life is worth protecting?”

And that’s where we have to look really hard at ourselves.

  • First of all, do we even believe that human life is worth protecting? Do we have a rigid “survival of the fittest” mentality, or do we believe that there is something special about the human person?
  • Second, if we indeed believe that human life, in the broad sense, is worth protecting, then which individual human lives are we honestly thinking about? Are we thinking about those we love? Are we thinking about those with whom we share beliefs, culture, class, race, nationality? Those who seem able and good? Or are we also thinking of the “other”?
  • Third, if we believe that some human lives are worthy of protection and we’re also thinking of those who are unlike ourselves, then do we take the final step? Do we believe that every single individual is inherently worthy of life, just by virtue of being human?

If we can’t make that leap, where do we draw our lines? Do we draw them at age, at health status, at conduct, at convenience, at others’ desire for the individual? Do we draw them along those ancient lines of family, faith, tribe, class, etc.?

  • Is a life only worth protecting when s/he is at a convenient age, in good health, innocent of crimes, wanted by the people around her/him, and a member of a favored family/tribe/class/nationality?
  • Is a life worth protecting when a certain few of those conditions are fulfilled?
  • Or, is a life always worth protecting?

And what about those babies – those zygotes/embryos/fetuses – whatever you want to call them? Reason tells us that, from the day they’re conceived to the day they die, they’re alive. But at what point do we think they are inherently valuable and worthy of protection?

  • Are they worth protecting once they’ve reached a certain developmental stage? Once modern medicine is able to keep them alive outside the womb? When they were conceived through a consensual encounter? When – and only when – their mothers want them? When they are judged to be perfectly healthy and convenient?
  • Is a baby’s life worth protecting when a certain few of those conditions are fulfilled?
  • Or, again, is a baby’s life always worth protecting?

My Catholic faith – the one I share with Representative Paul Ryan – teaches that human life is always important. It always has value. It should always be protected. Rep. Ryan indeed got something right when he said, “My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, about how to make sure that people have a chance in life.” I don’t know enough about him to understand exactly what he means by “take care” and “vulnerable” and “make sure people have a chance.” But I know that the Catholic Church is eminently consistent in its message: People have a right to life, from conception to natural death. People also have a right to the basic necessities of life: namely food, shelter, and health care. (In my opinion, to advocate for one – the “right to life” or “social justice” – but not the other is to miss the point.)

I accept the Church’s teaching on the inherent value and dignity of life. As a Catholic, I believe that people are precious – every single one: The beautiful, treasured, long-wanted newborn in his mother’s arms; the unborn child of a woman contemplating abortion; the baby girl thrown away as trash because she was unfortunate enough to be born into a culture that favors boys; the child with a congenital disease or developmental disability; the frail person suffering an illness that will surely take her life; the person who committed a crime that not only irreparably hurt others, but also harmed his own soul. They all count.

Reason and science informed my understanding that life begins at conception. My faith taught me that life matters – that human life is valuable and worth protecting.

20130726_192927

Care to answer any of the dozens of questions I listed above? Leave a comment! And I do (cringe) really mean that.

A Love That Changes You

I have always loved children. I was one of those girls people call a “Little Mother.” The kind who sit in the shade under a tree with all the strollers, “helping” the babies and their mommies, despite all the fun-looking older kids running around playing tag.

Later I was a prolific babysitter, my weekends full of watching cousins and neighbors and my mom’s friends’ children. I loved all those little kids: the angels and the troublemakers, the lively ones and the meek. (Or rather, I loved almost all of them – we won’t talk about the spoiled 12-year-old who locked me out of her house.)

I especially loved my cousins, and later my nieces: The children whom I loved not because they were cute or sweet (though of course they all were), but truly for their own sake. They were born and with us and part of our family and I loved them. It’s as simple as that.

J holding K, 1992

So it’s not like I entered motherhood as a complete novice in the baby department. I felt prepared for the work involved in caring for a child and I was aware that there would be a tremendous emotional strain to deal with. I also knew that I would feel a love for my own child that would be different from any I had yet experienced.

But I wasn’t prepared for my infant son to teach me something about the whole of humanity. Or for him to give me a humbling, awe-filled glimpse into the heart of God.

B as newborn

So many nights, I sat in the rocker and nursed my baby boy. I studied his perfection: smooth, clear skin; long eyelashes; soft, round cheeks; creases at his wrists and thighs; dimples on his hands; wispy, fair hair; chest moving gently as he breathed his sweet breath; heart thump- thump- thumping in that reassuring way… I could go (and I have gone) on. At any rate, I can provide the images, but I can’t express the depth of the love I felt in those moments.

B Thanksgiving 2010

B outside 2011

The love which, of course, I continue to feel. We just celebrated my son’s third birthday. These days when I kiss my boy’s forehead, I think more on the funny and imaginative things he says; on his hugs for his brother; on his flushed, sweaty face and bright blue eyes when he runs around the playground; on the way he likes to kiss both of my cheeks, like the little French boy he isn’t. And the feeling is the same. Stronger, perhaps.

B summer 2012

A couple of years ago I sat in a different rocking chair, listening to a C-SPAN Booknotes interview with Iris Chang on her book The Rape of Nanking. I won’t describe the horror of the event on which the book is centered; I will only say that I was horrified. More than horrified: I felt a pain that seemed to go straight to my soul.

I sat there rocking my baby as I listened and I had this powerful image in my mind of all those other women who had rocked their babies – the babies who grew to become the victims and perpetrators of this most terrible of crimes. I thought of how I stroked my own son’s skin as I held him, how I smoothed his hair and absorbed the feeling of his weight against me. I treasured my son. I saw him for the precious, important being that he was – a human life and a child of God. Surely, those mothers must have felt the same about their babies. They must have known exactly how precious those lives were.

And yet some of those lives were treated with contempt. They were brushed aside, abused, degraded. I felt like screaming, “Didn’t you know how important those people were?!” Others were degraded by their own actions. Their mothers rocked innocent babies who grew to do grave evil. I can’t imagine that any mother would want such a future for her child.

So it goes on. I hear about atrocities and I think of mothers rocking their babies: The Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, the rampage in Afghanistan, the murders in Newtown. I think of the victims, but I think of the perpetrators too. I can’t hate them. I mourn for them and the damage they did to their souls. I mourn for their mothers’ sakes. I mourn even for Kermit Gosnell, who took those most unfortunate of babies: the ones whose mothers did not protect them, did not rock them, did not realize how very precious they were.

But I firmly believe that someone else knew exactly how precious those babies were. I believe that God valued and loved those babies from the moment they were conceived. All of them: those of Nanking, the Holocaust, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Newtown, Gosnell, and so many other tragedies. And us too. We may think that we live normal, unremarkable, run-of-the-mill lives, but I believe that God views each and every one of us as unique and infinitely precious.

When I remember rocking my babies and I ponder the intense, indescribable love I feel for them, I think to myself, “If I love my boys this much, how much more must God love me?” When the answer sinks in, when I get that small glimpse into the heart of God, it just about takes my breath away. I am full of awe and gratitude and a keen awareness of how little I deserve that love. But I also know that I don’t have to deserve it. My boys don’t have to do a thing to earn my love. And there’s nothing they could do to stop me loving them.

I think most mothers would say the same. Through all of history and across all the world, mothers love their babies. They hold them tight and rock them. They treasure them. In them they see individuality and worth and promise. And all the while, God looks over their shoulders. He gazes at each and every one of us with a parent’s love, but greater. He loves and values us when our own parents fail to, when other people make victims of us, and even when we damage our souls with acts of evil.

Feeling that love, letting it all sink in and settle around you as you rock your child on a quiet afternoon, that’s a love that changes you.

Ring Bearer

Full Disclosure

As I plan to write about some political and religious issues on this blog, I thought it would be useful to provide a little background on the evolution of my outlook in these areas. (I have all these country songs running through my head as I write this: “Where I Come From,” “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you,” etc.)

I thought this little ‘disclosure of my biases,’ as I think of it, would be useful for a few reasons: (1) Political and religious subjects can be pretty touchy. (No surprise there.) (2) Our opinions on them usually have a strong basis in our own life experiences. (3) I aim to be as fair, open, and even-handed on this blog as I can be. And (4) I personally prefer news and commentary sources that either (a) represent both sides of an issue equally well or (b) openly disclose their opinions and make no pretense of impartiality. So I kind of thought I’d cover all my bases.

But before I go any further, let me say that this post makes me nervous and I had a hard time writing it. (Which is part of the reason I wrote so few posts this past week. I was trying to take this one in a different direction and it stumped me.) The words below represent my past and my thought processes and my faith, family, and friends, and it’s all very personal. It’s also probably a big ol’ case of TMI. But I felt like I needed to get all this out there before I proceed with a bunch of other posts I have lined up in my head.

So…

I was raised Catholic in that I regularly attended mass with my mother and I was provided with a religious education through our parish. But my father is not Catholic and there was little mention of faith in our (very happy) home. These days when I read blogs that mention a devotion to this saint, or a fondness for that novena, or a special attachment to such-and-such prayer, or a thousand little ways to live out the liturgical seasons, I feel kind of lost. Like I don’t fully fit into a community that should be my own. Yes, I’m Catholic. Yes, I love Christ, I am devoted to His Church, and faithful to its teachings. But no, I’m not familiar with all the trappings of my Faith.

While there wasn’t much discussion of religion in my family, there was a lot about politics. My grandfather was a local elected official, so I was exposed to campaigns and political chatter from a young age. Various family members worked on Granddad’s campaigns and we all helped on Election Day (which was just about my favorite day of the year when I was a child). My family was (and remains) very Republican in a very Democratic state, so I was instilled with a strong attachment to conservative ideals, but no illusion that these ideals were universal. (Rather, I understood that they were uncommon and needed to be defended.)

In my (public) high school I had a great group of smart, articulate, and religiously/politically diverse friends. And we liked a good debate. As the sole practicing Catholic and one of the only conservatives, I became the defender of all things Catholic and some things conservative. Just as my family’s experience as members of a minority party had prodded my attachment to conservatism, so my lunch-table debate experience bonded me to my Faith. Not that I understood it very well: eight years of Sunday school and one year of confirmation class do not a well-informed Catholic make. But my own little role as Defender of the Faith prompted me to research, ask questions, contemplate, and pray.

This all set the stage nicely for my next step: a political science major at a Catholic college. More lunch table discussions, this time with classmates and seminarians who had been raised in devoutly Catholic families, gave me glimpses of the depth and beauty awaiting me in the Church. Philosophy and theology classes helped me to better understand it. And my political science courses, not to mention informal discussions with friends and professors, gave me an appreciation for the broader context in which we live out our religious ideals. I had always been interested in the convergence of differing ideas; in college I became particularly interested in the convergence of politics and religion.

I wrote my senior thesis on “The American Catholic and the Two Political Parties,” which explored the poor fit between the Church’s teachings on matters of public policy and the ideological break-out of today’s American political parties. I also completed an internship with a Catholic organization that advocated on behalf of the Church’s public policy interests. Several years later, after a stint with the federal government, I returned to the organization to work as a lobbyist for the Church.

There, I was tasked with representing the Church’s positions on social justice matters, which included a wide range of issues related to poverty, housing, health care, and immigration. (Along with a few others.) Most of the positions were what Americans would call “liberal.” Which was a real challenge for me. Coming from a conservative background, I was comfortable with the Church’s teachings on abortion and marriage. I was comfortable promoting school choice. But the Church’s social justice teachings made me uncomfortable. I didn’t necessarily think they were wrong; it’s just that they challenged the political ideals under which I was raised and so they caused discomfort.

Oh, what a learning and growing experience it was for me. I read and I talked to people and I prayed.  I began to gain something of an understanding of people who faced challenges that I never had – people who struggled to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads, people who came to this country seeking a better life, people whose poor health or poor treatment by others or whose own poor decisions had stymied their chances of making it on their own – and even people who struggled to be able to function in society at all. I was changed and I was humbled.

I was grateful for the opportunity to give voice to these people’s concerns – and also for what I felt was an opportunity to bring people closer to Christ through this work of His Church. I feel like a cheesy ball of mush writing this, but I had so many moving experiences doing this work: I huddled in a group of elderly immigrant women and tried to convey to them (through our language barrier) that their Church was there for them. I spoke to crowds at parishes and pleaded with them to connect their own preferred cause for the “least of these” with another that was more challenging for them. I testified before lawmakers and told them, time and again, that all human life has value, regardless of its age or station.

Perhaps I have digressed. What I’m trying to explain is that, yes, I come from a particular place on the political spectrum. I get the conservative thing. But I have also been emerged in an unfamiliar (liberal) political territory, and I got to know it too. I feel richer for the experience.

When I was a lobbyist, I found that I could lobby more effectively when I put myself in the shoes of my opponents – imagining and even empathizing with their motivations. I think the same holds true when you’re discussing a difficult subject. All too often these days, people seem to regard consideration of and empathy with “the other side” as a sign of weakness, even foolishness. But it is such an asset. Sure, it helps you to build a solid case for your own cause. But more importantly, it helps you to explore your own opinions and motivations and be sure that you’re on the right course.

When you get together a group of people who all bring this kind of consideration to their conversation – well, that kind of discussion moves everyone forward in understanding. That is what I feel my background has prepared me for and that is what I hope to encourage with this blog.