Fr. Zosima on active love

Time to re-read The Brothers Karamazov again, don’t you think? Any time someone asks me to name a book that changed my life, Brothers K is top of the list.

I linked to the Constance Garnett translation, since that’s the one I first encountered in college. I’m open to suggestions! See The Translation Wars for a fascinating essay on various translators and how they came to approach Dostoevsky in the way they did.

And now for the passage I wanted to share, where the holy Fr. Zosima counsels a woman in despair over her lack of spiritual progress. He recounts a conversation with a famous doctor:

‘I love mankind,’ [the doctor] said, ‘but I marvel at myself:  the more  I love mankind in general, the less I love human beings in particular, separately, that is, as individual persons.  In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I would often arrive at fervent plans of devotion to mankind and might very possibly have gone to the Cross for human beings, had that been suddenly required of me, and yet I am unable to spend two days in the same room with someone else, and this I know from experience.  No sooner is that someone else close to me than her personality crushes my self-esteem and hampers my freedom.  In the space of a day and a night I am capable of coming to hate even the best of human beings:  one because he takes too long over dinner, another because he has a cold and is perpetually blowing his nose.  I become the enemy of others,’ he said, ‘very nearly as soon as they come into contact with me.  To compensate for this, however, it has always happened that the more I have hated human beings in particular, the more ardent has become my love for mankind in general.’

‘But then what is to be done?  What is to be done in such a case?  Is one to give oneself up to despair?’

[and Fr. Zosima responds:]  No, for it sufficient that you grieve over it.  Do what you are able, and it will be taken into consideration.  In your case, much of the work has already been done, for you have been able to understand yourself so deeply and sincerely!  If, however, you have spoken so sincerely to me now only in order to receive the kind of praise I have just given you for your truthfulness, then you will, of course, get nowhere in your heroic attempts at active love; it will all merely remain in your dreams, and the whole of your life will flit by like a wraith.  You will also, of course, forget about the life to come, and you will end by somehow acquiring a kind of calm.

[…]

Never be daunted by your own lack of courage in the attainment of love, nor be over-daunted even by your bad actions in this regard. I regret I can say nothing more cheerful to you, for in comparison to fanciful love, active love is a cruel and frightening thing. Fanciful love thirsts for the quick deed, swiftly accomplished, and that everyone should gaze upon it. In such cases the point really is reached where people are even willing to give their lives just as long as the whole thing does not last an eternity but is swiftly achieved, as on the stage, and as long as everyone is watching and praising. Active love, on the other hand, involves work and self-mastery, and for some it may even becomes a whole science. But I prophesy to you that at the very moment you behold with horror that in spite of all your efforts, not only have you failed to move towards your goal, but even seem to have grown more remote from it – at that very moment, I prophesy to you, you will suddenly reach that goal and discern clearly above you the miracle-working power of the Lord, who has loved you all along and has all along been mysteriously guiding you.

 

Protected: Podcast #14: I wish I had a whip

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

God Almighty in the crumbs

If God is so great, eternal and omnipotent and omniscient and all, why the heck does He care about a few ounces of processed animal protein? What difference could it possibly make? What kind of infinite deity even notices stuff like that? And how in the world can you say that God is love if He cares about hot dogs?

Read my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

How to date your wife

Cream of tartar!  Semiconductors!  Onomatopoeia!  Gerbil bedding!  Notary public!  Joint compound!  Abstract expressionism!  Borscht!

That was me, trying to think of something, anything, to write about other than Valentine’s Day.  What do I know about Valentine’s Day, anyway?  It’s taken me most of my married life to admit that there’s not really anything wrong with women who like flowers, and it’s taken me another full year to admit that I’m actually one of them.

And yet here we are.

Well, from my meager mental resources, by which I mean that I just made 84 cupcakes, each with its own Froot By the Foot rosebud and I’m kind of tired and possibly a little bit drunk on icing, I can offer you this:

FIVE TIPS ON HOW TO DATE YOUR WIFE

1.  Practice your pick-up lines.

But I’m already married!  Why in the name of Cryil and Methodius do I have to worry about pick-up lines? you may ask yourself.  And then you may make some stupid joke about how you won’t be picking up your wife any time soon because your insurance doesn’t cover hernia surgery, and so on.  This is the wrong route to take.

What your wife wants to hear is something that shows that you don’t take her for granted—something that invites her to look at you with new eyes, rather than assuming she might as well have a paper bag over her head, as long as all the rest of the parts are in the right place.

Try something with equal parts romance and danger, such as, “Hey, baby, I’m feeling very . . . open to life tonight.”  It’s possible that she will pick up the first heavy object available and try to bash your head in with it, but at least you aroused some kind of reaction, which means you’re halfway there.

2.  Compliment her looks.

If a woman is home with a bunch of kids all day long, she knows that if she steps out of the house, all the men on the street are going to see one thing:  a mess.  A saggy-bellied, baggy-eyed, slump-shouldered, spit up-caked, used-up, milk-smelling, mom-haired mess.

What you need to do to win her heart and put a spring back into her step is to let her know that you don’t see her that way.  You know her heart, and you see the grace and loveliness that will always be there.  So you can try something like, “Have I told you how nice your abdominal muscles look, all separated like that?”  or “I think women with one shoulder that’s lower than the other one are the sexiest ones in the world, don’t you?”

3.  Spend lavishly.

Show her you think she’s worth it.  Take my word for it, she’ll know she’s dealing with a prince among men when she sees you lay that money down.  “Darlin’,” you can say with youthful impetuousness, “let’s go ahead and pay the electric bill on time this month—how’d that be?  Sky’s the limit, or up until 40 kilowatt hours, whichever comes first”  Swoon!

4.  Ply her with cocktails.

Okay, you may actually have to slow her down on this one.  It could be cute to offer little jests such as, “Slow down, little girl—that’s no shirley temple!”  Then you can have a good laugh, as long as it doesn’t interfere with you getting Mama some more ice.

5.  Heat things up with an intimate shower.

And by intimate, I mean just her.  She hasn’t washed her hair in, like, five weeks, and she doesn’t even get to check on how her mustache is coming along without answering a lot of stupid questions.  Stand in front of the door with a rifle, if necessary, but DO NOT LET ANYONE ELSE IN THE BATHROOM.  Remember:  40 kilowatt hours.  You promised.

Gentlemen, you can thank me later.  Right after you go get Mama some more ice.

***

A version of this post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2012.

8 Toddler Tips for a Very Special Valentine’s Day

The tired old trope says that kids ruin a couple’s romantic life. Well, I’m a tired old trope myself, and I’m here to tell you that nothing could be wronger. Since tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, I’d like to share with you a few special ideas that come straight from the little cherubs themselves. Every single one unmistakably spells out L-O-V-E.

 

1. COME HITHER

How about a playful little game of suspense to build up the anticipation? Rose petals are so passé. Try leaving an enticing trail of rice krispies leading from the front door to the bedroom, as if to say, “Follow my lead, and we’ll see what happens under the covers!” And then when you get to the bed, you pull back the covers to find the rest of the bowl of cereal, with milk. Talk about snap, crackle, pop!

2. OR LEAVE A KISS WITHIN THE CUP

Everyone thinks of wine for romance, but did you know that just about anything will ferment if you leave it in a sippy cup under some stuffed animals for long enough? Vintage is important for special moments. You want to decant it at just the right moment, after it’s already started collecting fruit flies, but before it solidifies into a chunk. That way, it can still leak a little bit. Rrrrowr!

 

3. GO SKIN DEEP

Ready for something to get your heart moving? Nothing beats temporary tattoos, to transform that same old, familiar old skin into something exotic and unexpected. Try this technique: Find your sister’s grape-scented marker and scribble all over your knees and belly. Then up the ante with a permanent marker, and decide you want to make di’saur teef on you face. Then eat the marker and poop grape for the next three days. Bow chicka wow wowww.

 

4. SWEET NOTHINGS

Assorted chocolates? Pardon me while I die yawning. Nothing says “spontaneity” like presenting your loved one with a gallon of milk that, despite the “homogenous” label, actually contains a surprising array of assorted buttons, pens, and semi-dissolvable snacks that someone has shoved in there. Imagine the look on her face when she just wants to have a cup of coffee with milk, but instead, a sludgy fig newton slides into her mug and splashes coffee into her face. Ha cha cha!  

 

5. LET YOURSELF GO

Valentine’s Day is, above all, a day of passion. Instead of regular old predictable passion, try throwing yourself down with abandon, writhing around, and doing that howling gargle thing for no reason at all. It’s a special day, so why not ratchet up the excitement by whacking the side of your head against the table leg and then vomiting in rage? Everyone will think it’s a concussion, so you can finish off the rest of the evening in the romantic low lights of an emergency room getaway, where you can laze away the hours far from your responsibilities, hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour, waiting for the certain special someone to call your name, pronounce it wrong, and charge you $475 to shine a penlight in your eyeballs and say you’re fine. ¡Ay, mamita!

 

6. IT IS ALWAYS OURSELVES THAT WE FIND AT THE SEA

Speaking of getaways, how overdone is the “romance on the beach” thing? Basically all it is is something gritty underfoot, and the sound of water sloshing around. You got this.

 

7. SOUTHERN EXPOSURE

Don’t forget photography, you know, CANDID photography, snap snap, grin grin, wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more. Load up your beloved’s phone memory with 532 pictures of your nostrils, your thumb, and part of the couch leg, and also some brief videos of you shrieking, “NO, YOU’RE A POOP HEAD.” Stand back and watch the sparks fly. Homina homina homina. 

And finally

8. TURN UP THE HEAT

by turning up the heat. Seriously, they still haven’t figured out a way to lock down the thermostat. Twiddle away! How you doin’?

***

 

 

Image of box of chocolates by Stewart Butterfield (Flickr: Valentines Chocolates) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Like it was part of his name

naples_-_old_couple_1890s

My husband and I both work at our computers off and on throughout the day, and we email back and forth a lot.  Every once in a while, I get what looks like an empty message from him — just a series of dots in a box.  This makes me  laugh every time, because I know what happened:  It’s just Gmail being too smart for its own good again.  When you end every email the same way, Gmail thinks it’s your signature, and thinks it doesn’t have to include it in every email, especially if it’s a response to a response to a response to a response to a response.  The recipient must know who it’s from by now.  So smart, right?

And so, when I get an empty email from my husband, I know it’s because he wrote “I love you.”  He says it so often, at the end of so many emails, Gmail thinks it’s part of his name.  Gmail thinks that’s who he is.

I used to be skeptical of people who dashed off a hasty “I love you” all the time.  “Don’t forget to pick up some ketchup and laundry detergent!” — “‘Kay, love you!” Way to cheapen the sentiment, I thought to myself.  Why not save it for when you can say it from the bottom of your heart?  That way, you both know it really means something.

I don’t know if I’ve grown softer or what (mentally, I mean.  Physically, there’s no question), but I’ll tell you what:  I need it now.  I need to hear him tell me he loves me, over and over again, especially when we’re talking about ketchup and laundry detergent and dentist appointments and parent-teacher conferences and taxes and who needs more fiber in their diet.  I need the reminder that he knows who I am, even on the days when, according to our accomplishments, we could easily be replaced by some unskilled laborers and an adding machine.

And I need to hear it when I know he’s mad at me.  He writes it then, too.  He always writes it, and he always means it, because that’s who he is.  It’s almost like it’s part of his name.

Husbands and wives, do this for each other.  Say “I love you.”  You don’t have to do it all the time, but do it!  Don’t let it go unsaid.  We all need to say it, we all need to hear it.  And, if we want to stay married, we have to act like we mean it.

***

[This post originally ran at the National Catholic Register in 2013.]

Image: Anonymous (Old postcard) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We can rediscover the truth about love

Ever taken a look at those cave-dwelling, bottom-lurking creatures that have adapted to the dark? They are interesting beyond belief. Their standard-issue organs go dormant, to be replaced with specialised appendages, antennae, and adaptive organs to make their way around.

The same thing happens to our souls, to our understanding of what life and love, childbearing and sexuality mean, if we spend too many generations shutting out the light. We sprout cumbersome appendages to our consciences; we develop outlandish workarounds to facing the truth. We have eyes still, but they no longer function. A sense of right and wrong is still graven in our hearts, but layer after layer of scar tissue forms over it until our hearts appear blank. Whatever we want to write on them, we may: we call it “our truth”, and it passes, in the dark. It passes.

Read the rest of my latest at the Catholic Herald UK.

Image by Mark Basarab via Unslplash

Undeserving, unremarkable, unreliable, and beloved

Odd for the magi to know enough to prostrate themselves, in their jewels and flowing robes, before the seemingly unremarkable but truly extraordinary son of Mary; odder still, odd times a billion, for that Son to prostrate Himself for us, who are truly unremarkable.

Why? Why would He do this?

Because, to Him, every last one of us is that child who is unlike any other child. Each one of us is cherished like the “little man” who is adorable just because he enjoys eating eggs, or sweet beyond compare just because he has learned to blow kisses, like billions of other babies. To Christ, each of us is that special one, that cherished child, that singularly beloved one who makes his parent’s heart swell with affection.

Read the rest of my latest post at The Catholic Weekly.

Image: detail of photo by Andreĭ Osipovich Karelin, Public Domain

Shh, there’s a baby nearby!

The speaker said that one fellow at the back of the line had his wife with him, and she was begging to leave the hall so they could get some lunch and see the sights before it was time to make the long drive back home. “Stop!” the husband hissed in a rage. “This is my only chance to talk to Dr LoveExpert!”

And the good doctor heard, and despaired. The fellow was so on fire to talk about marriage that he didn’t have time for his actual wife.

We all do stupid stuff like this …

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

***

Image by Vera Kratochvil

No, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” doesn’t need to be updated to emphasize consent

Unpopular opinion time! “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” isn’t a rape song. It’s not even a rapey song. It’s a seduction song, and we used to know the difference between seduction and rape, before we elevated consent to the highest good.

Apparently there is an arch parody that updates the song to emphasize consent. I despise arch parodies, so I refuse to watch it, and you can’t make me.

For the record, I don’t even especially like the original song. It’s okay, as far as cutesy duets go. It does an adequate job of capturing a familiar relationship between a man and a woman. As with any song, you can make it come across as creepy and criminal; but you can also make it come across as it was originally intended: as playful.  The couple is literally playing a game, a very old one, where the man wants what he wants, and the woman wants it too, but it’s more fun for both of them when he has to work for it a little bit. It’s a song about persuasion. That’s what seduction is, and that’s what makes the song interesting: the tension. If there is no tension, there is no song.

Here are the full lyrics. The woman’s lines are in parenthesis. If you’re convinced this song is a rape song, please do read through the lyrics before you read the rest of this post!

You’ll note that the only protests the woman makes are that her reputation might be soiled. She doesn’t say that she wants to go, only that she should. This is because  . . . I’m dying a little inside because I actually have to say it . . . she actually wants to stay. As women often do, when they are already in a relationship with a man they are attracted to and with whom they have been spending a romantic evening, and whom they have been telling repeatedly that they are actually interested in staying.

Most critics get hung up on the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?” The assumption is that he’s slipped a drug into her cocktail (or, occasionally, that he’s spiked her virgin drink with alcohol). Okay. Or maybe, at the end of an evening of dancing and drinking, he’s added a little more liquor than she’s expecting. Or maybe he hasn’t done anything, other than give her the “half a drink more” she just asked for, and she’s playfully making an excuse for what she’s about to do:  Whoo, what’s in this drink? I’m acting all silly, but it can’t be my fault, mercy me!  This was a standard trope of that era. Anytime something weird goes on, you blame the bottle.

Again: there is no indication, unless you take that one line out of context, that there is anything sinister going on. There is overwhelming evidence, if you listen to the whole song, that it’s a song about a pleasurable interplay between the sexes.

Heck, if we’re going to give this song the darkest possible reading, and single out one line while ignoring the context, why not call it the False Rape Accusation song? After all, the woman says, “At least I’m gonna say that I tried!” You see? She’s calculating a malicious plan to claim that she didn’t give consent, so that when her family and neighbors look askance at her for spending the night, she can make it seem like it was against her will!

Humbug. This is what happens when we’re all trained to see consent as the highest good. This is what happens when we’re trained to ignore context. People who can’t tell the difference between persuasion and force are people who have forgotten why consent is so important.

Consent isn’t valuable in itself. If it were, then it would be a holy and solemn moment when we check the “I agree” box when signing onto free WiFi at Dunkin’ Donuts. Consent is only a good thing because it’s in service to other things — higher things with intrinsic value, such as fidelity, free will, self sacrifice, respect, happiness, integrity, and . . . love. These are all things that you can’t have unless you have consent.

But when all you look for is consent, and you ignore the context, you get two human beings who see each other in rigid roles — business partners with black and white contractual obligations. In short, you have what modern people say they despise about the bad old days: love as a business arrangement.

My friends, I firmly believe there is such a thing as rape culture. When we wink and smirk and say, “Boys will be boys,” we degrade both women and men, and we teach women that they have a duty to give men whatever they want so they’re not a tease or a downer. We teach men that they can’t control themselves. We teach women that they can’t really say no, and that if they do, they’ll be scoffed at or blamed or disbelieved. When we tell the world that “no means maybe,” we’re setting the stage for rape.

But is this song doing that? Or is it just a little vignette of that deliciously warm in-between place, where reasonable people can have fun together? Because when we step outside, and make everything black and white, then, baby, it’s cold. So cold.

We degrade both men and women when we tell them that sex is just another contractual obligation — and that there’s no difference between a violent encounter between strangers, and a playful exchange between a romantic couple, and a violent exchange between a romantic couple, and a loving relationship in marriage, and a violent relationship in marriage. We’re told that the relationship doesn’t matter, and that the actual behavior has no intrinsic meaning. The only thing that matters is consent. We think that focusing on consent will ensure that no one will be degraded or taken advantage of; but instead, it has won us abominations like “empowering porn” and 50 Shades of Gray and even the suggestion that children can give consent.  It wins us a generation of kids that asks things like, “How can I tell if she consents or not, if she’s not conscious?” (A real question I read from a high school kid; I’ll add the link if I can find it again!) These miseries are not a side effect; they are the direct result of a culture that elevates consent to the highest good.

It’s not only promiscuous, secular types whose lives are impoverished by the cold rule of consent. I’m a member of a group of Catholics where one young woman wrote for advice about her husband, who, she tearfully reported, kissed her without first asking consent. This made her feel violated.

It was her husband.

Who kissed her.

And she thought he needed to ask consent every time.

This is where the pendulum has swung. We’ve pathologized the normal, healthy, give-and-take of love. We’ve taught people that there is no such thing as context: that’s it’s fair game to ignore the entire relationship and to reduce each other to business partners.

Now, if you’ve been victimized or abused, then this is probably not going to be your favorite song. You’re free to find it creepy, and you’re free to change the station. But we don’t heal from abuse by turning the whole world into an isolation ward. Healthy relationships, where the context does allow for some interplay and ambiguity, should be the norm, and they should dare to speak their healthy name.

And one more thing (and I could write volumes about this): not everything is a lesson. Not every pop song is a primer for how to behave. I tell my kids that it’s our duty to be aware of what the world is teaching us, for good or ill; but just because we’re learning something doesn’t mean there was a life lesson intended.  Sometimes art, including pop art (like pop songs) is just giving you a slice of human experience, and when it feels familiar, then it’s done well, period.

No wonder people have no idea how to stay married anymore. They expect everything to be a lesson, and they expect those lessons to be black and white. They think that life is going to give them crystal clear boundaries. They think that it’s always going to be obvious what they can expect from other people and from themselves.

I’m not talking about sex, here; I’m talking about love, and about life in general — life without context, life without tension, life without ambiguity, life without play. Baby, it doesn’t get any colder than that.

***
Image: Pedro Ignacio Guridi via Flickr (Creative Commons)
This essay ran in a slightly different form on Aleteia in 2015.