Childhood is a wild bird

The first time I took my kids out to hand feed wild birds, it didn’t go well.

I had hit upon the activity out of desperation at the beginning of spring vacation. The kids were so bored, but I had COVID and was much too tired and contagious for outings. We had long since exhausted the charms of reading books via FaceTime, with and without silly filters, and even the kids were tired of TV.

But maybe we could feed the birds together! We could sit in chairs, safely distanced, enjoying nature, being quiet, doing something wholesome and memorable, and did I mention being quiet?

It didn’t go so well. But that was okay. It was pleasant enough just being outside, and I’m a firm believer in the value of unstructured, unplugged time for kids. We thought we might get a nibble or two, but you really do have to be quiet to attract birds, and my youngest is made out of monkeys. The first few times she squirmed or chattered, I fondly and gently shushed her; but I recalled that our goal was to have a nice time together, so before long, I released her, and we dispersed without having fed or even seen a single bird.

We agreed it was fun, though, or at least potentially fun. Apparently you really can train birds to get to know you. I talked about our attempt on social media, and people shared photos and videos of their kids’ success in making friends with these wild creatures.

The idea began to take hold. I started to see hand feeding wild birds as the ideal summer activity. By the end of vacation, I thought, this is how we would greet every morning: We would step into the backyard with a handful of seed, and our feathered friends, who knew our gentle ways, would flock to us like a gang of modern day St. Francises.

A eager twittering grew in my heart. It was everything I wanted for my kids: A break from screen time, a memorable bonding experience, and a naturally contemplative pastime that would sweetly, easily open the gates for all kinds of other goods of the spirit.

The idea took flight. This could be about so much more than birds, I thought…

Read the rest of my essay for Catholic San Francisco here

The Church you’re building

When St. Francis had a vision of Jesus, he made an honest mistake. The Lord told him to rebuild his church, so St. Francis, with a willing heart, set to work rebuilding the literal, physical church right in front of him. Block by block, he put the chapel of San Damiano back together. 

But of course Christ had bigger plans. He meant for St. Francis to do the much vaster work of renewing and restoring the Church in general, which was in a much sorrier state. 

I have been thinking of this lately when I hear people — myself, included, say something a lot of people have been saying lately: “I’m so tired of the Church.” 

There are a lot of reasons to be tired. There are a lot of reasons to be weary, discouraged, disgusted, fed up, furious, maybe even done with the Church.

First, let me be clear. There are people who feel this way, who have truly done their best to seek out the good, true, and beautiful in the institution founded by Christ, but it seems that every Catholic they encounter is on a mission to show them the bad, false, and ugly. I know people who are trying tremendously hard to refocus their hearts and minds on what is essential and eternal about the faith, but they are met, again and again, with Catholics who wound them profoundly. And I will not tell them that they should just work harder to get past it.

I know people who have tried to get away from what is hurting them in the church, and they have found that they can’t, because they’ve already been wounded so deeply. They carry their wounds with them, and when they walk, they bleed. I’m not going to tell people in this state what they ought to do, or where they ought to go. 

But that’s only some people. There are others, who, when they say, “I’m so tired of the Church,” are in a different place entirely. I know, because sometimes this is me.

Sometimes, when I’m in this mode and I say “the Church,” what I really mean is a specific, self-selected group of celebrity Catholics I chose to perseverate on. When I say “the Church,”  I really mean a narrow collection of reliable sources of gross news that I can return to again and again whenever I want to reassure themselves that wicked people are still wicked, and they’re definitely not like me. I mean that I’ve fallen into a perverse habit of seeking out the things that make me feel bad about the faith and about my fellow Catholics, and it works: I do feel bad, all the time. 

Very often, when I say I’m tired of the Church, what I really mean is that I’m tired of the weird, ugly little quasi-church I’ve half-consciously built around myself out of sheer cynicism and snark and self righteousness. It’s a very flimsy, ugly, broke-down church indeed. No wonder I don’t like it there.

But I go there because it scratches some kind of unhealthy psychological itch. It makes me feel like I’m canny and hardened enough to see through façades, and world-weary enough to reject them with disgust — and there’s more relish in this disgust than I like to admit. There’s even an element of belonging to an in-group of people who feel this way. Some part of my psyche gets rewarded for hanging around in the crummy old ruins that I profess to despise, and going back there again and again. 

This is a real phenomenon, too,  just as real, and just as threatening to souls, as the phenomenon of people who’ve been gravely wounded and cannot seem to find a safe home in the church no matter how hard they look.

If you, like me, find yourself complaining often about how tired you are of the Church, it’s worthwhile to look at your habits, and see what state of mind they support. What do they build

But here’s the thing. In either case, we’re talking about people who have been wounded, whether those wounds are shallow or deep, or whether they’ve been self-inflicted or not.

In either case, let us think about St. Francis.

He wasn’t actually wrong to start with working on rebuilding the physical chapel of San Damiano. Jesus did mean that he wanted Francis to restore the Church as a whole through the institution of the order of Franciscans. That is what he eventually did, and that is what the Franciscans continue, through their works and prayers, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, to carry out in their continual work of perpetual restoration of the Body of Christ to this day. It wasn’t just about that one little chapel; it was about the whole Church, and still is.

But God was also asking Francis to look around and see where he was, physically, spiritually, personally. He was asking him to start with what he, himself could actually control.

And this is what Jesus asks of everybody, always. 

Sometimes the problem with the Church is something that is very much out of my control — something like how some archbishop is handling the sex abuse crisis, or something like a specific doctrine that I can’t get my head around.

But there are still rebuilding projects I can handle, that have more to do with how I dwell inside the church than I may realize. Habits of prayer; habits of how I allow myself to think about other people. What I prioritize each day. How tightly I hold onto sins. How ardently I seek goodness. How much I really mean to change when I say I’m sorry. How much I’m willing to acknowledge change in others, when it happens. What I do first thing every day; what I do last. 

I always do well when I remember that Francis got his commission at the foot of the cross. 

The chapel of San Damiano wasn’t empty. There was a crucifix on the wall, and it was Jesus crucified who spoke to him, who told him to rebuild. I always do well when I remember this, when I picture this. 

There is a huge difference between “I don’t like or understand or accept this doctrine of the church, so I will spend all my time hanging around with ex-Catholics who tweet snarky hot takes making fun of it” and “I don’t like or understand or accept this doctrine of the church, so I will commit to bringing it to prayer at the foot of the cross over and over again, trying not to have any expectations for what will happen next.” There is a huge difference. You can tell me your experience has been different, and I will believe you, but this has been my experience. 

If youre one of the many, many Catholics who looks around at the Church today and sees what a poor state it’s in, youre not wrong. But when youre done looking around, look up. Are you at the foot of the cross? I will not tell you where you need to end up. But I know this is where you need to start. 

 

***

A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on January 7, 2021

Image: Detail of photo by Renaud Camus via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Weeding codependency out of Christian love

It’s a strange and beautiful thing, becoming one flesh. When two people marry, they begin the lifelong process of intertwining their hearts, growing into each other’s lives, sharing joys, sharing sorrows, finding self-worth through assuming responsibility for each other’s emotions and behaviors…

Hold up. That last part doesn’t belong. That last part describes something we call “codependence,” and it has no place in a loving relationship. It’s very common to find it there, though, because it’s great at mimicking sacrificial love. 

What is codependence? In its basic form, it’s a habit of taking on responsibility for someone else’s actions, emotions, responses, thoughts, and obligations.  

It’s a maladaptive coping mechanism many people develop in response to trauma. If we’re told as children that it’s our fault dad drinks or mom is always yelling, or if our spouses blame us for their irresponsibility at work or their bad temper at home, we may internalize that blame – and then spend the rest of our lives scurrying around, doing and saying anything that seems like it will stave off more conflict. 

Codependence isn’t simply a habit of trying to be helpful; it’s a heartfelt belief that another person’s entire experience of life depends on our behavior – that the sins and failings other people freely choose are somehow our fault, because we haven’t worked hard enough to keep them from happening. 

In truth, an adult with free will is the only one who can control how much he drinks, how much she yells, how they behave at work or at home. But abusive people are all too willing to let someone else take on that blame, and then blame them again when they can’t do the impossible and make everything better. 

Codependent behavior often feels like love, especially like the radically self-sacrificial, noble love that Christians are enjoined to cultivate. Codependency can look and feel like the great love of giving one’s life over for a friend. It can look like a form of holy martyrdom, mild or violent: “Look how selfless I am! I take onto my own person the suffering I do not deserve, just like Jesus!”

But there are crucial differences.

In authentic love, we are willing to help and be generous, but we do not pretend to have control over other people’s thoughts, actions, or emotions. Sometimes this real love might even look selfish, but in fact it shows respect for the other person’s autonomy, because it gives them credit for having free will and a unique, personal relationship with God. 

Codependency, on the other hand, may look generous, but is actually limiting, because it presupposes that the other person isn’t truly in control of his own behavior. It believes that other people can be manipulated into acting, saying, or feeling the right things.

Another difference: authentic love is rooted in healthy love of self, which recognizes that we are made in the image of God. Only trees with deep roots can bear generous fruit, and only firmly-rooted self-love can bear the fruit of unselfish love for others. In authentic love, we firmly believe we have something good to offer, and we’re even willing to suffer through offering it; but we don’t believe our own worthiness comes from our success at changing someone else.

Codependent behavior, though, is rooted in insecurity, fear, guilt, and shame, and a desperate desire to prove that we’re worthy of love. The drive to solve other people’s problems often comes from a deep terror that we may not be useful or necessary.

Sacrificial love brings joy and peace; codependent behavior brings bitterness and resentment.

And codependent behavior is reactive. We respond in the way we feel we must. We believe we’re forced into our actions by the behavior of others.

But loving actions are radically free. They come from a place of acknowledging and deliberately using our free will to imitate Christ, even though we have the choice not to do so. 

Christ knew who he was, and that’s how he had the strength to make the unthinkable sacrifice he made of his own life, for our sakes. But first, in the desert, he resisted the devil’s temptation to make him believe he needed to prove his worth; and throughout his life, passion, and death, he acknowledged that not everyone would follow him. He did not set about to change people who did not want to change. He would willingly take on their suffering and the sorrow, but he would not try to supplant their free will.

That is our model of authentic love.

It takes practice to break the habits of codependency. In some marriages, it can be done with attention and a firm, calm resolution to stop participating in an unhealthy habit. In others, where the origins of codependency are old and deep, it may take help from a therapist or a marriage counsellor, and it may take a long time. 

In either case, the upheaval that comes with untangling codependence from love can be unsettling, even terrifying. But it is worth rooting out. Like an invasive weed, codependency is not content to live side by side with love, but tends to crowd it out, strangle it, rob the healthy vine of nourishment, and eventually take its place entirely. Freeing a loving relationship from codependence means freeing love to flourish and bear good fruit. 

 

 ***

A version of this essay was originally published in Parable Magazine in 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

Thanks to Anna O’Neill and Kate Cousino for their help with this essay. Further reading: “Boundaries, Blaming, and Enabling in Codependent Relationships”  by Sharon Martin, LCSW; “Codependency, Trauma and the Fawn Response” by Pete Walker, M.A., MFT; and “Learning to distinguish codependency from love” by Anna O’Neill 

 
Image by simonwhitebeard from Pixabay

I threw out half my books and I’m okay

It’s trendy to talk about your hopelessly neurotic relationship with books. People love to share memes about how they just can’t stop buying more books even though they haven’t read the last books they have. It’s not my favorite schtick, but at least it’s better than the people who, to prove their love of books, share photos of the intricate diorama they made by cutting an actual book into little bits. They just love books soooooo much, that’s what they did to a book!

If that’s how you show love, remind me not to let you babysit.

Anyway, I could tell you a thing or two about what it looks like when book collecting gets truly neurotic. I grew up in that kind of house. My parents weren’t hoarders, but they accumulated books in a way that can’t be completely explained by their love of reading and their thirst for knowledge (which were considerable). My father once bought an entire dumpster full of books, which the seller delivered to our house at an excellent price. The only catch with these particular books was that they had been on fire, and most of them were blackened and crumbling, and wet and moldy. But books! For such a good price, that would otherwise get dumped! And it was such a deal . . . . and it would be such a waste to let books get thrown out.

That’s the thing that catches me up now: It would be such a waste to let them go. You can’t just let books go. Collecting books isn’t like collecting anything else, because they’re not just things. Books are especially important. They hold a special place in our minds and command a certain category of respect. You can’t just let them go!

Maybe you see where this is headed… Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

It’s not too late to cancel your wedding

Jennifer’s wedding dress hangs in the closet of her guest bedroom. It’s never been worn. Jennifer (not her real name) called off her wedding two months before the date, and she says it was the hardest thing she’s ever done. Her friends were shocked; her parents were distraught. Her maid of honor stopped speaking to her. Jennifer had made non-refundable deposits, was was surrounded by gifts from her bridal shower when she announced the wedding was off. 

It was very late in the game to change her mind. But it wasn’t too late.  

“I think the hardest part was being honest with myself,” Jennifer said. 

She and her fiancé had been together for six years, engaged for nine months; but it wasn’t until the last minute that she finally acknowledged their relationship just wasn’t healthy. 

She’s not alone. By some estimate, 15 percent or more of engagements don’t end in marriage. But a couples who’s been together for a long time — or a couple who’s blundered quickly toward marriage, without taking time to discern the wisdom of their plans — can feel like they’re locked in one they’ve announced their plans to wed. 

“It’s a difficult situation when there’s the romantic delusion that somehow this marriage is going to beat the odds,” said Father Joe Tonos, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Oxford, Miss. 

“It’s like the Percy Sledge principle: ‘When a man loves a woman, she can do no wrong,’ or vice versa,”  he said. And so they forge ahead, despite all the warning signs. 

Or sometimes, as in the case of Melissa (not her real name), they know very well that something is wrong, but they don’t know how to extricate themselves from what feels like a trap. 

Melissa broke of her engagement to her abusive fiancé well after their wedding plans were underway. 

“If you’ve announced the engagement, the pressure is on to live up to the expectations by following through with the marriage. But the people who might be surprised by the news of the broken engagement do not have to live with a broken relationship, or suffer through a future divorce,” Melissa said. 

With the help of a counselor, she found the courage to call the wedding off, and she was amazed to discover how supportive and gracious her friends and family were. 

Nevertheless, Melissa said her experience was humiliating. “I felt like a failure,” she said. 

“It was also empowering, though, in an odd way. I knew the decision was the right one, and despite the pain of it all, I felt a great deal more peace once I’d called the engagement off than I did while we were still planning to marry,” she said. 

For a Catholic marriage to be valid, the spouses must be free to marry; they must freely consent to the marriage; they must intend to marry for life, to be faithful, and to be open to children; and they must (with some exceptions) marry in front of two witnesses and a priest. 

But this is the bare minimum. A couple looking forward to their wedding day should also be joyfully looking forward to spending a life together. They should experience some peace together. They shouldn’t be working hard to ignore red flag about each other or about their relationship. 

Most of all, they should never feel obligated or trapped by the wedding plans themselves, no matter how much money and time have been poured into crafting the perfect celebration. A wedding is just one day, and it’s possible to recover from cancelling it. It’s much harder to recover from a wedding that goes off perfectly, but which is the first day of years of misery and disaster. 

Father Tonos recalls counseling a friend to break up with his girlfriend who constantly made him unhappy. The friend protested: “What? And throw away the past two years?”

“Don’t count the past investment,” Father Tonos said. Instead, think of the future, and of how it will be to spend the rest of your life with this person. 

Melissa wishes she could tell her former self, “I know that right now, it feels like you’re trapped, like you can’t live without your partner in your life, but you also can’t imagine living with them. Marriage will not make those feelings of doubt and pain go away. By continuing a relationship that is mutually exclusive with your happiness, you might also miss other connections and opportunities that are where you’re meant to be, and who you’re meant to be with.” 

Melissa has since become engaged to another man, and she has “zero doubts.”

“Taking control of my life after this broken engagement was very hard, but it empowered me to really get to know what I needed to be happy in a relationship that would last,” she said.

Jennifer, too, is grateful for her experience, agonizing though it was. 

“I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned that wedding bells do not define my worth. My vocation is no less because I didn’t go through with this,” she said. 

Jennifer and her ex-fiancé are still friends. He even thanked her, shortly after the cancelled wedding, for being strong enough to do what needed to be done. 

“Running to escape my problems would never have worked,” she said. “Facing them head on has done wonders for my life. I believed in ‘us,’ but now I get to believe in myself. I also know now that the Lord will never abandon me.” 

 

 

***

This article was originally published in Parable magazine in spring of 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

Photo by Marko Milivojevic on Pixnio

 

God wants what we already are

You know that friend you have, the one who is constantly reinventing herself? Every six to eight months, she breathlessly announces that she’s found a new direction, a new purpose, a new passion, and everything is going to be different now.

If she’s religious, she’ll say she’s finally learned to listen to what God wants for her life, and from this day forward, she’s dedicating her life to this new thing that is absolutely where she is supposed to be and what she is supposed to be doing.

That friend is probably wrong. Whether or not she is selling something, she is probably going to fail. How do I know? Because of that word “new.”

This isn’t just true for people who are prone to fads. I knew a woman who had an intensely rich interior life. She was very generous, but tended toward being withdrawn and insightful. But with the best intentions in mind, she would frequently announce a whole new approach to life, a radical reinvention of herself. I remember one time when she thought the Lord was calling her to be less negative and to say “yes” to literally everything. Even unreasonable requests from unreasonable people. I guess she thought that she was too closed-off and focused on self, and the way to remedy this was to be radically open.

That didn’t last long, nor should it have.

This is not to say that God never wants us to do something new. He wants this constantly, in fact. It’s terrible how much he wants it, and how radically. But it’s also true that what God wants from us is the development and perfection of what we already have. Or, more properly, he wants what we already are; and if we are looking to please him, that is where we should always start.

Here’s the crazy thing: God will even use the bad things that we already are to bring about good. I guess being without limit allows you to take the broad view, even of human beings.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: 木偶人1962, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Maybe someone else will bring stamps

I had that dream again! The one where you’re being arrested or deported or evacuated, and you’re forced to pack up everything for yourself and a bunch of other people to survive, and you only have a few minutes to do it, and you only have a tiny little suitcase, and you have no way of knowing what you’ll actually need, and you know you’re making horrible choices, but you just don’t have the time to do it right. Do you have this dream? I don’t have it routinely like I used to, but it still comes around every once in a while.

But something new happened in my dream last night. Right in the middle of the anguished panic of stuffing a mishmash of precious and useless belongings into a too-small suitcase, I was thinking frantically, “Stamps? Should I bring stamps? We may need them!” And then I thought, “Maybe someone else will bring stamps.”

And that was it. I still had to do my best, and the rest of the dream was very unpleasant, but at least it occurred to me that not everything was riding on my efforts alone. My therapist will be glad to hear this. He’s only reminded me about eleven times that this is so. Maybe you need to hear it, too. 

It’s not always true. Sometimes it’s really the case that, if you don’t do the thing, then the thing won’t get done, and maybe it’s a very important thing that absolutely must get done. Sometimes life is just like this, and it stinks, but there’s nothing that can be done about it; or sometimes, life is like this because other people are terrible, and they’re letting all the burden fall on you because they know they can get away with it. Good old you, always doing thing.

But sometimes, someone else really will pack stamps. Or maybe you can get stamps when you get there; or maybe you won’t really need stamps after all. Or maybe you will, and someone else can arrange for it to happen. I’m trying to get in the habit of asking myself, especially when I’m feeling overburdened and rushed and pushed into things unwillingly: Who is putting this burden on me? Who is pushing me? What will happen if I step away and let the burden fall?

It’s almost shocking to see just how often someone else is perfectly capable of doing the thing that I thought I alone could do. Or sometimes someone else is already quietly doing it, and I didn’t even notice, because I was so self-importantly accomplishing things. Or sometimes no one else will do the thing if I don’t, but it doesn’t really matter as much as I thought it did. My busyness is very often not as important as I think it is. Sometimes, I’m chagrined to realize, the main purpose of my busyness is not to accomplish things at all, but to make sure people know I’m important. Ick.

So, there’s a secondary revelation here, not as icky, but harder to internalize: I am important, but not because of all the things I can accomplish. I’m important when I’m in the background, and when I’m resting. Check it out: I’m even important when I screw up and pack the wrong thing and everybody suffers because of the dreadful lack of packed stamps. My actions and choices are meaningful, but they are not a test of my inherent worth. 

That’s it. That’s the dream. I needed to hear this. Maybe you did, too!

***
Photo by: Senior Airman Alexandre MontesReleased 

 

 

What I learned on Corpus Christi this year

The first Sunday we went back to Mass was the feast of Corpus Christi. I was delighted to realize we could mark this feast, one of my absolute favorites, by receiving the actual corpus Christi inside the church building at last, back where we belong.

I have never been angry or bitter at our bishop for keeping Mass closed to the public. If we’re Catholics, we can’t just go get what we want and ignore the risk to the vulnerable. Even if it’s the body of Christ we want. Especially if it’s the body of Christ we want.

But oh, it was good to be back, even with masks, in alternate pews, with the sweet smells of early June roses and candle wax blending strangely with the increasingly familiar scent of hand sanitizer. I was so glad our separation was over, so glad we could be moving forward and starting to figure out how to safely make life more normal again.

Then came the first reading, and it hit me right between the eyes.  It’s a short reading, and very pointed. Moses exhorts the people to remember how God brought them out of Egypt, and how God dealt with them in the desert.

It’s a reading chosen for Corpus Christi because it reminds us: Look, from the very beginning, God has been leading you and feeding you. God doesn’t mind his business up in heaven, but he comes to us in the desert and gives us manna, and then he brings us home. Perfect for the feast day.

But it hit me so hard because of how it’s framed. It doesn’t just tell the story of how God cared for the people. It’s also the story of why God treated them as He did, and it’s a command to think about it and remember it, learn from it…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

On meteors and managed expectations

Not long ago, our hemisphere passed through the Perseid meteor shower. When I was young, my family was heavily into astronomy. We owned more than one telescope, and we would sometimes all pile into the van after dark and drive out to the countryside, where there were no streetlights or house lights, but only the velvety darkness and the sound and smell of sleeping cows.

On this road, you could look up and see the Milky Way spread out across the top of the sky like a shining river. The planets gleamed like jewels, red and yellow and blue. More than once I actually heard a meteor sizzle past like a drop of water on hot soapstone.

Having had these almost mystical experiences throughout my childhood, I feel very strongly — perhaps too strongly — that astronomy ought to be part of every childhood. But in this, I have largely failed with my own kids. We’re just too busy. We’ve prioritized other things, and the thought of dragging ourselves outside in the dark for one last outing at the end of an exhausting day is unbearable.

So my kids know a few constellations. We’ve dabbled in homemade sundials, and they understand the seasons and eclipses and why astrology is nonsense. But a love of astronomy is not part of our family identity, the way it was for my family of origin.

I know this, and I know that knowing it sometimes cause me disproportionate distress. And this is why, when I prepared to take my kids out for the annual Perseid meter shower, I gave myself more than one stern lecture . . .

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly here

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

The difficult balance between honesty and complacency

Look, it’s a model wearing size 24 jeans! And look, a shaving ad that doesn’t airbrush cellulite away, and a weight-loss ad that shows a woman smoothing her sweater over her stomach — a stomach that is clearly far smaller than it used to be, but is still striated with permanent stretch marks.

I absolutely love it. Welcome to the 21st century, when lumpy, imperfect people are starting to populate the media almost as much as they populate the actual country. As a fat person, I’m intensely grateful for ads that make it clear I can be both large and human, even both large and beautiful.

Representation is about so much more than just a happy jolt of recognition. It’s about feeling real, feeling fully a member of the human race. 

There’s a similar movement going on in what I’ll call, for want of a less cringey phrase, the spiritual media. Less than 10 years ago, I pitched some book proposals to Catholic publishers. I strove to paint a picture showing how it really feels to be a Catholic wife and mother, with all the actual joys and sorrows, and without any of the literary airbrushing that was de rigeur in books aimed at Catholic women.

To a one, the publishers responded that my work was unsuitable for Catholic readers. It was too dark, too negative, too harsh, not uplifting and joyful enough. In short, too honest.

Things have changed. In 2019, it’s commonplace to be both Catholic and honest in public. It’s no longer shocking or unacceptable, in most communities, for Catholics to speak openly about the messy, unresolved, unedifying aspects of their lives — depressionalcoholismporn addictionburnout, weirdness in general, or even sincerity itself — and for readers to respond with gratitude and recognition, rather than shock and condemnation.

But this new “warts and all” honesty is a double-edged sword. It’s undeniably healthy to be sincere, to courageously acknowledge the flaws we perceive as unusual and shameful. It can be immensely liberating and encouraging for others to see they’re not alone in their imperfections. We must correct the notion that, to deserve respect, we must be (or appear to be) flawless. We need to know that we’re not somehow less human just because we struggle.

But there’s such a short jump between “I am imperfect, but I still deserve respect” and “I am imperfect, and there’s no reason to change.”

I must reluctantly admit that, when I see fat models looking lovely, sometimes it’s good for me, and makes me feel more human; but sometimes it just gives me an excuse to skip exercising for two weeks and slap extra sour cream on my taco. It’s vital to know I deserve to be treated with dignity no matter what size I am. But it’s also vital that I keep my arteries from exploding. When my Facebook feed is populated by lush, queenly, opulent models even bigger than me, I could go either way. Sometimes honest representation is good for me; sometimes, not so much.

The same is true in our moral lives. When we surround ourselves with “warts and all” examples, we may feel encouraged and comforted, seeing clearly that it’s human to struggle, and not a cause for despair. If we look in the mirror and don’t like what we see, we may truly need a reminder that haven’t lost our right to dignity simply because we sin.

But there’s also a true risk of normalizing sin.  It’s one thing to know that it’s normal to struggle with chastity; it’s quite another when no one you know takes chastity seriously, or has any intention of changing their lives to pursue this virtue. It’s one thing to know that many decent people enjoy a cocktail on the regular; it’s quite another to accept that getting trashed every night is just how mommies cope.

It’s one thing to understand that everyone struggles; it’s quite another to conclude that struggle is therefore unnecessary . . . 

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: Martin Taylor via Flickr (Creative Commons)