On St. Joseph’s femininity

The other day, Taylor Marshall tweeted, um, a bunch of things. But stay with me! This post isn’t really about him. I just don’t know how else to talk about what I want to talk about, except by starting with what he tweeted.
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First, apparently understandably distraught over an interview with McCarrick’s first victim, he tweeted some foul garbage about how gay it is that seminarians had a gingerbread house-building contest. Seriously, he did the f*ggy lisp and all, and included a name and photos of the men engaging in this “effeminate and puerile” activity, because that’s how you act when you’re a serious Catholic theologian and scholar.

It was wildly gross and offensive (and since he asked, can you imagine Basil and Gregory tweeting at each other?), and insanely insulting to gay people in direct contradiction of the catechism.
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But it also threw into high relief how poorly so many people understand what it means to be masculine. Many of his followers apparently believe that any time you’re not studying Latin or logic, building fires, chopping something, or shooting something, you’re a whisker away from of sliding into that dreaded horror, effeminacy.  In order to save the Church, we must stop having . . . gingerbread.
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His tweet was thoroughly trounced by many others, so I left it alone. But then he followed up with something that really nagged at me:

“The womb belonged to Joseph and he set it aside for Christ. The tomb belonged to another Joseph and he set it aside for Christ.”
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 I guess what happened is he read Fr. Longenecker’s tweet about wrapping Jesus’s body, and thought, “Whoa.  Joseph-Joseph . . .  womb-tomb!” and, despite not being Dylan Thomas, he went with it, rather than doing a quick heresy self-check. When readers responded to that phrase “The womb belonged to Joseph” with revulsion and dismay, he dug in with this:

He clarifies that Mary ruled over Joseph’s body, as well as vice versa: that there is mutual self-gift in marriage. He meant, apparently, that Joseph gave over his reasonable expectations that he’d be able to have sex with Mary, because he was willing to make a sacrifice to God of that privilege. And this is true enough.
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But the trouble is first in the way he phrased it. Saying Mary’s womb “belongs” to Joseph is just . . . gross. Things belong to us; people (including their organs) do not belong to us, not even if we’re married. If you want to hear how absurd and unseemly it is to phrase his idea as he did, say instead: “The penis belonged to Mary, so she went outside and peed with it.”
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I’m sincerely not trying to be crude. I’m trying to point out that a womb is an almost indescribably personal, intimate thing for a woman, and it’s bizarrely wrong to say it belongs to her husband. It doesn’t. It is hers. A woman rightly gives herself to her husband, over and over and over again, but he never owns her, no matter how much it may feel that way, no matter how many times she gives herself to him.
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And there we have the second, much more serious problem with Marshall’s thought. Joseph did not, in fact, consent to give Mary’s womb over to the Lord. How could he? It was hers to give, and she gave it at the Annunciation. Joseph only found out about her decision after the fact. He didn’t give anything, because there was nothing for him to give. The consent had already been given by the time he found out she was pregnant.
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Joseph’s choice wasn’t to give or not to give; his choice was either to get rid of her quietly, to get rid of her noisily, or to accept the situation with love, trust, and awe, because God told him not to be afraid to accept it.
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And that is what he did. There was no transfer, no consent, no free will offering originating from Joseph. Mary was never going to be “his,” because she had already given herself to God in a real, radical way.
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If Joseph gave Mary to God, then what did Mary’s “fiat” mean? Not a hell of a lot. More like when a child is allowed to sign a document that needs an adult’s signature to be official. No, it was Mary’s choice to make, and what she said to the Lord changed the course of . . . everything.
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But Joseph’s whole deal reminds me of the concept that “we are all feminine in relation to God.” I’ve been wrestling with this idea my whole adult life, and most days, the best I can do is set it aside and do whatever job’s in front of me.
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But so much of being a woman is being asked to accept things after they have already been decided, rather than being asked if you want them to happen or not. Yes, of course we decide many things, and make many choices. But women also very early confront the idea that things happen to them which they are not truly free to change or avoid. Ten times I have labored to give birth, and ten times, when the true agony set in, I have changed my mind. I decided I didn’t want to do it after all. Didn’t change a damn thing, thank God.
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It’s not that women are passive. It’s that humanity in general is far more helpless than it realizes. It’s mankind in general that’s the damsel in distress; mankind in general that sits weeping in a tower, waiting for the savior to come. Women’s lives show this reality in high relief, largely because of our biology, and so women tend to realize much sooner than men that none of us is really in control of their lives. On a good day, we’re in charge of slightly changing the trajectory of little chunks of life as they fly past us. Freedom very often consists not in choosing what will happen to us, but in choosing how to respond to what happens to us.
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And that sounds very much like what Joseph knew. He listened, a lot. He decided, out of love, not to fight things that had already come to pass. He worked with the system as long as he could, and when it wasn’t working, he gathered his family and ran away. He was willing to play a supporting role. He decided not to insist on taking what he could reasonably argue was rightfully his. And he was silent. In other words, Joseph’s behavior in the Gospels is like what we today normally think of as feminine — trusting, waiting, nurturing, self-sacrificial, chaste, modest, and quiet. This may account for how weirdly effeminate he looks in so much religious art, and it probably accounts in part for Marshall’s weird attempt to put Mary’s fiat in Joseph’s hands: Because he doesn’t behave in a way that checks off boxes in our modern understanding of masculinity.
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We get St. Joseph wrong because we grasp that he is not what we commonly think of as masculine; but correct our mistake by assigning to him what we wrongly think of as feminine, or by refusing to face how wrong we are about what it means to be feminine. Mary’s behavior is what we should think of as feminine; but it’s so hard to grasp that we saddle her with a simpering passivity, turning her into a virgin too fragile to deal with men, rather than a virgin strong enough to deal with God.
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Hell if I know what it all means, except that most of what we commonly think of as masculine and feminine is garbage, which probably accounts for why so many people think it doesn’t mean anything. In other context, my sister Abby Tardiff said this (and this was just part of a Facebook comment she dashed off, not some polished work of prose):
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[S] ex and gender have to be understood first as cosmic paradigms. So, “feminine” doesn’t mean “like a woman.” It’s the other way around. A woman is someone who embodies the eternal archetype of femininity. But she won’t do it completely, because she’s an instantiation [a representative of an actual example], not the archetype itself. She’s a particular, not a universal. Also, her instantiation of the feminine will filter itself through her personality, through tradition, through society, etc. For these two reasons, you can’t pin down any one characteristic that every woman has. Any time you try to say what characteristics women have, you’ll find exceptions (often me).

However, if you start from the archetype, and say (for example) that the feminine archetype involves the taking of the other into the self, then you can conclude that every woman is cosmically called to do this as well as and in whatever way she can. So the point is not to say what women are like, but what their vocation is.

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Taylor Marshall and his ilk are rightly angry that McCarrick and others have so smeared and ravaged human sexuality with their crimes and perversions. But Marshall’s brutal, puerile urge to squash all men and all women into small and clearly defined boxes of masculinity or femininity is, in its way, just as disastrous. More than one abused woman has told me that, early on in her marriage, before the beatings began, her pious Catholic husband railed at her for not being sufficiently archetypically feminine, as if any one woman could or should be. As if he had married womankind, rather than an actual person. This is the trap Marshall et al fall into: They want individual human beings to be the embodiment of all of their sex (“all seminarians must be masculine”); but since no one can or should achieve that, they reduce an archetypal reality to a few small, individualistic traits, and then rage at anyone who doesn’t reduce himself to those traits, as if they’ve failed at being human.
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It’s a way of making sense of the world, and it’s intensely depersonalizing. We do not love by making what is large small, and we do not love by railing at what is small for not being as large as the whole universe. But people who behave this way don’t think they’re being cruel to individual people; they think they’re being noble by upholding ontological truths. But first they have to squash those ontological truths into bite-sized pieces.
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Dressed up as respect for God’s creation, this way of thinking turns men and women away from our vocation, which is, in our particular ways, to be open to God: To be feminine in relation to God.
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Yes, that looks different for men and for women, and it looks different for for one particular women compared to another, and one particular man compared to another; but in some very broad way, this is the true feminine, what both Joseph and Mary did.
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I saw it myself yesterday, dozens of times, at Mass, at the Eucharist, men and women. They walked up to the front with all the burdens and glories of their particularities, and then opened up to receive God. How? Because He alone can take ontological truths and make them, as it were, bite-sized. He has made small what is larger than then universe, larger than masculine and feminine. Love makes itself small. Never to make others small.
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Our vocation is to be open like Mary and open like Joseph, and neither one of the two of them look like anything I’ve ever seen before on this earth, except in brief flashes like at the altar rail. Hell if I know what it means. My kids were asking me about the Second Coming today, and all I could say was everyone who thinks they know what they are talking about is in for a surprise.

 

Selfie culture, the male gaze, and other moral panics

Lots to unpack in this meme:

The thing about this is that sculptures like this in art history were for the male gaze. Photoshop a phone to it and suddenly she’s seen as vain and conceited. That’s why I’m 100% for selfie culture because apparently men can gawk at women but when we realize how beautiful we are we’re suddenly full of ourselves . . . .

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” — John Berger, Ways of Seeing

The second quote has a lot more on its mind than the first. I haven’t seen or read Berger’s Ways of Seeing, but this short excerpt raises a topic worth exploring. Women are depicted, and men and women are trained to see women, in a way that says that women’s bodies exist purely for consumption by others. If anything, the phenomenon has gotten worse since the 1970’s, when Berger recorded his series.

The first comment, though, about being “100% for selfie culture,” is deadly nonsense.

The first thought that occurred to me was: Anyone who’s set foot in a museum (or a European city) knows that manflesh is just as much on display as womenflesh, if not more; and all these nakeymen would look just as “vain and conceited” with a phone photoshopped into their marble hands. Thus the limits of education via Meme University.

I’ve already talked at length about the difference between naked and nude in art — a distinction which has flown blithely over the commenter’s head. But let’s put art history aside and look at the more basic idea of the gazer and the gazed-upon, and the question of what physical beauty is for.

I saw a comment on social media grousing about pop songs that praise a girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. The commenter scoffed at men who apparently need their love interest to lack confidence or self-awareness, and she encouraged young girls to recognize, celebrate, and flaunt their own beauty, because they are valuable and attractive in themselves, and do not need to be affirmed by a male admirer to become worthy.

Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But, like the author of the first quote about selfie culture, she implies that there is something inherently wrong with enjoying someone else’s beauty — specifically, men enjoying women’s beauty; and she implies and that it’s inherently healthy or empowering to independently enjoy one’s own beauty and to ignore the effect that it has on men.

(I must warn you that this post will be entirely heteronormative. I am heterosexual and so is most of the world, so that’s how I write.)

Beauty is different from the other transcendentals. At least among humans, goodness and truth are objective (they can be categorized as either good or true, or as bad or false); and they exist whether anyone perceives them or not. Not so beauty — at least among humans. Is there such a thing as objective beauty? Can a face be beautiful if everyone in the world is blind? I don’t know. Let’s ask an easier question: Is it possible to enjoy one’s own beauty without considering or being aware of how it affects other people?

I don’t think so; and I don’t think that’s only so because we’ve all internalized the male gaze and have been trained for millennia only to claim our worth when we are being appreciated by someone who is comfortable with objectifying us.

Instead, I think we are made to be in relation to each other, and physical beauty is a normal and healthy way for us to share ourselves with each other.

Like every other normal and healthy human experience, beauty and the appreciation of beauty can be exploited and perverted. But it does not follow that we can cure this perversion by “being 100% for selfie culture.” Narcissism is not the remedy for exploitation. It simply misses the mark in a different way; and it drains us just as dry.

Listen here. You can go ahead and tell me what kind of bigot I am and what kind of misogynistic diseases I’ve welcomed into my soul. I’m just telling you what I have noticed in relationships that are full of love, respect, regard, and fruitfulness of every kind:

A good many heterosexual girls pass through what they may perceive to be a lesbian phase, because they see the female form as beautiful and desirable. As they get older and their sexuality matures, they usually find themselves more attracted to male bodies and male presences; but the appeal of the female body lingers. When things go well and relationships are healthy, this appeal a woman experiences manifests itself as a desire to show herself to a man she loves, so that both can delight in a woman’s beauty.

This isn’t a problem. It doesn’t need correcting. This is just beauty at work. Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living. It is a healthy response to love, a normal expression of love. Beauty is there to be enjoyed.

Beauty — specifically, the beauty of a woman’s body — goes wrong when it becomes a tool used to control. Women are capable of using their beauty to manipulate men, and men are capable of using women’s beauty to manipulate women. And women, as the quotes in the meme suggest, very often allow their own beauty to manipulate themselves, and eventually they don’t know how to function unless they are in the midst of some kind of struggle for power, with their faces and bodies as weapons.

That’s a sickness. But again: Narcissism is not the cure for perversion or abuse; and self-celebration very quickly becomes narcissism. Self-marriage is not yet as prevalent as breathless lifestyle magazines would have us believe, but it does exist. And it makes perfect sense if your only encounter with, well, being encountered has been exploitative. If love has always felt like exploitation, why not contain the damage, exploit oneself, and call it empowering? People might give you presents . . .

The real truth is that selfie culture isn’t as self-contained as it imagines. The folks I know who take the most selfies, and who are noisiest about how confident and powerful and fierce they are, seem to need constant affirmation from everyone that no, they don’t need anyone. Selfies feed this hunger, rather than satisfying it.

As a culture, we do need healing from the hellish habit of using and consuming each other. But selfie culture heals nothing. Selfie culture — a sense of self that is based entirely on self-regard — simply grooms us to abuse ourselves. A bad lover will grow tired of your beauty as you age and fall apart. A good lover will deepen his love even as your physical appeal lessens, and he will find beauty that you can’t see yourself. But when you are your own lover, that well is doomed to run dry. Love replenishes itself. Narcissism ravishes.

In the ancient myth from which the clinical diagnosis draws its name, the extraordinarily beautiful Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection, and refuses to respond to the infatuated nymph Echo, who then languishes until nothing remains of her but her voice. In punishment for his coldheartedness, Narcissus is driven to suicide once he realizes that his own reflection can never love him in the way he loves it.

So, pretty much everyone is miserable and dies, because that is what happens when love and desire are turned entirely inward. It simply doesn’t work. That’s not what beauty is for. We can enjoy and appreciate our own beauty and still be willing and eager to share it with a beloved. But when we attempt to make beauty serve and delight only ourselves, it’s like building a machine where all the gears engage, but there is no outlet. Left to run, it will eventually burn itself out without ever having produced any action.

I’ve seen the face of someone who is delighted entirely with her own appeal; and I’ve seen the face of someone who’s delighted with someone she loves. There is beauty, and there is beauty. If it’s wrong for a man to be attracted to a woman who delights in her beloved, then turn out the lights and lock the door, because the human race is doomed.

Beauty, at its heart, is for others. Selfie culture, as a way of life, leads to death. You can judge for yourself whether death is better than allowing yourself to ever be subject to a male gaze.

 

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.

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

Boys with sticks

boy with sword 2

Several years ago, a nice family came over our house. It was partly for a social call, and partly to see if our family would do well as a daycare for their two kids when the mom went back to work. The girl was about four, and the boy was about six.

As we adults chatted, the kids explored the house. At the far end of the living room were the toys, including a tidy bucket full of weapons belonging to our sons and daughters. There were bows and arrows, swords of all kinds, scimitars, light sabers, pistols, slingshots, rifles, daggers, and machine guns. I watched a little nervously, because I knew this mom leaned progressive, and was raising her kids to be non-violent.

Her little girl immediately found a baby doll, sat down, and put the doll to bed. The little boy scuttled over to the weapons, and before I could say more than, “Um–” he had grabbed two swords and swung them, with a natural expertise, in a gleeful arc over his head.

“HAHH!” he shouted, and held that pose for a moment, swords raised. Eyes on fire, happiest boy in the world.

I slewed my eyes over to his parents, not sure what I would see. Horror? Disgust? Outrage? Dismay?

They both looked . . .  immensely relieved. “Well, there goes that,” said the dad, apparently referring to the no-weapons policy they’d followed strictly for the last six years. I tried to apologize, but they both said, “No, no, it’s fine.” And it was fine. There was no tension in the room. Their son had hands made to hold weapons, and now he had some.

I wasn’t surprised to see the boy taking so naturally to swordplay, but I was fascinated to see his parents taking so naturally to the rules of our house, which were so different from the rules in their own home.  Once their son’s unsullied hands first made contact with the weapons of war, the whole family relaxed into that reality immediately.

In this short piece in The Globe and Mail, this mom’s friends need someone to tell them what our friends realized: Hey, it’s okay if your boy wants to swing sticks around. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with him, or that he’ll inevitably grow up to be a rapist or a sociopath or a steroid-fueled abuser. There is a place for fighting boys in the world, if we let there be a place.

She says:

When I was pregnant I dreamed about the sweet, sensitive child I would have. I imagined us sitting at the table engaged in some means of creative expression, perhaps painting or writing stories. I imagined sitting quietly in the park listening to the birds and finding shapes in the clouds. But it was not to be.

My wild boy chases the birds, leaps from the park bench. He runs and jumps and yells and climbs. More than once I’ve felt pangs of envy while in the company of friends and their sweet, quiet little girls.

Before you lambast for not valuing her son, read on. It’s clear that she loves and enjoys her boy, and gives him reasonable rules: he wants to swing a stick? She tells him, “Be careful,” and leaves it at that. She says,

 I’m through apologizing for Malcolm. His wildness is not a product of permissive parenting or the negative influences of a violent TV culture. His wildness is his own, and as such I embrace it even if others do not.

But what is she supposed to do when her boy comes into contact with other boys, who are repeatedly told, “Put the stick down”?  She notes:

I have heard many open-minded parents declare: “If my son wants to play with dolls or dress up in girls’ clothes, I’m totally fine with that.” But what if your son wants to play with sticks and do battle? Are we so afraid of the power of violence to overtake us that we are uncomfortable with its harmless expression in children’s play?

Yes, we are, and it’s making a mess of the world. It doesn’t make violence go away when we always tell boys, “Put that stick down.” Instead, it’s making a world where people, boys and girls alike, have no idea what to do about unjust violence.

Boys playing with sticks is not a meaningless game. It’s something that little boys absolutely must be allowed to do, if that’s how they want to play. A boy who wants to pick up a stick needs to know that he can, and he may, and that his affinity for sticks is not a bad thing. He needs to know that a stick is a powerful thing, and that the world needs men who know how to use their sticks.

Boys who are never allowed to be wild are boys who never learn how to control that wildness. Boys who are not allowed to whack and be whacked with sticks never learn what fighting is like. What’s so bad about that? Well, they may end up hitting someone weak, with no idea how much it hurts to be hit. Or they may end up standing by while the strong go after the weak – and have no idea that it’s their job to put a stop to it.

Either way, the weak suffer. The whole world suffers.

Boys aren’t a problem to be fixed. Parent should correct the little details when the way they play really hurts someone else, but we should let the main energy of our children go the way it wants to go. If that means finding shapes in clouds or writing stories, that’s fine. Don’t push our sons to be fighters if they doesn’t naturally run that way.

But if they naturally want to turn everything they touch into a weapon, then that’s fine, too — as long as they know there are rules.  If your boys wants weapons, then keep weapons in your house. Make a place for them. Give your boys permission to be who they are, and encourage whatever good impulses you see in them.

And give other parents permission to let their kids be kids, too. Some parents aren’t hearing it from anyone else. If your house is the place where their son first lays hand on a sword, don’t apologize! But let him know that swords come with rules. Don’t banish fighting; banish cruelty.

In the issue of violent play, as with so many other issues, we’re forgetting there’s such a thing as balance and middle ground. Parents believe that there are only two choices: we can raise our sons to be quiet, passive, nurturing empaths who could easily slide into a princess dress without making a ripple — or we can raise them to be swaggering, slavering beasts who exist only to give orders and mow down anything in their path.

There is, of course, an in-between. There are men who are strong and tough and in control of their strength, and these men were once boys who grew up with both weapons and rules. But it’s become impossible to talk about that kind of boyhood, without being accused of trying to turn boys into one extreme or the other. When I say that my son carefully carried around caterpillars when he was a toddler, I hear that I have a secret desire to castrate men. When I say that my husband protects our family, I hear that I’m perpetuating rape culture and the myth of female victimhood. When I say that there is a difference between men and women, I hear that I am the problem – I’m the reason there’s violence and unhappiness in the world – I’m the reason we can’t all just get along. I hear that if only we would all agree to put the stick down, we’d be fine.

Yes, well. When your daughter is the one who’s lying barely conscious on the front yard of some frat house, my sons will be the ones who will know enough to charge in, swinging sticks to chase the brutes away. They’ll know because we let them have sticks, we let them find out what sticks can do, and we told them what sticks are for.

Violence doesn’t take over when boys are allowed to have sticks. Violence takes over when no one tells boys what sticks are for.

***

Mother Eye/Father Eye

(Going through my archives as I put my new book together, and I found this post from a few years ago.)

We went for a quick evening dip at the town pond. First I had the camera:

IMG_20130531_194504

and then, seconds later, my husband had it:

IMG_20130531_200524

Heh. And they were both true!

 

On Valentine’s day, communication, and not getting kicked in the nuts

Here lies Doug, the perfect husband

Here lies Doug, the perfect husband.

 

This year, I revealed to my husband that I actually kind of like Valentine’s Day.  This is despite all the times I told him that I hated it, it’s lame and stupid, and a made-up, over-commercialized saccharine-fest invented by Hallmark and Big Floral.   For fourteen years, the poor man has been wondering why, every February 14, I would say I wasn’t mad at him, while I was clearly mad at him.

I was mad, you see, because everyone else was getting flowers and riding in heart-shaped hot air balloons and– I don’t know, eating hot fudge sundaes that turned out to have a tiny violin player at the bottom.  And here I was getting nothing,which is what I repeatedly told him I wanted.  Pray for me:  I’m married to a monster.

Anyway, I finally realized that it doesn’t make me defective to enjoy flowers — and that if it’s artificial to suddenly act romantic on a nationally-specified day — well, we need all the help we can get.  Alarm clocks are artificial, too, but if they didn’t automatically remind us of what we ought to do, we’d be in big trouble.   So, yeah, I asked him to get me flowers, and take the plastic wrap off, and he will, and I’m going to like them.  Whew, that wasn’t so hard!

Having taken this huge leap forward in our communication skills, I decided to hunt around to see what normal human beings do on Valentine’s Day.

If you want to feel like you’ve got your act together, just ask the internet a question.  Okay, maybe not in all circumstances.  If you’re rewiring your living room, for instance, or trying to remove the Spaghetti-o decoupage from an angry cat, you may very well have lots to learn.

But if you need help with your relationships?  A quick trip down Google lane will have you feeling like an expert, a champion, a genius, a hero of common sense and decency.  For instance, if you Google “What do guys want for Valentine’s Day?” you will come across this depressing paen to modern love, written by a man:

One of my favorite presents was a trip to the grocery store.

I remember the clear, cloudless day, sun shining down on me proudly pushing my cart into Central Market. Rachel was with me, and some friends who came along.

I picked up a steak and set it in the cart. Rachel said, “That’s great, Doug!”

I grabbed some chips. Rachel said, “That’s really great, Doug!”

I picked up some really expensive jam. Rachel said, “Yum, that will be really great, Doug!”

In fact everything I picked up got the same response from her (or very close to it), and that was my present: I could choose anything I wanted, and she could only say how great everything was. What an awesome gift that was, a trip to the grocery store.

So what did I get, besides some red AND yellow peppers?

I got what most men want. I was accepted.

I weep for America.  I weep for mankind.  I weep for myself, because this is the saddest, stupidest thing I’ve ever read, and I read it three times to make sure I wasn’t missing something.  What is Doug going to get for Christmas from the gracious lady Rachel?  A coupon for Not Getting Kicked In the Nuts?

You know, I probably treat my husband this way sometimes.  But the difference is, neither one of us is okay with it.  We don’t assume that relentless criticism and belittling is part of a normal relationship — we try to get past it.  And please note,Doug and Rachel’s travesty of a relationship is just as much Doug’s fault as it is Rachel’s:   women can’t demean their husbands and boyfriends without the man allowing, even wanting it to happen.  It takes two to be this dysfunctional.

This reminds me of the story of the man who had invented a brilliant method for saving money on the farm.  “On the first week,” he says, “I fed my  horse a bale of hay.  On the second week, I fed him half a bale of hay.  On the third week, I fed him a quarter of a bale.  I was damn near to teaching the horse to live on nothing at all, but on the fourth week, the ungrateful sonofabitch died on me!”

Happy stupid Valentine’s Day, folks.  I hope you get something nice.  Or if you get nothing, I hope at least it doesn’t feel like a gift!

****

(This post first ran in 2011.)

Zero Foolproof Gift Ideas for the Man You Claim to Love; or, Simply Having a Wonderful Chickentime

Is it my imagination, or is the Catholic internet just bristling with lists of gift ideas for men this year?

Are there suggestion lists like this for women’s gifts?  Is it my silly little lady imagination going all kookie again, or is it actually fairly easy to buy presents for women?  Of course it’s  possible to go astray, but most women will tell you exactly what they want, if you ask them.  Then what you do is you go out and buy or make or get or do that, and then either add an unexpected upgrade, or add something a little extra to show that you like buying stuff for her (which you don’t, but shut up, it’s Christmas).  It’s pretty easy.

But buying presents for men is quite another thing.

This may be women’s fault.  It’s possible that men will also just tell us what they want, and we should buy or make or get or do that, and then also some beer, and everything would be fine.  It’s possible.  But women do not like to do things the easy way, because we want to show our husbands that we care.  We want to put some deep thought into our gifts.  We want it to be a gift that only we, alone in the world, would have the insight and creative intuition to give to him.

Which is what leads us to give our husbands such terrible, terrible gifts.

Now, I tried to do a little research into the fascinating field of “Terrible Gifts My Wife Once Gave Me,” and the results were far from illuminating.  93% of male respondents outright refused to answer, citing the right against self-incrimination, the Geneva convention, the Gettysburg Address, and “HEY, LOOK,  A FLYING CHICKEN!” and then they ran away.  The other 19% simply smiled mutely, pulled out the combination corkscrew, tire gauge, and boar’s bristle shaving brushes that their wives thought they would want for some reason, and fatally stabbed themselves, whispering through faintly smiling lips as they died, “I didn’t talk . . . “

And one guy said, “Well, ha ha, one time she gave me this stupid little–” and the other 99% screamed “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and tackled him, giving him the greatest gift of all:  a traumatic brain injury that rendered him unconscious until after Epiphany.

So, since all the men are too chicken to talk about it, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned about gifts for men.

1.  They do not want a heating pad from the drug store.

Let me explain.  This was our first Christmas as a married couple, and we were still learning about each other, and didn’t even yet realize just how radically different were our ideas about — well, a lot of things.  Also, we were broke, and I didn’t have a car or a debit card, so I could only shop at places that were within walking distance of our cruddy little city apartment.  (To my credit, I never even considered doing my Christmas shopping at the only other nearby store, Jesus Grocery.)

At the time, my husband suffered terribly and repeatedly from crippling sinus headaches caused by bad teeth that we couldn’t afford to get pulled.  All I could think about was that I wished his head didn’t hurt so much.  Then I saw this awesome device where you bathe your entire head in this chamber of therapeutic,  head-clearing steam.  It looked great!  But it was too expensive.  I considered a neti pot, but even I knew enough to realize that he was not a fancy enough man to enjoy tea, or even if it’s, you know,  nose tea.  Or whatever that neti thing is.

At this point, I was getting confused.  I was pregnant, it was a cold and slushy winter, my boots leaked, my nose was running, and I think they were playing “Wonderful Christmastime.”   My head was whirling and pounding as I searched the shelves, rejecting one idea after another, getting more and more panicked, feeling less and less certain about life, the universe, nosey pots, and everything.  What could I get?  What could I possibly get, that would be a good use of our precious spending cash, but would be thoughtful, and a surprise, and would convey love and tenderness, and would make him weep with delight, despite not being a fancy man, when he opened the package?

And then I saw it:  a heating pad.  Right in my price range, just as good as a sinus steam machine — even better!  He could use it on his bad back, too!  Absolutely perfect!  The gift of a lifetime, and did I mention, right in my price range!  Indeed, itwas a wonderful Christmas time!

You see, to me, this present said, “My dear, I wish for you all good things, including health and happiness and ease.  I wish I could wave a magic wand and make your troubles disappear; but, in our sweet and simple poverty, all that I can offer is this simple heating pad–and may it bring you some warmth and relief, and its radiant presence reminded you ever of the warmth and love of my womanly heart, which belongs, my dearest dear, to you.”

To him, it said, “Here, stick this on your head, you smelly old cripple.”

So, that was no good.

2.  He does not want something you found at the dump.

Not really much else to say about this.

3.  I guess you could just ask him what he wants for Christmas, and if it’s not illegal, you could give it to him.

Nah.

4. HEY LOOK, A FLYING CHICKEN!

***
(This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2012.)

How I learned to stop worrying about wifely obedience and love my husband

s and d wedding

Ephesians 5:22!  Ephesians 5:22! Let’s all panic about Ephesians 5:22!

Nah. I’m not afraid of it anymore. But it’s not as big of a deal as I thought it was, either.

I’m not going to tell you what a Catholic marriage ought to look like. I’m just going to tell you what our marriage looks like, now that I’ve stopped trying to make it TheCatholic Marriage and started letting it be Our Catholic Marriage.

 

When I was first married, I was dying to leap feet first into the perfect Catholic relationship. So I took a deep breath and prepared to Ephesians 5:22 the heck out of my husband. He would tell me to do something, and I was going to obey him, by gum. (Like many couples, I yeah-yeahed my way past Ephesians 5:25-28, where the husband is supposed to treat his wife like Christ treats the Church, which is approximately ten krillion times harder than just obeying your husband.)

So I waited. And dammit, he never required me to obey him. Sure, he expected things of me — some reasonable, some unreasonable. We were just married, and we had a lot to figure out. But in general, the issue of obedience just didn’t come up. I was afraid this meant that we had a spiritually inferior marriage — that we were limping along with some kind of second rate modern system which would get us through the years, but which was keeping us from . . . something. I don’t even know what. Spiritual fruit of some kind, which I didn’t even know enough to recognize the lack of, because I hadn’t sufficiently molded myself into an obedient wife.

 

Where did this idea come from?  Wifely obedience is portrayed in many Catholic circles as the main feature of marriage — more important than prayer, more important that personal formation of any kind, more important than caring for children, more important than anything.  Just wifely obedience as a state of being.  Gotta submit, gotta obey, gotta be meek, gotta acknowledge your husband’s all-encompassing domination over the family with every breath, every word, every gesture, every thought, every decision. Without wifely obedience, we have chaos, we have the feminization of men, we have divorce and bitterness and unhappiness of every kind. When the wife isn’t panting to obey, marriage becomes a black hole into which, with a faint scream, the domestic Church as a whole is sucked, never to return until the Second Coming, when Jesus comes back for the main purpose of yelling at all those lippy dames.

But here’s the truth: If marriage is in a shambles, it’s not because of wifely disobedience. It’s because of a very old reason: selfishness. Sometimes it’s the woman who’s selfish, sometimes it’s the man. Sometimes it’s both of them.

When my husband and I got married, we were both young, and he would readily admit that he didn’t have any more life experience or wisdom or inside information about anything than I did. He’s better at some things; I’m better at others. There are some things we’re both bad at, and  need to hold each other accountable for. The “he decides, she complies” model? What for?  Our relationship had never been like that when we were dating, so why would it change when we started a family and things became complicated?

 

We fought a lot, and sometimes still do; but gradually, we started to realize that when we disagree about something, it’s usually because we aren’t listening to each other, or don’t believe yet that the other person understands something that we don’t. Usually, when we really start to listen (and sometimes we have to have the same fight over and over and over again before we can really hear each other), it actually becomes very obvious that one of us is right and the other one is wrong. And then it becomes easy to know what to do: you do the right thing. We’ve been through enough crap together to know that neither one of us is going to push hard for something that would be bad for the family. If he really, really wants something, I trust that he has a good reason; and vice versa.

In general, the person who bears the brunt of the decision at hand is the one who gets to make the call.  So if he wants to make a career move that I’m not crazy about, it’s ultimately his call, because he’s the one doing the job. If I want to make a major change in the kids’ education and he’s hesitant, it’s ultimately my call, because I’m the one who spends more time with the kids, and the I’m one who deals most with their daily schedules.

But here’s the thing: even if there’s something that affects one of us more than the other, there are zero decisions which only affect one of us. Even little stuff. That’s how it is when you’re one flesh, for better and for worse: nothing is just about you. What is the point of joining together if you behave as if one of you is more important than the other? That would be bad for both of you.  One spouse making autonomous decisions without considering the other person is like trying to set a course if you know your latitude, but not your longitude. You’re gonna get lost.

 

Here’s what everyone needs to understand about the grace of the sacrament of marriage. One of the main ways you receive it is . . . guess how . . . through your spouse. It’s not as if the husband can just go about his husbandly business being a good husband by standing in a shower of Husband Graces once a week. No, he learns how to be a good husband by drawing closer to his wife.

Many years ago, my husband was going through a really rough patch. He had tons of serious problems all at once, and he couldn’t sleep for the anxiety. He lay in the dark, begging God to help him out. And then he suddenly realized that I was there, in bed, next to him. And that was the answer. Not that I could solve his problems — I really couldn’t — but I was there to help him. That’s why I was there.

 

Authoritarian husbands often point to Mary and Joseph to illustrate “He decides, she complies” as the true Catholic model. But what do we actually know about St. Joseph? Mainly that (a) He utterly failed to stand on his rights and get rid of that seemingly disobedient, seemingly sinful, seemingly rebellious young chit of a girl who turned up pregnant without his say-so, and instead he (b) cared for his wife and child.

And what about that idea that a husband should love his wife as Christ loves the Church? What do we know about Christ? Mainly that He served and gave and served and gave, and then He died for her, and then He came back to life so that He could serve and give some more. That’s what we know.

In our marriage, obedience is an emergency tool. My husband uses it when I am being truly insane: when I’m delirious, or exhausted, or too overwhelmed with guilt and self doubt to think clearly. Then he asserts his authority and insists on . . . taking care of me.

I can also see obedience being useful if a man simply has the kind of personality where he needs to have his way; or if the wife has the kind of personality where she simply doesn’t want to deal with things. Obedience would help the marriage survive, in the same way that a tourniquet might prevent you from bleeding to death — but it’s hard to imagine that that kind of system isn’t fostering selfishness and childishness. It’s like what Fr. Longenecker said about gender roles, only more so:

Rigid gender roles are subjugated to the law of love. Loving our spouse and children in a free and generous way is what it’s really all about. Gender roles are not law; they are there to help us achieve complementary love.

There you go. Don’t worry about whether or not you’re fulfilling Ephesians 5. If your marriage is loving, then you’re doing it right.

How does it work in your marriage? Do you and your spouse — or you and your peers — have conflict over how the issue of obedience? Have you come to understand Ephesians 5 better over the years?

Try this one weird trick for ending the war on women

You know what would cut through 99% of this crap, where we find ourselves arguing about whether or not saying, “Yes, I want to have sex with you” counts as sufficient consent, and whether or not “bystander intervention training” is sexist, and who’s waging a war on whom, and who’s winning?  Try following this simple rule:

If you are not married, assume there is never consent; and if you are married, treat your spouse like a person, not a thing.

I know I know I know. I know all the things, about marital rape and patriarchy and women’s sexual autonomy and the microaggression inherent in chivalry and bias against dads in family court and alllllll the things.

I also know there will be a neverending fountain of confusion and recrimination as long as we treat sex like something that can just happen between anyone at any time, and if we just figure out the right new rules, then no one gets hurt.

We already have figured out the rules. It’s called abstaining before marriage, getting married, having children if you can, and working hard at staying married.   Trying to figure out sex in any other context besides heterosexual marriage is like trying to grow tomatoes in a post-tomato cage era.  Congratulations, you’re free! And now you’re going to fall over and die.

Two great questions from men about NFP

I had a great interview with the witty and insightful Scott Eric Alt of Logos & Muse yesterday, and he incorporated parts of our conversation into his review, Seven Reasons to Read Simcha Fisher’s Book on NFP.  This question came up:

Why should we trust this mother of nine to make the case for NFP? That’s a fecun­dity beyond all rea­son! Either she’s not using NFP at all (oh the deceit!) or it does not really work. Nancy Pelosi infa­mously said that you call NFP-users “mama” and “dada,” and Sim­cha Fisher is exhibit A.

He’s not the first one to delicately inquire how I presume to write about NFP, when I’ve had so many kids in such a short time.  The short answer is that even exclusive breastfeeding is no match for my incredible, invincible, almost inexplicable fertility.  I’m not kidding.  You will just have to take my word for it that I do know what I’m talking about when I talk about abstinence.

The other answer is that this book is not based solely on my own experience. I was lucky enough to belong to a message board of NFP-users for many years, where men and women felt free to complain and console each other through the trials of NFP.  Not only did I learn about other people’s experiences, I learned that one’s own experience is not necessarily The Experience.

Check out the rest of the interview here.  We also talked about how God’s will works with free will; how NFP is not another kind of contraception, but another kind of life; and why I chose to write around NFP, rather than writing about NFP.

***

Next, Peter of Lightly Salted has written a really nice review in which he appreciates various points I made . . .

 … but all these things do not make the book as valuable as the main thread of her argument that runs through each chapter.

Fisher’s main point is this: sex is for grownups. So if you want fantastic sex, you need to grow up! When we are childish, petulant, selfish and lazy in our approach to sex, it will be disappointing to say the least. So the struggles with married life are a gift in that, learning to be a grownup in our most intimate relationship not only makes that relationship much more fun, frolicsome and fulfilling, it teaches us to be grownups in every other aspect of our lives. In short, marriage helps us grow in holiness.

Right on.  Then Peter asks the second question that has come up more than once: why isn’t there more in the book directed at men?  He says:

 I can hardly fault Simcha for writing from a woman’s perspective. After all, she writes as a woman who has listened carefully to men and seems to understand the basics. But  I wanted a chapter for men! A chapter from a man’s perspective might have rounded off the book as an even more excellent resource for couples than it already is. I don’t mean that she is hard on men. I think she is too soft in places. Sometimes it takes a man to tell other men to ‘man up’, and give some practical tips on how to go about it.

The book has a lot of chapters which are addressed equally to men and women, and then several which are addressed to women, encouraging them to understand, express themselves to, and encourage communication from their husbands.  This was deliberate.

The first reason I addressed women more directly is that women are more likely than men to buy and read a book about relationships, so I designed the book for women to read and then share with their husbands.  I did paint in broad strokes when describing how men and women usually think, and what most men and most women need.  (My editor made me take out a lot of tedious “of course, this may not apply to you”s and “naturally, there is a lot of variation”s.)  The goal of the book was not to tell men and women what women and men are thinking, respectively, but to encourage them to find out what their particular spouses are thinking.  In general, women are more motivated to broach that territory.

The second reason is that the book was already extremely personal, and I really didn’t want to write a chapter that would inevitably come across as “10 Things Simcha Wishes Her Husband Would Understand; Sheesh, What Do I Gotta Do, Write a Book?” or “Mistakes that Husbands Such as Damien T. Fisher, 39, of Southern NH, Make When Dealing with Their Wives.”

Okay, three reasons: my plan original plan was to sell maybe 250 copies of a self-published ebook and that would be the end of it, so I wasn’t really attempting to put together the definitive compendium of NFP-related issues.  But I fervently hope that my book will be the first of many about NFP, and I would love to hear more from and about men.

***

Thanks for the great reviews, Peter and Scott, and for the opportunity to answer those questions!  Readers, if you’re not already familiar with Logos & Muse and Lightly Salted, you’re missing out.