Monday, December 12, 2016

Almost Old Enough to be Young Again

As I've intimated from time to time, I am a prisoner of those bad things that have happened to me in my life. That's probably true for most of us, at least to some degree; I am sure not everyone, but most thoughtful people.

Thoughtful people are not free by nature; they have to make themselves free, and it's a lot of hard work. It's working with grace to be as free from fear as we can be in this world.

Fear? Yes, fear. The fear of the bad things, those things that made the bad feelings, those things that made us disappointed in ourselves and in life as a whole.

It seems to me that children are the only ones free from these things. This is not to say that autism and certain other things can stack the deck against kids. But when I think of childhood, I think of optimism, imagination, a sort of planning that looks an awful lot like dreaming to an adult, and of the ability to actually enjoy the good experiences that come by.

I am thinking of Christmas and my kids. I am thinking about the good times I have had in the past and how I miss my father and could never really appreciate him.

But, no, it's not never. As I said, children can actually enjoy the good things that come their way. For instance, I appreciated my father (and mother) when I was a child. Yet with every year and every hardship and responsibility that came along this ability to enjoy becomes weaker and weaker. It can get weaker. It did in me. In fact, like the good in Darth Vader, my ability to really enjoy good things withered up like a wart that's been dry-iced.

I'm not saying I am typical - I am far and away from that, as any reader of this blog will clearly know. However, neither am I a rare, special breed. I see the sadness and pain in people's faces. Most hide it better than I do, but they still have it. But my pain, or fear of pain, has made me better able, I think, to appreciate how important it is to have positive experiences, even if I find myself not really able to enjoy them as I should. Bahhumbuggers are people of my sort. But it's a choice. Even if someone were to rise from death it wouldn't be enough to change a person who didn't want to change (Lk 16:31). Belief in the Resurrection - for as much as preachers would have it on Easter - doesn't do this as a mere and easily come by intellectual acknowledgement. Rejoice - that's easier said than done. But it does make a difference. How much of a difference is up to you, I guess.

Sadness can keep us apart. I think of my family first of all. I can't be another person, but I have a duty to be the best this person I can be. Of course, people who suffer this way can't be saddled with this further thought, that their inability to be happy is hurting the ones they love. They should focus on the positive: they are perhaps rather more given to sympathy and compassion than others. So that's something.

But what I cannot be is a prisoner of fear. The best dads are the ones who choose to move beyond fear. Note it and work on it. The first difficulty is noticing it. Are we even all that aware of what drives us? And just because we think we are aware of it doesn't mean we actually are. We tell stories about ourselves, that doesn't mean they are totally accurate, including the unflattering ones. What do you remember about your past and why? During the first ten years of our lives we had about 100,000 waking hours. The memories we can call on perhaps account for 100 of them. Are we being fair to ourselves through our memories? Many of us are too hard on ourselves:

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;

I am ashamed of many things, and proud of virtually nothing. That's kind of a bad sign. It's not only bad when people have no shame and only pride (narcissism). When we don't have a positive view of our selves, how can we appreciate the good that God's done in us? We see our lives as a mistake, rather than as graces. It is not as true that my life is a series of sins I have done as it is that it is a series of great graces despite all of that. Every human life is a miracle, whether we can see that or not, and we usually can't.

The problem is we cynically reduce all of the world's best experiences. We call Christmas a consumer-driven holiday. We call marriage just one of society's flawed institutions. We see babies as diapers to be changed, cries that keep us up at night, other mouths to feed, and virus-sponges. And so we choose against them. We call education useless, conformist or indoctrination. Patriotism is chauvinism and divisive. We call work pointless, unending and undignified. We say trips contribute to global-warming... We have a million ways to feel bad about ourselves, a million reasons not to celebrate life. Because we can poke holes in things, doesn't mean we should or that this negative take is a wise or a complete one.

We are both time-bound and boundless. Our limits and limitlessness impact those of our fellows. We do damage and yet provide blessings and healing. We impinge on the other's eternity and their time-bound memories. Onesies make me think of my childhood. So do bikes, Christmas trees, and 35 mm cameras. My parents made all of these things into blessings for me, channels of grace. And yet I caught my foreskin on my onesie's zipper (possibly more than once), fell off my bike, had to prop-up a tree or two with my frustrated father, and had to pose for annoying pictures upon occasion.

But when and why did I lose track of life's enchantment? My teenage years brought acne and insecurity. My twenties brought angst with love and financial and vocational crises, then worry about children. To the troubles that began in my twenties, my thirties added weariness and the near collapse of my moral constitution, that is to say, the near collapse of human perseverance. My forties, they seem to offer fresh opportunities - either to believe in a happiness in success that I always seemed to be denied, to lose hope and faith again in this promise, or to find a new way. But maybe the new way is the oldest way:

I feel at times that I can get back to enchantment. There are moments when I think that I can be healed of the scars that ruined me of this. I used to believe in the happiness that heroism could bring (up until about twenty), then that which genius could bring, then that which love could bring, then evangelization... then... and yet each day, or week, or month, or year, nothing but disappointment and the onset of the philosopher's skepticism.

When do we forgive ourselves our failures and finally accept that the world is a rather formidable thing?

Our life in this world is like that of the king who came up against an enemy with his ten thousand. (Lk 14:31) Initially, he was certain they'd be enough to give him victory. As time went by did any of his certainty remain? No. What remained - might it be called hope, doubt, wishful thinking, desperation? Does he sue for peace or does he redefine war itself?

What is the world? Can we believe that we had it right initially and that everything that led us away from that was a lie? Is the measure of truth the ability to enjoy a good thing? It's worth thinking about this over this nostalgic period that is Christmas. If I have been robbed of my good memories and my ability to enjoy the good, can I supply these things to others, namely, my children?  I want to. Really.

I have never met a child as happy as my two-year-old, Maria. I helped to create that. By the grace of God I created something like 1/7 of that. With Anne-Marie and the other kids supplying the other 6/7s.


  1. We have a teacher at our school who never really smiles much. She lost a teenager to an accident 5 years ago, and I'm sure it still affects her constantly. Anyway, yesterday we had a concert practice which everyone watched. The happier the kids sounded on stage, the more stone-faced she became. By the end the kids were bubbling with joy, and she looked completely miserable. And yet, the truth of the matter is I know kids on that stage who came to school without proper clothing and no breakfast. There were kids on that stage who've endured mom and dad having a violent fight just last week, complete with police escorts to and from school. Some of the kids will get no presents at all for Christmas. You know what, it didn't matter. They were bubbling because, well, it's nearly Christmas. We can learn so much from them. And how much more joyful should we, who know the true meaning of Christmas, be?

    You must have some awesome kids. I'll bet they love you to death, and vice versa. And I'll bet you still act quite joyful with them, whether you feel it or not. Dark night or no dark night. You're simply "dad" for them. Goofy. Fun. Sometimes grumpy. But always dad. In the end, I think it's a wonderful thing you do. Deep down I think you know it too.

    1. I learned at my dad's funeral that that's all that seems to matter to the ones you leave behind: you were dad.

  2. I know someone else who gets feeling like this around Christmas. I think he's been so jaded (especially re: the materialism of the holiday--he has a hard time enjoying receiving presents--and the loss of its Christian roots--he has a hard time celebrating with family members who don't have a thought or a care about Jesus, morality, etc.) because he's an idealist. He knows how Christmas should be, and when it doesn't measure up, it's hard for him to find the enchantment.

    I don't know if there's anything necessarily wrong with that. If certain warm fuzzy feelings don't come at Christmas time, that doesn't mean there is no rejoicing. To rejoice is, I think, to choose to delight in the good, as you delight in the happiness of your children.

    I think the ability to wonder/be enchanted is proportional to the ability to be childlike, and it might just be that a person is too aware of the non-wonderfulness of the world to return psycho-spiritually to a state of innocence, so to speak. So, to return to a state of enchantment when one has been disenchanted is the goal. How can it be accomplished? I would suggest 2 ways: 1) Go be with Jesus. Sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament and let his love for you change your heart. You don't even have to say anything. He can and he will heal your wounds and give you fresh, childlike perspective. 2) Take practical steps towards changing your attitude. If the root of the problem is past trauma of some kind, consider going to therapy. If the problem is your own idealistic expectations, start trying to consciously identify the good in imperfect situations. If the problem is that the weight of the world, the reality of sin, is just too heavy on your shoulders, consider turning off the flow of information for awhile--stop watching the news or even reading pessimistic or negative things of any kind. They can give us the sense that evil is winning, when hells to the no it's not! So shut them up for your own peace of mind and returned hopefulness. (If you stick to doing 1) on a regular basis, though, everything else should fall into place.)

    Christ commands us to become like children, and I think this is a main reason for it: so that the evil of the world doesn't destroy our hope. I hope this helps and isn't too preachy. You're not alone in feeling like you do, so thanks for being so honest about it. I'll be praying for you!

    1. Sometimes the best thing in the world is kind words from friends - maybe that's why I blog at all?