Saturday, January 14, 2012

Criticizing Saints and John Carter of Mars

I just saw a trailer for the upcoming Disney movie on John Carter of Mars, which excited me to no end.  I totally loved the original novels, which were my introduction to classic Fantasy Sci Fi. I've been waiting for years for the books to be adapted to film. I think there was some horrible, cheezy version, but they really needed modern CG to make Barsoom come alive. Incidentally, the original novels were written by Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzan fame.

While the plot and the characters of the books held up extremely well, even after 100 years (They were first published in 1912.), certain underlying societal attitudes fare less well. Some of the language, especially in reference to Native Americans (you have to read the books to figure out how Native Americans figure into a story about Mars!), is racist by today's standards. And, although the books do a remarkable job of seeing beyond skin color for their time, there is a subtle undercurrent of superiority that still flows through the ink (or electronic pulses, since I reread them on my Kindle).

Which brings me to saints.  In particular, the criticism of saints from our modern vantage. A couple of days ago, I quoted a bit from my upcoming book on another way to view Mother Teresa's apparent lack of modern painkillers in his homes for the dying, saying that one has to understand where she comes from with regard to suffering before you judge too harshly.

This is a problem with many saints.  A lot of them would not fare well in today's world. For instance, St. Rose of Lima would probably be under psychiatric care for her propensity to self-mutilate. Others were accepting of norms we reject today, like slavery. Still others were so single-minded in their pursuit of the Divine, they were socially inept and even rude at times (the Cure of Ars, comes to mind.)
As we look at these people through our own lenses, we can be tempted to decide that they weren't really all that holy.  But we have to remember that they were living in their own time and place. We need to judge them, not by our standards, but by the standards they judged themselves.

Just as the John Carter stories need to be judged by the standards of the turn of the last century and appreciated for what they are, not what they should be today.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Wonder of Facebook

I think everyone has moments when they think "It wasn't like that when I was a kid..."  With the world changing as quickly as it has, even people born 20 years ago can say it and mean it. 

One of my favorite changes is social networking.  I really love Facebook, not just because it allows me to pretend I'm being productive when all I'm really doing is reading other people's walls, but because it affords a way of connecting that was never available before.

Through Facebook, I've found two people I've wondered about since I was in high school.  I had lost track of one when we were freshmen and her family moved from California to the East coast.  Another I never saw again after graduation.  But both flickered in and out of my mind over the years and with the help of Facebook, I was able to reconnect.  It felt almost like a miracle.

And through Facebook, I've been able to dialog with people I'd probably never have a chance to meet in my "real" life, like authors Anne Rice and Fr. James Martin, as well as people from all over the world. Because of Facebook, I was able to get real time pictures of the revolution in Egypt when it happened, for instance.

The reason I'm mentioning this today is because of my 2012 commitment to becoming more aware of things to be grateful for in my life.  Who would have known that a social network site on the internet would become such a major source of thanks? 

But it has.

And it is.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Legacy of Mother Teresa

Recently on Facebook, noted author Anne Rice linked a  Forbes article about Mother Teresa and allegations of less than sterling care provided by her houses and sisters.  Thiis controversy really isn't new; The medical journal Lancet wrote something similar several years ago. While I haven't devoted time or energy to determining the validity of these pieces, I did write a chapter on Mother Teresa in my upcoming book Facing Adversity with Grace. (I've also written  a book of her quotes, linked to bible verses called Listening to God with Mother Teresa.)

In the upcoming book on Adversity, I wrote:

As we look at the life of Mother Teresa, there something else about her attitude toward suffering that we need to examine, a feature that has generated some criticism from her detractors and that is her so-called “theology of suffering.” It was widely claimed in the medical press that because she believed ‘the most beautiful gift for a person (is) that he can participate in the sufferings of Christ,”[1] she did not do as much as she could to procure medical treatment for those in her Homes for the Dying and even subjected the patients to such practices as cold baths and the withholding of pain medication.
Whether or not they are true, these accusations remind us that saints are recognized for their passionate love of God, not for their infallibility. In looking at Mother Teresa’s life and the mental suffering she experienced, it isn’t difficult to see why she might have developed a particular theology that almost relishes suffering. She knew that she was offering her entire life to God as a gift and she also knew that she was in great mental anguish for most of it. She had to also have been aware that her “dark night” was like that of John of the Cross who, as an antidote to the pain, recommended, “Do the most difficult, the harshest, the less pleasant, the unconsoling, the lowest and most despised, want nothing, look for the worst”[2] for she clearly modeled her life and that of her sisters on that credo.
The problem is that one of the greatest temptations for all of us to assume that our personal experience is universal. We tend to generalize from our specific experiences. This may be what happened with Mother Teresa. Since she experienced her suffering as a blessing, it’s not hard to imagine she believed that similar suffering it would bring blessings to everyone. Because she was able to transform her pain into a love offering to God, it’s not out of the question to think she might assume that would be equally true for everyone else.
From believing that suffering is a great gift that you can give to God, it’s a very small step to wanting to make sure that others have ample opportunity to give that same gift to God. Thus, Mother Teresa might well have had an aversion to painkillers and a desire to implement stringent self-disciplinary practices in order to insure that the people she served were given ample opportunities to offer up their pain just as she did.
Here is where we can use Mother Teresa, not so much as an example of what we should do, but as a caution against what we might be tempted to do. God deals with each of us as individuals, including the suffering that he allows in our lives. We should be wary of extrapolating our unique experience into a generality for all people. Mother Teresa was a remarkable icon of holiness for our time. But she was also human and subject to assuming that the way God dealt with her was the way he deals with all people. This is not to say that her desire to offer up suffering was bad. It isn’t. In fact, offering up pain is one of the major lessons we can learn from the saints. But it’s not our job to see that others have a chance to suffer in order to offer up that suffering. What that means on a practical level in our own families is that while we may undertake certain disciplines (such as rising early for prayer or fasting), it’s not our right to insist that our spouses or children share those disciplines. All suffering, both that allowed by God and that created by our own choices, is always unique to the individual. Because of that, we have no right to try to “help” others find ways to suffer. Rest assured, they will find ample opportunity on their own.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Are We Ready for a President Mittens?

In the nation's first primary, Mitt Romney took New Hampshire. Rather he will be the GOP candidate or not is still a long ways off, but what's really essential to know is that 2% of voters nationwide think his first name is....


According a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll, a 20 percent plurality of us thought that "Mitt" was his real name and not a glove-like nickname. 18 percent said "Mitchell"; 8 percent, Milton; and only 6 percent correctly said "Willard." But the most important stat from the survey is that somehow, in some way, 2 percent of real-life adult voting Americans believe that his name is "Mittens."
 AND....Another 2 percent thought his name was "Gromit." As in, apparently the cartoon characters  Wallace and Gromit.(Given the state of American politics, perhaps a cartoon isn't so far off after all.)

However, as the article points out, any of the above are better than the connotations associated with Newt Gingrich. Who was born Newton Leroy McPherson.  I'm not sure that Leroy is much better than Newt, to be honest.

(I think the lesson here is to be careful what you name your children.  Oh, and Mitt's real first name, Willard, is that of a horror film about a rat.  Perhaps he is better off with the image of nice, warm, fuzzy hand-coverings.)

Serious ponderings will resume tomorrow.

Coping with Fear

One of the unexpected effects of my last year was the decidedly unwelcome visitor of fear.  As in heart-pounding, mind-swirling panic.  As an adolescent, I had experienced panic attacks, and again, but I had, erroneously, assumed that they were part of the past. When the first one came, it was an old familiar and most unwanted guest.The only good part about it was that I knew what it was, so I didn't have the "second fear" that often accompanies the physical sensations.  I knew that it wasn't fatal, wasn't going to last forever and I even knew what steps to take to mitigate it.

However, fear still entered through the door, dropped its coat on my couch and sat down for a long visit.  In fact, it still pops up now and then, as if to remind me that it hasn't quite gone south for the winter.

I've researched fear and panic from psychological, physical, mental and spiritual perspectives and I still don't completely understand what causes it.  I understand the biological changes, the adrenalin surge and all that.  I comprehend the erroneous thinking patterns that create F(alse) E(evidence)A(pppearing)R(eal). And I get that fear is the antithesis of love. But I'm still not quite sure why it would surge back at this time in my life. Or, more precisely, why I would be allowing it to return.

The only thing I can figure out is that, in its presence, I am being forced to take a long, hard look at my life. Fear is like a scalpel, laying bare what was under the surface. It is making me examine what I was doing and face the fact that a lot of it wasn't working.  Oh, it appeared to be working and I had convinced myself and a lot of other people that it was working, but under the razor-edge of fear, I am having to face the fact that things have to change.

I have to change.

Now I'm still working on what those changes are and how to bring them into my life, but along the way I have figured out a few things about how to use fear and panic to facilitate change and not let them totally use me. I hope that perhaps my experience will help you, if you find these unwanted guests shoving their way into your life.

Keep Active
If you let fear and panic have their way, they will take over your entire life. Especially if you just sit around. When I feel them creeping up, I do something, even if it's just the dishes. A little activity goes a long way.

Don't Isolate
The more alone and isolate you are, the more fear and panic can grow. So force yourself to get out. Make a phone call. Visit a friend. Confide in someone you trust. If necessary, get professional help. Just don't let fear and panic be your only companions.

Find a Spiritual Practice that Works for You
For me, returning to some of the prayers and rituals of my Catholic childhood has provided a grounding.  I don't know what will work for you, but I do know that reaching out for help from God has been a life-saver.  Just believing that I am not alone in this, that there is a light on the other side and that I can find Divine guidance has given me the courage I need to get through the day.

Accept What Is
This is the toughest for me, but it is absolutely vital. Much of what creates my fear and panic is an unwillingness to accept the reality of the moment. I don't want my mother to be in hospice.  I don't want to be looking for work. I don't want to be struggling financially.  I don't want to be alone.  But right now, the reality is that my mother is in hospice.  I am looking for work.  I do have financial issues.  I am alone.  The reality of the moment doesn't mean that the situation is permanent, but if I am to make changes, I have to accept what is right now.  

Believe in Positive Change
I truly believe that we get what we believe in.  As long as I believe that things are bad and going to get worse, that's what will happen. So each day, sometimes many times a day, I remind myself that each little step I take toward a more positive future is helping create that future.  And with each positive change, a little bit of the fear gets replaced by a little bit of hope.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Angry Birds

Most of the time I tend to be fairly serious, so I decided to lighten up a bit and try playing Angry Birds.

I hate to admit it, but I don't get the game.  No, I understand that it's based on laws of physics and I comprehend the principles involved in judging trajectories and impact velocity.  What I just don't get is why tossing irritated birds at green pigs is fun.

So what is the appeal?

Elder Care and an Anniversary

I've been responsible for my mother for at least the past 12 years, with a couple of less-intense years before that.  The care has steadily increased, as is always the case with eldercare, reaching what I thought was maximum velocity a year ago.

She was in an assisted living facility at the time.  I got the call about 2 am.  She had fallen and was taken by ambulance to the E.R.  I drove through the deserted streets, that  much I remember, and I know I had to have parked somewhere and gotten myself into the E.R., but that's all a blur.  As are the next several days, with medical tests and decisions battering me from all directions.

She had broken both legs and, at 91, two doctors told me it would be a "terminal event" and wanted to know if I merely wanted her heavily sedated with morphine for the few days or weeks it would take for her to "pass."  Knowing my mother, I was 100% sure that she would survive the surgery and go on to live for a long time.  Seeing as how we are now approaching the one year anniversary of her fall, I feel fairly vindicated at the decision to have surgery and complete rehabilitation. 

Wants vs Needs

The year of her recovery has been, however, a major contributing factor to my year of debridement. I have always had a difficult relationship with my mother.  Not that we ever argued.  Or that there was anything visible on the surface.  I simply did whatever she wanted whenever she wanted my entire life.  There was never any conflict, because she got her way in all things.  Now, however, I couldn't give her what she wanted--which was a totally pain-free recovery with me at her side 24/7.  And in realizing that I couldn't give her her wants, I became aware of my own needs. Actually, for the first time, I realized that I did have needs and they were just as important as everyone else's wants.

You'd think that by age I'd have learned that lesson, but I was raised with an incredibly strong mother who doled out equal doses of parental and Catholic guilt, heavily seasoned with Catholic teaching on the need for self-sacrifice.  So it had to have been a God-thing, that just as I was becoming aware of my needs, I was writing a book on Facing Adversity with Grace, stories of saints who had to work through suffering.

Telling Myself Stories

I began the book just about the time she fell and I finished it just as she was leaving the nursing facility.  I think if I had written the book any other time, it would have been a far different book, because as much as I was telling the stories of Mother Teresa and St. Helena, I was also teaching myself lessons about what suffering is, what it isn't and how it can either shape or destroy our lives. I just reread some of the passages and thought, " is it that you knew these lessons but weren't really applying them?"

So now, on this mid-January morning, my mother is still alive and doing remarkably well.  We are coming up on the anniversary of her fall, which is also an anniversary for--the anniversary of the day that I began to learn that self-sacrifice isn't self-immolation and that taking care of one's own needs isn't selfish--it's essential.  Afterall, we have to have our own oxygen masks in place before we can assist others.  For too many years, I tried to help others with their masks while holding my breath. And, as I said a couple of days ago, one of the major lessons I learned was that breathing is important to life!

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Sunday Gratitude

I've decided that on Sundays I'm going to simply list 10 things that I am grateful for during the past week. (Unless something really interesting happens and I feel compelled to write about it.) 

So here goes:
1. A room of my own, as Virginia Wolfe said.  A friend of mine gave me free use of an office in his building to start the new year.  I'm hoping the separation of home and work, much like church and state, will help shift energy.  I'm anxious to see what new doors creatively and emotionally can open. 
2. Those who follow me on Facebook will know that over Christmas we had the GSD (Great Sewer Disaster).  This week the soggy carpet was removed and new flooring put down.
3. I got to attend a two-year-old's birthday party. It's good to be reminded just how splendid balloons are.
4. A friend brought me a tuna fish sandwich for lunch.  Sometimes it's the small things that make a difference.
5. There was sunshine a few days.  Here in Oregon in winter, one doesn't take seeing the sun for granted.
6. My African violet bloomed.  Since I have a black thumb, any plant that survives deserves a prize. Blooming is above and beyond the call.
7.  I discovered Words with Friends.  I've never been good at Scrabble and I have yet to win a game of WWF, but I'm enjoying the processing of regular loss.
8. I had one stick of rose incense left.  It's my favorite, so to mark Sunday, I'm letting its fragrance fill the room.
9. I remembered to charge my cell phone before it totally ran out of energy.
10. 2011 is over.  It's a new year.  I am grateful to have made it through.