Over the last decade or so, the TED talk – the 18-minute messages given by prominent artists, techies and other cultural figures – has become shorthand for showcasing the ideas the speaker most seeks to put into broad circulation. And at this week’s marquee conference for the program in Vancouver, the usual roster of celebs…
Good Friday at our house is not the somber occasion I often think it ought to be. But we begin with Stations of the Cross with our local Faith & Light group, which is something, anyway. Tonight for supper, it’s pizza (no pepperoni!) in the shape of a cross–a request one of my sons made a few years ago. And I will listen to this a few more times, in quiet moments:
You shall die on Good Friday
To be food for a man
And his pretty lady?
Who formed the roses
In the delicate flesh
And the tooth that bruises.
Earlier this week, I passed an evidently homeless man in the street. I passed by; I was in a hurry; I didn’t have any change in my pocket; I didn’t want to fumble in my handbag for money. I passed by on the other side of the street. Fortunately, he has been following me around–not physically, of course; I doubt he even noticed me at the time, since the street was fairly crowded. But in my mind’s eye he sits outside the shop, slightly sunburned, and the words ‘whatever you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to me’ float in the air around him.
Yesterday I lamented to a friend that I often feel as though I live in a bubble. Situations of real, desperate human need don’t usually cross my path. It’s not entirely true. Though my friends and neighbours may have more than they need, people cross my path one way or another every day who are in a vastly different situation. Every day: in the news, in emails from Caritas (like today) or the Missionaries in Africa, or on the streets of the town where I live. Lazarus does beg at the gate, even now, if we are looking for him.The trick is to be attentive. Easier said than done, I know.
So the email from Caritas today arrived in my inbox. Usually I pass by, as it were, on the other side. But today I found in that email, somehow, the image of the man I passed last week, like a reminder of Lazarus at the gate. And I am glad that he has not left me: in him I ought also to see Christ.
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.
Ezekiel 36. 25-27
Makes me wonder what all the fuss about free will is about. ‘I will put my Spirit within you,’ says the Lord, ‘and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.’ I will cause you to follow the law: this is how God consoles a wayward, hard-hearted people–not by relaxing the law or even by forgiving and forgetting. The Lord forgives, but does not forget: he remembers that we are but dust. He washes our sins away but remembers our fallen condition and provides for us accordingly. As St Paul observed, at the right time, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
In Christ we have more even than what Ezekiel promises: a paradigm. Christ is the one with the heart of flesh; he is the one in whom the Spirit dwells fully; he is the one who keeps God’s law perfectly; and he does this all freely. That is the work of the Spirit, to restore our freedom. God does not cause us to follow the law by thwarting our will and desires, but by healing them, transforming them. Under the Spirit’s guidance, we do not act as puppets. We act as we were created to act. We live according to our creation in the image of God. The Spirit does not cause us to follow an alien law, but the law that has been written on our hearts.
I suppose this is the natural law, in the view of philosophers who study such things. It is the law, that is, of our nature. In our fallen state, however, being true to our nature as creatures of the living God requires grace. Fortunately, it seems pretty clear, from Genesis all the way through, that grace is exactly what God wants to give us.
Duke of Edinburgh I love the fact that there is a World Down Syndrome Day. The videos produced to promote awareness are encouraging, showing people with Down Syndrome as happy contributors to society. This year’s video, which resists the claim that people with Down Syndrome have ‘special needs’, does this perfectly: what people with Down Syndrome need is the same as what everyone needs–opportunities, education, relationships, etc.
True. And yet…I have a daughter with Down Syndrome. Her needs are more complicated than that, and I refer to those needs as ‘special’ without hesitation. Not that she doesn’t need education and opportunities and friends. She needs, and has, all those things. We are extremely fortunate in the level of provision for all of my daughter’s needs here in the UK. But I am worried about the suggestion that people with Down Syndrome are ‘just like everyone else’ for two reasons. (NB: the adorable girl pictured is not my daughter.)
First, people with Down Syndrome can lead lives that are remarkably typical. But this cannot be guaranteed, and it cannot be forced. Like all young children, those with Down Syndrome develop at their own pace and their skills and achievements will vary greatly. To participate in some of the things that typically developing kids do easily, most children with Down Syndrome will need extra support. My daughter has just achieved her Bronze Duke of Edinburgh award. The fact that she had to have certain allowances and modifications doesn’t make me any less proud of her. If she had to compete with typically developing kids, doing exactly the same things, she would not have been able to have this incredible experience. Of course I hope that she will achieve the kind of speaking ability that the young woman who narrates the video has. But she might not. So to be properly ‘aware’ of what Down Syndrome is and means, I have to keep in mind that even if my daughter doesn’t ever speak that well, she deserves to be treated with the same dignity and respect as those people with Down Syndrome who can carry on a conversation with typically developing peers.
Second, and more importantly, my daughter has an incredible gift to give me and all those who take the time to listen to her and go at her pace for a bit. What the video doesn’t help us see is the way that I have to slow down and look at the world differently when I am with my daughter. Every day–when I am paying attention properly, anyway–my daughter reminds me that life is not about rushing from one thing to the next. Life is not about what I can achieve. Being human is not about being utterly self-sufficient and autonomous. All the practical things that I can do, my capacity for self-direction, and my ability to interact with the world in an abstract and reflective way have their place in the way that I live my life. Indeed, these things enable me to care for my daughter and to see her for who she is. But very easily I forget that who I am and what I can do are not coextensive. I am more than a bundle of capacities, more than a cache of memories and ideas. My daughter reminds me that the time I have been given is first and foremost for love. Without that, my capacities would have no direction and my memories and ideas would lack the principle that integrates them. I love. The rest is only really about how I express that love, how I live it out in the world.
Passing, in the novel by Nella Larsen, refers to Clare Kendry’s ability (and that of other characters) to ‘pass’ for white. So doing opens to Clare a life that she could not have otherwise had, but it comes at great cost–and to no good effect. In the context of intellectual disability, there is a certain degree to which ‘passing’ is possible. But doing so doesn’t change the way people with more profound intellectual disabilities are regarded. If being able to play on the level field is the goal, then a lot of people with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities are going to be left on the sidelines.
And we will never see how desperately the rules of that game need changing.
I’m a little behind in my reading, I confess. Only today (for boring reasons) did I get around to reading The Feminine Mystique. Since I am so behind, I have the advantage of reading the text through the criticisms of others (notably bell hooks) and the luxury of a pdf version online. Because the book celebrated 50 years since publication, I also have the help of retrospectives: Ashley Fetters’ article in The Atlantic gives a concise and helpful overview of the major criticisms (and has its own argument to make with respect to the book and its reception).
If you want to read about those major criticisms–that the book is racist and classist, founded on lies, and homophobic–please click the link above and read Fetters’ article. Here, I want to point to one more lie that permeates The Feminine Mystique: the ‘pointlessness’ of the work mothers do. The problem with no name seems to me to be only partly about women’s newfound ambitions being frustrated by the daily suburban routine. The women who don’t make an appearance in the book are those who found meaning in family life, and those who never had the opportunity not to work (see ‘classist’ above).
Please don’t stop reading now, because you assume that I am about to argue that motherhood is intrinsically fulfilling and women should all be trained not to develop other ambitions. Not at all. I am, after all, a Catholic theologian who teaches at a university in the UK. The work I do gives me a sense of ‘more’ beyond the boundaries of family life, and I enjoy it. I confess to a certain weariness sometimes, though, and wonder whether it wouldn’t be better not to have ambitions. I sometimes think I would be a better mother if I were always there for and with the children and not off teaching, researching, or writing. I’ve no way of knowing. I do envy women that seem satisfied with family life, who somehow make motherhood a profession, a vocation, a career. But this is a bit of a digression.
The pernicious lie of The Feminine Mystique is that the work housewives did was ‘pointless’ (in the words of one of Friedan’s informants). It is a lie because the work is not pointless. It’s repetitive, and it can be boring and isolating. But the mundane tasks that involve care for others–preparing food, cleaning, looking after children–are necessary. Care is not pointless. And that’s the pernicious part of the lie. The tasks associated with the care of children are demeaned by the complaint that they’re pointless. The implication is that these things are unimportant; by doing these tasks every day we achieve nothing. In this line of work, there is no opportunity for advancement–no raises, no promotions, no corner office. And those are the things that mark us as important.
As long as we believe that, however subconsciously, we will serve our children badly. Not because we don’t care about them, but because we have begun to treat childhood as something of a disability. Children are not able to look after themselves, they need educating and training so that they can become productive. All this is true. But in adopting this attitude to childhood–it’s something to be got over–we ignore children in themselves. Children are not merely defective adults. (This is one of the key insights of the work of Maria Montessori.) Even if they were, and raising children was simply the process of shoring up the deficiency, it wouldn’t be pointless. Treating children as doing the essential work of becoming the people they are meant to be takes a different kind of attention to them, an attention that does not just measure them against the standards set for grown-ups but helps them to see who they are becoming. That work is not pointless.
So Betty Friedan was wrong about that. As grateful as I am for the opportunity to study and to work, which is a fruit of the feminist movement, I do sometimes worry about the cost. When caring gets sidelined, children suffer. And not only children, but all those who need care–the elderly, those with disabilities, and us temporarily able-bodied folks, when we fall seriously ill. Caring is a distraction from the really important stuff; let someone else change the sheets and prepare the food, so we can get on with the stuff that matters. I think we’re missing something here.
But I can’t say more about what it is: I have to take my 5-year-old daughter to the library now.
I read Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal a few years ago. Reading the original entries, in her neat handwriting, with imperfect spelling, drew me to her in a way her fiction never did. The darkness in the stories she wrote and the grim picture of human beings and the world we inhabit haunts me; it doesn’t make me want to re-read, or to read more. My tastes, sorry as I sometimes am to admit it, run more to the likes of Jane Austen and George Eliot. Anthony Trollope, even. But Flannery O’Connor’s journal was something entirely different. It in, she recorded her struggles as an aspiring writer and a faithful Catholic woman.
The entry that struck me most deeply recorded her frustration with the feeling of mediocrity. She thought she was mediocre! As difficult as I find her prose, I would never, ever call it that. She possessed a gift for fiction and for expressing that darkness about which I am so squeamish–so that however fearful I was about what was about to happen in her stories, I couldn’t just stop reading. But she worried about being mediocre in the midst of her struggles in writing and in life.
So it is, I think. I know I haven’t her gift for fiction, or her dedication. My energy is spent in so many different small channels that there is nothing that remains of it, no landmark to show where I have passed. I feel utterly mediocre, completely ordinary, no different from anyone else. The older I get, the clearer it becomes to me that the world for all time has been full mostly of ordinary folk. That’s how children are born and raised; that’s how crops are grown and harvested; that’s how the things that need doing day after day after day get done.
If anyone knows how to keep chasing dreams and still make sure that there are school clothes ready for the week, the homework gets done, and the children get to school on time (or thereabouts), I would love to hear how that goes. Because the ordinary ordinary seems like the place where dreams just die and hopes have to be transformed or they kill you. When all the energy is expended in the dawn-to-dusk routine, there’s not much left for chasing dreams by moonlight. The ghosts of hope linger, haunting me after bedtime. Sometimes the extraordinary interrupts, and shows something beyond endless to-do lists and dirty laundry.
Mostly, though, it’s ordinary through and through. Someone please tell me there’s nothing wrong with that.