Thursday, December 31, 2015

A look back at 2015

I am really not ready to make goals for 2016.  I just don't know what I want, or what I could reasonably hope for!  So the place to start is to look back, to see how the past year went.  Perhaps when I go over it, it'll be easy to see where I want to go next.

It was kind of a rough year.  Better than 2014, though!  Miriam was four months when the year started, which means she was through with the difficult newborn stage (when, if you remember, she wouldn't go down for a nap at all, ever) and got easier throughout the year.  Once she did regularly go down for naps, I was able to focus more on the boys and stop them from the constant biting-each-other thing.  I got a car and we've actually started going places for fun, which is nice.  We've been doing fine for money all year, which is something I hope I never forget to feel grateful for.

But three kids is hard, you know?  It's really hard to get a baby to sleep if there are big kids making noise.  It's hard to take care of a sick child when you also have two rowdy well children.  It's hard to wake up at 3 a.m. with one and 5 a.m. with another.  It's hard for us parents to get time with each other when somebody always seems to need something.  One more child means more mess, more stress, more food to buy and cook, more anxiety when we go out that I'll lose one, more noise.  I kind of thought the work would decline per kid -- and it does, to some extent.  Three kids is not three times as much work as one -- but it isn't the same amount of work as one, either.

And I'm not bouncing back as fast as I thought I would, or as fast as I did with the boys.  When Marko was four weeks old I got up off the couch, went into the kitchen, and started bustling around with more energy than I'd had in the past year.  I felt like myself, 100% capacity.  I hit that point with Michael at about six months.  With Miriam ... I still don't feel like that.  Some days are good, I feel energetic and happy and focused and motivated.  (Say, if I've had a really great night's sleep.)  Other days I just sort of drag myself around and the noise and stress really gets to me.  My body just won't crank out a normal level of energy and accomplishment on five hours' sleep anymore.

I'm managing the stuff that has to get done pretty well now.  I mean, laundry is still kind of a bust, but I do dishes every day, make food, do some general tidying.  But the energy that used to make me want to organize the bookshelf or clean under the bed or start a knitting project?  It's gone.  I still miser my energy the way I do when I'm pregnant -- "better do dishes instead of cleaning the bathroom, because I know if I do one, I'll be too tired to do the other."  And as for fun stuff I used to like, like gardening, writing, spinning?  I can barely even think about them!  I'll go on a kick for a couple of days where I feel better and I think I see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I'll jot down a bunch of ideas for a book or cast on a hat ... and then Miriam cuts another tooth and it all lies stagnant for another month.

It's demoralizing.  Sometimes I'm tempted to universalize it -- saying something like, "See, motherhood drains the life out of women; it is incredibly unfair that we are expected to do this over and over for years, when it saps our energy and dreams right out of us."  But of course I know not everyone feels this way!  Some people remain spunky after a dozen kids.  Still, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that most people I know seem to land in this boat after a few kids.  They always tell me it gets easier, but on pressing, I've had several moms of many admit, "It gets easier because you give up on the idea of ever doing anything for yourself again and you just accept how tired you are and move on."  It's not super encouraging.

However, it is slowly getting better.  I realized today that 2015 is the first calendar year since 2008 that I haven't been pregnant for any part of it.  If I can just keep plugging away, there will (hopefully) be a day when I can sleep through the night again.  When I can put a cartoon on for the kids and take a nap because all of them are old enough to be briefly unsupervised.  When I can count on some time to work on my own projects every day, and the energy to do it.  I'm dreaming of a day when thinking about my garden or my next novel doesn't make me overwhelmed and exhausted, but excited and ready to start.  It'll happen.

In some sense, it was a bad year, because this was the year I lost whatever was left of my faith.  But even that has a bright side, because I have finally let go the immense pressure of trying to force myself to believe something that didn't seem right.  I realized that the only way to do good is to seek out the truth, even if it's not the truth you wanted to hear.  And it's kind of reassuring to think that, well, if it's not true, then I'm not bad for having doubts, and God isn't ignoring me for not being good enough while paying attention to other people.  Maybe we're all in this same boat of wanting God, but not having a clear way to know if God wants us.

Other than that, my opinions haven't really changed much this year.  The nice thing about being a libertarian is that it leaves room for error -- you're already staying out of other people's business (like gay marriage or birth control) and so you don't have to change what you're doing if you change your mind.  In my personal life, my morality hasn't changed because I see the code I've followed all this time as a very good way to live. 

My word for 2015 was "act."  Silly me, I imagined I would have energy this year and would be doing more than I have.  But pushing myself to try anyway was probably a good thing.  I'm not ready to choose a word yet for 2016.  I guess I'm kind of scared it will be another year where I expect things to get better faster than they do.  What if I resolve to write a book and it just isn't possible?  What if my garden goes all to weeds and I quit doing sit-ups and watch too much TV?  Hard to plan when you don't know where your life will take you.

Looking back, I accomplished very little in 2015.  But I was present.  I took care of my relationships.  Every one of my kids seems securely attached -- they are happy most of the time, and I am exchanging hugs and kisses with them all day long.  They tell me what's on their minds and they smile when they catch my eye.  And John and I are getting along great too -- through all the stress and tiredness, we've been present with each other.  It's been good.

For all I didn't do, I'm proud of how I managed in 2015.  And I have a good feeling about 2016.  If I do nothing else, I will keep loving my kids, and that's not nothing.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Theodicy and hell

Many atheists argue that the existence of an all-powerful, all-good God is not possible due to the existence of evil in the world.  The argument goes that it's in the nature of a good being to destroy evil where possible, and that an all-powerful God would find it possible.

I disagree with this because I don't think it is the nature of goodness to wipe out evil.  Back in freshman theology, I learned an eye-opening reality -- good and evil are not opposites.  That is to say, they are not equal opposing forces which operate roughly the same way.  Instead, evil is a lack of good.  Good is creative, while evil is destructive.  So I can see a good force creating things that are evil, because that good force can't create things that don't lack anything without just creating another version of itself.  Evil exists to the degree that there is limitation in created things.  And when those evil things are in existence, I could see Goodness not destroying those things because it's not a destructive force, and because all things that are evil contain some good, or they would have no existence at all.  Hitler, for instance, had lots of goodness in him -- a healthy body, charisma, rhetorical skill -- and I could imagine a good being letting him live for the sake of those good things.

Beyond this, I don't think that good is simple and easily defined.  I dislike Hitler because he murdered humans and I care about humans; but if I had the same sort of love for bacteria, Pasteur would be the bigger mass-murderer.  It's impossible for us to think about goodness separate from human morality and human ends, because that is what goodness refers to, when humans speak of it.  (And Aquinas, I believe, backs me on this -- morality refers to a being's nature, so good for humans is different from good for God.)

So the problem of evil is kind of a non-problem if you just assume that goodness for God is something about creating and enjoying the universe and not having the sort of moral obligations humans have.

I'd rather talk about what God wants.  What are God's goals?  It seems obvious to me that if an all-powerful being has a single main goal, he will achieve it.  He will arrange the entire universe around that goal.  I can do the same with my own life goals -- sacrificing all other considerations to a single goal -- and the only thing that can stop me is my own human limitation.  God has no limits, so he will achieve what he wishes.

So: if God's goal were a lack of suffering for humans, he could easily have achieved this.  He could do it by being constantly involved, directly stopping any person or thing that was going to cause suffering to anyone.  Or he could have made it impossible for the human mind to suffer -- pain, for instance, could be a simple signal of "avoid" rather than including an experience of suffering.  Or it could be something that can only happen briefly but vanishes once the message comes across, so that no one could spend days or years in agony.  It seems obvious that stopping suffering is no part at all of God's goals, because evolution is a system that relies on death and pain to even work.  If you don't want anyone to suffer, it would be stupid to invent a system that requires huge amounts of suffering at every step of the process.

Or his goal could be salvation for everyone.  But if it is, the Catholic Church says that God is a failure at it, because there's a place called hell.  It seems to me that salvation for everyone ought to be possible.  God could have given us only good desires, so we naturally would want to obey God's will.  (Such as what the already-saved and good angels experience.)  God himself, after all, cannot desire evil, so why can we?  God could also carefully arrange things here on earth so that everyone gets exactly the influences that will help them be saved.  He could refrain from creating anyone whom he foreknows won't be saved, or let them die before they've had a chance to sin.  After all, we know that around half of conceived zygotes die.  Perhaps those are the people God knows would go to hell. 

But, some argue, salvation for everyone is not God's primary goal either.  What he wants even more than salvation for everyone is freedom.  He wants everyone to have the maximum amount of freedom possible, so that they could freely choose salvation or damnation.  But the world does not seem optimized for freedom either.  If maximum freedom was the goal, why are humans limited in knowledge?  To make a really free choice, we should see clearly what options are available and what the consequences of our choices will be.  The existence of God should be self-evident to everyone, and we should be able to go look at hell so we can see what the danger is.  We are not free to choose if we are unable to see what our choices mean until we've already made them all!  But that's how it is, if you can't be sure hell exists until you're dead and all opportunity for meritorious choices has ended.  I've heard people say that knowledge makes you less free, because no one who saw hell would actually choose it, but that's kind of my point.  You are more free when you have more knowledge, because a choice made without knowledge can't be aligned with what you actually want.  If you want a lady and not a tiger, knowing which door hides the lady and which hides the tiger is crucial information.  Your choices are more predictable when you have information -- no one would actually choose the tiger -- but they are more free.

Also, every human except Adam, Eve, Mary, and Jesus has possessed concupiscence, the innate tendency toward evil.  We have disordered desires we can't easily control.  It is obvious that we are less free to make good choices when we have concupiscence -- I mean, we all know that Adam and Eve were freer than we are -- but it's also obvious that God could prevent this.  After all, the soul is the direct creation of God; it does not come from our parents.  Original sin (and presumably concupiscence too) is something on our soul.  So for God to make sure each of us gets it, he has to apply it to each soul when he makes it.  Why would God do that?  Conversely, even if it's on the body, he could easily remove it for each person to increase our freedom.

The third issue is that some people are in situations which severely limit their freedom.  Some are deprived of education; others of love.  And again, what about the half of humans ever conceived who never make a single choice?  If this is a better situation than life on earth, why would God not allow all of us to experience something similar -- creation as an embodied soul and then immediate salvation?  But if it's a worse situation, why does God allow it to happen to anyone?  It seems to me that the situation of maximum freedom is what the angels are supposed to have: total knowledge, total freedom, and a single choice.  And clearly the angels' freedom couldn't be hampered by this, or God wouldn't put them in this situation.  But if this is so good, why didn't God let us experience something similar?

I admit that this is a philosophical question and I suck at philosophy.  But I've been reading up and I haven't found an answer to this objection.  For instance, I read a summary of Plantinga's famous Free Will Defense -- supposed to be the best answer ever devised to the Problem of Evil -- and all it claims to argue is that there could be a potential universe in which there is an omnipotent good God and also evil, not that it is possible in this universe.  That's a bit irrelevant, considering we do live in this universe and there are actual facts about this universe we know, like evolution and the death of embryos and freedom that is hampered by circumstances, which seem to complicate the issue.  In addition, if you want to profess Christianity rather than only theism, you have to deal with doctrinal complications like hell and concupiscence.  Creating a hypothetical universe to do philosophy in is like creating a two-dimensional space to do geometry in -- interesting exercise, but not entirely applicable to the actual world.

It is possible that there are answers to this question.  I've been looking for close to a year and not found them.  Certainly here on this blog the answers I get usually wind up with "it's a mystery."  The argument is that an omnipotent being would be able to come up with a reason why to allow suffering on earth and damnation for eternity, while still caring about humans.  I can't accept this, because some of the problems above are not a matter of ignorance, but of actual contradiction.

Now I can posit any number of scenarios that do work out.  God could be only interested in creating amazing and beautiful things and observing them, not in the happiness, whether temporal or eternal, of any of his creations.  I could still respect a God like this, though of course there would be no point in most of what we call religion.  I can also believe in a God who cares and therefore carefully brings all humans to eventual salvation.  This is universalism, and the downside is that it's kind of heretical from a Catholic perspective.  I've gone round and round with people about it, and I know there are some ways that people manage to be Catholic and universalist, but my conclusion on this is that the only reason a person would ever interpret scripture and tradition that way is because they can't believe in hell and don't want to give up Catholicism -- not because it's a reasonable interpretation of what the Church teaches.  I respect the effort, but if you want to be led by the Church rather than to force your own interpretation on its teaches, I think you have to admit the Church teaches people go to hell.

That, of course, casts doubt on Catholicism itself, and on Christianity in general.  If statements like "God desires all to be saved" and "wide is the road to perdition and many those who choose it" contain a contradiction with one another, that means that either God can lie, or Scripture is not the word of God, and neither is an acceptable answer.

There are many possible theistic systems which I could accept, which is why I still seek God even though the search gets more discouraging all the time.  But I don't feel I have a choice but to reject the doctrine of hell.  It is not only morally objectionable to me -- it's actually opposed to reason.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Attachment parenting - an inconvenient truth

I first got into attachment parenting when my younger siblings were born.  My mother had all kinds of parenting books, from the crunchy to the fundamentalist, and I used to read them all and try things out on my siblings.  But mostly I just watched what she did -- fed the babies when they were hungry, put them to sleep when they were tired, tried to comfort them when they cried.  It was very rare that she ever left any of them in the crib crying, and if she ever did, I usually ran and got them out of there because that's what you do with a crying baby, you comfort them.

So long before I had kids of my own, I had strong opinions about how I'd raise them.  And though some of them have changed a great deal -- for instance, on spanking -- the attachment stuff is all pretty much intact.  I've stopped being as legalistic about it -- I think you can be attached without necessarily breastfeeding or cosleeping, the point is that you are responsive to your children's needs and comfort them when they cry -- but the basic concept is still something I firmly believe in.  I can hardly help believing in it, it seems so instinctively right to me.  I can also testify to its effects on me -- when I am very attached and responsive to my kids, I get angry with them less and I enjoy them more.

But it's not all gut feelings here.  The science behind attachment parenting is pretty solid, as any science about parenting goes.  We've definitely seen some strong correlations between children who are fed and comforted on demand and what is called "secure attachment," and there are correlations between children who are securely attached and those who do well in school and have fewer behavior problems, less anxiety, less aggression, and so forth.

Critics of attachment parenting fall into two groups.  First are those who say, "Hey, you don't need to follow a certain set of rules to be attached!  I bottlefeed and my baby sleeps in a crib and I hate using a sling and my baby's as attached as anybody's!"  To which I say, of course!  It's easier to feed on demand when you breastfeed, and it's easier to take care of your baby's night needs when you cosleep, but if you still have the general principles in mind and are willing to go to some extra effort to make it work, I'd imagine you'd likely get the same results.

The other group disagrees with the whole premise of attachment parenting.  We shouldn't be responsive to babies, they say, because that teaches them they're in charge.  We shouldn't feed them on demand because it's important to get them on a schedule.  And you certainly shouldn't hold them too much, or they'll be spoiled.  These people claim attachment parenting creates needy babies, spoiled children, and delinquent adults.  There's no evidence that this is true, but they are usually repeating traditional arguments for the parenting practices of a few generations ago.  They are afraid that new methods are going to result in a different kind of person than they themselves are, because after all they were raised with the old methods and they like the way they turned out.

But it makes sense to me that attachment parenting has good results.  While at first it may seem intuitive that, to get a child used to giving up his own way and getting along well with others, you should make sure they don't have as much as they want of anything, social behavior usually works the opposite way.  We usually share best when we know there's enough to go around.  We are kindest when we're not afraid someone will take advantage of us.  Attachment parenting is all about teaching a child that he is safe, that there is enough of everything to go around.  These lessons aren't learned consciously in a pre-verbal child, but there is evidence that they are biochemically hard-wired into the child's brain -- high amounts of stress hormones in a developing infant can increase the intensity of his stress response for the rest of his life.

And increased stress often leads to increased aggression.  I see it with my kids daily.  When one feels threatened by another, he often lashes out.  When I ask why, the answer is, "He was going to hurt me!"  First law of the playroom, apparently, is "do unto others, before they do to you."  Diligent repetition of, "I am watching and will not let him hurt you," and follow-up as required, has cut fighting down drastically.  A year ago, when I was stretched thin with the baby and consequently didn't intervene much, both boys were constantly at each other's throats.  Now I'm more closely involved and break them up quicker, each feels safer, and by this time they hardly fight at all unless they're under some unusual stress, like being sick.

Of course, another factor here is that each is getting a lot more attention from me individually, too.  Each kid gets time on my lap every day, pretty much when they ask for it (though not entirely, because there's only one of me).  When there is some toy that's starting a fight, one kid can usually be persuaded to give up the toy and come hang out with me.

And punishment?  The less I punish, the better they are!  I can't always help it, but I find that even a time out makes them unhappy, which makes them angry, which makes them behave worse.  Whereas taking the offender on my lap and hugging them lots and talking over the issue until they don't feel upset anymore leaves them behaving better all day.  That's not how I was brought up or how I thought I would parent, but it works.  When I throw a kid in time-out, I have to deal with him invariably starting a cycle of aggression with the others as soon as he gets out.  But when we hug and talk as long as the child wants, when he's finally ready to get up, sometimes he actually goes immediately to find something kind he can do for me or the offended sibling.

But here's the "inconvenient truth" part: it is more work.

That's why the two groups that I most often hear criticizing attachment parenting are feminists and large family advocates (Quiverfull Protestants, providentialist Catholics).  The feminists say, "It's not fair that mothers have to put their career on hold to form this ideal mother-child bond.  Give the child a bottle and put him in daycare, he'll be fine."  And the large-family advocates say, "There's no way you can do all this intensive parenting when you've got more than a couple kids and they're closely spaced.  Sleep-train that baby as soon as possible; he'll be fine."

I have tried, throughout my blogging career, to either refute or hand-wave away these objections.  I believe in feminism and I used to believe in providentialism.  I wanted it to be true that you can adequately raise children while having either a career or a large, closely-spaced family.  And it almost is -- if you sacrifice yourself completely.  It helps if you have lots of support and money.  A working mother can spend most of her earnings on a nanny who will form a real bond with her child and respond to its every cry, rather than an inexpensive daycare where the baby may be left crying in a swing or crib at naptime.  A mother of many can just go without sleep for years and years and blame any failures of temper on her own lack of virtue.  But I think most of us who try are going to fail in some degree, or else go half crazy.

Focusing specifically on the large-family aspect (because it's what I know), you just can't attachment-parent a baby every year.  Having a baby every year means getting pregnant with a new baby when the old one is a few months old -- so breastfeeding's pretty much out.  That's not so bad, but of course taking care of their night needs is going to be virtually impossible, since pregnancy makes you exhausted.  Once you've got three or four at that space, you're probably hallucinating if you haven't started sleep-training them early.  And you sure as heck can't pick each one up to comfort them when you need to if you've got a lot of them -- not unless you're an octopus.

Every two years is better.  I thought it would be ample, but it really isn't.  A lot of two-year-olds don't sleep through the night, for one thing; and they need a surprising amount of snuggling.  Marko was very mature at two, I'm now realizing, and didn't need as much, but Michael still needs a heck of a lot of hands-on time.  His behavior suffers when he doesn't get it -- after Miriam was born, he went on a tear of really outrageous naughtiness that lasted for months.  And he whined and cried a large portion of every day.  He's shaped up now, thank goodness, but if I were to stay on this schedule, I'd have to get pregnant about now and then Miriam could be needy and clingy for the next year.

Three years is what Dr. Greg Popcak recommends in Parenting With Grace, a book I'd buy every new Catholic parent if I could.  I don't have my copy handy, but he had some citations to prove that three years is a good minimum spacing between kids.  Certainly, those I know who have had a space like this say it's great -- at three, a child has pretty much graduated from the really intensely attached stage and is more interested in your mental attention than physical contact.  Three-year-olds are mostly weaned, or almost weaned, even if you've nursed them on demand.  And it leaves the mother time to replenish nutrient stores, apparently, as well as to hopefully get some good night's sleep when she's pregnant because the big kid is in his own bed all night.  (Unless the big kid is Michael.  LOL.)  And it'll result in a smaller total number of children, which means you're likely to have the time to invest in working out fights instead of just spanking everyone.

Of course, some people say the important thing is to make new souls for heaven and we should give up attachment parenting to that end.  To which all I can say is -- if you just want to make the soul, and you don't care about the moral development the child has afterward, you can do as you wish.  But if the goal is heaven, it seems the moral development would matter some.  The other Catholic objection is just that a three-year gap is difficult to attain using natural family planning, to which all I can say is, Yes it is.  Sorry.  Abstinence is miserable, but it's less miserable than the knowledge that your child needs more from you than you are able to provide.  And as far as its failures go -- well, it's one of the reasons I'm convinced that following Catholic teaching does not necessarily have good results, at least on earth.

I just think that when children grow up, from the very beginning, never having had enough of anything they truly needed, whether it's food or attention from Mom, they never stop wanting it.  They may quiet down and stop asking for it, for now, but as they get older they'll still have those unmet needs.  But they won't feel safe or trusting -- they'll feel suspicious and angry.  Instead of calmly thinking through problems to find a solution that works for everyone, they'll clamor for their own piece of the pie because they're scared they won't get any.  They'll want to do to others before others do something to them.  And no amount of reasoning is going to change the way they feel, because it's hard-wired in them from the outset.

I know that sounds overdramatic.  It's just something I've realized more and more with the passage of years: that there is a strong correlation between the statement, "My parents smacked my butt when I acted up and it made me the person I am today," and the statement, "Keep the refugees out because they'll take our jobs and murder us in our beds."  And I don't mean the correlation of conservatism, because there are conservatives who don't appear to be terrified and aggressive, but who just want a smaller government and so forth.  There are also liberals who seem to be waging a defensive class war.  Meanwhile I've noticed that attached children really do share their toys better and that people who grew up with lots of affection from their parents seem to be happier as adults.  And the science backs me up on this, as far as it can -- though of course temperament itself is mainly genetic and is probably the largest factor.

But the other thing I've slowly learned, over time, is that there really is a conflict between attachment parenting and closely-spaced childbearing.  I've listened for years on Catholic mothers' forums where people ask over and over again how in the world they can be attached, peaceful parents when they have a lot of kids.  And I've listened to other people say it can't be done, not without losing your own mind, and they should give up the ideal.  Make yourself believe that, when you leave your baby in his crib crying for an hour, it doesn't do him any harm.  But I haven't been convinced by this answer, even while I've failed to find another one.

I still think it's worth trying, even if you're overwhelmed.  I mean, I do and am.  I'm not going to tell myself comforting lies about what kids need, because I know the truth.  If I can't live up to it, I'll just keep trying.  Better to spread myself thin than to deny my kids something they need as they grow.  But I think I'm finally forced to confess, I wouldn't recommend this to others.  The inconvenient truth, the thing people would like to deny, is that children really do need all of you.  What you choose to do with that truth is up to you, but there's no easy no-sacrifice answer.

Friday, December 18, 2015

7qt - been awhile

It's been awhile since I've done one of these.  Let's see....


I got a tablet as an early Christmas present and to replace my old phone.  Since I've been using an old flip phone for the past three years, this tablet seems like magic.  It can sync ALL THE THINGS!  And it's so useful!

For instance, recently I had the idea of taking the kids to a music store to look at all the instruments.  But when we got there, it was closed because I stupidly didn't check its hours.  It was pouring rain and the kids were wailing that I had PROMISED they could see the instruments.  So we got back in the car, I whipped out the tablet, and got directions to a different music store!  Man, I feel like I'm living in the future.

Why a tablet instead of a phone?  I wanted a bigger screen to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer on.  No other reason.  Either one would have been free with our new phone contract so I picked the biggest thing available.  Perhaps this was a bad choice, because it's kind of a pain to haul around and I feel like a doofus taking pictures with this giant thing.  But .... Buffy.  So.


The other thing I like to use it for is reading ebooks.  Everything out of copyright is free, so there's never been a better time to be a fan of classic literature.  This week I finished Charlotte Bronte's Villette, which I picked up after reading about it on Enbrethiliel's blog. 

I learned three things:

First, Bronte apparently was crazy anti-Catholic.  I mean, read this:
"A strange, frolicsome, noisy little world was this school: great pains were taken to hide chains with flowers: a subtle essence of Romanism pervaded every arrangement: large sensual indulgence (so to speak) was permitted by way of counterpoise to jealous spiritual restraint. Each mind was being reared in slavery; but, to prevent reflection from dwelling on this fact, every pretext for physical recreation was seized and made the most of. There, as elsewhere, the CHURCH strove to bring up her children robust in body, feeble in soul, fat, ruddy, hale, joyous, ignorant, unthinking, unquestioning. "Eat, drink, and live!" she says. "Look after your bodies; leave your souls to me. I hold their cure—guide their course: I guarantee their final fate." A bargain, in which every true Catholic deems himself a gainer. Lucifer just offers the same terms: "All this power will I give thee, and the glory of it; for that is delivered unto me, and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou, therefore, wilt worship me, all shall be thine!"

Gee, Charlotte, don't hold back -- tell us what you really think of those awful papists!  Certain individual Catholics are pronounced okay people, but the Church itself is just the worst thing EVAR, according to her.

Second, the book has about ten characters, and it seems they make up the entire population of the town of Villette.  If a priest is mentioned in chapter 5, and another priest comes up in chapter ten, it is guaranteed to be the same priest.  If we meet some random person on a boat, there is absolutely no chance that this person won't show up again chapters later.  Coincidence is pushed to its utter limit.

And three, it ends really badly.  I don't want to spoil it for you -- wait, never mind.  Actually I do want to spoil it, because the author's intent is to lead you along with promises of happiness and then dash all your hopes.  I don't want that to happen to you.  Be prepared for sadness.  Or, you know, just stop reading before the last two pages, that's fine too!

But it was an interesting read.  I did find myself feeling that our heroine created a lot of her own misery.  See, she's poor and without connections, but too "elevated" in temperament to find any solace in companionship with the people of her own class.  The friends she does have are richer than her, so they feel sorry for her and don't consider her an equal because she has to work.  But why in the world does she assume that there's no one in the world like her?  Or, if she can't succeed in finding a true soul mate, she could at least trouble herself to befriend those around her anyway.  Maybe she should focus less on herself and her loneliness and more of what she has to offer to others.  Her obsession with keeping herself down seems a little odd and I felt it was never adequately explained.  Sure, she's poor, but it seems there are still dreams and ambitions she could strive for.  It seems odd to complain about being sad but refuse to even consider making happiness a goal.

(However, this article says I'm missing the entire point and the real reason that she's unhappy is unrequited love.  Eh, I suck as an English major; I'm always taken in by unreliable narrators.)


The kids are very, very excited about the idea of snow, which in their minds has to happen in time for Christmas, but I just don't see it happening.  We've had some very unseasonably warm weather -- which was GREAT because we got to get outside.  And one day the kids played happily in the back yard, all three of them, while I sprawled on my bed trying to get over a cold, watching them from the window. 

That's far and away the worst thing about winter -- that "can't go anywhere because we all have colds we don't want to share" has to coincide with "can't play outside either because it's too dang cold."  A break from it is lovely.  It's getting colder now, but not snow cold, I don't think.


The kids are obsessed with Star Wars lately.  Marko has wisely opted not to go see it in theaters, as he doesn't like scary movies and he expects it will have "some scary parts."  He says John and I should go see it without him and find out how scary it is, and then when it comes out on DVD, we can get it and skip the scary parts.

Anyway, they're playing light saber fights all day.  And I'm reminded of why I prefer Doctor Who .... less violence.


But the cool thing about the Star Wars mania is that Marko's interest in the show led to interest in the soundtrack, and that has led to interest in music notes and musical instruments.  He'll listen to a theme over and over, hum it, demand I write it down, ask me show him how to read the notes, mime it on an imaginary trumpet or French horn, watch a video of John Williams conducting it, ask me to try to play it on my tin whistle, demand to go to a friend's house so we can pick it out on the piano, and so on forever.

No one does an obsession like Marko (unless it's me.  LOL) but I'm all in favor of this one.  He's very tuneful -- I don't know enough five-year-olds to say if that's precocious or not, but I am proud.  I really wish we had a piano for him to exercise his interest with, but unfortunately it's not really possible to get one into our house, even if we had the room for it.  But we've been experimenting with all kinds of homemade instruments, and learning how sound works -- how the long lengths of string make low notes and the short ones make high notes; how a wine bottle makes a higher note when you fill it up; how to cover the stops on my tin whistle.

I've taken him to a couple of concerts.  The first was a bit of a disappointment for him and very enjoyable for me -- it was mostly choral music, and no songs he recognized, though there was a brass quintet at the end which got him excited, and he also saw his first pipe organ.  The second was exactly what he was looking for -- our local middle school's band playing Christmas carols.  He could not take his eyes off the trumpet soloist.  The other kids, admittedly, were bored.  They are not nearly so entranced with music as he is, but I figure a bit of culture won't hurt them.

Now Marko is begging and begging for a trumpet.  I don't think he's big enough to blow on one and I don't know if they have lessons for children as young as him either, but on the other hand I don't want to miss out on a window of opportunity, either.  Then again, considering what trumpets cost, maybe I should wait and see if some other instrument is his favorite in a few months anyway.

But they are all getting tiny plastic recorders for Christmas -- which I shall almost certainly regret, but what can I say.  I can't resist encouraging budding musical interest.


Extra perk to having a musical child: he and I have been singing Christmas carols together, especially in the car.  I've been waiting for years to have a kid who would sing with me in the car.  (Though John will, sometimes.  He is a catch and you can't have him.)


This past week has seen a lot of sickness.  Both boys had the pukes, all three had hideously snotty noses, and Marko also had a fever.  I was kind of unwell for a day, and then I was fine so I went out and did a bunch of stuff ... and then the next day I was sick again, which ought to show me.  Today I am torn between taking it easy so I don't relapse again, and doing all the things that have gotten backed up in the time I was lying around letting the kids watch cartoons.  It doesn't seem like I do a lot in a day, but let it go for two days and it's a nightmare.  I did so many dishes today, and so much laundry ... and wore out with the living room still mysteriously covered in blankets.  Then I got a second wind, but I spent it all baking Christmas cookies, because .... well ... CHRISTMAS SPIRIT!

So I guess I'd better pick up all these blankets.  Boo.

How is your Gaudete Week going?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

How do I even Christmas?

I have always insisted on Christmas with all the trappings.  It begins with a homemade Advent calendar, with little doors you can open, and of course an Advent wreath.  Then Fresh Aire Christmas to listen to, Christmas cookies, pageants if possible, a tree with my family's heirloom ornaments (from things we made as kids to hand-crocheted ornaments made by a friend of my mother's).  Presents are good too, but it's not really about those ... it's about making it feel like Christmas.

And definitely the spiritual side, in past years, has been the centerpiece.  The feeling that we're not just engaging in meaningless traditions, but that we're commemorating something real and important.  Like the carol says,

People, look East, the time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People look East, and sing today
Love, the Guest, is on the way.

What would be the point of all that hearth-trimming and table-setting if no one were actually going to show?  I've been known to suggest that atheists celebrating Christmas are a little ridiculous, because after all, the whole idea of a winter holiday comes from Christianity.  I've never been an in-your-face Merry-Christmas-er, but I did think that no one else's Christmas remotely approached the specialness of a Catholic one.

And now ... well, what in the world am I supposed to do?  I feel like the Grinch stole Christmas, but this time he got smart and took the song instead of the presents.  Or, to use that awful boyfriend metaphor, I feel like the whole world is celebrating my ex's birthday, completely insensitive to our bad breakup.  I love Christmas, and the trappings make me irrationally happy in a sort of Pavlovian way, but the next minute I remember the heart got sucked out of it this year and I feel sad.

I've certainly changed my mind about winter holidays being a Christian thing, having read up on Yule and Saturnalia and so forth.  Pretty much every northern-hemisphere culture I know of has a holiday about now, and for good reason.  It's cold and dark and there isn't a lot to do.  When the days get longer, you start to feel hopeful, like things could be getting better someday.  And getting together inside a warm, cozy house to eat a big meal is just something that you naturally want to do.  No wonder the early Church decided to celebrate the Nativity now -- because you have to have something in the middle of winter.

But gosh, I don't know anything to celebrate about that makes me as happy as the Nativity did.  The idea of a baby being born holding the promise that things would get better ... that, just as at the Solstice, the sun gets light even though the earth isn't warm yet, at the first Christmas, hope was in sight even though evil has continued on its merry way for two thousand more years.  Every year when I would celebrate Christmas, I would remember that everything is better now, even if it doesn't look like it.  And I felt loved, that God would come to us in that way.  The thought that all of it might be false ruins everything.

I want to make a merry Christmas for my kids -- they're at just the age when happy memories and traditions get laid down, and I don't want to miss it.  We have a tree and presents ready; we've gone to Christmas concerts and baked cookies and learned carols.  We'll go to church, too, but Marko is in an anti-church phase and doesn't want to hear about it.

I don't like secular Christmas songs, for the most part.  I mean, what does "Silver Bells" have on "Hark the Herald Angels Sing"?  They don't even compare.  But singing the religious carols makes me sad.  I do it anyway, but then Marko complains that they "remind him of church."  And to be honest, deep down I kind of feel the same!

I used to feel sorry for non-Christians with their stupid secular Christmas, "Baby It's Cold Outside" and mall Santas.  How they filled the season with ridiculous Christmas movies based on banal themes like "Elf."  But now I'm thinking, what else is anyone supposed to do?  If you're longing for a Christmas like when you were a kid, but you don't believe like when you were a kid, you have to create some kind of substitute. 

Heck, apparently pagans who converted to Christianity felt the same way about the Yules of their childhoods.  That's why they needed holly and ivy, Christmas trees with lights, and mistletoe.  That's why Santa Claus isn't just St. Nick, but flavored with bits of Odin and Father Time.  Inculturation and appropriation are Christmas traditions.

So, I'm against the fuss about "Jesus is the reason for the season" and all that.  I understand the idea behind it -- "You love the Christmas traditions of your childhood?  Then you have to come back to our religion!"  Traditions and holidays are one of the ways religions bind people together, and the last thing devotees want is for people to run away with the holidays without signing up for the doctrine.  But, well, it's a free country and lots of people find ways to get the nostalgia without the doctrine and you can't exactly stop them.

But in my case, they don't need to worry about keeping Christ in Christmas.  It's practically impossible to take him out.  Try, and he leaves a gaping hole.

Thursday, December 10, 2015


Have you ever heard of normalcy bias?  It's the phenomenon where people in the middle of disasters don't react because they assume a disaster isn't going on, despite all the evidence.  For instance, they smell smoke, but they assume someone is burning something and just stay where they are.  It makes sense -- you've been in a building where someone burned dinner probably dozens of times, but most of us haven't been in a building which was actually on fire.  Your brain uses its past experiences to interpret the data it's getting.

I used to experience this.  In fact, I pretty much assumed any fears I had were unreasonable, just me feeling scared for no reason, so I always ignored them.  Scared of heights?  Keep climbing that tree.  Dark alley?  Charge on through.  I mean, I was a kid and I knew my parents wouldn't let me do anything really dangerous, and anyway I felt pretty sure that everything would turn out okay, because nothing bad had ever happened to me.

Then one day, when I was 17, I was climbing a ladder in my garage, which it turned out I hadn't set up properly.  I felt scared as I started up the ladder.  Then I ignored that feeling because "I always feel scared of stuff like this and it always turns out fine."  Well, I was nearly at the top when it collapsed and I busted my face when I hit the ground.  I'm lucky I wasn't seriously injured, but I did mess up my teeth, which I've been terribly self-conscious about ever since.

And ever since then, when I feel that little twinge of fear, I think, "It could be nothing -- but then again, that's what I thought that time on the ladder and I was wrong."  Instead of feeling like disasters are normal, I'm constantly mistaking normal life for disasters.  I'll walk past a book left on the stairs and get this eerie feeling of imagining myself in the future, after someone has tripped on that book and died, crying, "I saw the book, but I didn't pick it up, and now they're DEAD!"  So I go back and pick up the book.  It's probably good on some level, because I'm more careful than I used to be.

But on some level it's bad, because every time I go to bed at night, I can't go to sleep until I've put my ear right over Miriam and heard her breathe.  I know the odds of her suddenly dying are low; but I can't help imagining myself finding her cold in the morning and thinking, "I didn't check her before I went to sleep."  So until I check on her, I basically assume she's dead.  This is probably not healthy.

There are some fears I don't let myself act on, even though I'm frightened.  I know the risk of home invasion is vanishingly small, and I also know that getting up doublechecking all the locks isn't going to make me safer, so I stay in bed trying to calm myself down.  I tell myself that if we are going to get killed by a crazy shooter who busts in in the middle of the night, I may as well be rested for the experience.  But I've lost a lot of sleep for that one anyway, because I feel like my life is a movie, and I'm watching the heroine try to sleep and shouting "DON'T GO TO SLEEP!  THERE'S A MURDERER IN THE KITCHEN!"

It's hard to say if this is "real" anxiety or just the nature of being an adult.  Does everyone feel this way, once they no longer have the luxury of just assuming the grown-ups will make sure they don't get hurt?  And if being less anxious would increase the risk that something bad happened to one of my kids -- well, I don't have that right, do I?

Some people use religion to reason their way out of anxiety, telling themselves that nothing will happen that God hasn't planned.  But even assuming that's true, I still think it's an abdication of responsibility.  We all know that bad stuff happens to good people.  And people love to say that the day of their death is already determined by God, but in reality people are much more likely to die if they take stupid risks to ignore their health.  You'll live longer if you buckle your seatbelt and don't smoke, and can you be sure that it's part of God's plan for you to be careless with your life?

Of course if you don't believe in God or an afterlife, it's that much worse because if you die, that's it.  If your kids die, that's it, your irresponsibility has ended everything they were and everything they could have been.  That's kind of a big burden to carry.  No wonder modern parents are so famously neurotic.  How can you not be?

I guess I'm just not sure how anxious I'm supposed to be.  If I assume I'm safe, that's "normalcy bias" and I'm probably going to be the first one to die when the horror movie gets going.  But if I assume I'm not safe, I'm going to spend my whole life worrying!  I try to make my decisions based on rational risk-benefit analysis, but that doesn't stop my heart from racing when my kids climb on the jungle gym or run a fever for a second day in a row.  I know how fast things can shift from "possibly unsafe" to "the ambulance can't possibly get here in time."  I can't stop myself from imagining disaster--in fact, if I don't imagine the disaster, I can't assess whether I should take action to prevent it or not.

How anxious are you?  Is it just a grown-up thing?  What do you do to calm down?

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Verbal nonviolence

This week has been really rough for me.  So much bad news!  So much internet fighting!  I'm taking a break now from most internet stuff, because I was lying awake half the night worrying and I really can't afford that.

I always used to think that it was just conservatives who engaged in toxic groupthink.  I mean, when I commented on conservative blogs I sometimes got attacked by weird people who called me names like feminist harpy or hippy-dippy peacenik, whereas saying the same things on liberal blogs got me applause.  But, of course, you never see the dark side of a commentariat till you say something they disagree with.

It started off, of course, with the Planned Parenthood shooter.  My first thought (after "how terrible, I hope everyone is all right" of course) was, "Gee, maybe NOW the people I know will stop assuming that violent people on the fringe of a movement speak for the whole thing."  Because I am so tired of hearing people say that because some Muslims are terrorists, no Muslims should be allowed in America.  But within a day, I was terrified of the left's reaction.  Where last week they were saying, "Fringe members of a group don't define it," now they were saying, "All prolifers are terrorists."

I'll admit, some prolife rhetoric is pretty inflammatory.  But on the other hand, I am not sure there is a way to be prolife at all without saying inflammatory things.  If you believe a fetus has the same moral weight as a newborn, you also believe that thousands of murders are taking place every day.  That's something that is going to get people pretty worked up.  You can remind them that the lives of adults are just as important so violence should never be used -- and people do say this -- but you can't get around that the position itself is one that involves admitting things are epically bad.

And in fact that's what the liberal commenters I was reading were saying.  They said that prolifers should not be allowed to call a fetus a baby, because that's inflammatory.  I shouldn't have gotten involved, but I've commented in these places and everyone was always nice so I thought it was okay.  I said, "But does that mean prochoicers are no longer allowed to call abortion restrictions equivalent to rape and slavery?  Because that's inflammatory too."  The answer, of course, was, "No way, of course we will say that, because here's our reasoning for why it's literally true!"  And then they called me a terrorist, disgusting, frightening, and vile.

To me, that sounds a lot like saying, "These military tactics are bad when our enemies do them, because they're bad guys, but they're good when we do them, because we're the good guys."  But being the good guys doesn't give you justification for doing things you would disapprove of if someone else did them -- in fact, it calls into question your credentials as good guys.

If you justify inflammatory language because your side is right, you justify it for the opposition as well, because they think they're right too!  "Who is right?" is the question the whole discussion is about; you can't assume the answer at the beginning of the discussion.

Good discussion tactics will help to weed out what is false and discover what is true.  I am entirely in agreement that inflammatory language ("murder," "rape," "slavery") isn't going to do that.  It just makes people angry, which makes them less rational and therefore less good at distinguishing between true and false things.  I don't use that sort of language myself if I can help it, because I don't really see the point in stirring up people who agree with me to feel good about themselves for agreeing, while encouraging everyone who disagrees to click the red X and go find something else to read.

However, I don't believe that those who do use that sort of language are equivalent to terrorists.  If your goal is to make people upset, and you make some people so upset that they go and shoot people, the shooter is still them, not you.  I think this is true whether you're a prolife activist or a gay-rights activist -- that guy who shot up the Family Research Council claims that he did it because he had read it was a hate group, but I don't believe no one should be allowed to make lists of groups they think are hate groups.  The whole principle of freedom of speech is the belief -- optimistic as it is -- that in a free marketplace of ideas, true ones will win out over false ones.  I still believe that, though it's definitely not something that will happen without conscious effort.

I just wish that everyone would take a moment to step into other people's shoes and realize that people who disagree with them mostly feel the same way they do, just about different things.  An average prolifer believes that abortion is a serious moral issue, equivalent to murder, which someone would have to be evil or blind not to recognize.  And an average prochoicer believes that banning abortion would be equivalent to slavery, and someone would have to be evil or blind not to recognize.  Sometimes, in their incredulity that someone could think what their opponents claim to think, they make up other explanations: "they just hate women," or "they're trying to rid the world of black people."  Because no one could actually truly believe that something so obviously wrong is right!

Think about that, and you're forced to acknowledge that it's not so obvious as you thought, that smart and good people might come to another conclusion than you.  It doesn't mean you're wrong, necessarily, but it means that it's difficult and you should treat those who disagree with charity.

And then, the final conclusion is this: use the sort of language you would like your opponents to use.  The perennial problem I see is that Team X sees Team Y use some dirty rhetorical trick, like inflammatory language or fudging statistics.  First, Team X condemns Team Y for doing it, because that's just the sort of thing Team Y always does, aren't they awful?  Then they start doing the same thing, and if you call them on it, they say, "Well, we have to, because Team Y is!"  That's exactly how the cycle of violence goes -- everyone thinks they're the good guys because they're just defending themselves against those awful bad guys who treated them badly first.  In warfare, it leads to a never-ending cycle of death and destruction.  In discourse, it just leads to the plummeting of standards till we're all screaming at each other.  In both cases, the cure is the same -- to do as you'd like to be done by, even if it temporarily puts you behind.  When people are no longer threatened by you, or using your behavior as a justification for their own bad behavior, they feel free to act better themselves.  This is a good explanation of what I mean.

While I think speech should not be policed by law, that doesn't mean that I think it's without a moral dimension.  There are morally right and morally wrong ways to argue, to talk about people with whom you disagree, and to stir up those on your own side.  And if your takeaway from this is, "Yeah!  Those people I hate really need to talk better!" I think you're missing the point a little bit.  It's the people that you like that you really need to worry about, because sometimes it's hard to see past the fact that you agree with them and realize that they're not necessarily acting very well either.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Jesus, my ex-boyfriend

Sometimes I read stories by former Christians in which they say they never had the sort of relationship with God that they thought they were supposed to.  De-converting just gave them permission to stop trying to hard to make a relationship happen -- they lost nothing.

But I think a big part of why I've put so much effort into this whole thing is that I did once have a relationship with God that was everything I could have wanted.  And it's the loss of that feeling of relationship that makes my current state so hard.

It started when I was twelve and had my "conversion" to taking my faith seriously.  I spent time in prayer daily.  Reading and reflecting on the Gospels, particularly at Regnum Christi events and activities, made me feel like I was getting to know Jesus more and more.  I had been so lonely before, and here I was learning that someone was always with me, someone who loved me unconditionally.  It didn't seem too much to change my whole life around for this.

Before long I'd received what I thought was my "call" to the consecrated life, and I responded . . . exactly how you'd expect a twelve or thirteen-year-old girl to respond: with enthusiasm and a lot of sentimental daydreams.  I wrote poems about being married to Jesus.  I drew pictures of myself in "consecrated clothes."  I even stopped wearing pants most of the time and stuck to skirts.  And I gave the brushoff to a very nice guy who was hanging around me, because I already had a boyfriend -- a better boyfriend.  And I no longer even desired any kind of sin, because why would I cut myself off from my best friend?

At boarding school, the whole Jesus-is-my-boyfriend thing was emphasized and encouraged.  We were discerning the consecrated life, i.e. marriage to Jesus, so naturally we were dating Jesus.  I took that very seriously, even when I wasn't as serious about the school rules.  Jesus loved me and wanted my whole heart for himself, so I refused to even think about other guys.  For the most part I did not need direct communication -- I mean, he created the whole earth, so flowers, trees, my favorite hymn in church, everything was a love note from him.  But on silent retreats sometimes I felt extra close to him.  (Pro tip: if you want the serious highs from "the opiate of the masses," go on silent retreat!  Bliss is not guaranteed, but you might get some.)

When I was told to leave, it was the direct contradiction of every communication I'd ever thought I'd received from Jesus.  It was impossible for me to believe that God had not really called me.  But it was also impossible to believe that he could call me and then not make it possible for me to answer.  I read Story of a Soul and was encouraged by St. Therese's persistence -- but all my persistence went for nothing, because they wouldn't take me back.  Finally my spiritual director told me that she was sure God's will for me was marriage, and that was it.  Jesus had dumped me.

I mean, sure, he let me down easy.  He said we could still be friends.  But who has ever been comforted by a let-down like that?  I wanted more, but apparently I wasn't good enough for him.  Prayer was never a comfort to me again, after that.  It was just a reminder of all the things wrong with me, the things I should be doing.  And guilt, for not being happy about the situation.  After all, Jesus still loved me.  He had still died for me.  But .... there was always that fact between us, that either I wasn't capable of understanding him, or he played me for a fool by leading me on with dreams he had never intended to satisfy.

See, Jesus had been a kind of terrible boyfriend, even from the beginning.  All the control in the relationship was always his, and he seemed to get off on keeping me guessing.  While I shared all my secrets with him, he remained uncommunicative.  Sometimes it felt like he wasn't even paying attention.  And the reality was, he had all these other girlfriends, and some of them were good enough for him to marry, but not me. 

So I eventually dropped talking to Jesus at all -- not knowing how to relate to him post-breakup -- and focused on God the Father.  But it didn't really help; God doesn't exactly act like the average decent dad either.  Now that I've been both a spouse and a parent, I can't see that God fits into those roles very well.  The relationship a person has with God is not truly comparable to any earthly relationship, because there is no healthy earthly relationship where one person has all the power and insists on keeping it that way permanently.  God is entirely different, and therefore it's difficult to know how to relate to him at all.

But now, I feel all the pain of that original breakup all over, because throughout it all, I had assumed that God did love me, I just didn't understand it and didn't feel it.  But if he wasn't there at all, through any part of it -- if all my fervent teenage love was poured out on nobody?

I guess it's how a catfishing victim feels -- they fall in love, in real love, and later find out that not only was their love not returned, but the object of their love never existed.  I was about to say "I can't imagine the humiliation," except I kind of can.

Up till this year, even when prayer was a struggle or downright painful and even when I spent all of my time feeling guilty for not wanting to talk to God more, I felt comfort in the idea that at least he was out there.  That if I needed to talk to somebody, I'd never be completely alone.  That whether or not I felt it, I knew for certain fact that someone did love me, did care, did notice.

It's not a certain fact anymore -- in fact, I'm uncertain enough that any attempts at prayer seem to hit the ceiling and fall back down, like Hamlet's uncle's.  (Make of that what you will, Enbrethiliel.)  It's the loneliest feeling in the world, and I don't know how to get used to it.  I'm in mourning, mourning for the truth I thought I knew, the relationship I thought I had, the love I used to be so confident in.  It's like losing a friend.

And maybe God's still out there.  Maybe he cares.  But I'm at a loss as to how his actions, or lack of actions, can possibly be consistent with caring about me.  And since I can't actually suspend judgment about whether he's there or not, I mostly imagine he's not.  There are times when I try to make the world settle back into the comforting harmony of God-breathed creation, but it just won't come into focus because I have too many reasons not to believe in it.

But the embarrassing thing is, even after all he's done to me, I'd still take Jesus back in a heartbeat if he showed up on my doorstep.  He's one of those guys you just don't get over.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Life is unsatisfactory

It isn't human nature to be contented. 

After all, pleasure doesn't exist for its own sake.  It exists to drive us toward those things that are good for us -- whether food or water or companionship.  We know those things will be pleasing, so we seek them out.  But our brains can drive us just as efficiently with the desire for them, as with the pleasure of attaining them.  Or they can simply make us uncomfortable with the lack of them.

But even when you attain it, pleasure is always fleeting.  When you come in from the cold, sitting by the fire is wonderful, but after a few minutes you no longer notice it, and a few minutes after that, you're too hot and have to move.  Eating is fun, but you can't spend your whole life eating.  You can spend hours being hungry, preparing a nice dinner, and it doesn't take you more than half an hour to eat it.  Enjoyment is always more intense when it's a big change from something unpleasant -- eating when you're starving, coming inside when you're cold -- and without some amount of suffering to mix it up, you're not capable of enjoying anything very much.

Because we're constantly rushing through time, unable to slow it down, tiny moments of beauty and joy flash by before you can really appreciate them.  You can spend all year saving for a vacation, but the vacation's over in two weeks.  Just surviving takes a lot of your effort -- at least eight hours a day for most of us, even in this decadent modern age.

And at almost every moment we are alive, we want something that we don't currently have.  It's the nature of being human, to always want to stretch for something further than we possess.  We wouldn't achieve very much without this drive.  But at the same time, it spoils many moments that would otherwise be very pleasant.  The person who makes $20,000 a year feels he'd be perfectly happy if he only made $30,000, but when he finally reaches his goal, he thinks surely he'd be happier if he made $40,000.  We often put off our happiness for some later date when we have what we want, but there's always something we want.

I'm not saying all this to be depressing.  Life is mostly not too bad.  But it's unsatisfactory, which is why we all dream of a second life where we could actually be satisfied. 

I deal with this basic unsatisfactoriness in two ways.  First, I set my goals on things that don't fade.  Pleasure is the briefest of all possible goals to strive for -- you could spend your life chasing it and still be without it most of the time.  So I don't spend much effort on that.  But the satisfaction of a job well done lasts a good bit longer.  The knowledge that you love and are loved, that is something you can keep with you all the time.  And making an actual contribution to the lives of others is the longest-lived of all -- because it can last even longer than I will.  My whole life, it will never cease to be true that I brought three beautiful humans into the world and gave them all the love I could.  And I imagine it will always be a comfort to me to remember that.

The second way is just gratitude.  I refuse to delay happiness to some later date -- I will look around at the happiness that is already here and make a point to enjoy it and feel grateful for it.  It makes me sad that a flaming red leaf has to fall from the tree so very soon.  But it's less of a tragedy if I actually saw it and appreciated it before it fell.  Sometimes I get caught up in the things that I fear, the things that make me angry, the things that I want, that I can't see the good things around me right now.  But when I stop and notice my life -- full of small good things, free from want, overflowing with love -- I can't help but be happy. 

Life may be unsatisfactory -- perhaps it was meant to be -- but that doesn't mean it can't be good.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Conversation is a team sport

... And, like all team sports, I stink at it.

A good conversation is like a good basketball game -- everyone's passing the ball around like lightning.  The conversation moves fast but stays more or less on topic.  There aren't any long, awkward pauses but there are chances for everyone to get a word in if they want to.

See, I know what it looks like.  It's just that, exactly like in basketball, it always seems to move just a beat faster than I can follow.  If I ever get the ball, it's hard enough to remember to dribble it, much less simultaneously look out for an open teammate.  If you're not following the metaphor, what I mean is that I seem to have only two settings: talking and listening.  If I'm listening, I can't seem to speak up.  If I'm talking, I struggle to shut up.  I get on a topic and just go, while everyone's eyes glaze over.

I first noticed this in boarding school -- which was the first time in my life I spent large amounts of time in group conversations rather than one-on-one.  (As the youngest, I didn't talk that much at family dinners, and in school I was more listening to the conversation of the cool people.)  I would get very excited about the conversation topic and talk too much.  I didn't really notice until one of the consecrated pointed it out to me.  She said I should imagine I was above the table, looking down on myself and the others, and see if I noticed anything.  I think her point was to call my mind to one specific socially-awkward thing I was doing, but once I got in the habit of trying to imagine what I might look like on the outside, I got very embarrassed.  It didn't make me smooth, but I did talk less. 

Boarding-school conversations were very controlled: whether at break or at mealtime, there were always 3-5 girls and a consecrated.  Topics were pretty slim: pretty much just talking about our families or sharing anecdotes.  We couldn't talk about anything personal, because that should be shared with our spiritual directors; or about our health, because that's rude; or anything negative, because that's complaining.  I liked to talk about what we were learning in school, but most people didn't like that either.  And the consecrated usually did the directing of the conversation to make sure no one dominated it or talked about something they weren't supposed to.  It wasn't exactly good training in conversation-having, because it was a type of conversation never seen elsewhere.

For years after boarding school, I stressed out over how much I talked.  I figured it was a sign of selfishness that I tended to dominate the conversation, and yet once I got into a conversation I couldn't seem to focus very clearly.  Walking away from a conversation, I'd always think, "There I go again, being selfish."  You see, to my mind, talking is a selfish thing to do and listening is selfish, because everyone enjoys talking and listening is hard.  It was a huge relief to me to find out that some people would rather listen.

Still, in a conversation with a lot of people, I struggle.  If it's a bunch of extroverts, I can never manage to participate at all.  I wait for an opening, open my mouth, and boom, someone else is talking.  Or I come up with something clever to say on the topic that was just under discussion, but by the time I get a chance to say it, we've moved on through three more topics.  The pace is too much and eventually I either tune out or wind up in a side conversation.  If it's a bunch of introverts, the pauses seem way too long and awkward so I jump in with something I think will be interesting ... but no one joins in so after awhile it's just me monologuing.  Which I don't even enjoy, and then I realize I'm doing it and get super embarrassed.  So I stop, and then silence falls, so I feel awkward, and off I go again!

With two people it's so much easier.  Sure, I still talk a lot, but as long as the person I'm talking with is willing to interrupt and redirect, I don't totally dominate the conversation.  Even if they're not, with constant practice I am getting better at remembering the sort of questions I should ask, like "How have you been?" and "What about you, what's your favorite Christmas carol?"  And having the nerve to let a pause stretch past when it feels awkward for me, which seems to be how long I have to leave to let other people marshal their thoughts.  I guess my awkward-pause timer is miscalibrated.  It helps that I have a few good friends to practice with.

But you can kind of see why I spend so much time on the internet.  Here, posting is considered the generous thing to do, and reading is more of a selfish thing because it requires less effort.  When you take the time to write a long, thoughtful comment on something, people don't say, "Hey, give other people a chance," because the beauty of the internet is that everyone has a chance.  My talking doesn't stop anyone else from talking.  It's a service, providing content for people to read -- or even not read, if they'd rather not!  Unlike in-person conversation, people can just skip straight past what bores them and I don't  have to worry about trying to interest everyone.  I can just interest a few people, and everyone else doesn't have to read it if they don't want to.

I don't know why conversation is so hard for me.  Maybe it's because I was brought up in a small family where most conversations were dialogues.  Maybe it's because there's something funky with my brain that makes focusing on that many things hard.  But the more I talk with people about it, the more people have said, "Me too.  I find group conversation hard, too."  Some of them clam up.  Some run their mouths like me.  Some people seem perfectly suave and then beat themselves up when they get home.  So maybe it's just that trying to talk to a bunch of people at once is hard, it's a learned skill, and we're all getting the hang of it.  It's okay and we don't all have to sound like the cast of Big Bang Theory, taking turns firing off witty repartee.  We can just talk, share stuff, enjoy each other's company. 

If people interrupt me because they find me boring, I don't mind a bit; and if they monologue for awhile about a topic no one else knows about, I really don't mind, because I'm interested in everything.  So maybe people don't find me such a bore as I worry they do.  Maybe they, like me, are much too busy worrying about how they're doing at it.  If you know me in person, let's make a pact: I'll try to make it a good conversation for you, you do the same for me, and let's not think the less of each other when we don't always succeed.  Talking is hard.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Erasing the grayzone

I've been reading up on ISIS lately, which I didn't do when it first started hitting the news because I was in such a bad place emotionally I couldn't handle it.  I'm doing it now because sheltering refugees is such an issue and I want to educate myself.

An interesting article, which I can't find now, described ISIS as opposed to the emigration of anyone from its territories.  Specifically, the writer claimed that ISIS wanted to "erase the grayzone" -- convincing people that there was no choice but to either apostasize from Islam or to come to their territory and join them.  They want Western nations to reject Muslim refugees and treat them badly, because this way people have to come join ISIS since there are no other options.

I'm not really concerned about arguing this point at the moment (who needs MORE blog posts about this controversy?) so much as considering the whole concept of erasing the grayzone.  I've written about this before, in my post on progressive religion.  It seems that whenever there is some sort of halfway house in religion, there are people who want to wipe that out.  Nonmembers see that halfway house as inconsistent and dishonest, and anyway, if there's an extremist version of your religion, then you're suspect even if you are more progressive than they are.  So they say "the real Islam is violent" and hope that this will get people to ditch the progressive halfway house and leave Islam.  Meanwhile the extremists hate the progressive version even more, because people are benefiting in some way from being attached to their religion -- keeping up traditions that are important to them, having spiritual experiences, and so on --  without doing the sort of heavy lifting the extremists are doing.  So they say "the real Islam is violent" in the hopes that people will want to keep the Islam, so they'll embrace the violence.

Basically, those little tricks that keep a person in a religion are being outmaneuvered by a strategy of "stay in the religion, but cherrypick the parts that I object to."  Extremists want to close this loophole so that people are forced to jump one way or the other.  Maybe most will jump away from them, but there will always be those who don't see that as an option.  They're attached to their religion, on the one hand: they've had experiences of God within it, they've dedicated a lot of their life to it, their family will shun them if they leave it, and of course they want to see their deceased loved ones someday.  But on the other, they've been shown there are some contradictions in their progressive compromise with their religion, while this extremist group has the real deal.  Well, if they want their religion, they want the real deal, right?  So they jump toward extremism.

The process of Islamic radicalization is familiar to me, because it's no different from the way you radicalize a Catholic, though of course the makeup of the radical version is luckily not so violent.  But I've watched people go to college and start attending the Latin Mass and then the next thing you know, they're arguing in favor of theocracy.  Or they start watching Michael Voris and pretty soon all their posts are about communion in the hand.  Heck, I was "radicalized" myself, when I got into Regnum Christi.  I already liked my faith, and here were these people saying that if I wanted to really live up to it, I should be spending every minute, every breath, to further Christ's kingdom.  It's convincing because it's true.  It actually follows.  If a religion is true, then extremism in defense of it is no vice.  Morality comes from God, so there is no moral law that can't be disobeyed if you can be convinced that God wants it.

That's not to say that it's always begrudging -- that people don't want to be radicalized.  Probably some don't.  But some of them feel frustrated with the way no one takes seriously the only thing in life that's supposed to matter.  Or they are attracted by the idea, sadly rare these days, of dedicating one's entire life to a cause.  It certainly appealed to me.  I hope that if I had been raised Muslim I wouldn't have been running off to join ISIS -- but I can't say for sure that I wouldn't.  When I was young and naive, I needed a cause I could believe in, and I guess I'm pretty lucky that Regnum Christi was as bad as it got.

I have mixed feelings toward grayzones in general, whether we're talking about Islam or anything else.  It seems an unsafe place for people to be; it may not be rationally justifiable, and the danger to radicalization is always present.  Often parents with a lax or progressive view find their children becoming more radical, either because they're turned off by their parents' lack of zeal or because they are receiving religious education from someone radical outside the family.  I can see why people would try to push for people to abandon even moderate Islam, just for this reason.

However, I think I'd have to come down on the side of defending the existence of grayzones, because there always has to be a safe place to land when you feel stuck between untenable choices.  People have to know that they don't have to give up their entire faith, which supports them and is inextricably entwined with their cultural patrimony, or else become extreme.  There should be, if possible, whole communities of people who are keeping the religion without the extremism, who can be counted on to provide rational defenses for the progressive way and to instruct children in it.  These can be places for people to go when they're moving away from extremism as well -- longing to quit radical religion but terrified of quitting the religion itself.

And that's why, despite my misgivings, I think the message of the West to Muslim refugees, immigrants, and citizens should be this: Yes, you can be a moderate Muslim.  You are welcome here and we will include you in our society.  You don't have to choose between your traditions and the blessings of liberty -- you can have both.

Oops, turns out I did talk about the refugee crisis.  Ah, well, I'm sure my views on the subject come as no surprise.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The three-step argument

Something Bat said in a comment on the last post reminded me of something that's bothered me for awhile.  It's the way Catholic apologetics is always done in three steps.  First, you prove the existence of God, philosophically.  Second, you assume that, given theism, Christianity is true.  And third, you assume that, given Christianity, Catholicism is true.

On the first step, I'm a little weak because, while I know the standard proofs for the existence of God, I know there's more to it than that.  Aquinas claimed to be able to prove that God was also one, good, eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient.  I'm not familiar with those arguments, and I'm interested in learning more, although I have to admit I don't have much confidence in Aquinas being able to convince me.  He tends to assume too much at the outset.

But most people seem to gloss over the difference between "proving that there is some eternal substrate behind the universe" and "proving there's an infinite being who loves me," simply saying that since most people in history have believed in the former, and that the former is reasonably certain philosophically, it naturally follows that the latter is true as well.  I don't see it -- I can come up with lots of different scenarios.  Perhaps matter/energy is the eternal substrate, or some physical thing.  Perhaps there is some eternal being apart from the universe, but it's a what, not a who -- it isn't conscious.  Perhaps there is one, but it's limited in some way besides time.  Perhaps there is a God, but he doesn't care about humans.  After all, there are countless kinds of things in the universe besides us -- God could have created the universe as a physics experiment, or because he wanted to create stars or nebulas or aliens.  Maybe he likes us fine but doesn't believe in interfering in any way.  I don't see that any of these are philosophically disprovable -- though I leave a caveat here that I've never seen a serious attempt to do so.

Okay, we haven't proved anything, but let's move on as if we have.  Given that God wants to reveal himself to man, is Christianity the right religion?  It might be.  It has a lot of adherents, so that's kind of promising.  Hinduism doesn't work if you've proven monotheism somehow, and Buddhism is nontheistic, so we can rule those out.  Islam isn't attractive to most Americans for a variety of reasons -- not least of which is that we've been raised on the idea of a nice God.  The evidence for Islam is very simple to go over -- the whole Quran was written by Muhammad, so either you trust that it was dictated by an angel, or you don't.  Christianity's evidence is somewhat more promising because it claims historical facts which ought to act as a backup to the theological claims -- though those are not as well-attested as one might hope.  Mormonism's claims are much better attested -- there are twelve sworn affidavits of people who claimed to have seen the gold tablets -- but Mormonism has problems.  First off, it assumes Christianity to begin with, so it doesn't get you past accepting those historical proofs.  And second, Mormonism has been pretty damaged by archeological finds.  So, among major religions, you're back to Christianity.

If you assume that someone rising from the dead is highly unlikely, you'd need very good evidence for it, and that evidence is not available.  But if you assume a God who wants to reveal himself exists, I suppose you could just say that the resurrection's not all that unlikely.  I mean, as religions go, Christianity is well-attested.  So I can see how people who philosophically prove God are going to want to go for Christianity.

The last step is to prove that, of all the denominations available, Catholicism is the right one.  There are some Bible verses to go on, which to me aren't all that convincing.  But there's a strong logical argument -- assuming God really wanted to reveal himself to people, he would have wanted to make sure we had something really clear to go on, which would let us know what to believe and do.  The Bible couldn't be it, because it's incredibly hard to understand and apparently contradictory throughout.  Anyway you'd want someone on the scene who could apply the teachings to each generation.  So, Catholicism makes sense in that way.  We can also go through all the other denominations and show that Catholicism is the one that is most similar to what the earliest Christians believed.

My only objection to this argument is that, even with the Church as a guide, it's still really hard to know what to believe and do.  How do you know what stuff is infallible?  What if you're mistaken about who the Pope is?  What if the Mass isn't valid?  That sort of thing.  Still, I find this last argument convincing enough that I haven't given any serious thought to Protestantism.

Okay, so apart from any flaws in the individual arguments, I still see a great big problem.  And the problem is that no single one of these steps is certain.  It's my opinion that no human being can ever be certain of anything, though we can get extremely close.  But humans tend to overestimate how sure we are.  I can't remember the exact numbers, but I believe there was a study showing that when people said they were 100% sure of something, they were right 80% of the time.  That should incline us toward humility about our judgments.

And the further trouble is this: the more steps you take, the more uncertainty is compounded.  If step two relies entirely on step one, and you're 90% of step one, and 90% sure of the connection between step one and step two, then you are more like 80% sure of step two.  The uncertainty compounds with each further conclusion you draw.  Yet it seems we are expected, when following this argument, to round up with each step.

Then, of course, that big rounding you do when making the "leap of faith" -- you might be 90% sure or you might be 50%.  Heck, you might be 2% and people will still say you shouldn't take the risk.  And at that point you round up and act like you are completely sure.  You should give your life for this conclusion.  And you shouldn't keep looking into it or be open to change based on new information.

It doesn't seem like good sense to me.  But, as I so often lament, the Church requires it.  Keeping an open mind, from a Catholic perspective, is like keeping an open marriage.  It's a relationship and you're betraying it if you go checking up on other possibilities.  And I can't exactly object to this point of view, but I think that at the moment this way of looking at it comes into play, the idea that the whole thing is based on fact and sound reasoning goes out the window.  Even if the initial facts and arguments were reasonably valid, rounding up like this is not rational.

Now, it's a choice that you make and you have the right to make it.  But believing is not knowing -- it's choosing to act as if you did.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Felt experience of God

Melinda Selmys is always writing such great stuff.  This time she wrote, "The existence of God can’t actually be proven or disproven on the weight of the evidence that is available to us."  Which had me nodding -- that was basically the conclusion I've come to, but I'm very surprised that a Catholic would agree with it.  After all, Vatican I did declare otherwise, and anyway -- it puts you in kind of a bind, doesn't it?  How are you supposed to know what to do?  Melinda agrees:

"What we’re left with is fundamentally a choice between two equally rational and equally unprovable belief systems. This is why the debate routinely goes nowhere: because the very nature of the question is that such that it’s impossible to finally resolve or settle it one way or the other. . . . The problem is that we can’t make this decision lightly. Literally everything depends on it. How we live. How we understand morality. How we perceive ourselves and our role in the universe. How we seek to fulfil our fundamental thirst for meaning and purpose. How we relate to others. How, and whether, we avoid making a date with a bathtub and a razor."

My inescapable conclusion is that, if God particularly wanted to be known by us, there's no way he'd leave us in that sort of bind.  Melinda has somehow come to the opposite conclusion, based, I think, on some spiritual experiences that she had.

But she does point out that many people do have some kind of "felt experience of God," and that is sufficient argument for them at least to believe in it.  But she also claims that many atheists have the same experience but don't believe.  I wonder if this is true, and if so, how.

I've certainly heard of the idea that we have some interior "God sense" which allows us to be sure God exists.  I know Alvin Platinga and John Henry Newman both wrote about it -- though their work is too lengthy for me to get through right now, I've read summaries.  And certainly I know people who claim they have some interior certainty which requires no proof.  I just have never heard any answer to the questions that I have on the topic: first, how does a person know whether to trust an interior feeling about something; and second, how is a person supposed to believe if they don't have such a feeling?

I used to feel pretty sure that God existed.  Not that I had any rational proof, I just had always been taught that he did, and saw no reason to doubt it.  And when other people talked about doubt, I shrugged -- I had never spent any time worrying about the question.  The image of God that I had was overwhelmingly positive -- he was kind, merciful, loved everyone, generous.  I was not afraid of God.  I mean, he understood I was trying to do the right thing, and for the moments that I didn't -- well, he knew I was a kid.  My mom spent a lot of time praying for people to go to heaven, but I wasn't fussed about it.  I figured everyone God wanted in heaven would go there, and if anybody did go to hell, it would be people so unrepentantly bad that there wasn't any point in praying for them.  God, to me, was a perfect combination of my mom's loving gentleness and my dad's power -- someone who could be counted on to be understanding with me, and also kick the butt of anything scary and bad.

Regnum Christi left this image mostly intact, but I did get some of other people's attitudes rolled in: like my director's way of making you feel small, and another woman's way of being generally disappointed in you.  I thought God was probably awfully disappointed in me, because I was so bad all the time.  But there was a lot of stress put on how much God loved me -- how he loved me before I was born, died for me, stayed awake all night watching me sleep, and really truly would rearrange the fabric of reality to give me my favorite breakfast in order to reassure me that he loved me.  It would have been hard to doubt the existence of someone I spent that many hours a day talking to.

But there came a time, as an adult, when I was confronted with other people's inner vision of God.  It seems obvious to me that if you know someone, you can predict their future behavior pretty well.  You can say that this would be out of character, but that would definitely be something they'd do.  And it was odd to me that so many people -- all Catholics! -- had such utterly different predictions of what God would do.  I was sure he would never send someone to hell for not being baptized, but other people thought he might.  I knew he would not approve of, say, the Crusades or the Inquisition, but some people said he would.  And I realized that when you argue one interior reality against another, you have no grounds for argument.  You need to find some sort of external evidence.  And, of course, once you take my inner idea of God and compare it to the idea of God you get from the bible, on the one hand, or from the created world, on the other, you end up with three very different ideas -- so different as to be incompatible with one another.

My point in telling you all this is to point out that Catholicism is not really down with the idea of religion coming from an interior intuition.  If you feel that God is one way, and the Church says he's something else, you have to ignore how you feel and go with what the Church says.  But you can't very well do that if your only reason for belief in the first place is an interior intuition.  Just as some people can't disbelieve in God, I can't make myself believe in the version of God that it seems the Catholic Church is describing.  [Edit: My point is to say that intuition is either a reliable source of knowledge or not.  If it's unreliable, it can't be used to prove God exists, if it's reliable, it should be allowed to judge revelation as well, which the Church does not accept.  A Catholic may find that his intuition conflicts with revelation, and therefore he must acknowledge that intuition is not an infallible source of information -- it was in error at least once.]

So it seems we should take our interior intuitions and subject them to some sort of rational inquiry.  Turning to the philosophical grounding of "basic belief" that I've read up on, let me give some examples.  The writers I've read explain a "basic belief" as something you're sure of, but don't know how you're sure.  For instance, you spot a face in the crowd and you think, "That's my friend Joe."  Or you hear a rustling in the woods and catch a glimpse of motion and say, "There's a deer in there."  Or you hear someone singing and you immediately intuit what words they are saying -- you grasp their meaning without performing a conscious analysis.

My issue with this is that one's intuitions may sometimes be wrong.  For instance, you think you spot Joe but when you get closer, it's a stranger.  Or you were taking aim at the "deer" when you spot some blaze orange and realize it's a fellow hunter.  Or you look up the song lyrics and find you were dead wrong about what they were saying.  My brother and I were awful at this when we were kids -- when we thought we heard certain words in a song, we were just incorrigible about it.  Isn't it true that when you interpret a lyric one way, it always sounds like that to you?

There was one song I remember arguing about ("Angry Young Man," by Styx) where I thought the line was "you're killing yourself" but my brother heard "you're kidding yourself."  We argued for some time.  But there was no basis for argument, since it was an intuitive belief.  We listened to the same few seconds over and over again, and all we could say was, "See?  SEE?  It totally says what I thought it did, how can you not hear that?"  That's kind of how a lot of debates on religion go.  I thought God was like X, someone else thought he was like Y, a third person felt there was no God, we have nothing to go on because we all had a strong intuition about it.

So when we want to reach greater certainty about our intuitive "basic" beliefs, we have to use a rational methodology to work it out.  The first step is identifying the sense-information we're working from.  You are usually able to do this just by slowing down and thinking about it: "It's the rustle in the woods that makes me think of a deer.  That man's nose is just like Joe's.  I hear a consonant sound in the middle of this word that sounds like an L."  A more complicated, expert intuition might be something like a doctor saying, "These are the exact symptoms I always see when someone has cancer."  Already we have a little problem -- intuition is trained by past experience.  You can recognize Joe's nose, an L sound, or a cancer patient because you've experienced these things a lot of times.  With God, there may be no initial sense-knowledge you can go on -- just a feeling of certainty.  Or perhaps there are many small disparate things that feel like proof -- like me getting my favorite breakfast just after a really great prayer session, a friend I'd prayed for getting better, the existence of my favorite holly tree, and a hundred other small things that seemed to map into a pattern of God caring about me.  (And just as someone's suggestion about a song lyric makes you hear it, I also had my religious education to prompt me to draw that conclusion from those facts.  Otherwise I might not have, I suppose.)  And like Joe's nose or the sound of an L, it is possible for those things to exist without the pattern that I intuited about them being real.  My ability to grasp a pattern and assume an answer isn't evidence -- the original facts I started with are the evidence.

The next step is to attempt to gather more information across different modalities.  I heard the rustle in the woods, so I look toward it and try to see what's out there.  I think I see Joe, so I say "Joe, is that you?"  I go online and look up the lyrics to "Angry Young Man."  (They back up my brother, in case you're interested.)  I notice a pattern of symptoms that look like cancer, so I order some tests.  Where God is concerned, I can examine evidence for God and information about what God is supposed to be like in order to see whether the particular idea of God that I hold has any evidence for actually existing.  At this point I will have more to go on, which should either reinforce my original intuition or contradict it.

The third step is to compare notes with others.  I can ask if other people see a deer, if they recognize Joe, or what words they hear when they listen to the song.  If their experience agrees with mine, I have a lot more certainty about my intuition.  If not, I have to consider the possibility that I misheard or leapt to conclusions.  In the case of religion, the ideas people have about God are so wildly different that I had to accept that my own vision of God was highly unlikely to be accurate.  Not only do Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and atheists feel just as sure about their own intuitions as I did about mine, but fellow Catholics didn't even come up with roughly similar answers.  And they were able to support their view with doctrine and scripture, whereas all I had was an interior feeling.  I was forced to conclude that I didn't know God, not really, despite all those hours of prayer.  After all, I knew perfectly well that God never spoke to me outright -- I just had a feeling that he would like or do certain things.  That's no better than anyone else's feeling that says the opposite -- both are insufficient to conclude anything; we need facts.

Now, when an intuition is disproven, it may or may not disappear.  I now hear the word "kidding" instead of "killing" in that Styx song, but I still see faces in outlets even though I know outlets are not people.  There's a guy at church who gives me one double-take after another because he looks so much like my brother.  I know my brother would not be at my church.  And if I study the guy's face, I recognize that some details aren't the same.  But with the tail of my eye, I still think I see him.  So perhaps it's just that simple, when atheists have some feeling of a divine presence despite not believing.  I know that in my case, I don't.  Once I realized that special breakfasts happen pretty much at random, that there are biological explanations for trees, that the infinite forgivingness of my version of God looked a lot more like my mother than the God of the Church or the Bible, I stopped seeing God anywhere.  There were fewer and fewer things out there that looked like God, and then there were none.  I can't force that intuition back, because it was based on facts and the facts have been shown either to be mistaken or to have other explanations.

And at that point the whole idea of "basic" belief has nothing to offer me.  I don't have that kind of belief.  And that leaves me back with my objection to Melinda -- why would we be left in that sort of a bind?  Why would some of us have very clear intuitions that there is one God, and some feel just as strongly that there are many, and some have no belief that there is any?  What does that say about God, that he would leave that situation as it is, when he's just as capable of zapping us all with belief as he is of providing any more tangible proof -- like leaving the burning bush burning all these years, so that anyone who wanted could go look at it, or keeping the Red Sea parted, or leaving the pillar of flame standing in the middle of St. Peter's Square?

One answer I've been offered is that all people really do have this belief, and atheists are just either self-deceiving or outright lying.  All I can say to that is, I know I'm not lying, and if I were self-deceiving so well that I don't know that I know, that's not practically any different from not knowing.  I still don't know the right thing to choose.  We all have scads of vague ideas floating around our heads, things we half-believe, like thinking that the earth stands still and the sun rises.  We know that isn't what happens, but we find ourselves thinking of the world that way.  But how would we know which of these vague ideas ought to be trusted and which are not?  I can't go along with that one.

The only remaining conclusion I had was that perhaps God does not care as much about belief as he does about some other value -- right action, perhaps, or just our existence.  This seems to be what Melinda thinks.  I just can't believe this and be an orthodox Catholic, because the Church is pretty clear that God does want to be known.  And that leaves us back with the same old question -- why so hidden?  Why make it so hard for anyone to know for sure?
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