Saturday, August 29, 2015

Catholics make me cry

A few months ago, I was on here proclaiming that I wasn't going to read anything religious unless it was from a Catholic source.  No Protestant apologetics, no atheist blogs, nothing.  I thought it would help my doubts.  It didn't, of course -- the problems were never something from outside, but from inside the teachings themselves.  Too many things seemed to be glossed over with the sort of vague explanations that people would use if they wanted to convince themselves they weren't experiencing any cognitive dissonance.

So I gave that idea up after a few months, and I read all kinds of stuff now.  I hang out a lot on Patheos -- Catholic, Progressive Christian, Atheist, and Spirituality channels.  Because it's all of interest to me, and the different perspectives help to construct a clearer whole.

However, I'm beginning to feel maybe I'd do better to stop reading the Catholic stuff, just because it upsets me.

First, there's the old outside-looking-in problem.  When you're in a group of people who fervently believe something, and you don't, it's uncomfortable.  There's this strong urge to either join the group or leave.  That was the main reason I joined Regnum Christi -- because I wanted to be friends with those people, and there was nothing more uncomfortable than feeling like I didn't fit in.

Second, there's the beauty of it.  Every once in awhile a Catholic blogger gives some glimpse of what drives their love for the Church, and I can't help but admire them.  Take Mudblood Catholic's vision of nonviolence, inspired by Jesus.  It's beautiful stuff.  As a celibate gay Catholic, he sacrifices a lot to stay in the Church, but it seems to be worth it to him.  And I daresay if I felt a deep connection to God, it wouldn't seem too much to do the same, even if, like him, I didn't understand why God was asking so much of me.

But most of all it's the suffering that I hear from people.  I'm not directly quoting or linking, because people often share their suffering in places where they can't be seen by too many people, but maybe you've seen the same sort of thing.

It's the woman who feels called to be a priest, who wonders why God is saying one thing to her inside her heart and another through the Church.  Which one can be trusted?  Never her heart.

It's the gay Catholics, bearing the burden not just of celibacy, but also of general loneliness (because our culture doesn't really know how to do friendship or extended family very well).  And if they handle those okay, they still have to deal with being treated as suspect by other Catholics for something they didn't choose and can't help.

It's the mother of a gay child, who is torn between wanting to empathize with her child and wanting to fix him.  Trying to get him back in the church, while sad she can't admit she sees a lot of goodness and love in his relationship.  Trying over and over again to convince herself missing his wedding the right and Christian thing to do.

It's the divorced-and-remarried couple that tries to live in celibacy, knowing that there is no fixing their situation, ever.

It's the woman who stays with an emotionally abusive husband because it beats a life of loneliness.

It's the woman who practices NFP despite her husband not being on board, as her priest told her she was morally required to do, and her husband leaves her.  When she tells her priest what happened, he blames her for not keeping her marriage together.

It's the mother who's overwhelmed with many small children, suffering many small health problems from repeated pregnancies, but none of them seems like a sufficient reason to use NFP.  After all, what can compare to another soul in heaven with her for eternity?  So she gets pregnant again, and the difficulty of dealing with her children is compounded by months of fatigue and vomiting.

It's the woman with a serious medical reason to avoid pregnancy, but her signs don't make sense like they are supposed to.  A single misinterpretation results in a life-threatening medical complication.

It's the couple whose marriage is on the rocks.  They decide it would be madness to get pregnant right now, considering the strain on their marriage.  They go to counseling and the counselor suggests that it will help to have sex more often.  No can do, not with NFP.

It's the scrupulous teenager who can't seem to give up masturbating, but also is too embarrassed to say so in confession.  For years he worries about dying suddenly and going to hell.

It's the priest who finds himself alone, day after day, night after night, because there are too few priests now to have several in a rectory, but the parishioners are too much in awe of him to ever invite him over for dinner.  God's company is supposed to be enough, but somehow it isn't.  Soon he takes up drinking, just to numb his feelings of isolation.

It's anyone who dearly loves a non-Catholic, wondering if they will be able to see their loved ones in heaven, and whether it will really be heaven if they can't.  Is it possible that they are more merciful than God is?

It's the mother who loses a baby before birth.  The church tells her emphatically that her baby has a soul, but doesn't know if that soul gets to go to heaven without baptism.  She can hope, but she doesn't want to hope, she wants to be sure.

None of these stories is made up -- some of them have happened to people I know more than once.  And there are so many more.

I hear people's stories and I just want to cry.  It's hard to be Catholic.  I appreciate that most Catholics don't gloss this over -- they tell it how it is.  No one gets a free pass; every state of life comes with suffering.  Some suffering is unavoidable and some comes directly from trying to follow Catholic teaching.  But either way, it's really hard and God doesn't swoop in very often to fix things.

A part of me thinks: these people should seriously reconsider their religion.  Odds are, they're not really sure it's true.  And shouldn't they have a high level of certainty that something's a good idea before going for it -- all the more so when it causes pain and suffering for themselves, and sometimes for those around them?

Another part just says: I hope it's true.  I hope God is keeping their tears in his bottle, like he promised.  I hope he will one day wipe away every tear.  I hope that, even if the Catholic Church isn't 100% right, that God is the sort of person who will accept their gifts to him in the spirit in which they were meant -- acts of love which they did for him.

Because the thought that all that suffering is for nothing, will earn no reward, is very distressing to me.  I hope it is false.  And I have been paring down my readership of Catholic blogs and my participation in Catholic groups, not because I dislike the people or their ideas, but because that thought haunts me.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Miriam is one

Babies grow so dang fast.  One day you're wishing you'd go into labor and the next day they're going to college.  Well, close.  You have exactly one year of babyhood.  One year is not very long.  But by the end of one year, what you have is not a baby, it's a small person who very definitely has their own personality, preferences, and opinions, as well as some burgeoning independence and communication ability.

One year ago. Yes, really.

I remember when Michael turned one, I was kind of puzzled.  I hadn't felt like I'd had the chance to get to know him.  He was this constantly-nursing lump and then suddenly he was climbing stuff.  He wasn't very big on eye contact.  Or maybe I wasn't very big on eye contact.  Every moment he wasn't nursing was a moment I had to spend rushing around trying to get stuff done or pay Marko some attention.  Luckily Michael's next year was quite nice and I got know to know him much better before he turned two.  And it turned out he was a big enough personality by then not to get lost in the crowd.

Miriam, though .... bonding with her has been easy.  She likes to nurse -- there's been zero rejection of me, so that's nice.  But she also likes to play.  She's liked to interact, right from day one.

Remember the day she was born?  It was such a nightmare, Marko down with a stomach bug, Michael all up in my grill, the first contractions starting mere minutes after John had left for work.  But when I finally held her in my arms, I just felt so lucky.  I hadn't even wanted her, and here she was anyway!  She was even a girl, just like I'd hoped!  And as perfect as could be.

Those little legs! In those socks!  

The only grief she's really ever caused me is the no-napping thing.  That was rough.  I would have loved to have put her down and loved on my other kids at some point.  But, you know, it passed.  It all does.

Other than that it's been smooth sailing.  She nurses great, she eats solids now with gusto, she's passed all her milestones long before when BabyCenter says she's supposed to.  She loves her brothers -- as soon as she could crawl, she's been hurrying after them to join them in big-kid games.  If they're sitting on the floor, she walks up and plops down in their laps.  Most of the time, she's smiling.  She's better with strangers than either of her brothers were, though she has her limits.
And she has dimples.

Sometimes she doesn't go to bed at seven, when I want her to, but at eight or so, after the others have already gone to bed.  So to keep her from banging on their bedroom door, I keep her in my room.  She plays on my bed.  She likes to play peekaboo with the blankets and patty-cake.  Her top favorite game is "find the toy," where we hide it under the pillow and then she picks up the pillow and WOW!  There it is!  But kissing is a nice game too.  And fetch.  It's exhausting because I want her to go to sleep, but it's a special time too.

Their Christmas play

She can understand a lot of words.  I know she knows up, outside, ball, get, nurse, eat, food, cheese, tomato, chair, inside, brothers, potty, shirt, and bath.  She can sort of say dog, duck, kitty, kiss, Mama, and get.

I brought her to the store with me for her birthday to get her a present.  The plan was to get her a dinosaur so she can play with the boys and their dinosaurs, but she saw a rubber ducky that she liked.  I asked, "Do you want the duck?"  She said "DUT!"  Sorry, but I can't say no to a one-year-old who can say duck.  Could you?

Ah, that toothless grin of a few months ago...

She is a great deal of trouble.  That's standard in one-year-olds.  I've learned some things, though.  For instance, if she climbs on something, it's just stupid to get her off it and then go back to what I was doing.  Obviously she's instantly going to climb it again, and the more times she does it, the faster she's going to be and the more she's going to want to.  I have to childproof it right away, or else move her to a different room.  I didn't realize this as much with the first kid and I spent a lot of time dragging him out of the cat's litter box while saying "no" because I thought he could learn.  Ha.

She's definitely a lot like Marko, though.  Maybe less serious.  But then, Marko wasn't serious at one, that came later.  What she is, is very intensely interested in the things she's interested in, with no patience for snuggles when she's not in the mood.

I feel very lucky to have her in my life.  She's sweet, she's adventurous, she's fun, she's happy, she's intense, she's snuggly, she fits right in.  The timing of her birth wasn't perfect, but I wouldn't change it now.  If anything had been different, I couldn't have had her, and she's worth quite a bit of trouble.

At last, my daughter.  Miriam Rose.

Contemporary Miriam.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Wheels within wheels

To set the mood, a Rush song:

My favorite science is biology.  I just think it's massively cool to look at my arm and realize it's not just a part of me -- it's a collection of further parts: muscles, bones, skin, and so forth.  And those have parts of their own--the different tissues that make up a muscle, the different cells that make up each kind of tissue, and the molecular reactions between the cells that cause them to pull toward each other.  From my perspective it may seem that I reach out my arm and grab something, nothing more complicated than that.  But from deep inside my arm, there's a fascinating chemical reaction going on.

I think I got into this idea from Madeline L'Engel, where she talks about mitochondria being tiny cities full of conscious creatures.  I thought--if there really were little beings in there, would they know they were part of a human body?  Would they think of themselves as just serving the benefit of the whole (as I certainly think of them) or would they mind their own business, completely unaware of me?

That's the thing of it.  They would do their job either way.  The teeny-tiny biological functions of the body don't rely on any part of the body knowing what the whole is up to.  They just rely on the cells in my body responding to chemical signals.  My ovaries don't wake up in the morning and say, "Hey, let's mature an egg."  But my brain doesn't tell them either.  They start a follicle maturing in response to follicle stimulating hormone, which is released in response to decreasing progesterone because last month's corpus luteum died.  It's all its own little system, which I (as a conscious actor) have nothing to do with.

My brain is an emergent system -- it is something entirely new, created by the organization of smaller parts.  Another example of an emergent system is an ant colony.  Individual ants aren't very smart, but in response to chemical signals from one another, they coordinate their actions to create achievements none of them could do alone -- building an anthill, fighting off invaders, or even enslaving another colony of ants.

Now I don't think of myself as a collection of parts, nor do identify myself with a certain brain cell.  "I" am the level of organization which encompasses my whole body.  But there are levels of organization below me -- and further levels above me!

Take, for instance, my family.  We have organized ourselves into something greater than the sum of the people who went into it -- through specialization, we make an income, clean the house, raise children, and create our own family culture.  Expanding outward, you could look at the local economy.  Economics is a very cool sort of emergent system, where individual actions -- choosing to buy or not buy, sell or not sell, at a certain price -- coordinate to work out the ideal price for an item, based on supply and demand.  No individual human is behind the price of gasoline -- it wavers up and down depending on how much of it there is, how many people want it, and how the human actors involved feel about how much oil there is and will be in the future.

Or take Western literature.  I've written a few poems in my life.  But none of these poems are entirely mine, because they're inspired by the rest of the Western tradition.  I have some doubts that I could have invented rhythm and meter on my own.  Perhaps I would not even have thought of expressing myself in a poem in the first place, if I hadn't read the poems of others.  Then I borrowed the techniques I liked best, each the invention of an individual sometime in the span of history, but all together the creation of the super-being called Western literature.  The same goes for all the inventions of medicine, engineering, computer technology, and philosophy.  They aren't the creations of a single person, they're something built up over time by many people.  The person who does the final invention always "stands on the shoulders of giants."

At the end, we can take all humans together as a single vast, emergent system.  It's been slowly developing throughout history, but you can see it especially well in the internet age.  It's like watching the thought process of the World-Soul.  (I call it that--didn't invent the term, but I am not sure who did.  If it sounds too woo-woo to you, you could call it something else.)  Thoughts occur to the World-Soul as someone writes an article or creates a meme.  Some are so boring as never to get any traction; others go viral and are absorbed into the whole for a brief period.  Some are so exciting as to hang on for years or generations.  Sometimes the initial idea comes from one "neuron" and mutates on contact with others -- as "feminism" mutated from "votes for women" to "fighting rape culture" or whatever.  Or on a small scale, when suddenly the internet is all abuzz with an idea -- first a news article, then Matt Walsh's inevitable response, then a lot of outraged responses to Matt Walsh, then a spate of articles calling for levelheadedness and a more balanced viewpoint.  In a week or two the topic is worn out, but the general thoughts the World-Soul has on the topic have shifted somewhat, affected by the train of thought that went on earlier.  The next time it comes up, people will say, "Remember this from last year?  We learned something."

The World-Soul's feelings on any given issue tend to be conflicted.  But then again, my own feelings are conflicted too.  Even when I finally do come to a decision, there's often a part of me that lingers, still dissatisfied with the direction I'm taking.  And when conditions shift, that part leaps forward, saying, "See?  We had doubts about this!  Let's go back and make a different decision."  My family, the United States government, and the scientific community can do the same sort of thing.  Decisions are still possible, even without unanimity.  The World-Soul doesn't make many decisions, because it's too fragmented, but increasing globalization leads to a greater level of coordination.

Of course I realize that the World-Soul does not actually have a soul.  It's just a way of talking about humanity as an interconnected whole.  Intersubjective concepts like "goodness," "beauty," "math," are all thoughts the World-Soul is thinking about.

To some extent, the whole universe is an emergent system.  It's interconnected and the pattern of it is greater than the sum of its parts.  And what part of this system is the brain, the the conscious fraction?  Why, us, of course.  As my toe, which possesses no consciousness, lands on a sandy beach, my brain perceives it and generates thoughts.  And as a star goes nova in a distant part of the galaxy, we perceive it and contemplate what that might mean.  We are the consciousness of the universe, its perceiver.

When I feel small, I think of this.  That although my life is short, and my size in the scale of the universe is minuscule, I am part of something much bigger than myself, something which I am contributing to with every word I say, post I publish, even every purchase I make.  I can choose a small bit of the direction that this vast superorganism goes.  And when I die, some of my thoughts -- those thoughts that I sent into the minds of others -- will live on; just as when a neuron in my brain dies, I still survive.

Perhaps this is what a blood cell of mine might feel when it sacrifices its nucleus to make room for it to carry more oxygen.  But probably not.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The meaning of life

Of course the first problem that seems to come up when you question the idea of God is the meaning of life.  People say, "Believe in God, because without God, life is meaningless."

That's not actually an argument; that life is meaningless might be undesirable, but that doesn't prove it untrue.  But still, I understand: one still has to live.  If you don't think God is out there, you have to find something else to believe in.

The trouble is that "what is the meaning of life" is a rather unclear question.  Some people, when they ask it, mean, "Why am I here?"  Others mean, "Why should I continue living?" or "What is the prime goal of my life?"

These are different.  To answer the first question, it could just be chance.  But just because there is no reason behind my existence doesn't mean my existence has to be meaningless.

Think of it this way.  What is a lamp for?  To give light.  What is a tree for?  To be a tree.  Something made by people always has a purpose, but things not made by people just are.  They might be useful, and they might not.  You might want to sit under the tree, and that makes it useful even though it wasn't "meant" for sitting under.

I think that saying "what are people for" is narrowing people down to things.  People don't have to be useful.  Their existence is valuable even if it doesn't help anyone else.  At the same time, people like to feel they are useful.  It makes us feel valuable to know that we made a difference to someone.  It can make the difference between having the strength to continue living in hard times, or feeling like we might as well give up.

It's easy to find the answer to this problem: all the people who love me, care about me, and rely on me are a reason to keep living.  I matter to them.  The more I have to offer the world, the more I matter.  It's a good reason to offer more to the world -- to give more, and receive less.

Still, existential angst is a thing.  A few months ago I was standing outside in my front yard, thinking, "What's the point?  Life is full of suffering, and at some point it will be over.  There has to be more than this."

Then I realized I was sitting under a perfectly blue sky, the sun was shining, a breeze was blowing, and my beautiful children were playing in the grass.  And I thought: The very fact that I am here to enjoy this beautiful day is enough.  Life has joy in it.  The joy of looking at beauty, the satisfaction of helping a friend, the pleasure of eating a nice meal, the ecstasy of listening to a symphony, the pride of a job well done -- to have all these things given to me, even if it's by pure chance, makes me feel privileged.  It's worth the discomfort and suffering and angst that life also includes. 

I am thankful to be alive and I refuse to minimize that gift by pretending it's "just" a quirk of my brain, a random chance, a short moment in time.  I was always taught that life is an eyeblink and eternity is long.  That's a lie.  Life is not an eyeblink, not to me, and what other perspective do I need to measure it against?  This single day that I get the privilege of living -- if I pay attention and really savor it, it seems to last forever.  If I thought it really would last forever, maybe I wouldn't bother savoring it.  But since a day lasts a full twenty-four hours, and only twenty-four hours, it's just the right length to try to live to its fullest.  If I am lucky enough to have more days, I will live those fully too.

My next thought was that not everyone's life is as happy as mine.  Some people are depressed, some people are sick, some are starving or lonely.  And so there comes part two of the meaning of life: to try to share the goodness of life with every person alive.  I am so intensely privileged because of a thousand or a million actions others have done: my parents for bringing me into existence, the farmers who grow the food I eat, the person who invented the rhogam shot that allows me to have three healthy children instead of only dead children.  On and on, all of humanity is an endless chain, or rather a more complicated network, in which we rely on each other and pass on the gift to the next generation.  I resolve to do what I can to make it good for others.  Comfort the afflicted, love the lonely, give to charity.  I want to make some slight difference in the world that will make life better for others.  It doesn't matter if they never know it.  If I make the world just a tiny bit better, long after my name is forgotten, I will matter because I was a link in that endless chain.

That's the meaning of my life: to receive the gift that is life, to enjoy it, and to pass it on.  It doesn't have to be the meaning of everyone's life; it isn't an authoritative answer.  But it is a meaning that is worth getting up every morning to work on.

What is the meaning of your life?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Social anxiety

I'm a little afraid that if I share this story, you all will laugh at me.  Or think I'm strange.  But I need to blog this as therapy, and perhaps you will have some good advice.  You can tell me how a normal person would have reacted.

I don't like the children's librarian at our local library.  I just keep having run-ins with her.  The first time was when Marko was small and was banging on a table.  She came into the play area and told me to make him stop, and I was flustered and already in a bad mood, so I was somewhat rude.  I can't remember what I said, but I felt bad immediately ... sure, it's a little picky for her to be insisting a one-year-old be quiet in the children's area, but whatever.  It's her job.  She doesn't need to deal with rude patrons on top of that.

I tried to be nice to her after that, out of guilt for being rude that one time, and she seemed nice enough.  But two weeks ago, I had another negative encounter with her.  See, my kids are addicted to the water fountain in the foyer.  We arrive, drink from the water fountain, get books, get to the play area, and they instantly want to go get another drink.  But parading through the library with three kids (one of whom is a flight risk) is not my idea of a good time, so I always say no.

This time, Marko was begging to go to the water fountain, and finally I said, "Do you think you could manage to go alone?"  This is kind of a big deal for him.  Up to a year ago he wouldn't go to the bathroom in our own house without me coming along because being alone is scary.  I thought he'd say no.  But instead he said he wanted to try it.  I thought, "Hey, this is great.  My kid is actually being brave and developing some independence."  I reviewed the directions to get to the water fountain and off he went.  The first couple attempts, he came back a few seconds later because he was confused or lost.  (I guess the dozens of times we've walked this route, he never paid attention!)  But eventually he disappeared and I thought, "He must be doing it!"  I figured I'd go out in a minute or so in case he got lost on the way back.  But I was very proud.

And then I heard this terrified wail, the sound of Marko panicking.  I rushed toward the sound and was met by him barrelling into me.  On his tail was the children's librarian.  She said, "Sorry, I didn't mean to upset him, I just was telling him to go back to his parent."

I said, "Oh, he has my permission to be out there by himself."

She said, "Well, we have a policy.  Kids under eleven have to be supervised."

I said, "He's not out there playing or anything!  He just wanted to go get a drink."

She said, "Oh, in that case I guess that's all right."

And she left.  I felt proud that I had handled the situation assertively but not rudely, and happy that it was going to be okay to try this again.  But I was a little mad that she had scared Marko.  I wish he were not so intimidated by strange adults.  We have not ever tried to scare the kids away from strangers -- instead we tell them never to go anywhere with an adult without checking it with us first.  But we have told them that it's okay to talk to librarians.  It's just that he's shy .... well, more than shy, terrified.  Which he gets from me, I suppose.

Fastforward to today.  We're playing in the play area, I'm reading a good book, all is well.  Marko actually talks to one of the library workers!  It's an older woman who asks him about the dinosaur he's playing with.  Bingo!  He's happily telling her about all his favorite dinosaurs.  He hardly even stammers.  I'm so proud.

A little later he says he's thirsty and suggests going to the water fountain all by himself.  I say, okay.  And if the librarian asks you what you're doing, you can tell her you are just getting a drink.  She said that was okay last time.

A few seconds later along comes the librarian, telling me all about their policy.  I said, "But you told me last time it was okay if he's just getting a drink!"

She says, "No, I've thought about it and I really think it's not safe .... people come in and out of the library all the time and could just snatch him .... a kidnapping takes seconds ..... when I was four someone tried to take my hand and I ran away, that goes to show how common kidnapping is .... you need to talk to your kids about stranger danger ..... anyway I didn't make the policy ....."  On and on.

As she's talking, I get more and more tense.  I don't know what I'm supposed to do.  I don't know what to say.  I had tried saying I thought it was okay, and that didn't work, so what comes next?  Do I say "yes ma'am" or something?  Is that what she's waiting for?  And in the back on my mind a voice is shouting "I'M IN TROUBLE, I'M IN TROUBLE, A GROWN-UP IS MAD AT ME."  I am trying not to panic and also trying not to get mad.  I feel like she's switched the game on me, it's not fair.  I tried to follow the rules and here she is lecturing me.  I focus on her nose to try to calm myself down, but I think I'm weirding her out.  Here is this patron who has a history of being grouchy, and instead of answering, I'm staring her down.  I don't want to be staring her down.  But I don't know what to say.  She's not asking me any questions, but she's leaving pauses like she's waiting for me to .... what?  Argue?  Apologize?  I don't know, I feel like there ought to be a phrasebook for socially anxious people that gives the appropriate answer.  When I was a kid, "Yes Daddy" usually worked, but I feel like that isn't right, even if I knew this lady's name, which I don't.  I want a way to say, "Look, I didn't mean to break a rule and I won't again.  Also this rule is STUPID and there has NEVER ONCE been a kidnapping in this whole town.  And my kids have stranger danger out the wazoo and usually run screaming if a strange adult comes within ten feet.  I am not worried.  I am their mother.  It is my choice.  Only it's not actually my choice, because this is a library and it has rules.  Fine.  I will follow the rules but please stop talking!"

Eventually she sort of wraps up but says she's going to go doublecheck the policy with her manager.  And something about getting me a copy of the policy, which I don't want.  When she's out of sight, one of the kids starts asking for a drink of water again and I just feel like I am falling apart.  I tell Marko he can't go get water, and he starts to cry.  Then I say that I think we'd better just go home, and he starts to howl big time.  I drag them all up front to the self checkout, check out my books and am about to pick up Miriam (who is heading for the stacks again) when I see Michael doesn't have his boots on.  "Go get your boots," I say.  "Never mind, I will come with you."  Because heaven forbid my child should walk ten feet without me.

I'm so flustered at this point I forget Miriam and just walk over to the play area.  Then I hear wailing.  I turn and the children's librarian is holding Miriam, who is kicking and screaming, and bringing her over to me.  I take her, feeling even worse.  Apparently I really am an inept mother.  Apparently I cannot be trusted with three kids in a library.  Apparently I shouldn't have had so many.  Surely she is thinking I'm incompetent.  But it doesn't even matter what she thinks because I LEFT my baby all by herself by the checkout and didn't even NOTICE.

The librarian is trying to tell me something but I brush her off with "it's time to go, we're going now, sorry."  She asks if I'm okay and I call over my shoulder "yes!" in a tone that any human being would instantly recognize means "no."

The kids get their drink and we go outside.  Marko is still crying.  I tell them that we will go to the playground next door and read our books.  As we walk I start to cry.  When we get to the playground I just plop down while the kids play, and I cry and cry, big ugly sobs and snot and everything.  I don't know why this is so dang upsetting.  I don't know why it has to be this way.  I don't know when all the other grownups learned to handle this stuff, I feel like I missed that lesson of adult class.  But I feel like I'm the one who's five years old.  I don't understand how a well-meaning librarian with a gentle tone of voice can make me feel so small.

I'm flashing back to all the other times this has happened.  As a kid, my dad yelling and not knowing what it is he wants me to say, so I just cry but he tells me I shouldn't cry because I'm not hurt.  In school, my fifth grade teacher, who was very sweet, sitting me down privately to ask what's up with me, and all I can do is look at her eyeliner and sob and sob.  I don't know what she wants me to say, all I can feel is that I am gravely defective in some way, and this sweet lady doesn't know what to do with me.  I thought I was a normal kid but apparently not, because she expects me to be able to cope with this conversation and I am not coping.

And in boarding school, the daily haranguing at sports.  The consecrated would take me aside and ask me why I wasn't giving 100%.  And I know there is no answer that is going to be okay.  "I thought I was" does not work.  "I am feeling tired" gets me, "I don't want excuses."  I have been told the reason I struggle with getting lectured like this is because I am proud, and excuses are a sign of pride.  So usually I just cry.  But one time I am told that these are crocodile tears and I am doing it just to get pity.  I hadn't thought so, but later I think, well, maybe that is why.  I don't know why I cry when I'm on the spot.  All I know is that I do.  I guess maybe I think it will make the questions stop and someone will be sorry for me and stop being mad.  Which makes me a manipulative, terrible person.  I just wish someone would tell me what the right thing is to do.  Walk me through it, show me a skit, show me what a good person would say or do to show that they are sorry.  Because that's what I want to do.  I am not trying to be a bad person.

The kids have gotten over being upset at leaving the library, and Michael asks me what I am doing with my face buried in my hands.  I blow my nose and say, "Nothing."  Grown-ups aren't supposed to cry -- I hardly ever do.  I know it upsets the children a lot when the grown-ups don't have it together.  It's just I feel so helpless and defective.

That was hours ago now and I'm feeling some small amount better, but I still feel just as perplexed as ever.  What does one say or do in a situation like this?  How do you stop panicking long enough to think of the right words, how do you then make the words come out?

John says the librarian is a control freak and this confrontation was her fault, not mine.  He says he would have been rude to her.  I don't want to be rude, even though I was angry.  I wish people would keep this stuff short and leave me with a face-saving out -- "Hey, walk him to the water fountain next time, okay?"  Is that so hard?  The way she did it was humiliating and it felt like she wanted me to knuckle under somehow -- to agree that she had a point, that my kid could get snatched out of the library foyer when he went for a drink.  And I wasn't going to do that, because I think she was wrong.

After this, I am wondering how I can ever show my face in that library again.  You know that lady's going to be after me to show me her policy and explain yet more why she is right.  I can't face that, I just can't.  In fact I'm wondering if I even have any business leaving the house.  Here I've been, imagining myself as an adult, buying groceries and getting the oil changed, knowing the whole time that I'm playacting.  We're all playacting, that's how public life goes.  We know people don't know us, so we put on a persona of "kindly stranger," "pleasant customer."  Or is that only me?  I have always felt everyone's in on it, we know there are certain scripts that we stick to with strangers and we all know how to do it so it's okay.  And when it comes to confrontation, I feel I don't have the playbook.

I've been somewhat agoraphobic for a long time -- well, perhaps always.  The Public Square is a place I'd rather not be.  It's scary and you never know when things are going to turn sour.  For a long time I believed that a woman's place is in the home, before I realized that no, it's just me who wants to be in the home.  Since I got a car, I've been slowly stretching myself, coming out of my comfort zone teeny little bits at a time.  Chatting up other moms at the park.  Trading pleasantries with other people at the grocery store.  I was doing this!  It was going okay!  I was thinking that maybe I had this adult-in-public thing down and all my anxiety was for nothing.

But it turns out it isn't.  I feel like I shouldn't even try.  Stay home, hang out on the internet all day.  On the internet, no one can put you on the spot.  Or better yet, play outside with the kids and enjoy the comfort of only being with people who know and love me.

This is letting my anxiety win.  I shouldn't do it.  But I am sorely tempted.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Theories of morality

Lately I've been reading up a lot on morality and ethics.  I'm less concerned with what is right and wrong -- in most cases I'm not in any real doubt about that -- than with how I know.  In moments of doubt, what is your rule of thumb -- to what rules must all your decisions follow?


The most obvious and natural standard is empathy.  You instinctively care what happens to others, so you avoid harming others and try to help them when you can.

However, empathy is not entirely trustworthy for moral standards.  First off, not everyone has equal amounts of it, and some rare people don't appear to have any.  And second, humans can be pretty irrational in the things we care and don't care about.  Snow White's huntsman was too compassionate to kill her outright, so he left her in the woods to starve to death.  More painful for Snow White (if the huntsman's expectations had proven right), but less agonizing to the huntsman, because he didn't have to be a part of it.  Humans are also kind of terrible about giving empathy to people they don't feel close to.  And when we're upset or tired, we're less willing to empathize even with our own friends.


Conscience is a blend of innate feelings and training.  You feel guilty when you do a bad thing, either because of empathy or because you know you've done something you were taught was wrong.  It's a great guide, but on the other hand it could be wrong if you were taught the wrong things.  Take Huck Finn, who felt horribly guilty for helping Jim escape from slavery, because he had been taught it was stealing.  But his empathy won out in that case.

The Catholic Church is entirely right when it says that you should always follow your conscience, but you should also form your conscience.  You should train yourself in the habits that you know are moral.  But this assumes you must have a further source for morality to check your conscience against.

Pure reason

Should you use reason to assess your moral standards?  Absolutely!  Feelings can be unreliable.  However, reason alone isn't ideal at making decisions because it can't tell you what you want.  Hume pointed this out by saying reason alone can't take us from is to ought.  I think that gap is easily bridged, though, if you assume that what you want is the good of everyone, not just yourself.  And that seems to be pretty universal as a standard for morality.  If we all make only decisions in our immediate self-interest, human society as a whole will collapse and everyone will suffer.  But if each of us tempers our self-interest with some basic moral rules, all of us will profit.  It's really not a big leap to say we ought to do this.

Divine command ethics

This is simple: do what God says, don't do what God forbids.  That raises some questions, though, like "how do we know what God says?"  A pretty serious problem, when you have people blowing up buildings because they thought God wanted them to.  Even if you limit your reasoning to Christianity, there's no end of debates about whether God is okay with birth control, homosexuality, slavery, and so forth.  Either it wasn't mentioned in the Bible, or it was but what the Bible says goes against people's consciences.

Personally, I can't see how a Christian who believes in divine command ethics could oppose slavery.  It's pretty clear what God says about it.  Your conscience might be opposed, but if your conscience opposes God, you should form your conscience better, shouldn't you? 

There's nothing sadder than hearing a group of religious people saying that they would love to do a kind, loving action, but sadly God will not let them do it.  They're between a rock and a hard place.  And in general my sympathies are with those who, like Huck Finn, are willing to say, "I feel so strongly X is right that I'm willing to go to hell for it."  After all, if God really were evil -- if the universe were ruled by Cthulhu -- the right thing would be to oppose him, even if he had the power to punish you eternally for it.  Of course, if God is good, he knows best what is good -- but one's knowledge of religious truths is always a little uncertain, requiring a leap of faith, and it seems wise to consider the possibility that you might be wrong about what God wants.  To do that, you have to have some other source of ethics that you cross-check your religion with, whether it's your conscience or a rational rule.

The Catholic Church doesn't purely teach divine command ethics.  While it does say you should follow divine commands, it also says that divine and natural law do not contradict.  So it's perfectly comfortable devising new moral teachings about things not mentioned in scripture, based on natural law or the common good.  Still, it expects its conclusions to be taken on faith, and if your conscience disagrees, you should form it until it does.


I love Kant.  I have to laugh, because in college I didn't think he had come up with anything original.  Then again, I had a very boring professor.  Kant came up with the categorical imperative -- "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law."  At first that sounded like just another formulation of the Golden Rule -- do as you'd be done by.  And I suppose it is.  But the thing about it is that it makes rational sense -- if you have a rule for your own actions, you should expect that others will pick up on that rule and apply it to you.  Don't lie, because when people catch on, they'll do it too.  Do you really want your actions to be a general rule?  Because odds are, they will become so.


John Rawles said the perfect society would be built by people who didn't know what role they would have in it.  Of course that's not actually possible.  But it's a useful thought experiment to ask myself -- if I didn't know which person in this conflict was me, what would I do?  Like when I argue with my husband, I imagine what I would think of some other couple that I wasn't part of having the same fight.  Would I agree that the wife was in the right?  Or would it be pretty clear, once you took my own self-interest out of the question, that the wife needs to apologize?  I'm looking for an answer that would be equally good for either of us.

When I was growing up, we had a similar rule for sharing: one divides, one chooses.  My brother would cut the apple or candy bar or whatever in half, and I would pick whichever half I wanted.  As a result, he always cut it as exactly as he could, because he knew if one half was obviously bigger, he wasn't going to get that one.


Everyone uses this one, if only to defend what they've already decided.  It's taken as a proof of a good moral law that it has good results, on a societal scale.  It's particularly helpful when voting -- you might think, say, single-payer healthcare has good results, but if it has bad results, that proves it wasn't the best moral choice.  The more you know about a choice's potential effects, the better moral judgment you'll make.

This has two flaws: first, it doesn't tell you what kind of consequences to want, and second, you don't actually know the future.  But it's certainly an idea to include in your decisionmaking.


This more completely spells out the sort of consequences you want: the greatest happiness for the most people.  The thing is that moral choices can't really be mathematically summed up like that.  Which counts for more, cancer for one person or indigestion for forty million people?  Is it okay to hurt some people to give enjoyment to other people?

This one gives me a bad vibe.  It seems it could so easily be used to justify atrocities.  But on the other hand, in general it is useful to ask how much suffering your actions prevent, or how much joy they are likely to bring.  For instance, if you have $10 you want to give to charity, you might want to find out which charity is likely to help the most people.  Still, I wouldn't use utilitarianism all by itself to make decisions.

Virtue ethics

This is a great antidote to utilitarianism.  It recognizes that you are a human being and you don't make moral decisions in a vacuum.  You are not going to execute the criminally insane one fine morning and go home to be a loving parent that evening.  You are constantly forming habits which will help you to act in all kinds of situations, big and small.  You won't always have a chance to deliberate, or you won't have all the information, or you will be in fear for your life, and you will fall back on your habits.  Do you habitually respect human life, or not?  Do you make a habit of thinking of your neighbor's needs as equal in importance to your own?  If you do, very likely you'll make the right choice in a pinch.

I love virtue ethics because it shows that even small moral choices matter.  A lot of the other theories rely a lot on thought experiments ("a building is on fire, do you save a tank of 10,000 embryos or a toddler?") but don't apply much in your day-to-day life.

Rights ethics

Rights language is deontological, that is, it relies on hard-and-fast rules rather than flexible judgments.  I like that.  There is no real difference between saying "thou shalt not kill" and "everyone has the inalienable right to life," but in some cases rights language is handier.  You can justify self-defense (by saying that a person who attacks another's life loses their own right to life) and you can weigh rights against other rights.

The downside is that it doesn't actually tell you what rights are more important.  You have to decide that separately.  Ideally a society will choose which rights to honor, and since everyone has the same ones, it sets up clear boundaries between things people owe you and things they don't.

Non-aggression principle

This states that no one may initiate force against another's person or property.  It's a favorite of libertarians because it forbids aggression while allowing for self-defense.  But it seems deeply lacking to me -- more the beginning of morality than the end of it.  Sure, if everyone followed it, there would be no war.  But there would be people shooting trespassers and petty thieves.  And since it's purely negative, it doesn't require positive morality such as care for children or charity for the poor.  I also dislike the way it treats property as equivalent to life.  I myself don't think the right to property is absolute, unless it's the property someone needs to survive.  If the government wants to tax your second beach house, I really don't see how that's theft.

Rule utilitarianism

So far as I understand it, this is something of a blend between utilitarianism and the categorical imperative.  You choose a set of rules that, if followed, are likely to result in the greatest happiness/least suffering for the greatest number.  And then you follow those rules all the time, rather than making a new assessment of possible happiness and suffering caused by each decision.  That's because a decision made for utilitarian reasons still sets a precedent for others' actions.  If you wipe out all the Jews because you think it will cause a better future, you've created a world in which wiping out minorities is now a thing.  So even if you could alleviate some suffering by such an action (which, for the record, you couldn't) it would still be a bad action because it would be according to a rule which you wouldn't like others to use.  It also blends well with virtue ethics because you'd make a habit of following those rules.

So which ethical theory is mine?  Oh, all of them, I suppose.  That is, I use different ones in different cases.  For day to day life, I tend to stick with virtue ethics, asking myself, "Will this action help me be a better person?"  Developing self-discipline and compassion are just good things to do, even if the specific action doesn't have any other noticeable effects.  When I'm picking policy decisions to support, I ask, "What consequences is this policy likely to have?"  When deciding whether to follow the speed limit, I think, "I want others to follow the speed limit, and if I speed, I'm encouraging others to do the same."  When I want to make a donation, I think, "Which charity will help the greatest number of people?"  When asked about the bombing of Hiroshima, I might say, "The innocent victims had an inviolable right to life."

There are others I don't use.  I no longer ask "What would Jesus do?" because I've found it's too easy to assume that Jesus would do what you would do.  And I don't ask, as I did for years, "What would be the most unselfish thing to do?" because I've learned the consequences of that are resentment and personal suffering.  And because I think that I have rights too -- I am no more important than anybody else, but I am also no less important. 

And no theory I've yet examined -- religions included -- seem to know exactly how differing values should be balanced.  None of them can tell me if it is more important to feed my own children or starving orphans abroad; if it is more important to save a life or to conceive a new life; if a heart transplant should go to the medical missionary or the mother of ten.  Some of them might try -- utilitarianism could attempt the job -- but it all depends on unknown factors or unweighable values.  I think it's okay for the people close to me to be more important to me than those far away; I can't explain why, but it seems right to me.

Another question that isn't easily answered is "who is my neighbor?"  What is the group of people who have rights, whose happiness we are concerned with?  In ancient times, most people assumed it was their own tribe alone, which is why Jesus was so revolutionary in saying it could be a foreigner.  But expanding the in-group benefits everyone: just as it helps individuals to be able to cooperate on a firm moral footing with others, it helps groups if they can cooperate with other groups.  The more connected the world is, the more vital it is to treat opposing groups morally.  In today's world, a failure to treat other nations fairly could result in a nuclear winter.

But not everyone is going to cooperate with you, either now or at any time in the future.  How exactly does one demarcate which beings are morally significant and which are not?  Some people think the rights of animals are as important as those of humans; I strongly disagree, not least because it's impractical.  If you want to defend the lion's right to life and liberty, you can't do the same for the gazelle.  "Any being I can empathize with" seems a common demarcation, but it relies entirely on emotion, which is shaky ground.  On the other hand, respecting what you feel empathy for seems a virtuous habit in general.  "All human individuals" is a good group, except that if we ever meet sentient aliens, it seems silly to think they don't have moral weight.  But if instead you said "anyone with a human level of intelligence or higher," you'd cease to value the severely mentally disabled, which is unacceptable to me.  Perhaps you should respect all these groups -- if a being is intelligent OR human OR adorable, you shouldn't kill it.  Still, you're going to have to choose which definition has more moral significance -- do you save an alien, or a human infant?  Would you kill a majestic lion if it was mauling a disabled person?  (I would.)

So, there you have it: plenty of moral codes to guide your actions, in case you've been living the unexamined life up to now.  The nice thing is that most of these would come up with the same answers to all of your common moral problems.  The basic rule of life, "do unto others as you would have them do to you," has been independently invented more than once, and it works pretty well.  Do it because you recognize in them the same feelings that mean so much to you.  Do it because you will benefit from living in a society that has strong moral standards.  Do it because you love them.  Do you really need a more complicated reason than that?

(The above post owes a lot to this one: The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick.)

Thursday, August 6, 2015


Recently I had to stop at a train crossing to let a freight train pass by.  As I watched it go, car after car, I thought, "I will never see the whole train at once.  But by using my memory and imagination, I can estimate the length of the train by constructing a mental model of it from all the cars I've seen."

That's pretty much how time works.  The past and future don't exist; you construct them in your mind.  Your life is a long string of moments, and all you can sense is the moment you're in, but you can think of your life as a unified whole.  Time is the dimension we can perceive, but not travel in -- or at least, only in one direction and speed.

It could also be compared to the pier-glass in The Gift of the Magi: "A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks."  So you know who you are, because you can put together all the moments you can remember.

It's just weird, you know?  You'd think, living with this reality every day, it would stop seeming weird to me, but it never does.

For instance: 1998 me is not really the same as 2015 me.   When I read my old journals, I'm just puzzled.  Would I get along well with her today?  Would she be proud of me?  Which one of us is right?  Heck, I can't even get a tattoo, because I would hate to do that to future-me if it turns out she doesn't like it.

But moment to moment, I feel like the same person.  There was no moment where the kid me died and the adult me was born.  And I certainly act like it's all the same me -- I apologize for things past-me did, and I carefully set up rewards for future-me by passing up advantages for present-me.

To get weirder, I think of other people I know.  If I could meet my mother at 29, would I be friends with her?  If could be five years old and play with Marko, would I understand him better than I do today?  I look at pictures of my husband at eight years old and my brain skitters off the rails.  Would I have liked him when I was eight?  Maybe, maybe not.  I think we met each other at the exact right time.

Perhaps it's wrong to imagine "myself" as a snapshot of myself in the moment, the feelings and preferences that I have today.  Maybe "myself" is really a thread throughout time, the choices I've made that have constructed myself into what I am today, and will be in the future.  Perhaps it is impossible to say who I am until I'm dead, and the whole of my life is available for evaluation.

I don't believe time travel is possible, not like in the movies.  Time is nothing more than the measurement of change, and it always goes in the direction of causality.  But shows about time travel definitely make me think.  Like the romance of two people going in opposite directions in time (present in more than one work of fiction) -- it's one of the saddest things I can imagine.  Because what is better, when you're in love, than to share time together?  Both John and I have changed so much since we met, I am not sure either of us would have picked the other if we knew what we'd be like in ten years.  But it's okay because we've changed in compatible directions.  I hope we continue to change together.

Time makes me sad.  Every spring I feel the urgent need to go look at cherry blossoms, and every year when they fall, I feel nostalgic.  There's a year of blossoms, gone.  I know I looked at them, and yet I feel I can't possibly have looked at them enough.  I should have looked at them longer.

And the kids -- every time I look around, they are older.  When did that even happen?  I feel like I must have not been paying attention, I must have missed it, but I pay attention every day!  I resolve to take more pictures, to write in my journal more, as if to bottle up the time that is slipping through my fingers every day.

Sometimes my life feels like a dish of ice cream.  I sit down to eat the ice cream, but then I get distracted, and when I look down I find half of it is gone and I hardly tasted it.  I resolve to pay more attention to the rest -- but somehow I get distracted again!  There's so much of life to live, so much to pay attention to, it always feels like you missed something.

I have always been very attached to places.  I don't know why that is.  I miss hotel rooms I stayed in, views I once looked at.  I think a part of it is a feeling that as long as the place still exists, maybe I could go back there and relive those moments.  I certainly feel that way when I go back to my alma mater and wander around campus -- it brings me right back to those years, and the way John and I fell in love there, so very slowly that I don't remember all the details anymore.  But it winds up being disappointing, because the place changes, the people I knew are gone, and my memory leaves out so much.

When the place is gone, it's worse.  My grandparents' cabin, which was one of my favorite places growing up, and where John and I spent our honeymoon, has been sold.  My childhood home was sold, and I think my favorite tree is gone.  But I comfort myself by storing up these places in my memory.  I remember every detail of those places, and as I mentally walk through the rooms, I see moments of the past.  Swimming with my great-grandfather, helping Grampy mix cement for the stone wall, snuggling up in a blanket with my cousin to watch a meteor shower.  I have it all stored up.  I can go back.

And yet there's never enough time.  Twenty more years with my children is not enough time.  Fifty more years with my husband is not enough time.  I can't relive my first twenty-nine years without missing out on today.  This moment when I'm alive, right now -- there are so many important things I could be doing with it!  I could play with my kids, I could write to a friend, I could be washing that huge pile of dishes.  But any choice I make takes away the other options.  And frantically chasing experiences might not be the best use of my time, either.

I'm not one to try to see it all, to try to hit everything on a bucket list.  I'd rather live slow, smell the flowers, try to go deep into a single place and a few special people.  I feel like you can go more deeply into time if you don't travel a lot in space.  You can see the cherry blossoms again every year, watch children grow before your eyes.  In the massive scale of time, our lives are very short.  But the massive scale of time is a figment of the imagination -- we can't experience it.  And in our human scale, the scale with which we experience life, time seems to pass at the right pace -- fast and slow, in its own kind of rhythm.  I just know it's disrespectful to time to wish it away, to try to rush past.  I've done too much of that in my life.  I want to sink deep into the moment, to capture what I can before it fades, and to allow it to transform me into the person I will be tomorrow.
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