Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Just Get Married? :-o

Part four of four posts, based on a conversation with Mark Miloscia, Catholic Lobbyist for WA state legislature. Part one, part two and part three.

I asked him what he thought we should do about it. He looked at me as if I had asked a question to which the answer was obvious and said, "Get married." I appreciate the simplicity and directness of that answer, but I pressed him further. Given the fact that we live in a society that, for whatever reason, young men are not motivated to seek out marriage, I asked if he reccomended that we just get married out of a sense of duty. He answered unequivocally, "Yes."

I can agree with Mark in two points: I agree that marriage is a great good. For some people it may even be the greatest good this life has to offer, but for all it is a noble and worthy vocation. I can also agree that we are experiencing a shortage of Catholic marriages and that more Catholic young people should probably be pursuing marriage.

The streets having led on as they do, I am now come to the "overwhelming question."

What do we do about it. Mark's answer was one of childlike simplicity. "Just get married!" He even raised his eyebrows, like a ten-year old asking "Why aren't you married? I thought all grownup people got married."

From Shakespeare's dictum that the "path of true love never did run smooth," (at least I think that was the Bard, but I could be wrong) to the present day, it seems that that simple proposition "Just get married," has become fraught with complications. I notice that the ones who regard it with that childlike simplicity are either children for whom it is nothing more than a fuzzy imagination, or older people who have long since chosen their vocation, committed to it, lived with it, endured it, fallen out of love with it, all but given up on it, perhaps, but in the end stayed true to that commitment. From that perspective of a certain amount of security in their choices, even if it is only the security of having so much invested, no doubt it does seem like a simple choice.

One of my pet projects has always been trying to imagine everything from everyone else's point of view. I can see how, with a lifetime invested in living the marriage, all the decisions leading up to it might seem like not worthy of so much fuss. It's almost as if they say, "Mercy, child! You think this is stressful? You ain't seen nothing yet!"

An analogy would be the way I view basic trainees. I went through basic more than ten years ago. Since then I have been through multiple deployments, Sapper School, years of regular army training, Special Forces training, schools and places where a good day was worse than anything Basic Training had to offer. It is easy for me to look at the basic trainees and laugh with a certain superior attitude and say, "Awww! Did the big scary Drill Sergeant yell at you? Just wait until you get into the real army!" But I can't do it. I still remember what it was like. I was terrified. I was alone and isolated, I didn't like or trust my fellow soldiers and they didn't like me. We learned to get along but I had no real friends. To this day I do not like yelling, I don't like calling people names or hearing people called names. There is a certain irony in the fact that I practice killing people on a regular basis, but sarcasm shivers me to my very soul.

To the people in the midst of discernment it is a very real cross. It has to be. I didn't wake up one morning in the middle of Camp McCall North Carolina and find myself training to be a Green Beret. I had to go through everything that led up to it, and struggle and feel small and pitiful, and want to quit a million times. Of course to a Green Beret my little struggles would look small. But then again, I was small, and those struggles were making me bigger.

Mark's idea "Just get married," kind of appeals to me. That is, he appeals to duty, and I like duty. Duty is solid. Duty is not complicated. Just figure out what it is and the rest is simple. Everything is always simpler when you no longer have to worry about what or whether, but only how.

On the other hand, most people don't have that attitude, and I am not sure it is a correct one in regards to marriage. There is something to be said for doing the right thing, regardless of how you feel about it, but, as a reader reminded me in a post a few months ago, no woman wants to feel like she is a chore. The problem is at its root a problem of desire. Perhaps getting married out of a sense of duty is better than not getting married at all, and perhaps it is not. The problem runs deeper. The very fact that we are discussing what should be the most natural and desirable thing in the world as a duty, that in itself is evidence of a problem.

There are two answers to that. The first and simplest is that all we need is to be wakened. Most guys will probably find that it is pretty natural and even fun, being in love. Like when we were little and my older brother didn't want to do anything with the family on the weekends because he was a teenager. He would whine and moan about it, but once we got going he would get into it, and by the end he would be having more fun than anyone. I suspect that all those Catholic guys out there who, for whatever reason, just don't feel like dating, would probably find themselves enjoying it if they once got into it.

(Incidentally I also expect they would find themselves hating it often enough. Being in a relationship is hard work. It requires you to get up off the couch, stop playing WOW and pick up the phone and call someone, schedule activities and actually honor those commitments. Since this is a relationship with a view to marriage, it reuires you to get to know the person, pray with her, and ultimately to make a choice concerning her. It requires inventiveness, attention, commitment, sacrifice, and whole host of other bloody uncomfortable things. On the whole, video games are a lot easier. So is porn. So is hanging out with the bros (they don't give you hell if you don't call everyday.) Almost anything is easier. But that is not the way to holiness. For something that is handed out as free gift, holiness sure does take a lot of work.)

The second answer to the problem of desire (two paragraphs up, if my parenthetical paragraph distracted you. [I am noticing I have a thing for parenthetical phrases]) is much more complex. In speaking of rekindling a desire and passion for marriage as a vocation on a serious cultural level we are getting into a problem too broad for the tail end of an already overly long blog post, and too in depth for my powers of analysis at 9:40 PM, even after two beers. (They weren't really great beers. Not bad, but not spectacular. For spectacular blogging I reccomend spectacular beer.)

Individual choices. That's what interests me right now, and so that is what I will stick to for now. Goodnight, Y'all.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


Part three of four posts, based on a conversation with Mark Miloscia, Catholic Lobbyist for WA state legislature. Part one, part two, and part four.

I challenged his assumption we are all called either to the clergy/religious life or to the married life, and he acknowledged that there were exceptions to the general rule, but insisted that for most people marriage was the path to holiness. "That is the only way we learn how to love. I could have been more blunt about it. I could have gone around the room and asked every individual person, 'Why aren't you married? Why aren't you married?' But everyone needs to be if they are not called to the religious life."

The question of vocation is one I have written about before. I have thought about it a great deal for the last ten years or so, but always trying to make sure that, even in the midst of seeminly endless discernment I was at least trying to do something worthwhile.

For Catholics the typical options are:
1) The priesthood or religious life (which includes celibacy).
2) Marriage, family, children etc.

For Mark, these are the only two options, (with a few rare and grudging exceptions) and most people will be called to the married life. He approached the subject in conversation with a refreshing directness and firmness of choice reminiscent of a time with fewer options. When he grew up, perpetual singlehood was simply not a common choice.

Whereas in Mark's day "discernment" was almost an unheard of concept, in our day it is expected of every good Catholic girl and boy. Why? We as a generation, we young adults, have been given more options than any other generation. Careers are open to us, dreams, aspirations, hopes, nothing is out of our reach it seems. We have been given so much! From my experience most of the Catholic young people I know who take their faith seriously at all have a strong sense that much has been given us and much will be expected from us. We want to dare and do great things, but at the same time we also want the comfort of home and relationships. We have so many possibilities, but the very surplus of possibilities seems to have a paralyzing effect on us. We are a lot like stem cells, full of potential. However, the only way to realize that potential is to differentiate, become one thing or the other, giving up all other possibilities.

I think, as a response to the lack of priests and nuns that has plagued the Church for the last thirty or forty years, parents, parish staff, youth ministers and everyone else in authority has been pushing the idea of discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. Sometimes it seems that marriage is veiwed as almost a second-rate vocation, for those who can't hack it alone. None of those who encouraged the young people in their care would ever say so, or even think it, but the effect is measurable. It is seen in that nagging feeling so many young people experience that we should be doing more, something better. The emphasis is on doing things for God, visible things.

I like Mark's idea that marriage is the only way most of us will learn to love. It counteracts the idea that holiness can be seized by doing great deeds. It does not deny the great deeds done by great Saints, like Mother Teresa. Instead, it acknowledges the true source of those great deeds. She did not become holy because she did great things. She did great things because she became holy. She became holy because she did little things with great love.

I cannot agree that marriage is the only path to holiness for most people. I believe it is the ideal path for most people, but, society being what it is, I have to acknowledge that some people will never find themselves on that path. Nevertheless, they will still find their way to holiness if they desire it. Some people, because of the wounds they have suffered growing up or in previous relationships simply do not have the capacity to live in a loving, respectful, human relationship. Others simply lack the desire, which is certainly a crippling emotional defect (not to be confused with an overabundance of desire for something greater, which is a great grace.)

The answer, I think, is to remember that marriage is not the end, it is only the means to the end, which is preparation for heaven. Heaven is relationship with God and with all other people in Heaven, and that relationship will be closer and more intimate than any relationship on earth ever could be. The purpose of marriage in this life is as a sort of purgatory, to draw the person out of himself and teach him to surrender his own wants and needs for someone else, constantly, day in and day out, in sickness and health, in richness and poverty. The purpose of the celibate life is to learn to let go of all temporal goods, including relationships with other people, for the sake of a deeper relationship with God. Both cramp our style. Both are necessary aspects of preparing for heaven, and whichever one we don't have time for on earth, we will make up in purgatory.

So this is my principle, for now (until I learn more and revise it again.) Live life so as to love God and love your neighbor. Life is in time and therefore I cannot love both with totality yet. I can only love one at a time, and I must choose one thing and follow that with all the strength God gives me. True, I will not learn some things that I would have learned had I gone the other way, but by God's mercy I can finish the rest of my education in purgatory.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Why the Men are not Getting Married

Part two of four posts, based on a conversation with Mark Miloscia, Catholic Lobbyist for WA state legislature. Part one, part three, and part four.

1) I was specifically interested in his ideas on underlying causes for the dearth of marriages. He didn't have much idea as to the why of it, not on the level of social dynamics, which is what I was interested in. He went straight to the underlying cause: "We live in a selfish and individualistic society. It's all about sex, drugs and rock-n-roll." He left me to fill in the blanks for myself.

It's easy enough to see how marriage just isn't a priority for those living the casual sex, one-night stand, hookup cultural lifestyle. Marriage intrinsically involves sacrifice, commitment, responsibility, and these are not qualities exercised by the hook-up culture. Those who live in that culture find themselves ill-prepared to desire marriage, and ill-prepared to maintain it if they do get married.

For those who aren't in the hookup scene, but are cohabitating or having sex before marriage, the lack of marriage is also easy to account for. Why would you take the formal step, make that formal commitment, if you are getting all the benefits without all the responsibilities of it? In a non-married relationship there is always the walk-off option. No cost, no lawyers, no courts. Child support, of course, but thats what we have contraception for.

No, the lack of marriage in society at large is not puzzling at all. The demographic I was thinking about when I asked the question was the Catholic Young Adult scene, since that is my demographic and it was a Catholic Young Adult group that hosted the talk. These young folks are not sleeping around, not co-habitating, living out the Church's sexual morality, sometimes to an extreme extent. Modesty is practiced by the women, and respectful talk and behavior by the men. There is mutual respect, strong friendship, fellowship, community. There is just very little dating. Very few of my friends my own age are in marriage track relationships. Those who are dating are likely to date for years without getting engaged.


I am not really qualified to comment on the women. It seems to me most would like to be married and are willing to be pursued and won. There are exceptions, of course, and the world being what it is, most women have their share of baggage, either from families, previous relationships, or both. Some few cannot seem to decide whether they are called to marriage or not, but that issue cuts across gender lines among the most devout young people these days.

The men, on the other hand, I can take some guesses at:

  • Financial climate: It is hard enough for a young man to support himself in our current economic climate, especially if he is going to college, or has no degree. The blue collar jobs that once kept America strong are not what they used to be. The worker has become a means of production and the cheapest workers all live in China. The lack of jobs means a lack of money. Men are far less likely to pursue marriage when they don't feel financially stable.
  • Entertainment culture: Video games, facebook, youtube, etc. All of these are useful and enjoyable pastimes, but they can be traps. It is very possible for a young man to use facebook, or comments on a blog or video channel, or twitter followers as a substitute for relationships. They fill the immediate craving, lessening any sense of urgency to pursue a real relationship, but in the long run they do not satisfy the real longing of the human heart for communion. Not that any human relationship can, but a real relationship with a real person is a means to learning to love, which is the perequisite for that ultimately satisfying relationship.
  • Pornography: It is an open secret that internet pornography is the plague of Christian manhood. Around the American Catholic Church and the Protestant churches very few men have never seen pornography, and far too many have viewed it deliberately and habitually. It is an issue that is too big to cover here, but I consider pornography to be a huge discouragement to marriage for two reasons: 1) It is an outlet for the sexual instinct that should be directing men towards marriage. It is not satisfying, and ultimately it frustrates and stunts the drive it professes to fulfill, but in the short term a man without that sexual tension driving him to seek a lawful outlet is not likely to seek out marriage. 2) It establishes an unreasonable standard of sexual attractiveness. No woman can hope to look like an airbrushed model, and shouldn't bother trying. A porno star never argues, never has her own opinions, and never suffers from PMS. The man who lives on a steady diet of such unreality will lose his ability to fall in love with a real woman. Even if he does "settle" for someone who is not quite as hot as the women on the computer screen, even if he falls in love with her personality or her character, he is still splitting himself. He is splitting the sexual desire from the personal desire and it will bear rotten fruit later on. So, whether porn use completely stifles his desire for marriage, or merely delays him in acting on it, I still classify it as a severe impediment to Catholic Marriage.
  • Lack of Example: We are all, to some extent, products of our culture. Our culture does not value marriage. It values the "bro-life." Unbridled freedom from responsibility, self-actuation, self, self, self is our cultural idol. Guys who get married and work 9-5 and drive a minivan are not cool. They don't have big-screen TV's, they don't drive fast cars, they don't stay out late anymore. They are not the ones that young men want to emulate. They don't make marriage look fun. (No offense meant to the many wonderful married men I know. I am just generalizing.) This cultural reality bleeds over into the Church. Even though we may agree in theory that marriage is a worthy goal for "someday" the single life is fun, free of responsibility, and has its own business. We let the urgent override the important.
  • Within the Church there is the phenomenon of endless "discernment." To which I can only say that, even if there is a "right" and "wrong" decision (which I am not convinced of), the worst possible decision is no decision. Rather like the three servants in Matthew 25:14-30. One made more than the other, but the only one who was punished was the one who did nothing with what he had been given.
  • And of course we must not forget the individual story. Each particular man has his own background and his own call. Some men may very well be called to do some work for God which is their true vocation, and they are not able to marry. For that they are responsible to explain themselves to no one but God.
This is not meant to be an all inclusive list. It is just my continuing thoughts.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Catholic Marriage: the New Vocation Crisis?

Part One of a series of four posts. Part two, part three and part four.

I wrote about this before, and have put more thought into it since, but the idea was brought strongly before my mind last tuesday night at a talk I went to. Here in the Archdiocese of Seattle, the Office of Young Adult Ministries puts on a talk series called "Wine and Wisdom" several times a year. The premise is a lot like "Theology on Tap" except that it is specifically geared towards young adults. Last Tuesday's speaker was Mark Miloscia, a former Representative in WA state legislature, and now a Catholic lobbyist. He hit on a number of themes, including the need for evangelization, the need for political activism, and the need for solidarity among Catholics in the political spere. However, one of his most pointed themes was on the need for Catholic marriages. He couched it in much the same language that is used of the dearth of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. He even asked how many of us were married and when only one person raised her hand (the mother of one of our college kids) the look on his face was one of bewilderment. I could almost hear him thinking, "Wow! Do I put them on the spot or just let it go?" He let it go, mostly.

I asked him more about it after the talk, and came up with three major points I want to examine more closely:

1) I was specifically interested in his ideas on underlying causes. He didn't have much idea as to the why of it, not on the level of social dynamics, which is what I was interested in. He went straight to the underlying cause: "We live in a selfish and individualistic society. It's all about sex, drugs and rock-n-roll." He left me to fill in the blanks for myself.

2) I challenged his assumption we are all called either to the clergy/religious life or to the married life, and he acknowledged that there were exceptions to the general rule, but insisted that for most people marriage was the path to holiness. "That is the only way we learn how to love. I could have been more blunt about it. I could have gone around the room and asked every individual person, 'Why aren't you married? Why aren't you married?' But everyone needs to be if they are not called to the religious life."

3) I asked him what he thought we should do about it. He looked at me as if I had asked a question to which the answer was obvious and said, "Get married." I appreciate the simplicity and directness of that answer, but pressed him further. Given the fact that we live in a society that, for whatever reason, young men are not motivated to seek out marriage, I asked if he reccomended that we just get married out of a sense of duty. He answered unequivocally, "Yes."

I want to take a bit of a closer look at each one of these in subsequent posts.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Ignitum Today Post

I posted today over at ignitumtoday, so I will not have a blog on this sight. I do have a bunch of posts lined up for this week, so stay tuned.

In other news, my gun-control-post has gotten over 750 hits since this morning, which is an overwhelming all time record. Ironic. The one topic I am not very interested in and which I hardly ever talk about draws more traffic than my five next most-popular put together. It just goes to show you never can tell with blogs.

Monday, January 14, 2013

My Gun Control Post

Gun Control is a frequent topic of discussion these days it seems. The recent shooting in Connecticut and the readiness of politicians and lobbyists to seize upon these events as impetus for their own agendas all but guarantees that it will be thrust upon us, and we, being the creatures of the media that we are, cannot help but discuss it.

I am not a politician. Making policies is not my job, neither is enforcing them. I dislike getting involved in political debates, mostly because most people who debate politics are not speaking original thoughts, or even thoughts at all. That which passes for debate these days is generally little more than repetition of party slogans. Party slogans are, by their very nature, divisive, polarizing, and unamenable to compromise or an understanding of the opponent's views. Human debate cannot be reduced to sound bites and it seems most Americans cannot think in anything but sound bites.

The gun control debate seems to me to be divided between a small minority of vocal activists on extreme ends of the spectrum. On the extreme liberal end is the rhetoric of fear, exemplified by articles such as this one. These are people who do not understand guns, do not know how to use them, know nothing about them except what they have seen in movies, and are unwilling to learn. On the extreme conservative end are the gun manufacturers, sellers, and to a lesser extent, the enthusiasts who do not want any government control on weapons whatsoever. If they want to own machineguns and cannons, well, that's their constitutional right!

As for myself, being the libertarian that I am, I tend (tend mind you, not reside) towards the more conservative side. I believe in minimal government and minimal governmental control of day to day life, and so it is no surprise that I resent the government telling me what kinds of guns I can and can't own. I think of the fact that this country was settled from one end to the other by grown men and women who carried their own weapons, enforced their own laws, built their own homes, earned their own living by the sweat of their brows, defended themselves against marauders by their own wits and courage, and did not rely on the government to do anything for them that they could do for themselves. It sort of rubs me the wrong way to see that we Americans have, to some extent, chosen to relinquish our responsibilities as citizens, and chosen instead to be subjects, and this extends far beyond the gun control debate. The welfare state falls prey to the same criticism on an even greater level, as does socialized healthcare.

That being said, I do not ignore the benefits that come from having a strong government. Even the fact that I can drive from Puyallup to Lacey in 35 minutes, a distance of nearly 30 miles, would be impossible without a government that levied taxes and built roads. I am also acutely aware that the reason the drivers going from Lacey to Puyallup are doing so in their lane and not in mine is that a government has standardized driving and enforces the rules of the road. Whenever I drive my car out of my driveway I am interacting with other citizens, with potentially life shattering consequences, and those interactions are (rightly) coordinated by the government. If the government didn't do it, (as is common in Asia) the citizens would find a way to do it themselves with greater or lesser degrees of messiness.

I like to consider myself a liberally educated conservative. I can appreciate benefits of the status quo, while maintaining the ability to examine it critically and independently. I can drive on the right side of the road and at the speed limit as long as things are the way they normally are, but in an emergency I can scrap those conventions and drive off road, or as fast as I need to in order to survive. This, I think is the mentality we need in regard to guns.

Since the whole debate is too large to go into here, I am going to limit my discussion to the issue of concealed weapon carry only. For an explanation of the "Assault Weapons" ban issue that rips that concept into shreds far more effectively than I ever could, go here.

In America we have a legal concept called the "Concealed Carry Permit." It is a piece of paper issued by the state of residence licensing the holder to carry a pistol in such a manner as to be concealed from view. Each state determines its own requirements as far as what training (if any) is mandatory, where a pistol can be carried (federal offices are always off limits) and when and where and how it can be used. Some states hand out permits like candy. All you have to do is apply and as long as you don't have a criminal or mental health record you will get it in 4-6 weeks. Other states allow "open carry" (carrying a pistol in plain view) without a license. Some states (including my home state of NY) do not allow anyone even to own a pistol without a permit, and permits are routinely difficult to acquire, especially for men. In most states it is illegal to carry in schools, banks, places of worship, or any establishment that serves alcohol. Most shootings in America, not surprisingly, take place in schools, banks, and places of worship. Why? Because from the point of view of a bad guy, these places offer a target rich environment with almost zero chance of meeting armed resistance.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not the government has any constitutional right to issue these licenses (it's not an issue I am qualified to comment on) I want to examine the idea of concealed carry from the point of view of personal responsibility, rather than from the point of view of Governmental policy, mostly because I have no influence on government policy, but I can influence individuals in the exercise of their own personal responsibility.

I carry. When I am outside the house in civilian clothes I am 90% likely to have a gun. I carry a gun for the same reason I carry an emergency medical kit behind the passenger seat of my truck. I have been trained in the use of both of these things. I have the power to save lives in an emergency, and therefore, as far as I am concerned I have a responsibility to do so, and to take reasonable steps to ensure that I am able to do so. I am also not your average joe. I have dedicated my adult life to such training, albeit with a different focus. What about the typical citizen who does not have any such training? Should he be allowed to carry a pistol?

This is why personal responsibility is so important. I have no problem with any person carrying a pistol, so long as they are willing to accept the responsibility that entails. If you want to own a gun you should, at a minimum, know how to load it and fire it safely and accurately, and then clear it and store it safely. You should know the three rules of gun safety backwards and forwards and upside down. This goes for any gun, from an AR-15 to Grandpappy's old hunting rifle.

If you want to carry a pistol around other people, with the intent of using it for self-defense, then you need to go beyond that. You need to increase your range time and learn some basic tactical shooting. In short you need to have a realistic assessment of your ability to engage a target accurately under stress with possible non-hostiles all around. Can I get my breathing under control? Can I make rational decisions under stress? Can I hit my target reliably at five feet when I am shaking and sweating bullets? Ten feet? Fifteen feet? Twenty? Twenty five? What if there are innocent people nearby? How close to them can I safely shoot? Can I remember to check what is behind my target?

Guns kill. Sometimes they kill animals, and sometimes people. That is what they are designed to do, and ignoring that fact does no one any good. Can I take a human life? Can I make moral decisions about whether it is right to kill someone? Can I tell when violence is justified and when it isn't? Am I carrying in order to protect, or in order to give myself a false sense of security or power? (You see, carrying a gun is not a physical or tactical matter only. It is even more deeply a moral matter, concerning the health of your very soul.)

These are questions you need to face before you start carrying a gun on the street. They are not questions the government can ask for you. They are not covered in any CCP course. You, and you alone, bear the responsibility for your answers, and any actions you may take with a gun. This is why, from my perspective, Governmental regulation is superfluous, and only complicates things. My own personal training program and moral and ethical reasoning is much more in depth and responsive than any law or regulation could ever be.

This is personal responsibility.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Ephesians 5:22 and Swing Dancing

I am returning in this post to the man/woman leadership/submission debate. I spoke about it a good deal in both of my books, and some of my blogs from years ago (mostly on my old blog which is long since deactivated.) I haven’t re-visited that dynamic in a while. There are a lot of topics like that which I used to speak and write about constantly in my early twenties, that I simply don’t put much emphasis on anymore, e.g. modesty, Theology of the Body, the Way of the Warrior, to name a few. The reason I don’t get into them much these days is not because I think they are no longer important, but because I spent years thinking them through from every angle I could find, and came to a pretty good working understanding of them. Now I live based on that understanding, and when I come up with something new I revise it, but most of my thinking is devoted to other things.
The reason I am returning to this topic for one post is because I ran across a comment on another blog to the effect that one of the problems faced by Catholic men in seeking out wives was the need to find “faithful and submissive” women. I found it a touch irritating, but mostly amusing. It’s the sort of thing you would expect from someone who simply did not understand the whole leadership dynamic. It reminded me of grumpy old men at a swing dance, and a particular story involving a very dear friend of mine:
I enjoy swing dancing from time to time. I am not particularly good at it, mostly because it isn’t something people do very often these days, and so I haven’t had much practice, but it is fun when I do get the chance. Last September I was on leave back on the East Coast and I did go swing dancing with a group of friends. One of those friends is a lovely young lady who works at a school for special needs children. She is black, bubbly, sassy, and very often dressed in purple, and never afraid to speak her mind. During the evening she was dancing with one of the regulars, a slightly older gentleman, who apparently was quite skillful and knew a lot of moves, but apparently was not used to dancing with someone with a personality because, not thirty seconds into the dance, he told her, “Look, I can tell you are a feisty one, but if you want to swing dance you need to learn to follow.”
To which my friend shot back, “Well, maybe you should learn to lead with some authority!” Okay, so sometimes she gets more than a little sassy.
Every woman I have ever danced with (not a great number, I could probably count them without taking more than one shoe off) has been a different dancer. This particular friend had a very physical, almost athletic style of dancing. I never had a problem getting her to follow my lead, but it had to be a very firm lead. She didn’t like that finger-tips only grip, she liked a firm, solid grip, so that she could spin out and away as fast and as hard as she liked, confident that I would not lose her hand and let her go flying across the room (I don’t know what that move is called. I call it the “Yo-yo.”) When she spun back in she liked to know that I was going to catch her, not just get out of the way. She would dip or jump without fear, as long as she could feel that I had a solid hold and wasn’t going to drop her on her head.
Other dancers, some of my cousins, for instance, would have been scared away by such “roughness.” One cousin in particular prefers to have just the lightest grip possible, just thumb and forefinger on her palm. She doesn’t like being dragged through the moves, or being tossed around the ballroom. The slightest movement of my hand was enough to signal to her what we were doing, and then she would flow through it. I still had to lead with decision, because changing your mind in the middle of a move is just awkward for everyone involved, but there was no place for the firmness that my other friend enjoyed.
Dancing at my brother’s wedding recently I came across another problem I had never seen before. I learned to dance in South Carolina and Virginia, and my brother (not the getting-married one, a different one) and his friends had learned to dance in the Northeast. Different styles of swing, different moves, and slightly different leads, not to mention vastly different experience levels, meant that often it was like speaking a different language.
In all of these different situations I had the same job. If you are going to swing dance, as a guy, you have to learn how to lead. You can fudge it for a bit, and most girls are not going to storm off in a huff, but if you want to have more than one dance per girl, you have to learn to lead. This is not simply a matter of learning the steps and the moves. You can get through most songs with a handful of moves and some confidence. You don’t even need real confidence. Fake confidence will do the trick as often as not, as long as the girl has a sense of humor. What you absolutely must learn is leadership. Moves do not make leadership. The older, extremely experienced dancer who told my friend she needed to learn how to follow knew some moves. His red paisley spats probably knew more moves than I ever will, but that did not enable him. It actually hindered him from enjoying a dance with a great lady. He knew how things were supposed to go, and was not prepared to listen to her. She was doing it wrong, and he felt he had to educate her. She declined to be educated by him and that was that.
What he could have done had he perhaps known less about dancing and more about dancing with people, was listen to her. Feel her out. Get to know her style, figure out how she liked to be led, what she was comfortable with, and adapt himself to her preferences. Perhaps be willing to accept a dance that was not as artistic as he was used to, a little imperfection of style, or even a lot of imperfection and roughness, in the interests of sharing a dance with her. I guarantee if he had stepped up his game and tried to match her preferences, he would have found her making equal efforts to adapt to him. Perhaps it would have been worse dancing, but it would have been better leadership.
Sure, that one dance isn’t going to be as smooth and artsy as it could be if it were someone whose style perfectly matched his, or if he had danced with her regularly for a year or two and they had gotten used to each other. Searching out that “perfect” human relationship too often devolves into a single-minded, ruthless pursuit of one person’s private idea of what perfection ought to be, which is always flawed. Perfection is impossible in this life, and even harmony is achieved slowly and patiently, by listening far more than by speaking. That is real leadership.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"Protecting" the Kids From Dating

Part Two in a series on emotional modesty. Part one is here.

The very first line of the CD's very first post struck a chord.
The really old Italian priest at the Latin Mass chapel I attend when on the West Coast gave a sermon once about how parents shouldn't discourage their teenagers from having boyfriends and girlfriends. I thought it was pretty funny, and it didn't occur to me until about five minutes ago that maybe he was talking about that whole emotional chastity movement.

 When I read that paragraph I immediately thought of two concrete examples of this sort of idea taken to extremes. A family that I know quite well did not let their children date at all in their teen years. They were tacitly encouraged to be attracted to movie stars, fictional characters, etc. but crushes on other teenagers were implicitly forbidden. The girls, even into their twenties, were convinced that it was a mortal sin to like a guy, unless he liked them first.

In another family I know, the 21 year old son is still not allowed to drive female friends home by himself. There must be someone else in the car with them as chaperone.

The rationale, such as it is, behind both of these attitudes seems to me to be well-intentioned, at least on the most basic level. The parents grew up continually exposed to sex, drugs and rock-n-roll in their teen years, and so have a very acute awareness of the dangers of such temptations. They desire to protect their children from these temptations, so they make rules that perhaps they wish they had kept when they were young. They draw lines, thinking that as long as their children do not cross those lines they cannot be drawn into sin.

Unfortunately this approach is not true to human nature. There are a couple of major flaws in it:

1)    First, it gives the wrong impression. It assumes that boys and girls cannot behave when they are alone together, and therefore must constantly be under supervision. Often there is an unstated emphasis on the boy in the situation, as if the girl needs to be protected from his boyish nature, and he needs to be protected from himself. This is a terrible assumption. Not only is it unjust, and it has something of the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is just as wicked and dishonest as the worldly version of manhood that tells boys that they need to lay as many girls as possible to be a man, and it has the same root, and the same effect. The root is the assumption that “That’s just how men are,” and “Boys will be boys.” The effect is to give men the impression that we are helpless slaves of our biology, and consequently we should either despair of ever being pure, or just laugh off our sins as simply “boys being boys.”

2)    Second and more foundationally, we were not put on this earth to avoid sin. We were put on this earth to know, love and serve God and our neighbor. This means that we must live. Sinlessness is not a requirement for entrance into Heaven. Love is. Avoidance of sin is a crabbed, stilted, pitiful imitation of the boundless energy, the joyous vitality, the fierce, unconcerned freedom of the pursuit of holiness. Sometimes simply avoiding sin is the best we can do. I admit that. I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t. However, categorically basing the raising of teenagers on the principle of merely avoiding sin is dangerous. It gives sin more power than it ought to have.

3)    In most societies prior to ours, teenagers of 16 or 17 were regarded as adults, and expected to behave as such. It is our society that keeps pushing the limits of adolescence further and further and further, by not requiring maturity of teenagers, then of highschoolers, then of college students, and now we do not even require maturity of grown men of thirty years old. My entire adult life has been spent as a leader in the military. Because I could keep my nose clean, I was put in charge of my peers right from the beginning, and told to keep their noses clean as well. I have over ten years of experience in leadership, and the one rule, the only thing I have learned with any certainty, is that people cannot be pushed into maturity. They can be pushed or coerced into meeting a standard, as long as that standard is mediocre enough, but no human being can be forced to mature. They can only be invited, and then allowed the chance to succeed or fail. In my experience, more often than not young people rise to the level of trust placed in them, but there are no guarantees. Sometimes people fail, and a leader must give them that opportunity. 

4)    As with anything having to do with people, you cannot fight nature and expect there to be no consequences. Teenagers are designed to be interested in the opposite sex. God made them that way. It is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. It draws people into relationship with each other. Does it also provide opportunity for temptation? Yes. But to quote Catholic blogger Seraphic Singles "Eros… is above everything else an impulse to escape the prison of one's own ego to connect with someone or something else." To hear a lot of Catholic speakers, writers and leaders on the subject, (and my younger self was guilty of this at, say, 15 years old) one would think that the burgeoning of human sexuality in the teen years was a bit of a mistake. A miscalculation on God’s part, if you will, which puts all of us in a devilish awkward position, what with having desires that can only be satisfied by marriage, and yet being too young to marry. Best thing to do is teach the kids to ignore those desires for relationship, lock them in a closet until your 21st birthday, and then let them out when they are mentally, emotionally, and financially ready for marriage.

There are consequences for stifling these budding romantic attractions. Most of the time it is done by making the kids feel that there is some sort of stigma attached to those feelings, or even that they are somehow dirty or bad. Whether the parents intend this or not, that can be the result.

I think what is needed is to recognize things for what they are. Here are three facts that I can think of off the top of my head which ought to be recognized:

1)    The truth is that teenagers are going to have crushes on other teenagers. If they are not that is probably not healthy. Something is very wrong when young men and women are not attracted to one another, or have no desire for relationship with each other.

2)    Teenage crushes are not permanent, nor are they necessarily very profound. This does not mean that they are not real. It is one thing to remind a teenage girl that her crush on a boy is not on the same level as the love Grandma and Grandpa have for each other. All kids need to be reminded of this, and the perspective is priceless. It is quite something else, however, to laugh at her feelings, or to make fun of them. Her feelings are real. She is really feeling them. They are probably immature, and perhaps a bit silly. Perhaps they are a lot silly, but they are the best she can feel for now. No one makes fun of a toddler for falling over while learning to walk. Why should we make fun of teenagers for bumbling clumsily about while learning to love?

3)    No one (except the teenagers themselves) expects teenage romances to be permanent. The kids are going to get their hearts broken. There is no point in deliberately courting heartbreak, but neither should parents be overly concerned with protecting their kids from it. We learn from heartbreak. It presents us with a choice, whether to grow or to shrink back into ourselves, and this choice is the meaning of our very lives.

I think all parents fear for their children. They think about their children falling in love with other children, and they see all the worst case scenarios: STD’s, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sin, and disgrace. They try to shield their children from these consequences by shielding them from the relationships that could be a temptation to them, without realizing that these relationships are also opportunity. We fear the possibility of failure, so we have a tendency to pass up opportunity for victory.

On a larger scale, that is why our culture is the way it is. We Christians are not going out and living and loving fearlessly. We are isolating ourselves in communes so that we will not be corrupted, rather than going out and carrying the gospel into the very teeth of the world.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Les Miserables: A Movie Review

So the movie version of Les Miserables has finally arrived! I am not as huge a Les Mis fanatic as some people I know, (my little sister is completely obsessed with the score) but I do know the story quite well. I listened to most of the book on audio as a kid, and vaguely leafed through the massive tome at least once. I own two movie versions (non-musical) and I have spent my fair share of time watching segments of the anniversary concerts on youtube, so I was pretty excited to see it. I was skeptical about the leads. I knew that Hugh Jackman had gotten his start in musical theater, but I didn’t know that Russel Crowe could even sing, and thus far I had not liked Anne Hathaway in any movie I had seen her in. Not that I couldn’t stand her, I just was completely unimpressed.

I did not see the movie right away. I watched it about a week after it came out, and then again less than a week later, and I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie.

I am not going to provide a synopsis of the story, only say that it follows the life and redemption of an ex-con and parole-breaker named Jean Valjean, as he struggles to live a good life in mid-revolutionary France, relentlessly pursued by his ex-guard Javert.

First, the actors:

Hugh Jackman, in my opinion, was a complete and total failure. His acting is fair to middling, unequal to the depth of character required to do justice to that part, his pitch is terrible, and he sings through his nose with a terrible faux vibrato throughout. The sung-dialogue sounds stilted and artificial, and the large musical numbers lack any semblance of vocal control. So the leading man was a huge strike against the movie. Fortunately the story is so beautiful and the rest of the acting and storytelling was so well done that they managed to carry a mediocre performance and in the end it did no harm.

Russel Crowe, as Valjean’s nemesis Javert, did slightly better. Again, acting and singing at the same time is not really his forte, so the sung dialogue was often painful to listen to. Javert’s biggest musical number is “Stars” in which he describes his vision of justice and vows to follow Valjean to the death if necessary to bring him back to prison. The director chose an interesting vehicle for the song, having him pacing back and forth on the edge of a balcony next to a giant stone eagle, overlooking the city of Paris, which was a powerful visual metaphor for his vision of law. There is no room in his worldview for deviation, sin, or human weakness. There is only the straight and narrow. Russel Crowe’s physical acting was perfect for the part, giving the impression of a bitter, dedicated, driven man, with a strong undercurrent of aggression. He is potentially a violent man, willing to kill without hesitation or remorse, simply because he believes so unflinchingly in the rightness of his cause. Unfortunately, Russel Crowe seemed to lack the fire the song seems to call for, and instead softly crooned most of it to the rooftops of a sleeping city. Other than that, I thought his performance was excellent and only got better as the movie continued.

I admit that I had very low expectations of Anne Hathaway as the prostitute Fantine. Honestly, I was pretty sure she would fall flat on her face. To my surprise and utter delight, she not only did not flop, she carried the part with perfect vocal and emotional pitch, from desperate factory worker, to destitute selling her hair and teeth to pay for her daughter’s medicine, to unwilling prostitute, to a woman on her deathbed, half crazy, delirious and emotionally shattered. Her reprise at the end (which I will not describe, if you haven’t seen it) was the most amazing and triumphant moment I have seen in a movie in a long time. Well done!

The odd thing is that the farther down the list of actors we go, the better they get. Samantha Barks appeared in the movie, reprising her stage role as Eponine, a street urchin who tragically falls in love with a revolutionary who barely notices that she exists. There is a definite incongruity between her look and the part. At one point in the movie her revolutionary love interest grips her arm with his hand, and the visual contrast is almost comical. That is a woman who works out! Not that her bicep is grotesquely huge, or even remotely masculine. She is, and looks like, a very fit woman in her mid to late twenties (I have no idea how old she actually is) not at all like a half starved street waif. Apart from that physical disparity, she played the role beautifully, constantly watching from the shadows, moving things behind the scenes, very much in love and totally unnoticed.

Eddie Redmayne (I have no idea who he is apart from this movie) played an excellent Marius. He captured perfectly the character of a naïve, idealistic, passionate and ultimately stupid revolutionary student. Likewise his friend and ringleader Enjolras was perfectly done. All fire and hot headed idealism, no patience and no common sense. Most of the best musical moments in the movie involved these two and their band of young idealists.

Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the criminal innkeepers, the Thenardiers, were equal parts revolting and comical, nauseating and hilarious. On the one hand they portray the vice, greed, and criminality endemic in the underworld of society. On the other hand they provide some much needed comic relief to what would otherwise be an overly emotional and dramatic story.

And of course, no character list would be complete without Gavroche. Played with childish bravado by Daniel Huttlestone, the little street boy with some serious mojo hangs out with the university students and becomes all too willingly sucked into their revolutionary plans.

Visually the movie was stunning. The sets were amazing, the physical acting and storytelling was thoughtful and meaningful throughout. I thought the editing was a little rushed at the very beginning, but there is a difference between a movie musical and a theater musical. In theater the audience is composed of either die hard musical fans or die hard Les Mis fans, and they will give you the time to tell the story. In a movie time is on a budget, and they had to get the story going before the audience lost interest, and at 157 minutes it is already pushing the attention span of many movie-goers. The pace was ironed out by the second half of the movie as the scope of the story unfolds and comes to its conclusion.

There has been some furor over moral content among Christian movie reviewers, particularly the immodesty and sexual content. Some have even gone so far as to say that Christians should not see it because of this. That, of course is too broad a topic for a movie review. Instead, let’s just talk about the movie itself.

Let’s be frank, here. This is a story about mid-19th century France, and the evils of that society form a huge part of the moral content of the story. Valjean walks a thin line between the strict, unbending legalism of Javert on the one hand and the vice and squalor that Javert seeks to keep in check on the other hand. The movie portrays that vice in a bit more gritty a fashion than we are used to see in a musical. (Oklahoma! this ain’t!) In the “Lovely Ladies” sequence prostitutes advertise their wares for the sailors on the docks, wearing low cut bodices and some suggestive movements. The lyrics of the song are suggestive, full of euphemism, but never explicit. Fantine, after being wrongfully fired from her job at a factory and struggling to make enough money to buy medicine for her daughter, sells her locket, then her hair, and then her teeth (the song represents the passage of days or even weeks in the book), and finally, with no other recourse allows the pimp and prostitutes to talk her into accepting a “customer.” No nudity is shown, and the scene is mercifully cut short but it still leaves the viewer feeling almost as sick and violated as Fantine herself feels; and that is the point. It is most certainly not appropriate for children, or even teenagers, but for adults I think it is great storytelling. It is an invitation to enter imaginatively (and in a very insulated fashion) into someone else’s pain and degradation. Instead of condemning her, as Javert does, or dragging her deeper as the other prostitutes do, or simply ignoring her as most of the world does, the story invites us to look at her as Valjean does, with mercy. He never minimizes the evil of her situation, but refuses to let her be taken to jail, and instead takes her to the hospital and pays for her care and pledges himself to protect her daughter as well.

This is in many ways the central moral decision of the story. It could have been hinted at, or glossed over in any number of ways, but that would have been to rob the story of its power and humanity.

The other major kerfuffle is about the “Master of the House,” scene, which depicts an inn full of dissolutes cavorting through their miserable existence aided by drink, sex and thievery. There is some cleavage and some suggestive movements, and a prostitute is briefly shown with a customer, (no nudity), all the while Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter sing and dance and rob their customers hand over fist. Is it grotesque? Yes. Is it funny? Yes. Again, this is a little bit grittier than you might expect from a musical, but still far, far from being a realistic portrayal of that kind of life. Perhaps the conservative viewers would prefer to see the degenerate low-life scum portrayed as being miserable, sick and reaping the just rewards of their sin, but that would be unrealistic. Criminals and degenerates are human too. They joke and sing, if only as a way to deal with the reality of their lives, and this is, above all, a story about human beings.

The story is a Christological one. Valjean, having himself been saved from hatred and misery by the mercy of one man, spends his life trying to live up to that burden by spending his time, energy, fortune, and ultimately his life for love of his neighbor. At the end of the movie, having paid a hundred times over for his petty crime and his neglect which indirectly contributed to Fantine being fired, still prays, “Forgive me my trespasses.” Other characters are shown leading him through his final moments and interceding for him before God. The overall message of the movie is overwhelmingly beautiful and redemptive and not only justifies, but even in some sense beatifies the ugliness that Valjean had to overcome. “To love another person, is to see the face of God.”

So in conclusion, despite the lead (realizing that that is big exception to make in a musical) and Russel Crowe’s rendition of “Stars,” the movie gets four out of five stars. I will definitely watch it again, probably when it comes out on DVD.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Re-Examining Emotional Modesty

Charming Disarray has started a series of posts on “Emotional Chastity” which I have been following since the first one appeared, and periodically going back to re-read. It is of great interest to me because I have written an entire book about modesty for women (a fact which I am sure does not recommend me to CD at all) and in it I actually spoke about emotional modesty; and also because I have written a book about manhood for young men, in which I posited a sort of emotional modesty for men.

Emotional modesty for women could very simply be defined as not sharing on an intimate emotional level, or allowing a man to share on such a level, unless he had openly declared his commitment to that relationship.

Emotional modesty for men could be defined as saying only what you mean, and no more. This means don’t act like you are pursuing a woman unless you do intend to commit to that relationship. I also discouraged the idea of dating without a clear intention of discerning marriage, and hence discouraged dating for young men who were not ready to get married, personally or financially.

Like all of my theories, they were formulated in response to a perceived problem. As I saw it, the women that I knew tended to be too ready to commit their hearts to relationships that very clearly weren’t going anywhere, because the guy was not committed at all. He, for his part, more often than not, was well content to let things go on, enjoying the attention and emotional (and/or physical) attachment, but apparently unable or unwilling to get tied down. That was the most common scenario that I saw, and so it was the scenario I wrote about. I was aware at the time that both theories could be taken too far and hence tried to balance them in my writings, but there is only so much you can do.

Three or four years later I am revisiting those theories, interested in finding the flaws. Surprisingly, I don’t find too many obvious flaws in formulation in the books. As I said, I was quite careful to balance out my theories with common sense. What I find, however, is that those theories play right into the hands of a certain attitude, which I have come to call “Fear Based Ethics.”

What is a “Fear Based Ethic?” It is an ethical proscription put forth out of fear of the possible consequences. I oppose it to “Love Based Ethics” which are embraced for love of the good that comes from them. A fear based ethic is, “You had better go to Mass on Sunday or you will go to hell.” A love based ethic would be, “I go to Mass on Sunday because I want to grow closer to God.” Currently (I am only 27 and my ideas are constantly under renovation) I am a bit suspicious of fear based ethics. They are suitable for two year olds, “Don’t run into the road or Daddy will spank you,” but hardly for adults. I recognize that sometimes a little fear of damnation is all that stands between myself and… well… damnation; However, I believe the ultimate goal is to move away from fear based ethics, and move towards love based ethics.

I recognize that fear of evil consequences is an inevitable component of any system of morals. The question is how much, and for how long, and how do we move to love?

It is not enough simply to avoid evil. We must learn to pursue the good with all our hearts. Even that is not quite love based. If I could write well enough, I could portray the good as it really is, and I the writer and you the reader would fall in love with that good, and be consumed with desire to pursue it. “Should” and “Want to” would be synonymous.

With that in mind, I want to take a cue from CD in examining the concept of “emotional chastity.”

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Threshhold Life

Do not call me a dead man;
Say, rather, unborn.
Call me not an evil man;
Say only, “Unformed.”
Unformed, embryonic, a teeming mass
Of cells, undifferentiated,
Potential unmapped
Unabated because untapped.
No not evil.
I have committed no crimes.
I am not a devil.
But I am a product of my times.
I have spent my score of years and seven
Waffling about between heaven
And the space inside a zero.
I have built a fortress out of sheer possibility
And I guard its ramparts like the true hero
Of false humility;
Firmly entrenched in the zero space
The liminal space
The nowhere space
Between a thousand “Yeses.”
Not lost;
I know precisely where I stand
Trammeled about by guesses
More educated than most.
An acorn is free to roll,
But not free to grow.
For that there is a toll,
And the toll is rootedness
Differentiation in anticipation.
And before that there must be a split
A tearing
A rupture of the skin as from within
Tender green and white things like earthy wings
Must thrust through the crust into the dust
And dirt, in search of fertile ground. It hurts.
And before even that there must be the time
Of lying
And crying,
And dying silently on the forest floor
Half buried under dead leaves.
Pelted by rain and hearing
The snortings of pigs and scurryings of squirrels and fearing
And feeling lost and cold, as the frost takes hold.
All too often only thus is softened
An acorn’s shell.
And it cannot tell
That only thus is it free
To be