How eavesdropping led me to a resolution

One recent morning I sat in a coffee shop doing some freelance work and half listening to two mothers who sat chatting in chairs beside me. One of the women did most of the talking, and she complained. A lot.

She complained about her schedule, about her kid’s teacher, about long emails and too-short spring breaks, about the cold, about her husband’s not taking her seriously when she said she wanted move to California.

The impish part of me wanted to interrupt and ask if anything good had ever happened to her, or at least in the last week. For crying out loud, here she was hanging out with a friend on a work morning, drinking hot coffee and wearing comfortable clothes while the red-eyed, suit-wearing masses lurched in and out around her, desperate for their morning fortification before a long day at the office.

But after a few minutes of listening I winced — yes, physically winced — as something very unpleasant occurred to me. How often have I been that person pouring out all my tales of woe, my insecurities, my frustrations and worries and fears into the ready ears of sympathetic girlfriends over similarly warm cups of coffee on pleasant days off? In fact, come to think of it, when was the last time I had a chance for a heart-to-heart that didn’t turn into an all-out Mabel Venting Session?

I can’t think of a single time.

Because, truth be told, I’m a world-class whiner. That might be too modest, actually. I wrote the book on whining. (The book itself was pretty negative and sales were weak, so I don’t talk much about it. But I digress.) I have a pretty amazing life when you look at it objectively, but somehow there’s always something to complain about. Negative feelings will crop up, and they must be given their day in public, mustn’t they?

When I’m not whining I’m backhandedly expressing my petty hurts over perceived slights and offenses. This acquaintance didn’t come to my dinner party last week, that roommate has been giving me the cold shoulder ever since I innocently remarked that she could clean her own dishes every once in a while, and my sister hasn’t called or texted me in weeks, which must mean she hates me. There’s always something to mutter about.

We strive so hard to avoid hurting one another’s feelings that we just end up being ugly. Instead of addressing issues head-on directly with the person who is causing us an issue, we “play nice” to their faces and then vent our frustrations in completely unproductive ways. Okay, I say “we.” Some people have learned the fine art of confrontation, but too often I still hide behind the mask of “niceness” because it avoids unpleasant discussions and emotions.

But when the mask comes off? It’s hideous. There was nothing attractive about that woman I overheard in the coffee shop. Indeed, I don’t even remember what she looked like because I was so distracted by the ugliness of everything she had to say. Yet she’s probably a lovely person, a good wife, mother, and friend, and I probably caught her in the middle of her purging session, when all the ugliness came out at once because she’d kept it bottled up for so long.

I have a long way to go, but that morning forced me to take a good look at myself, and to make a promise: to live honestly and speak openly with those who have to live with me, instead of bottling all my emotions and pretending nothing is wrong. I’m terrible at it, but maybe confrontation gets easier — or at least a little bit less terrifying — with practice?

If it doesn’t, don’t tell me. I may not have the stamina to keep it up. But I’m determined not to let long-held bitterness over trivial things make me ugly. That’s not what God made community for, even if the realities of Other People can drive you crazy sometimes.

Mabel

 

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Wash your own d**n dishes

I love having roommates. I really do, I love having good women to share my space with and develop inside jokes with and borrow clothes from and occasionally steal food from.* There’s something deeply human about having roommates as a single person, so long as those roommates and you make the effort to form a real community and don’t just inhabit the same space.

Even when you’re all very dear friends, though, having roommates can be very

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challenging sometimes. Having any other human being inhabit the same 1,500 square feet and share the same dishes and washing machine and living room sofa and television can be a huge challenge. They say marriage purifies for that very reason. I’m not sure what it is about being human, but it makes us rather insistent on our own rights in any territory we perceive as belonging to us in any way. Yes, we may all pay equal rent, but if I walk into my kitchen expecting to cook myself a steak or bake a batch of cookies and find the oven already in use, I’m going to be a little bit indignant. Is it a justified response? Absolutely not. But it’s human and natural, and that’s all there is to it.

Living with other people requires a thousand small daily deaths to self.

I realize that sounds like the sort of thing you might pull out of a meditation booklet or scribble down eagerly during a talk while on retreat. But I’ve spent five post-college years living with different roommates, and it’s absolutely true. When you have roommates, you bump into it every day, this need to set yourself aside for the sake of the other. Sometimes you do it; sometimes you do it with a loud sigh or a snide remark; and sometimes you refuse to do it altogether, and even if no words are said, it creates an ugly tension that settles into the creaking floorboards and the long silences as you each go about your business.

It really is the daily things that present the biggest challenges.

Sometimes I’m running behind on my morning shower, and I can hear one of the roommates padding in her bare feet outside the bathroom, patiently waiting for me to finish up. It’s so tempting to pretend not to be aware that she needs the bathroom, or to let myself think, “I’m not that much later than usual. She can wait.” Even when I hurry to gather my things and get out of her way, how often do I do it grudgingly?

Cleaning out the fridge tends to fall to me, which is totally fine; but you’d be amazed how maddening condiments can be. (And when a roommate comes home with groceries and cheerfully unpacks yet another salad dressing or bottle of mustard, I worry my head might pop.) And then there are the unidentifiable leftovers you inevitably find growing mold in the back corners…

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So many evenings I come home grouchy after a long day at work. The only thing I want is to slip into comfortable clothes, eat a quiet dinner, and be alone with my thoughts. It always seems to be those evenings when I most want to be alone that my roommates have guests over for dinner and I’m greeted as soon as I walk in the door by smiling faces and cheerful hellos and questions about how my day was. It’s so tempting to brush off the questions and offer curt responses and run away immediately to my safe, solitary room.

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Funny how, when you don’t feel like showing love, being shown love can be so painful.

And of course, there’s the classic example, the one we all know too well: encountering Someone Else’s dishes in the sink. If you’re spoiled like me and have very thoughtful roommates, all you have to do is walk into the kitchen and they’re immediately, calling after you, “Sorry! The dishes in the sink are mine, I’m coming for them!” But when they’re not at home, or if you’re not as lucky as I am and your roommates don’t care, all you see is a pile of dishes that you didn’t leave. I will assume that better people than I can approach this situation with a docile smile and shrug. God gives superhuman strengths to certain blessed souls, and we have the example of the saints. But I will admit it has on more than one occasion required all my strength to keep from snide remarks, rude text messages, or boldly scribbled passive aggressive notes.

ImageWhat are a few unwashed plates and forks in the vast scheme of things? Not very much, but it’s amazing how much they can feel like insurmountable obstacles in the quest to step outside yourself and live for others. I don’t want to wash plates and forks I didn’t use; wash your own damn dishes.

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Yet for some reason these are the places where God wants to make us perfect. It can be a bit insulting. Couldn’t I be boiled alive, I want to ask, or burned at the stake or ordered to renounce my faith at gunpoint? Couldn’t I be sent out into the world to make bold and beautiful proclamations about God and his kingdom, and maybe have books and movies made about me and my exemplary holiness? Couldn’t I spend my life in a solitary cave, writing deep and inspirational books and praying for hours on end? Couldn’t I receive visions or a hideously painful disease? In other words, couldn’t I be given any of the noble paths to holiness I’m pretty sure I read about in the lives of the saints when I was growing up?

Anything but someone else’s yogurt-coated spoon or a full kitchen trash bag that’s just beginning to smell.

It can be so hard to be my “brother’s keeper” when it’s just…so…ordinary. Sure, I like to think; sure I’ll be there for my friends or roommates or anyone else when they call me in the middle of the night stuck at the airport or lost in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire or locked out or just lonely and sad. But if all they need from me right now is for me to take out the trash or wrap up my shower two minutes sooner than I’d really like or stop and chat for three minutes, does it even make a difference? Especially if they don’t even know that I’m giving anything up for them?

I guess it’s in those moments when we die a little death that we have to grab onto Mother Teresa’s words and hope they’re true, even if they don’t feel all that impressive in the moment: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

Thank goodness for great roommates, and a thousand small things that give so many opportunities every day to practice.

-Mabel

This needs to be said

While we’re broaching the subject of dating, there’s something I’ve been needing to get off my chest for a long, long time now, related to the dating scene here in the DC area.

We gals can spend a lot of time complaining that “the men around here” aren’t proactive enough. And while that can feel painfully true at times, it isn’t. I think what we really mean is that the men we like don’t happen to like us. Frustrating? Of course. But let’s not denigrate all the men in the local area because the “wrong” ones are the ones reaching out.

In fact, I want to thank all the men in my life who have honored me in the past few years by seeking to get to know me better, and even — at times — asking me out. Obviously for now it hasn’t been quite right for whatever reason(s). Attraction remains a mystery, right? Some of us are comfortably returned to being “just friends,” and some of us have fallen out of touch or taken a big step back. And I’m afraid I’m the most awkward person alive when it comes to dating and all things that threaten romance, so I know I haven’t always handled things as graciously as I could have. Still, you should all know that your notice was flattering, uplifting, and encouraging, and I’m incredibly grateful.

I’m especially grateful to the men who have had the courage to pick up the phone and call. Thank you for stepping out of your comfort zone for me. Thank you for letting me know that I’m worth seeking out, beyond a Gmail or Facebook chat or the occasional text message — nice as those things are, of course.

Know that even though I’m not very good at expressing it out loud or in the moment, you have earned my lasting respect. By behaving the way men ought to and pursuing, you have helped me step into my role as a woman. I mean it from the bottom of my heart: thank you.

-Mabel

When driving drives you crazy

For the first four years of my professional life in DC, I was a public transit commuter. In fact, I commuted just about every way possible that doesn’t involve driving: bus, metro, rideshare, bike, and on foot. With my new job has come a host of new things, including a new commuting style. I now join the disgruntled millions on the clogged roadways of the Beltway area on my way to and from work each day. That adds up to a lot of hours spent behind the wheel, a lot of uncomfortably close brushes with accidents, a lot of talk radio, and a lot (read: a LOT) of pent-up rage.

Granted, DC is ranked as having the nation’s 3rd-worst traffic, and there are polls out that say we have the very worst drivers, so there’s plenty to be angry about.

Still, I’m beginning to think I’m a little bit too angry. Do I have to refer through gritted teeth to every individual on the road who chooses to poke along in the left lane at an exact 7.3 miles per hour below the speed limit as a “moron”? Probably not.

Is every speed demon who whizzes by in the right lane after tailgating me in the center for at least three-quarters of a mile when I’m already going over the speed limit and there’s a left lane for speeders and there are TRAFFIC CAMERAS FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE actually a — ah– “jerk”? Probably. It’s a debatable point.

Do I have to pound my steering wheel and cry to the heavens in exasperation every time the person in front of me decides to slam on his brakes and turn left without using a signal? Perhaps there’s a more peaceful way to tackle the situation.

funny-dog-pictures-dog-has-road-rageWhat it boils down to is charity. I realized this one morning about two weeks ago when it occurred to me as I turned the last corner to my office that I hadn’t encountered a single fellow driver whom I had not called some name or other. “Bozo,” “moron,” “idiot,” and “jerk-face” are my personal favorite epithets. Drivers earn such titles for driving too fast, driving too slow, tailgating, being tailgated, leaning on the horn the moment the light turns green, sitting through a green light to text, turning left from the travel lane without using a turn signal, swerving in their travel lane, running lights, pulling illegal U-turns, stopping suddenly to parallel park and then taking inordinate amounts of time to do so, slowing down or stopping in on-ramps to highways, pretending not to see you or racing ahead to cut you off when you try to change lanes in traffic, or any other host of obnoxious things drivers do when they simply don’t give a damn about the other people on the road.

Ok, I reasoned, so other people are jerks and they can’t drive. (In fairness I have to admit: I’ll bet a lot of the time look like a total jerk who can’t drive.) Still, at the end of the day, what other people do on the road really shouldn’t be affecting my attitude the way it does. Certainly I should not be reduced to fits of pale, quaking fury every time I hit the area roadways.

What can be done about it? I’ve settled on a few life choices that will (I hope) decrease my blood pressure, save my lower gums from extinction, and help me be a kinder driver.

1) Start off trips with a traveling prayer. While I’ve always said a traveling prayer for protection when I drive, I’ve begun to tack on a plea for calmness and charity as well. It’s amazing how well that works.

2) Leave the house on time. It is not anyone else’s responsibility to drive faster because I left late. Nor is there a vast DC-area-wide conspiracy against me that’s turning all the lights red as soon as I get to them. At least I’m telling myself there’s not.

3) Focus on the positive. For instance, it’s not a whole lot of effort to give a wave of thanks when another driver yields so I can merge.

4) Be positive. It’s that popular slogan: Be the good you want to see in the world. I can yield, slow down, put away the phone, and for heaven’s sake, just calm down.

5) Recognize that there are jerks in the world, and their jerkiness is exacerbated about 8 million times when they get behind the wheel of a car. Oh well, they can continue to be jerks. As my dad always used to tell me when I got bent out of shape about the injustice of the world: You can’t let the bastards get ya down. Their unkindness does not give me license to be anything less than Christian. (In fact, if that whole “Love your enemies” extends to loving bullying drivers, I guess they really require me to be more Christian.)

No one owns the road, quite simply. I might as well drive like I’m sharing it with the people around me.

 

 

Thoughts on the road out of Jericho

I don’t have writer’s block. What I have is almost worse: a long list of posts I should write, and I just don’t want to. Can men and women be “just friends”? That post has been hanging out as an unkept promise for a good year at this point, and every time I sit down to start it, I get fidgety and cranky and have to erase and start a post on something else. I’ve also been meaning to write a bit on vulnerability. But since the very process of publicizing a post on that topic involves being somewhat vulnerable myself, I’ve been bypassing that topic with a backward wave for months. Also on the list: a post on budgeting. I’d love to write this one, actually, but I feel I’d better start keeping a pretty careful budget myself, before I talk about what a great idea it is.

(Okay. Maybe now I’ve let you all see some of these topics, I’ll feel forced to getting around to them eventually.)

The Number 1 topic on my avoidance list since the inception of this blog, though, has been Discernment. Not vocation, which is ostensibly what you end up with at the end of the process of discernment, and not simple joyful acceptance of life in the now before vocation (which is what this blog is all about), but the active, aching, confusing, at times terrifying journey that is discernment. I don’t want to write about it now, either, but I’ve been praying about what topic I should look at next on this blog, and he just keeps throwing this one at me.

Because I don’t really know what I’m talking about, I’ll keep it very simple–I’ll let the Bible do most of the talking for me. We read one of my favorite Gospel passages on Sunday: the story of blind Bartimaeus and his healing on the road leading out of Jericho. In the past I’ve always found myself reflecting on the blind man’s admission of his own need and want. I’m still blown away by his courage in calling after Jesus, despite the people around him telling him to knock it off. As I’ve written before, it takes courage to ask for the things we need, because it involves admitting to ourselves and to others that we aren’t self-sufficient.

Reading the passage this time, though, something else resonated with me. Jesus at last hears the blind man, and the people say to poor Bartimaeus, “Take courage, get up. Jesus is calling you.”

Take courage.

Get up.

Jesus is calling you.

I realize we’re all in different places in our personal discernment processes. It’s a journey each of us makes alone, regardless of who may join us along the way. I’ve left this topic alone very much for that reason. Beyond that, I have to admit to some bitterness about the whole “vocation thing.” After years and years of discerning, praying, and waiting, sometimes I wonder if maybe I’m not called to anything in particular after all. Maybe the grand high purpose of the Christian life really is only for those exceptional people I see around me every day, people God has already called to the priesthood, to the convent, to beautiful, fruitful marriages. Maybe he did his best with me, and I’ve simply failed. I won’t walk you any deeper into the darker musings I sometimes fall into–suffice it to say, in recent years I have left the topic of discernment very much alone because I’m sick and tired of it.

So those words on Sunday morning went off in my head like a cannon. “Jesus is calling you.”

There’s no equivocation in that passage, no second guessing, not even necessarily in this moment a particular something he’s calling me (or you) to or for. So I’m still in the dark about what my main life’s work might end up being and the ultimate vocational setting in which I’ll end up doing it, but I can rest assured that I am called.

The daily process of discernment rests in that trust. Whoever you are, whatever your circumstances, the Master has need of you. He’s calling you. Discernment, then, means shutting up and listening. Moreover, it means getting up and going to him. For those of us still in the waiting period, that means making time for him every day. We tend to think of discernment as this grand grappling with God, like Jacob wrestling the angel. Of course, discernment can and probably will have that aspect, especially in the beginning while we’re still bringing our wills into line with his. We don’t just leave it there, though. Beyond that point, discernment should be a daily, quiet, habitual process of growing close to Christ now so that, when at last he’s ready to set us on the road, we’re already there, itching to go, confident that he loves us.

Take courage.  Get up, Jesus is calling you.

For the record, I do like my new job

We human beings are an active bunch, and we tend to define ourselves by the things we do. Isn’t that the first question/answer exchange that goes on between strangers? Name, occupation. Check, check. In fact, I find I’m a little put off when people don’t ask me what I do on first meeting. “What?” I huff to myself, “do they not care to know who I am and what I’m about?” People who don’t like their jobs may hedge on the occupation self-descriptor and tell you instead about the things they like to do, but it boils down to the same thing: regardless of how much we argue that a person’s value lies in his very being above all else, we feel more worthwhile ourselves when we can do things, and do them well.

I say this because changing jobs has thrown my happy, smug, satisfied self-definition of the past several years into a terrifying tailspin.

Some afternoons I stop in the middle of my work and close my eyes and try to remember that confident, capable person I’m pretty sure I was only two months ago. Did she actually exist? As I bumble from one idiotic mistake to another, feeling my way through daily encounters with fellow employees, with writers, with the fascinating individuals who make it their daily task to call newspapers and tell whoever they manage to reach about the impending doom of the whole world…I sometimes wonder if I really even know who I am anymore.

Only today did it hit me I never really did know. Who does? I just got comfortable in one safe corner, I got good at one particular function, and I let that take over my entire perception of myself.

I think sometimes, especially as single people, we allow what we do (whether that be our actual 9 – 5 job, our coursework, our ballroom dancing hobby, rec league softball team, on-the-side music gigs, dance classes, even our social lives if we’re especially outgoing, or our ministry) to determine our value – or even, whether or not we have value. Sure, mom thinks I’m great no matter what I do, or don’t do. But mothers are special cases.

We need to know we’re worthy. We ‘re constantly trying to live up to our own self-love, and to be worthy of love from others. So often we grasp at what we do well, and how well we do it as our best measure of how good we are as persons.

Striving after your personal best is all well and good, of course. It builds character, develops virtue, makes us stronger. Still, that striving has to start from the right base point.  Do I push myself to do better because I want to prove to myself that I am, in fact, good? Or do I allow myself to rest in the knowledge that I have been created good, and then strive to do well to give further glory to God in his work of creation? In other words, being always comes first, and we don’t get any credit for that. Doing comes second. (Or, in philosophical terms, agere sequitur esse: to act follows to be.) In fact, we couldn’t “do” if God hadn’t brought us into being in the first place, and if he didn’t keep us there every nano-second. I guess recognizing this is ultimately what humility is all about.

I’ll be reciting this to myself over and over in the coming weeks and even months, every time I feel the tears coming on because I’ve just received another “Just So You Know…” memo and I feel like I can’t do anything right and therefore I must actually be a pathetic, stupid, useless slob. I’m fallen and flawed and I’m going to mess up at everything I do for the rest of my life. But I’m also fearfully, wonderfully made…and I can do all things, through Christ who strengthens me.

Thankfully, on those days when my pride is still too much for me, there’s always red wine. And chocolate.

 

Catholic social guilt

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

So I’m looking at my weekend calendar and seeing back to back to back events and I’m getting this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach because I’ve once again given away every free minute I had and I don’t know when I’ll get any time to myself to get things done and just recuperate before another Monday. What, that sounds like your weekend, too? Funny. How’d you get into this mess?

Wait, don’t tell me: you felt bad.

You felt bad for always telling friends you’ll get together and then not doing it. You felt bad for the family you never get to see and probably even thought, “I’m such a bad daughter/son/sister/brother/niece/nephew/grandchild….” You felt bad the way you always feel bad because there’s a world full of people out there you’re supposed to love somehow, but no matter how much time you give away, there’s never enough of it — or you — to go around.

In short, you’ve piled your social plate far too full for yet another weekend because you feel … guilty. Of course, you also did it because you genuinely want to see everyone you love. You genuinely want to do everything you’ve agreed to do, and you only wish you could be in three, four, five places at once to accomplish even MORE. But the one thing that keeps you from bowing out at the last minute as your stomach sinks when you look at the clock and realize you’re already late, and you’d really rather just curl up on the couch and order takeout and watch old movies, is that awful feeling of guilt. It’s something I like to call Catholic social guilt.

My friends, you deserve better than this. I for one don’t want all my friends to feel guilted into seeing me or coming to my parties. Granted, I’ll shamelessly guilt friends into reading this blog or volunteering with my parish group at the local soup kitchen (October 27, 8:00 a.m., St. Rita’s. Be there.), but your free time ought to be a gift freely given. You don’t owe it to me. Some weekends you just need to wear fuzzy socks and sweats and have solo Downton Abbey marathons. Sure, we’re single and have no spousal/parental obligations making demands on our time, but we work, we volunteer, we take classes, we’re busy and we’re tired and it’s perfectly all right to scream, “Uncle!!!” and run inside and pull down the shades once in a while.

If you do this every weekend? Okay, it’s probably time to feel a little guilty. But otherwise, cut yourself some slack. In all seriousness, human beings simply can’t have that many close personal relationships. We’re not built that way. (It’s not just me: it’s science.) So focus your energy on the people you’re actually closest to, the people with the strongest claims on your time and attention, the people who maybe have a right to guilt you out of some of your free time sometimes. (Think: Grandma.) Everyone else? Rejoice in their company when you can and don’t sweat it when you can’t, or when your weekend planner is so full you’ve started writing in tiny letters in the margins to get it all in.

For myself, I’m going to have to do some schedule purging this weekend. That means reneging on some things I agreed to. I feel guilty about it, and I will continue to feel guilty about it, but there’s no other way around it. Social life imposes some obligations, it’s true, but sometimes we have to look at the hierarchy of obligations. God, family, church, friends…and self is in there, too. Take some leisure time. Call a time out. Breathe. And don’t apologize for it.

Here’s my pledge to myself and to you: Starting today, I’m renouncing Catholic social guilt. I will no longer start every email with, “Sorry this took so long,” will send no more apologetic text messages to friends I keep glimpsing at Mass but can’t ever manage to say hello to, will not leave penitent notes on people’s Facebook walls because I haven’t gotten together with them in a month and don’t see any free blocks in my schedule any time soon. No, friends, starting today I’m just going to do what I can, love where I am, and leave you all in God’s hands. Because try as I might and much as I want, I just can’t love everybody all the time exactly the way they need to be loved. And no one else  can love me that way, either. We’re not built that way, and that’s okay.

Please do know that in my heart, I’m hanging out with each of you, all the time.

If that sounds creepy, I’m sorry.

TMIphone

I succumbed.

For years I took pride in using the cheapest of cheap phones, and using them until they were literally falling to pieces. But on Day 1 of my new job, my supervisor asked me, “So what’s your Smart Phone situation?”

I stared at her. Blinked. Stammered, “Uh…well…it’s a…I have a ‘dumb’ phone, actually.”

I couldn’t quite bring myself to admit to her that it was three years old, that the battery had this embarrassing tendency to pop out, that while I could go online with it it cost me about half my monthly bill, but I did have unlimited texting. I mean, that’s something.

She just said, “Hm. You’ll want to get an iPhone or something. Think you could do that this weekend?”

So okay, I succumbed under pressure. And now I own an iPhone, and I think if I’m not careful it might ruin my life. Even in my dumb phone days, I had started sliding into that awful habit of compulsively checking my phone every fifteen minutes because you just never know when that Big Call might come in. Now? Well, now I can check for calls, texts, Facebook messages or updates, emails from work, personal emails, Twitter messages, and even comments on this blog. Oh yeah, and all the reminders I’ve set for myself lest I let even one detail of my life go for even a moment. Then of course there’s all the news I have to keep an eye on (mostly for work, but hey…it’s interesting). I can also read up on all those blogs I claim to follow, search for new shoes, pay my bills, find my way from here to there, look for recipes, and ultimately shut the whole world out because everything and everyone I could ever possibly need is here in the palm of my hand.

This leads to an interesting thought: We’ve become a generation of wizards.

No wonder every person under the age of 40 walking down the street in this city has their gaze riveted to their hand held device.

Think I’m wrong? Glance up from your cellular device, my friend, and look around you. I guarantee, you’ll notice what I just described.

Hey, I’m guilty, I know. It’s convenient to have everything at my fingertips, I won’t lie. But doesn’t that make it all the more crucial to leave the device to one side now and then and focus on the real, physical world I happen to inhabit? Fingertips were meant to encounter more than touch screens.

I stood with a friend of mine yesterday, who had her face buried in her iPhone the whole five minutes we were together; she only came up for air once to say, “Sorry, it’s so-and-so.” As if the virtual presence of so-and-so made her obliviousness to my presence somehow okay. I’m sorry, was so-and-so dying? Contemplating suicide? Was what he had to say so very important that she couldn’t glance up from the cellular device for a moment to encounter me? Could she not at the very least say, “I’m so sorry, I have to respond to this message–I’ll come find you in five minutes”? Small courtesies, but in this age of “instant” everything, too often we let ourselves think, “This’ll only take a second.”

Certainly I’ve been guilty of this, too. Who am I hurting, really, responding to this text message right now? Won’t my friends be angry with me if I don’t get back to them this minute? I’ve harped on this before, but I guess I just need to remind myself more than anything. Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing can replace spending time with people in the flesh. Real love requires real presence. And real presence requires a heart that’s really at rest. Smart phones are all very well in their way, but they feed that restlessness we all have–the desire to know everything, to be everywhere, to be involved in anything that might be going on. At least now and then, let it go. Friends, let’s recommit to being present to one another. I’m committing to it, and I want you to hold me accountable. 

Yes: I have an iPhone. Yes, I’m now technically more available than I’ve ever been before, because you can contact me via email, text, call, Facebook, Twitter, blog comment…and I have it all available in one convenient place. If you really, really need me, just try all of the above. Still, be aware that I’m going to be setting this device aside throughout the day and doing my best to encounter the Actual World around me in a full, present way. Don’t take it personally. It’s just that I think the people in front of me in the moment, whatever the moment might be, deserve my undivided attention. And when you’re that person, I’ll show you the same courtesy.

Stepping past disheartened

“I’ve given up on men.”

It’s becoming a key phrase among my single lady acquaintances. We’re single and we’re tired of being single, but scanning the horizon turns up a pretty bleak picture of…well, a lot more singleness. It’s the same whether you live in a metropolitan area hopping with apparently eligible bachelors (I’ve heard D.C. listed as such a place by wide-eyed out-of-towners. Oh, ladies: give me a call before you start planning your move to this area to find Mr. Right), or in a suburban wasteland. Here and there around us people meet, date, fall in love, get married, and all our elders tell us this is the “normal” state of affairs and ask us when we’re going to settle down. Now I believe this used to be the normal state of affairs. Granted, I’m no history expert, but every woman I know over the age of 45 tells me the same story about life for the 20-something woman back in her day. A twenty-six-year-old living on her own and working, while not unheard of twenty years ago, was certainly not the established norm like she is today. If movies like Crossing Delancey are any indication, they were in fact still something of an anomaly.

Anyway, this post was not meant to be a commentary on cultural norms, but on the disturbing trend toward bitterness I’m seeing resulting from those norms. Of course, I see only the ladies’ side of this discussion, where hapless single females between the ages of 25 and 35 begin to throw up their hands and cry, “It’s hopeless!” But though we haven’t talked much about it, I sense a similar feeling of discontent in my male friends and acquaintances. Of course their frustrations are different from ours, but they’re every bit as real. Whether we’re going on frequent dates, dating online, or hardly dating at all, many of us are becoming increasingly disheartened.

Disheartened. I’ve been mulling this post over for the past couple days, and that word keeps playing around in my mind. Like a good editor, I looked it up, because even though I know basically what it means, sometimes it’s nice to see the exact definition. To dishearten is “to cause someone to lose determination or confidence.” It fits even better than I realized. We are losing our determination to hope, and we are certainly losing our confidence in one another.

Of course, we all have our own ideas of the perfect solution to the problem. The girls say, “If only the men would take some initiative!” (But let’s be fair. Ladies, do we really want every man we know to “take initiative” and ask us out? Or are we thinking of those few men we could potentially be interested in who have never made a move?) The men say, “The girls just have to be more approachable!” (Frankly, I’ve never understood what the heck this means. I may not be Mrs. Potts, but I’m not exactly an icicle…)

At the end of the day, though, there is no perfect solution. The human race has ever been and remains a broken people. I think we pin a whole lot of expectation on our hope for love. We want to be discovered, rejoiced in, cherished, committed to, perhaps healed, and we seek all of those things in a romantic relationship that just never seems to materialize.

Let’s start with the obvious problem: those are things we should be seeking from God first. If we’re blessed to discover them also in a romantic relationship, praise God. But don’t pin all of that responsibility on another human being. (I remember being surprised when a dear friend of mine in a committed long-term dating relationship once told me, “Even when you’re dating, you still have some days where you just feel sad and lonely.” It made sense, but it still took me aback. Subconsciously I guess I’d always imagined I would want for nothing once I ended up with a great guy.)

More to the immediate point, we have to lose the bitterness. Christ and his mother are often referred to as “all sweetness.” If we’re to imitate them, we also must be sweet. “I’ve given up on [the opposite sex]” is the cry of a bitter, very often wounded person. My heart goes out to all my single friends, as I know the real pain behind those words. But spreading the bitterness around only tears everyone down.

I propose what may seem a trite solution, but I firmly believe it’s the only one: prayer. And lots of it. How often do you ladies pray for men–not just your brothers/fathers/friends/future spouses, but Christian men everywhere, and especially the men in your own community? When you’re dating online, how often do you pray for the men whose profiles you click through? Ladies, I challenge you: let’s pray for our men. Pray that they may become holy, grow in virtue, and become the men God wants them to be.

And guys, I offer you the same challenge: please pray for us!

We are all of us broken. We’ve all been hurt in some way, some far more than others. But we can be healed if we want to be. Cynicism and bitterness are selfish responses–people have not given us what we wanted or expected, and we respond by putting up walls. I challenge all of us to try something new, something different. Let’s counteract the bitterness with sweetness. Remember that Christ still heals. Why not ask him to heal us, and to heal those who have hurt us?

What are we most afraid of?

Father Rich Dyer spoke at Arlington’s Theology on Tap this week–the topic was “fear.” I almost never attend TOT these days, but being The World’s Biggest Coward, I thought this talk might be worth listening to.

It was.

At the end someone asked the question: “What do you think is the biggest fear among Catholic young adults these days?”

I thought, “If he says ‘commitment’ I’m going to punch the wall.” Granted, there’s some truth to the statement, “Today’s young people are just too afraid to commit,” but I’ve heard it so much that it just rings hollow. Besides which, I think the “fear to commit” is only the surface of some much deeper sociological, psychological, spiritual problems. So it becomes the easy, cop-out answer of an older generation that needs to have something to cluck its tongue at.

But I digress. Father didn’t answer the question right away. He paused and looked at the floor for a long minute. A really long minute. The guy in the booth next to me started to squirm a little and someone coughed. At last Father looked up and said, “I feel a little out of the loop these days, but I guess I’d have to say Catholic young adults are most afraid of being themselves.”

By that, he went on to explain, he meant too many YAs are afraid to be obviously Catholic. He gave the example of saying grace before meals in public. How many people refuse to cross themselves before and after grace, for fear of standing out?

Okay, so maybe many of us are okay with blessing ourselves in public. Some of us go so far as to wander the city streets with our rosaries on the walk home after work.

But how many of us (and I plead guilty) hide behind the old, “Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words” excuse for not standing up for what we believe in when we’re faced with tough questions from our peers, maybe in social settings, in the work place, wherever? I fall into this trap all the time: I’ll be a nice person, they’ll know I’m a good Christian girl, and somehow or other they’ll all be won over to Jesus by the juxtaposition of those two things.

How often do I end up half apologizing for my weird belief system when people ask me to explain it? Or talking about the harder-to-swallow truths of our faith with just enough of a lilt to my voice that my hearers can pick up, “Don’t worry, I get how crazy this is”? Or falling into the corrosive “Well, this is what I believe, but you can believe what you want” mindset that ends in a relativistic approach to life?

I didn’t realize quite how wishy-washy I could be about this until I participated in a writing workshop this past spring. Not only was I the only conservative Catholic in the group, but we were all participating in a pretty intimate thing together: the writing of short stories. And I found myself embarrassed to let my Catholicism shine through in my writing. Would it turn people off? Wouldn’t they have trouble relating to my writing, unless I made myself out to be yet another angsty, questioning Catholic who isn’t quite on board with the whole deal?

It was easy enough to be Catholic boldly as a Catholic homeschooled kid, as a student at  a Catholic college, and even now as a Catholic young adult surrounded by like-minded peers. But to be Catholic in all settings, and to be so with pride is hard. Even scary.

And the hardest part is being Catholic with pride, and still loving and welcoming everyone we encounter on a daily basis, and letting them know they’re loved and welcomed. We can’t hunker down and shut the world out because “it’s evil.” That’s just another form of living fear.