Friday, February 20, 2015

What I'm Doing for Lent this Year

They say that it's easier to stick to something if you tell someone else about it. And since I would feel funny telling most people I know in person about my Lenten plans, here goes. 

(I know that technically we're not supposed to brag about what we're doing. That's not what this is about. This is about hoping that making my plans public will help me keep at it). 

My goal for this Lent was to do something that would be beneficial for those around me, especially my husband. After deciding that forgoing sweets would help my waistline but little else - and might well increase my temper - I went with tackling my poor (as in, horrific) bedtime and morning habits. Aristotle said that the way to grow in virtue is by forming good habits. So if I want to develop the virtue of self-discipline, Lent is a great time to form new habits which, hopefully, I can carry with me after Lent is over. The way I picked these particular habits was that each of these are things that my husband has said time and again that he wishes I would do - and that I've said I wish could do if only it wasn't so inconvenient.

Habit Number One: Get up when the alarm clock goes off, as opposed to hitting snooze eight times.

Habit Number Two: Leave my phone off the bed, as opposed to playing Words with Friends when I'm supposedly "trying to sleep." 

Habit Number Three: Take a shower right after getting up, as opposed to moving my lurching body from bed to couch with little additional change.

Habit Number Four: Stop saying "sorry." 

The fourth one will actually be the hardest. I've gotten into the bad habit of saying "I'm sorry" reflexively, the minute I think someone might be the tiniest bit annoyed with me. The thought of fasting from it began in January with Laura's post about how saying you're sorry can be a sign of pride. (Guilty). This bad habit does damage in a lot of ways: to my marriage, to my self-perception, to my career, to my friendships. Best to nip it in the bud. 

What are your plans for Lent this year?

Seven Quick Takes: Should Protestants Do Lent?


The first time I ever heard of someone "giving something up" for Lent was in college. Before that, I didn't know any Catholics, and I also didn't know any Protestants who "did Lent." (If I sound sheltered, I was, at least religiously. Most of the time I was surrounded by Presbyterians and Southern Baptists and Pentecostals, none of whom are known for their Catholic devotions). In fact, the only times I heard of Lent were in Bible studies or classes in which we were meant to feel sorry for those poor, benighted Catholics who thought they could work their way to heaven because they didn't know any better. Until just a few years ago, I honestly thought that Lent was what Catholics did because they thought they could win enough good points towards heaven that way. 


That's why it's so surprising to me to see so many Protestants - and not just Episcopalians - doing Lent. It's like an explosion happened in the last ten years, and all of a sudden evangelicals started having Advent calendars and Ash Wednesday services. All of which is pretty cool, but I bet some of the older evangelicals feel a little... lost. Like, how on earth did my solid evangelical church start looking so Catholic? And while even my Presbyterian church back home has an Advent wreath, hell would freeze over before they started recommending Lenten practices. Somehow Lent still has a Catholic edge to it, even if all the cool kids are doing it. 


So what's a Protestant to do? Is Lent Biblical? Is it earning salvation? Is there any point to Lent now that we're not under the law?

I'll try to answer these questions with my old evangelical hat on, knowing what I know now. This isn't coming from the current me, the heretical "prays to Mary and the saints and thinks the Eucharist is Jesus so why listen to her" version. This is coming from the mindset of one who is still very solidly evangelical, if I could go back in time and give that Caroline the factual knowledge I have now....


For starters, you don't have to "give up" anything for Lent, or even "add something on." Lent is a time for facing tough realities. Realities like: everyone dies. Everyone sins. Everyone needs forgiveness. Everyone needs the Cross. Fasting, giving up sweets, working in soup kitchens - these are all ways of reminding oneself of that reality. In my experience God gives us plenty of non-chosen sacrifices to fill up our Lents. This year, I had two friends die within weeks of each other, and one of them died the day before Ash Wednesday. It's not healthy to fixate on death, but you can't ignore it either.


But shouldn't we be doing this all the time? No, not necessarily. "To everything there is a season, and time to every purpose under heaven." We're human. It's not in our nature to do All The Things All The Time. We can't always, every day, be thinking of our mortality for one hour, then meditating on the Incarnation, then remembering about the resurrection, then trying to think what other Big Ideas are most important.... It's not healthy or reasonable. It makes sense to set aside a certain time of the year to contemplate sin and death.


But why a specific date chosen by an institutional church? Doesn't Paul warn us against having special days and seasons? Isn't that following the law when we're now under the New Covenant? Well, it depends on how literally you take that. Should we never celebrate birthdays? Never commemorate the dead? Again, we are humans. It's not that you have to do XYZ during Lent or you'll go to hell. After all, God doesn't need us to keep Lent. WE need us to keep Lent. It serves a spiritual purpose that works with the New Covenant of grace, not against it. You don't have to do it exactly as the church does, but before you dismiss it, consider that the church might have good reasons for choosing this time.


Why chose some arbitrary 40 days? The number forty is hardly arbitrary; it's packed with spiritual and Biblical significance. Consider the 40 days of Noah in the ark, the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, the 40 days that Nineveh fasted and repented, the 40 days of Jesus in the wilderness being tempted.... Consider this a time that you can wander in the wilderness, exploring the tough realities that we like to put aside. And remember: Easter is coming.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Seven Quick Takes: Bioethics, Makeup, and Destiny's Child


I never changed my location on Pandora after I moved: the zip code is still for a northern Virginia (NoVa) address. This means the ads are Washington-area specific, which can be both funny and irritating at times. In November and December, they ran an ad that sympathized with homes overrun with visiting relatives and reminded listeners "Thank goodness you're in Virginia!" Because in Virginia, everything is going on, all the time. This is less than useful when you're hosting parents in the Deep South. 


Another perennial favorite is for Dominion Fertility, which strives to make IVF and frozen embryos sound heartwarming. One funny thing about pro-life Protestants is that most are pretty chill about IVF, if they know what it is. This confuses me, since the idea of scientifically making babies, discarding those that didn't make it, and freezing the leftovers seems inherently distasteful. Instead of convincing me that it's wrong, you'd have to work into overdrive to convince me that it's morally licit, simply due to the ick factor. In addition, I grew up on futuristic literature, most of which is a big red warning sign saying "Don't Mess with Life Creation and Destruction," so there's that.


This got me thinking: when is our innate moral compass right, and when is it wrong? (I can hear my Catholic readers already typing about natural law. Hold your horses). For instance, babies can tell the difference in ethnicity according to research.  Human history is a long slog of intolerance and war based on outer differences, and many Christians used to defend slavery by appealing to both the Bible and arguments from nature. In other words, we have a "natural" inclination to racial prejudice, but that doesn't make it morally right. So why do I heed the natural distaste for creating human life in a test tube?


One might answer that, in the case of IVF, there are also arguments from reason against its morality. We aren't dependent on our instincts when reason can ascertain the problems with creating individual human beings, losing many, freezing some, and only implanting the few that survive the process. 


It gets stickier when you talk about recent developments in the UK, where Parliament recently approved technology for creating an embryo using three "parents." One of the parents only gives enough DNA to keep certain mitochondrial diseases from occurring in the child, and otherwise the child is simply derived from the genetic materials of its two "main" parents. The U.S. is considering this as well. Besides from the obvious problem of not knowing what genetic effects may occur, especially in future generations, I wonder how this will impact the future of those with disabilities, and of parents of children with disabilities. It's not hard to imagine a world in which parents are denied health insurance because their child has a "preventable" disease, if only they had consented to such pre-birth treatments. It's not hard to imagine when we already live in a country where 1 of 10 babies with Downs Syndrome are aborted.


Meanwhile in Canada, assisted suicide is now legal. My atheist friends are celebrating this development on Facebook as a triumph of science, for the ability to "die with dignity." As someone who has struggled with suicidal ideation, this feels especially horrific. What do we mean when we say that someone died with dignity? Would you say this of someone who killed herself due to bipolar disorder? What about poverty? Being handicapped from the waist down? It's not just about free will: if a cop sees someone about to jump off a bridge, they are taken to the hospital and put in emergency care. In other words, mental health is a bad reason to kill yourself, and you still have worth as a human being. Physical health though? Hmm....


Lost in thoughts of bioethics, I was yanked back to the present by the end of a Beyonce song. After belting out that "I'm a survivor" she transitions to the next song on the track with "And bootylicious." Right, keep representing feminism Beyonce. You go girl, I mean womyn.

** This post has not been approved by Pandora, Dominion Fertility, the state of Virginia, or Destiny's Child.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

My Relationship with Mommy Blogs: It's Complicated

Last night, my husband and I watched a new movie called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. As you may recall from high school English class, this was originally a short story by James Thurber, of The New Yorker fame in the early-mid 20th century, about a forgetful and imaginative man who escapes from his nagging wife and boring life into fantastic daydreams. (If you haven't read it, you're missing out. You should also read other James Thurber pieces, such as Nine Needles and The Night the Bed Fell on my Father. They don't write like that anymore). 

The movie took artistic liberties, with beautiful results. Walter still escapes into his head, but he's now running from the new boss at LIFE magazine who is managing the "transition" to an all-online magazine - mostly by being a dick to everyone except his few favorites. The film's Walter, however, is triumphant; for most of the film, you wonder if these fantastic events are really real or just in his head, and you'll be cheering for this mild-mannered, balding "negative assets" man whose job is being phased out. 

In a phone conversation with "Ted" from eHarmony, who becomes his shrink by default, Walter learns that "people who daydream lack contentment." For Walter, these dreams ranged from tiny verbal victories, perfectly timed jokes that socially destroyed his cynical boss but that never actually happened, to a Spiderman-style rescue of a dog in a burning skyscraper. I don't even have to exercise the imagination anymore - just open the laptop and gaze on the (mostly Catholic) mommy blogs, with homemade king cakes and Advent wreaths and lots of children and housework but also - and here's the kicker - the financial stability to stay at home with them. 

Oops, guess I wasn't supposed to say that out loud. It's Not the Done Thing to say that stay-at-home moms require husbands with full-time jobs and sufficiently lucrative paychecks. Politicians learned this to their chagrin, not knowing that of course, these moms can only stay home because they make homemade broth and save pennies on homemade detergent and don't have to pay for professional wardrobes or day-care. "It's not a privilege to stay at home" was preached from the rooftops. Some moms just exercised choice differently. The upper-middle class family life of four-eight kids, home-schooled, perhaps on a few acres of land with gardens and chickens, is attainable by all.

Yes, I know that all stay-at-home moms aren't like that. My own mom hasn't had a full-time job - or even a steady part-time job - since before I was born. Her jobless state was sanctioned and approved by her old-fashioned mother while I was growing up, even though I was an only child who went to school, even though we desperately needed the income from even a regular part-time job. An aunt who once hinted to her that maybe she would be happier with a part-time job was told off in no uncertain terms by my father, who said that if my mother "wanted to stay at home and raise her child, that was her choice." The "child" in question was about 15 and rarely at home, because it wasn't about me at all. It was about my mom's severe depression which made her incapable of managing the most basic household tasks, much less a job on the side. Having a stay-at-home mom was less about homemade baked goods and more about waking her up at 2 p.m. on a Saturday because I worried about her health. 

As a child, I idolized working mothers. They always had clean hair, polished nails - their fingernails fascinated me - makeup, high heels. Their kids went to after-school programs that looked fun to me, more fun than waiting thirty minutes to an hour for my perpetually-late mom to pick me up from school. They had a briskness and efficiency that I admired. 

I grew up in the 90s, before the internet really took off, before Facebook and social networking, before blogs. My mom only had to compare herself with the working moms in suits or scrubs who were up at respectable hours and making money, or with her own idolized mother who raised five children on a large piece of property in the 50s-60s and never succumbed to something so embarrassing as depression. Thank God she didn't have the extra burden of mommy blogs. Even homeschooling wasn't big in our area yet - the Deep South is a little slow on the uptake when it comes to fashion, and people I knew bought chemical-laden shampoos and conventional medicines and cooked with condensed soup.

Well-meaning people always told me that "little girls turn into their mothers and marry their fathers." Do yourself a favor and never say this to anyone, ever. You never know whose mother is clinically depressed or whose father is emotionally abusive, or what other skeletons they hide safely at home. I escaped the second downfall, but now I'm the one sleeping in, staying up until 2 a.m., only working part-time, lacking motivation. Sure, there are differences: I'm on medication, and I see two therapists weekly. I'm not in denial about what's going on, and neither is my husband. Still, there are days when I look in the mirror and imagine a few more wrinkles, thinner hair, glasses. It's getting easier.

Like Walter Mitty, my fantasies increase as my contentment decreases. Unlike the old Walter, the internet is always here, always ready with a new fantastic vision of what another life could be. And how harmful could it be, anyway, as long as it's wholesome. 

**I want to make it clear that I don't mean to disparage all mommy bloggers, or moms who just happen to blog, or stay-at-home moms, or non-working women with disposable income. Some of you I wish I could know in person because you seem like the bees' knees. These are my own personal demons.