Miserable Pride vs. Joyful Humility

(I wrote this piece for the May 2022 newsletter of the California Association of American Mothers, Inc.: https://www.americanmothers.org/)

How can we find joy and peace in motherhood? By embracing the difficult work of growing in virtue and fighting against vice as we care for our families. The following thoughts are drawn from chapters 4-6 of Ultimate Makeover: The Transforming Power of Motherhood by Carrie Gress.

A virtue is “an innate potential in a person that through repeated use becomes a habit, freeing her to do what she knows is good, true and beautiful while bringing out the best in her character” (p. 55). Humility is the queen of all virtues because it helps us know what other virtues we need to work on: “Know thyself,” as Socrates wisely advised us long ago. Humility means joyfully embracing our littleness and our limitations because we know that we are in the hands of Someone who loves us, wants the best for us, and will help us grow.

Pride is at the root of all the vices that deform our character and damage our relationship with God and others. Pride says, “I am the center of the universe, and I know best.” In the end, pride leads only to misery since it closes us off from giving and receiving true love.

Pride has some specific manifestations for women that motherhood can help us correct. The first one is vanity, or focusing on self-centered, superficial matters. Pregnancy and childbirth can help concentrate instead on the sort of beauty that will last unto eternity rather than the perfect figure. Learning to focus on the needs of our husbands and our children can lead us out of ourselves into joyful service.

Envy is another typical manifestation of miserable pride for women. Instead of being grateful for who we are and who are families are, we waste our time and energy comparing ourselves and our families to others and always coming up short.  The mission of American Mothers is a wonderful antidote to envy! Celebrating each other and seeking to grow together as moms are surefire ways to cultivate joyful humility.

Being fickle or flighty is another way that women tend to fall prey to pride. Motherhood can help ground us and teach us the humble perseverance needed to establish a happy home rather than placing ourselves and our fun first. Closely related is the prideful vice of individualism. This trait is so pervasive in our culture that it can be hard to recognize as something negative, but no one can find ultimate satisfaction in life by always demanding “what we want, when we want it, how we want it” (p. 77). Motherhood is a crash course in reorganizing our lives around something other than our own egos. Finally, impatience is one of the most common struggles we all have with our pride. Fifteen years into motherhood, I still lose my temper on a regular basis.  Joyful humility can give us the perspective and courage to apologize and keep trying.

This Mother’s Day, let’s give our families the gift of trying to grow in the virtue of joyful humility!

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Womanly Intuition

(I wrote this piece for the April 2022 newsletter of the California Association of American Mothers, Inc.: https://www.americanmothers.org/)

I would like to begin my “corner” by considering some ancient ideas about knowledge and ethics: intuition, virtue, and vice. As mothers, how do we discern the right path for ourselves and for our families? We need reason, and we need experience, but there is also a third source of knowledge on which we can rely: intuition. Blaise Pascal refers to intuition when he says, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” As Peter Kreeft clarifies in The Philosophy of Tolkien, “This is not a justification of sentiment, feeling, or desire over reason, but an expansion of the meaning of reason beyond ‘calculation’ to ‘intuition.’”

Women in particular have been given the capacity to “just know” what the right thing is for our loved ones—hence the phrase “womanly intuition.” But we have to be careful with this discernment because “the heart is not an infallible organ.” Intuition “depends on moral goodness; it is trustworthy only in the virtuous” (Kreeft). If we are to guide our families well, we must first humbly cultivate the garden of our own souls, uprooting the weeds of vices (bad habits) and encouraging the fruitful growth of virtues (good habits).

Thankfully, the gift of motherhood provides us with countless opportunities to shape our character into something more beautiful and trustworthy. Carrie Gress elucidates this process in her priceless book Ultimate Makeover: The Transforming Power of Motherhood. We all know how difficult motherhood can be—exhausting, frustrating, boring, and often thankless. Gress invites us to look at these challenges with fresh eyes and encourages us that “the difficulty of motherhood is not in vain…Motherhood, in fact, is the perfect antidote to the vices that come so readily to the fairer sex: vanity, impatience, pride, greed, unbridled emotions, over-controlling, and fickleness, to name a few. The daily struggles are God’s way of making us over in his own image and likeness.”

For the next few months, I will be examining some of the virtues that are particularly important for mothers to cultivate and the corresponding vices that mothers would do well to avoid. The more we can embrace the difficulties that are inherent in motherhood, the more we can grow into trustworthy guides for our loved ones and rely on our womanly intuition. As Gress promises, “Among the daily trials are hidden doorways to the kind of motherhood we aspire to: joyful, wise, ordered, dignified, loving…God in his great mercy has offered us this sanctification through the most gentle of ways: those little faces and grubby hands.”

May God bless you, your families, and your womanly intuition!

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My honor from American Mothers, Inc.

My sweet neighbor nominated me for Mother of the Year, and I was selected for my state!

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Spread Fire, Not Cancer

Here is the link to my essay “At Pentecost: Spread Fire, Not Cancer.” It explores the contrasting images of fire and cancer and how they relate to self-giving love and selfishness, respectively:

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Trending or Tradition?

Here is the link to my article “Trending or Tradition?” It summarizes peer vs. parent orientation and applies it as a cultural and religious analytical tool:

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The Morality of Dolphins (and Ourselves)

What can dolphin behavior teach us about ourselves?

My oldest son is a budding zoologist. At his request, we read aloud The Dolphins of Shark Bay by Pamela S. Turner.[1] Shark Bay, Australia, is an ideal location for studying dolphins since the same bottlenose dolphins return to it year after year; the geography of the place also makes it relatively easy for scientists to observe them. Some of the dolphins of Shark Bay (and nowhere else in the world) have been observed using tools, a fascinating and extremely rare phenomenon in the non-human animal world. They dive deep to retrieve sponges, balance them on their rostrum (what looks like their “nose”), and then use them to flush out certain fish that dwell among sea rubble that would otherwise injure the dolphins. The scientists track how many “spongers” they observe and whether the behavior is passed on from mother to calf.

One intriguing fact about these dolphins is that they do not have one fixed way of hunting for their food. Some use the sponging method described above. Others engage in more straightforward hunting in open water using their famous echolocation. Some chase certain fish into a big group and then force them to swim right out of the water. The dolphins then take the risk of beaching themselves in order to eat and then make their way back into the water. Some chase fish into large shells and then shake them out. Others slam into sea birds to steal their fish. One dolphin, described as a “celebrity” among her peers, learned how to dive deeper than is typical for her species in order to catch an unusually large type of fish. Mother dolphins are particularly pressed to use their creativity to find food since they are solely responsible for the survival of their calves.

Is it legitimate to speak of “creativity” among dolphins? Yes, for the following reason: the higher the intelligence, the less rigid the instinctual behavior, and the greater the room for freedom of choice. The dolphins use their intelligence to discover different methods of hunting and even pass them on to their children. By contrast, less intelligent animals, such as insects, display more rigid instinctual behavior. Sand wasps, for example, are famous among entomologists for not being able to deviate from a certain sequence of actions related to prey and burrows.[2]

We, like the dolphins, share in this freedom of choice that enables us to survive and thrive in countless different settings. There is not just one sort of environment needed for human flourishing. The incredible variety of the saints—all times, places, educational levels, and cultural backgrounds have produced saints—proves this point. No matter our situation, we can use our God-given intelligence to work and thrive, and our children benefit from our efforts (or suffer from our lack thereof).

Another thing dolphins and humans have in common is a prolonged infancy. Dolphin calves usually nurse from their mothers for three or four years and stay with them even longer. They also spend significant amounts of time playing with other young dolphins. Like freedom of choice, a long state of dependency on parents is correlated with intelligence: “lower” animals are born self-sufficient whereas “higher” animals remain with their parents for varying lengths of time. The years spent with mom and playing with other young dolphins prepare the dolphin for the myriad of challenges of dolphin society and life in the open sea. As Hunt puts it, “a juvenile dolphin’s world resembles middle school. But with sharks.”[3]

Dependence in infancy is even more pronounced in humans. Child development specialist Dr. Stuart Shanker writes that “compared with the rest of the animal kingdom, the human brain at birth is remarkably immature for a remarkably long time.”[4] (New parents figure that out pretty quickly.) Human babies are basically embryos outside of the womb and need to be treated as such in order to thrive; their brains have lots of growing to do in a very short time. Yet that state of helplessness is the necessary context for the formation of a strong parent-child bond. As humans grow, we need interactions with others to become fully mature. Though we may not often have literal sharks to contend with, we certainly need strong bonds with other humans to engage well with the inevitable challenges of life. [5]

A further intriguing aspect of The Dolphins of Shark Bay is that the scientists do not hesitate to pass judgment on the animals. Certain dolphin mothers are praised as “attentive” and “hard-working,” qualities that lead to their calves’ success.[6] In contrast, one particular dolphin is described as “a lousy mom” who “ignores her calves,” none of whom have survived to adulthood.[7] Such a moral judgment is only possible because of the freedom available to dolphins. It would make no sense to speak of the morality of a less intelligent animal that simply follows its fixed instinctual behavior. For example, after drone bees mate with the queen bee, they are kept out of the hive to starve to death.[8] Such behavior sounds cruel and heartless, but those words do not really apply to bees following their instincts. Unlike the dolphin, the bee is not free to choose otherwise.

It is also our freedom which renders us praiseworthy for our good choices and blameworthy for our bad ones. Our current cultural climate does not tolerate passing judgment on human beings, but the ease with which scientists can judge dolphins is evidence for the objectivity of certain moral standards. As intelligence increases, so does freedom of choice; both are prerequisites for morality.

We have been taught, and rightly so, about the discontinuity between ourselves and the animals, yet we should not be afraid to examine and learn from the continuity as well. Ultimately, in human life, intelligence, freedom, and dependence create the necessary context for love.

[1] New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2013.

[2] https://genent.cals.ncsu.edu/bug-bytes/elements-of-behavior/sand-wasp/

[3] Turner, p. 45.

[4] Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), p. 50.

[5] Ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre explores the centrality of dependence in human life and the attendant virtues that we need to develop in his book Dependent Rational Animals (the title is his definition of us). He also talks a lot about dolphins.

[6] Turner, p. 17.

[7] Ibid, p. 18.

[8] http://www1.biologie.uni-hamburg.de/b-online/ibc99/koning/bees.html

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The Body of Christ at the Organ and Cellular Level: The Reproductive System

Within my body, I have a complete nervous system, digestive system, circulatory system, respiratory system, etc. These systems sustain and benefit my own bodily life. But what about the reproductive system?

The reproductive system is only complete when joined with another’s, and it exists for the creation of yet a third.

The reproductive system points to the truth that we are not made for ourselves. We are made to give ourselves away: we are made for love.

(For much, much more along these lines, see Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. I started with Theology of the Body for Beginners by Christopher West.)

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The Body of Christ at the Organ and Cellular Level: The Circulatory System

I have been reflecting on how the imagery of the Church as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12 and elsewhere) resonates at all levels of the human body. This idea first struck me while waiting in line to receive Holy Communion when I noticed the similarity of the flow of people to the flow of blood within the body. (I plan to develop connections to other aspects of the body in future posts.)

When we come to Mass, we are worn down by the cares and worries of life. We are in need of refreshment and renewal. Likewise, when our blood cells are depleted of oxygen, they travel in the veins of the body to the heart to be re-oxygenated. The faithful standing in line at church making their way towards the altar are like the blood cells in the veins. When we receive the Eucharist at the heart of the church (the altar), we are given a new infusion of life. Then we are sent back into the world to do our work and share Christ’s life with the world–just as the blood cells are sent back to bring oxygen throughout the body in the arterial system.

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Mary, the Completion of Redeemed Humanity

While contemplating the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary, I was struck by the parallels between the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus and the Assumption and Coronation of Mary.  Hence the following musings:

When God created humankind in His image and likeness, it required both male and female to express that image and likeness (Genesis 1:27).  In his Theology of the Body 9:3, Pope St. John Paul II writes that it is in relationship with each other that we particularly express that image and likeness:  “man became the image of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons, which man and woman form from the very beginning.”  This reality is especially evident in the life-giving, self-gifting love of marriage which brings about the third person of the child, thus mirroring more completely the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity.

It thus seems very fitting that redemption would be made manifest in both a male (Jesus) and a female (Mary).  An important aspect of masculinity is that of initiating.  Jesus, God Incarnate, initiates and effects our redemption from sin and death.  He triumphs over the grave in the Resurrection and brings redeemed humanity into the presence of God in the Ascension.  To femininity belongs the gift of responding to that male initiation.  Mary responds with her whole heart to God’s initiative in redemption and helps to complete the beautiful drama of redemption when female humanity is also drawn, magnet-like, into God’s presence in the Assumption and shares in His triumph in the Coronation.

And who is the child, the third person of this redeemed image and likeness of God?  The Church, born when the Holy Spirit descends at Pentecost (the third Glorious Mystery).

Now-Bishop, then-Father, Robert Barron articulates a fascinating theological principle in his Catholicism DVD series that may prove helpful here.  He says that when God intends to work something in the Church as a whole, He first accomplishes it in one person (my paraphrase).  I believe that we are all meant to follow the example and path of Mary in responding wholeheartedly to God’s offer of salvation.  In a sense, all of humanity is in the role of responder to God’s initiative.  This is what is conveyed in the Biblical image of the Church as the Bride of Christ.

Let us give a resounding “Yes!” to God’s invitation to join Him in glory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

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Handmaid of Your Handmaid

Luke 1:38 from the Vulgate:

“dixit autem Maria

ecce ancilla Domini fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum”

Vanessa:  “Ecce ancilla ancillae tuae (Behold, I am the handmaid of Your Handmaid).”

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