Naivety, Social Responsibility, and the Holidays

This Sunday, we begin another season of Advent. Apparently, I’ve got a lot of questions about this. 

They say around your mid twenties, your prefrontal cortex in your brain finally completes its process of growing. This is a why teens make impulsive and reactionary decisions, don’t wear sunscreen, wear impractical clothing, and have higher car insurance payments. In other words, the part of the brain that makes judiciary decisions literally doesn’t exist (in full) yet.

In the last couple of years I can point out specific events and actions that prove my prefrontal cortex has probably completed its development. After getting in our fender bender earlier this year, I drive extra safe and don’t take chances on the road. I remember in my teen years unthinkingly believing that a car wouldn’t actually hit me. (Spoiler alert, they can and do.) I will grab my umbrella even the if the chance of rain is slim. Bring the extra jacket. Wear the comfy shoes. I’ve got 27 years of experience here and one too many blisters. 

This past Thanksgiving was a time of reflection for me. I was able to see the holiday through my child’s eyes – not unlike how I experienced it as a kid. There was seemingly unending football on the TV. Lots of pie and sweets. A photo shoot at the quick-studio in the mall. As far as she was concerned, the daily routine from home had fallen to the wayside and it was party time. Fun was the name of the game and there was not much more to be thought on the subject.

My semi-newly developed prefrontal cortex sees things differently. On the one hand – it’s good. I’m growing, becoming less reactive, becoming more confident in the things that matter, and less certain of the things I once thought were unquestionable. But it was difficult to enjoy Thanksgiving for me this year.

The Macy’s day parade used to be a silly fun thing to watch. This year, I couldn’t deny it was just one giant commercial. Black Friday – just another ploy to get you to spend more money. Football, once a significant part of my culture and life, and glue for bonding with my father, wasn’t so easy to stomach with knowledge of not just the concussion controversies, but the corruption within the system as a whole. Even the turkey and pie didn’t taste as good knowing that someone, somewhere was hungry and cold. Yes, I’ve known these things all along, but somehow this time around, they over-shadowed the holiday.

I have a theory (that I haven’t fully developed yet) about religion manifesting one way or another in society. If it’s not Christianity or Islam, it’s Veganism or Social Change. We want to feel like someone can save the world, supernatural or not, because we have to cling to hope for something. Otherwise why would we press on?

Religion provides society with a moral code, an uplifting message – a pep talk if you will, community in which to live, thrive, and connect with, and most importantly, a redemptive factor that promises we can and should try to be the best people we can. Even after we have failed to do so. If we aren’t receiving these virtues through an organized religion per se, they still find a way to reach us. 

Catholic guilt gets a bad rap. But I find guilt has nestled its way into our culture regardless of who or what you pray to. You can barely enjoy anything these days without someone shaking their finger and giving you a lecture about it. Fast fashion, factory farming, class disparities. All important topics in grave need of attention. Guilt serves a purpose, but unlike in the Catholic faith, guilt in the secular world has no reconciliation. The message of redemption, forgiveness and absolution lies in the wild west of earthly things. We know the human spirit, full of goodness, is also full of imperfection and vice. Can humanity, alone, save humanity? To be honest, we don’t have a great track record.

As Catholics, especially, we have an urgent responsibility to care for each other. Last week’s reading was quite clear. But different people have different vocations and even different seasons in our lives call for different types of giving. We aren’t all called to be Martin Luther Kings, Mother Theresas and Pope Francises but we are all called to be and do something. The vastness and uniqueness the saints are wonderful inspiration for finding our individual vocations. On a philosophical level, I frequently struggle with the best way to give. (Is this fiscally? Is this in action? Does the action necessarily have to yield obvious benefits? To give a very simple case, is giving the dollar to the homeless person on the subway a duty? Does it matter that the dollar may not actually help them? Perhaps it is in the act of giving that matters, not the end result?) I’m inconclusive, constantly journeying through this query.

In the spirit of advent season, it’s a time to gather, celebrate, and most importantly, give. My prefrontal cortex wants desperately to do it right. But how do you give and simultaneously enjoy your blessings? The last thing I want is for guilt and shame to overshadow the magic of the season (guilt has never been all that productive of an emotion anyways) –  and particularly for my child with whom I want to share the unadulterated and innocent joy with. There has to be a balance I can strike here. I’m genuinely interested in this conversation and would love to hear your thoughts. (If you’ve somehow miraculously made it this far in this long, far too pensive blog post.)

How do you reconcile social responsibility and the advantages you might have?


3 thoughts on “Naivety, Social Responsibility, and the Holidays

  1. Beth Anne says:

    I totally agree that the Macy’s Day parade just seems like one giant commercial! Man I never thought of it that way but it is!

    Sometimes I think the internet makes holidays and life more stressful. The “tips” people post are usually helpful but sometimes they aren’t. They are more like these are all the holiday related things that you aren’t doing but you should be doing and if you aren’t you are a bad person/catholic. I used to love the holidays but now I feel like it’s just a reminder of all the things that I want to do but don’t have time for.

  2. Rebecca says:

    I found myself nodding along with so much of this. For me, it has come down to focusing on what is really happening on the holidays, and also living them throughout the year, not just on one day of the year when the calendar tells me I’m supposed to do so.

    I have 10 years and a whole lot of other lived experiences than you do, some painful realizations that Christmas is coming, whether I’m ready (tangibly, spiritually, emotionally, etc) or not. And not in a Grinch-heart-grows-three-sizes-and-gives-all-the-gifts way, but in a way that is “Jesus is coming. He is coming back, someday. He is coming whether I’m ready or not.” kind of way. And so, our focus is there. It’s as simple and complicated as that.

    There is magic in Jesus taking on a human form that doesn’t need to be disguised as magic of Santa Claus – and it also doesn’t need to be a bah-humbug tell all the kids Santa isn’t real. What has saddened me recently is seeing all of the ads for Christmas and the joy is centered around parents getting joy out of watching their children open the gifts they wanted and the children’s joy. I love watching my daughter have joy over a new item as much as any parent, but where do I find the most joy? When she blesses herself walking into Mass on Sundays; when she squeals “There’s Mary! I found Mary!” when we walk into a new church; when she picks up a tiny baby I have and says “shhhh, baby Jesus sleeping.” The fruit of the 5th joyful mystery (finding of Jesus in the temple) is: Joy in Finding Jesus.

    Sometimes that joy is in a gift given; sometimes it’s in a warm drink handed to someone standing outside asking for food; sometimes it’s in a quiet holiday celebration at home with just the immediate family instead of a large family gathering; sometimes it’s in the large gathering. For us, that is how we approach the holidays – where will we find joy in finding Jesus. That is what carried me through last Christmas, the first one after my Dad died – when my temptation was to be sad and cynical, but remembering that Christmas is the very reason why I have hope I will see my Dad again someday.

    I’m not sure I contributed much – I don’t mean to sound preachy, I just sort of wrote as I was thinking. We don’t do this perfectly – I had a screaming two year old on my hands this morning because this past week has just been too much – and I definitely do not want to give the impression that we have it all figured out. But today, as I reflect on what we did wrong the last 7 days that led to the total meltdown this morning, your post was a good reminder to me to step back and remember all that I wrote above. Thank you for that.

    • cassondrajw says:

      This is exactly the dialog I was hoping for! It’s hard though right? Experiencing the holy amongst the secular. Funnily enough – the presents aren’t really a thing for me. Even as an older kid, they weren’t my favorite part about Christmas. It was the experience of being together, eating delicious food, coziness, and celebration that I loved, and still do! I think also, since my daughter goes to a Jewish preschool, I’ve been really learning a lot about Judaism. It’s shifted my perspective a little bit on advent and made it that much more important!

      I’ve also just been reflecting a lot on the ways my daughter will (whether intentionally or not) absorb the “culture” of my husband and I. I want that to involve awareness of our blessings, but also with a duty to give back to those who might not have such advantages. This comes up a lot this time of year – of course it’s important year round, but it’s nice to take advantage of the opportunities to give this time of year.

      Hope this wasn’t too much of a ramble!

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