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?


Go Ahead, Surprise Yourself

I recently tweeted something about the wonderful ability to surprise ourselves. This happens when I listen to country music (and enjoy it). Or crave a Southern meal. Although I don’t do much shopping these days, when I do, I might pick out a shirt that a year ago I’d never dream of wearing. As I peruse the endless pinterest mommy pages, I can’t help but laugh at the 18 year old Cassie and what she would think of 24 year old Cassie.

Surprise, surprise, in the last year my desires and emotions have changed. The things I said I wanted a year ago may or may not still apply. I have caught myself off guard with my traditional views on marriage and work. These days, I laugh at the “domestic duties” I not only experience, but enjoy. In college, I hoped to be a powerful woman with a career before starting a family. I viewed myself as a modern post-feminist wife who could be the next Marissa Mayer if I so chose. I’m young, I’m driven, the world’s my oyster, right? Well, my desires changed a little bit. I felt a pull to motherhood. As time went by, I began to crave simplicity. A laundry room. A driveway. Maybe a porch?

Ok, well our move to Queens doesn’t involve any of the above. (Well there’s laundry in the *building*. That’s a step up in NYC living.) But I’ve honestly surprised myself (and probably my husband, too) with my changing desires. I expect them to continue to change. In a year or 5, I might go a completely different direction. And we as humans have every right to do so.

This seems like common sense. You know, every year after you do your taxes, or maybe after your anniversary, I don’t know, pick a time, reconnect with your spouse and say, “Hey, we said this last year, but do we still want it? Has it changed? What do we want now?”

Silly as it sounds, I completely overlooked this during the newlywed year. I kept thinking, “Well we talked about before our wedding, that we wanted X,Y,Z. So I can’t change it up on him now.” But yes! Yes we can. And should. Because maybe a year ago, I didn’t have the information I have now.

I am grateful for our experience and time in the city, but I’ve learned quite a bit about myself. It has been anything but easy. I’ve learned (but probably already knew) that I am far from a vagabond. I hate living out of a suitcase and crave stability. I hate public transportation, and consider a good night a quiet one with wonderful company. I find content moments the most “thrilling” ones.

I have met some fantastic people here and had some incredible experiences. But let’s be honest, if it weren’t for my husband, I would not live here.

On the altar you say many broad and lofty goals. For better, for worse. That’s a huge promise! We don’t even know what we’re getting ourselves into. And to be honest, I’ve amazed myself at just how little I knew on my wedding day. I think to myself, “There’s no way I could have prepared myself for this. No book, no lecture, no blog post could ever have truly conveyed the journey of marriage as accurately as simply experiencing for myself.” Like what right did I have to say anything about marriage before getting married? Ha! I thought I knew it all. And as I enter the season of motherhood, oh boy, where do I begin. I am continually surprised at how I am called to humility on a daily basis in the sacrament of marriage. The universe likes to remind me that I actually don’t know everything and maybe should keep my mouth shut and my mind a little more forgiving more often. When you think you understand something is just when it seems to switch up. You surprise yourself and take a left instead of taking a right. And so the undertaking of “recalculating” begins and ends. Just in time to begin again.

The most recent event of “recalculation” happened when I saw that second line on that pregnancy test. Probably the best kind of recalculation.

So go ahead, surprise yourself. It may just be one of the greatest joys to be found in marriage.

The Prodigal Son: Humility and Pride

I’m about halfway through Fr. James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage. In this particular chapter I was reading last night, Martin was exploring the parable of the Prodigal Son. For the Christians who know it – it’s a really tough one to swallow. In fact, for me, I’d say it’s the hardest. It’s like Jesus is saying, “Get over yourself. Yes, you work hard. Yes, you’re noble and loyal. But you’re not any better than someone who doesn’t.”

For those unfamiliar with the parable, it’s a story of a father and 2 sons. The younger one pleads for his inheritance early and takes it and squanders it. Debauchery, prostitution, drugs, and vice. The older brother stays at his father’s farm and works diligently for his father, not taking any of his father’s money. Then out of change of heart or something, the younger brother comes home. He admits that he has disrespected his father. He begs for forgiveness and even says, “Consider me your worker now.” Out of excitement for his son’s homecoming, the father throws a huge celebration and brings out the best wine and meat he has on his farm. Naturally, the older brother is a little unsettled and, well, quite frankly, sour. He tells his father, “I’ve been nothing but loyal and committed to doing your work.” And the father says, “Yes, but your brother has come home! We must share joy for him.”

Now. We’ve all been the younger brother and the older brother. But I, and I don’t think I’m alone, feel like the older brother far more often than the younger one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve compared my blessings to someone else’s and muttered, “But I’ve worked harder for mine.”

As someone who takes her faith pretty seriously, I feel like I labor for my faith. I go to mass, I go to confession, I read the bible, I try (try being key word) to avoid sin. But look at all these guys who don’t work for it, right? Look at all these people who haven’t been to church in years, who do all the things we’re “not supposed to do” and they’re not just surviving, they’re thriving. It makes a girl wonder, “Why even bother??”

And so what are we supposed to take away from the prodigal son parable? To me, it’s the most unfulfilling message. The message is, “Don’t compare yourself to others, refrain from envy, and share joy in others’ successes and homecomings.” Well, gee, thanks. And we don’t get anything from it? Nope. Maybe holiness. But as I told a friend the other day, “Ya know, the path to holiness is no picnic.”

In other news, the path to holiness isn’t actually really even about me. Or how much I work. Or how hard I try. It’s not about people knowing how hard I try. It’s not about pleasure, and it’s not even about happiness. At least, not happiness in the 21st century way. (Happiness has gotten terribly misconstrued.)

So as I watch my friends who claim no faith, who see no value in religion, I’m supposed to be happy for their joy in life. And I’m supposed to share it. Because joy is a universal language. Regardless of who you pray to. And somewhere along the road, I might be one step close to a better person for it.

As Fr. James Martin put it, “We may act like the wayward younger brother and feel like the hardworking elder brother, but in the end we are called to be like the merciful father.”

Did that do you a dose of humility? Cuz it sure did for me.