Monday, 30 October 2017

A Catholic Perspective on Arranged Marriages

The concept of arranged marriages is as fascinating and repulsive to the Western world, as it is natural and normal to most of India. Most of my friends’ parents had arranged marriages, most likely all of their ancestors before them. Some of my schoolmates, and many of the students I’ve given talks to have shared that arranged marriages are a normal part of their family culture, and expected of them as well. Surprisingly, many Catholics from more traditionally Indian cultures have also retained this custom.

What does this really mean? Well, it means different things for different cultures, and different generations. Most commonly it means serious parental involvement in the timing and choice of marriage partner. At a particular age, the parents of a girl (and often guy too) start ‘looking for a match’. How do they do this? Well, there are matrimonial columns, the network of relatives, weddings are apparently prime occasions to display your marriageable children, and view potential spouses. I’m a little fuzzy on the details. As far as I know, once you hear of a good match, the parents do a little research, asking questions like ‘How much does this boy earn? What kind of job? Any bad habits? Good family? Any shameful family secrets? Esteemed by the world in general?” etc. If all these are answered satisfactorily, they ask someone to approach the parents of the other side, or they contact them themselves with a proposal. (Aren’t proposals so romantic?

Then there is the ‘meeting’. The potential groom’s family comes over to the potential bride’s, and under their watchful eye, they ‘get to know each other’. (And don’t forget the tea served by the ‘girl’, as the ‘boy’ and his family look her over.) In most cases, both the man and woman have to give their okay, and if they do, the arrangements begin. Sometimes, they get to meet a few more times before having to make a final decision. In much more modern settings, the arranged marriage is more of a set-up, where the initial introduction is done through ‘elders’ or relatives or godparents, which possibly included a bio and photo, but the couple meet themselves and decide if they like each other enough to consider each other potential spouses. Not so different from dating sites in the West. 

Most non-Indians think arranged marriages are an archaic and terrible idea. And yet, I know many couples who are very happily married after having had their marriages arranged for them. For many, they went into the marriage with their eyes open, had enough in common (culture and expectations) to build a home together, and grew to love the person that they did not know well before they were married. 

Some people say it’s the luck of the draw. Many ‘love marriages’ fall apart, many ‘arranged marriages’ don’t. Marriage is a risk one way or another. You can’t guarantee happiness. Plus, arranged marriages have the advantage of helping everyone find a life partner. Expecting everyone to find their own spouse seems a little haphazard and possibly dooming many people to the single life. For someone with a Catholic perspective on marriage, what are we to make of arranged marriages? Are we for them, against them, or do we reserve judgment? 

It’s me, Sue! I never reserve judgment! :-D 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says a lot about marriage. But here’s a relevant excerpt: 1625 The parties to a marriage covenant are a baptized man and woman, free to contract marriage, who freely express their consent; "to be free" means: 
- not being under constraint; 
- not impeded by any natural or ecclesiastical law. 

1626 The Church holds the exchange of consent between the spouses to be the indispensable element that "makes the marriage." If consent is lacking there is no marriage. 

1627 The consent consists in a "human act by which the partners mutually give themselves to each other": "I take you to be my wife" - "I take you to be my husband." 

One of the big problems I see in many arranged marriages is that there may not be REAL freedom. Maybe there isn’t someone holding a gun to your head and forcing you to the altar, but there are other ways of constraining people- like emotional blackmail and pressure. How common is it for the parents of young women to keep at them, day in and day out, telling them it is their duty to marry, not to be picky, nobody is perfect anyway, that it’s ‘high time’ they settled down, that they need grandchildren, ‘what will people say?’, that time is running out, their chances are decreasing, and such other emotionally manipulative techniques. (It happens to guys too, but far more to girls because you know, they have shorter shelf lives.)

The poor girl feels like there is no other option, and she must make the best of the choices offered to her, whether or not she feels called to it, whether she really knows the man well, or whether she has even discerned if she is called to married life at all. 

CATHOLICS! This is not God’s plan or call for married life! We have quite happily imposed culture onto our faith, and told young Catholics- this is your duty as a good and respectable Catholic. And then we wonder why there are so many unhappy marriages, marriages built on shaky foundations, broken and unhappy marriages and family lives. If you start a marriage without a firm foundation on truth and freedom, it MAY last, but most likely when the storms of temptation and crisis come (as they will), the edifice will collapse. 

So what is the truth? What is God’s call for young (and old) men and women discerning marriage? And how does that fit into the concept of arranged marriages? 

1. You don’t HAVE TO get married. Shocker, I know! That is the first lie that can rob your freedom. God has not mandated that everyone has to get married. Some are called to religious life. Some are called to be consecrated singles. Some may never be in a position to get married for various reasons. And it is possible that some are called to remain single… unless they find the right person. The lie is that you HAVE to, and that the worst and most shameful state anyone can find themselves in is OLD and UNMARRIED. Guess what? That is definitely not the worst fate one can suffer. How about married but cheated on? How about married and abused every day by your alcoholic spouse? How about married but abandoned emotionally or physically? We all know exactly how common these scenarios are. But when you think you HAVE to get married, you may choose an arranged marriage that may not have been God’s plan or will for your life. 

2. There is no specific age that God demands you are married by: We grow up with a number in our head that is our last possible age to get married. Families who are open to their children finding their own spouse start fretting as they cross 25. And then, oh horror, if they touch 30 without finding that elusive spouse! The pressure is ramped up! The emotional blackmail and the desperation go up, and the standards go down. Now, I understand that marrying in your 20s increases your likelihood of having children, which is such a beautiful and central part of what marriage is about. And yet, the biological clock ticking is still not a good enough reason to ‘settle’. Here is a reassuring fact- you can have biological children well into your 30s, and often in your 40s, not to mention the beautiful world of adoption! 

Rolling my eyes so hard I can see my brain

3. You must KNOW the person you are giving yourself to: Do you really think you can know a person based on a couple of meetings, the reports of others, and with a bio including a list of achievements, degrees, hobbies and random adjective like ‘religious, open minded, hardworking, humble’ etc? It’s true that you can’t FULLY know a person ever, and that there will always be surprises after you get married. Yet, you can know far more of a person’s character and priorities by taking time to do so, rather than trusting on what he or she or anyone else says about them. It’s a life changing decision with lifelong repercussions! As I read somewhere, you are choosing the person who will raise your children, you are choosing your travelling companion, the person with whom you will spend most of your leisure time, the one who will most affect your happiness in this life. Isn’t getting to know this person worth taking time over? 

4. Your parents can’t choose for you: Honour your father and mother does not mean that God has delegated to them the responsibility of choosing your spouse. In fact the Catechism of the Catholic Church says “When they become adults, children have the right and duty to choose their profession and state of life… Parents should be careful not to exert pressure on their children either in the choice of profession or in that of a spouse.’ CCC 2230. How many Indian Catholic parents know this? You are not disrespecting your parents or disobeying God if you assert your right to choose your own spouse when and how you feel led to. That of course doesn’t mean you should not listen respectfully and openly to the advice and wisdom of your parents. But listen, pray about it, talk to trusted Catholic mentors, and then make your own decision. You are the one who has to live with your spouse for the rest of your life. 

So how can we take these truths and apply them to arranged marriages? 

1. Pray about the right time for you to get married: Put God first, and seek His direction for your life. Don’t entertain proposals if it is not the right time for you. Maybe God has called you to focus on Him for a while, maybe you are in the middle of a demanding course of studies, maybe you need to grow in maturity, discipline, work on your mental health, or taking responsibility for your life. Share your thoughts with your parents. Set boundaries if they are being pushy or emotionally manipulative. 

2. View potential spouses through the lens of Christ: When you are ready to meet people, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you. Ask the important questions, and forget about ‘what people will say’. Look at character, priorities, goals and faith. Everything else is fluff. 

3. Take your time: Assert yourself and tell your family and your future spouse that you want to get to know him/ her well before making a decision. “But we don’t do that in my family!” Well, you can be the first! You can do this! Change has to start somewhere. Talk to this potential spouse and plan together ways to get to know each other. Meeting over coffee or in the church compound for brief conversations isn’t enough. Do group activities together, plan a service project together, spend time with each other’s families, go on retreats together, pray together, and talk to experienced married couples together. Revolutionary, you say? Why not start a revolution? Maybe you will be the one to help your younger siblings and cousins to have healthier courtships and marriages. 

4. Feel free to say no: You are a free human being! It doesn’t matter how much anyone else wants the match, or how old you are, or even if you just want to be settled. If you see any red flags, if you see manipulative behaviour, shaky morals, a propensity for alcohol abuse, an unwillingness to communicate, or prioritize faith, don’t rationalize those things away or ignore them. The point of spending time together is to be able to make an informed decision. Even if the wedding date is set, and the guests are invited, say NO! (That goes for love marriages too.) Your life and your future happiness are more important than a temporary dramatic and embarrassing situation. 

5. If you say yes, be ready to LOVE this person: Don’t get married as a business arrangement, as a way of gaining security, or even children. Search your motives. Catholic marriage means choosing to LOVE each other. True love is willing the good of the other. You can grow that love in so many ways- asking about the other persons’ needs and preferences (and not just what you or your parents expect or want), consulting them first before making decisions, finding out their love language and using it, sharing your deepest thoughts, feelings and desires with them, and asking about theirs, and rearranging your life so that they come ahead of parents, friends, career goals, spending habits, or old hobbies. (That doesn’t mean those things and people don’t have a place anymore, just a different place.) All Catholic marriages are called to be love marriages, whether they start as arranged or not. 

The ‘arranged’ way can be a great way to meet potential spouses. Arranged marriages can be good, holy and beautiful witnesses to the unconditional love of God, provided we are willing to re-examine our cultural norms, and align them with the truth and freedom of Christ. God wants all our marriages to be good ones. Whether we are parents hoping to see our children married, or men and women seeking spouses, let’s work with Him to make that happen.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Moving from Pleaser to Rebel to Lover

Most Indians have grown up in a culture that has trained them to meet the expectations of others, to keep everyone happy by toeing the line, by worshiping at the shrine of Social Approval. At school you should be respectful, keep your head down, butter up the powerful teachers, get sentimental about your school, and say the things everyone wants you to say. You have to get good marks in your tenth standard exams, get your name on some kind of Topper’s List, get into the Science stream in Junior College, and then of course move into Engineering or if you’re REALLY smart, Medicine. Well, maybe MBAs are okay too. Everything else is substandard and a disappointment to your family.

If you’re a woman, you should spend most of your time at home, make sure you’re not seen alone with a guy, and don’t try anything too far out of what most Indian girls do. After all, what will people say? At the right age, you must find the right spouse to marry (fair, earning a large salary, from the same community as yourself) and spend the right amount of money on your wedding because that is what the God of Social Approval demands. Let your parents decide for you because Indian Culture. Get the kind of house and job that everyone in your world expects. Have your two children (one boy and one girl) and leave them with their grandparents because that’s what everyone does now. If you dutifully do all that this god demands, you will be rewarded by the love and approval of the world in general.

It may not look exactly like this for every family or culture. There are variations. But usually you should conform to the things that your family and culture cares about. You should have their prejudices, hate the people they hate, mock the things they mock. The same thing happens at school, at college, in church, in your established social circles. Don’t rock the boat. Be a Pleaser. Say the things that make people happy. Fulfil their expectations. That’s what makes you a good daughter, a dutiful son. Pleasers struggle with anxiety, right? Because you are constantly striving to win the approval of everyone, because everyone has an opinion about your life, and if you want their love, you have to win it by heeding their advice. You lose your sense of identity and self-worth as you desperately try to keep everyone in your life happy, and fail anyway.

If you don’t conform, if you choose a career or lifestyle very different from your family, get married too early or too late, have more than two children, marry someone from the wrong community, have an odd hobby or interest, choose to homeschool, convert to a different religion, or support the wrong political party, you will face the consequences. The God of Social Approval will take his revenge—you will be criticized, rejected, ostracized, gossiped about, and held up as an example.

This society and culture is a perfect recipe for the creation of a generation of Rebels. The Rebels have had enough. They reject people-pleasing with such vigour, that they will go out of their way to make sure they don’t accidentally please the older generation. They reject everything to do with tradition and traditional morality, and the religion of their forefathers, and they burn the idols of Social Approval in public at every chance they get. They’ll share posts that often seem defensive or reactionary- ‘Love yourself first!’, ‘Haters gonna hate!’, ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner!’, ‘You do you!’, ‘Buy those shoes! Go on that trip! Pamper yourself!’ and will applaud and support everything that challenges the way things were. Rebels will usually identify as agnostics or atheists (perhaps because the expectations of old were usually connected with religion).

Rebels get to taste the freedom of doing their own thing, and boy, it tastes sweet. Sometimes it means leaving your city or your country, starting anew far from family in a more private culture where nobody knows you and nobody cares what you do with your life. Sometimes it means always being in fighter mode, ready to defend your choices, and show people why you’re right. It can be pretty tiring to live life as a rebel.

Or sometimes the Rebels have stopped defending themselves or their choices. You just quietly live your life on your own terms and just stop caring what the aunties said about you. Maybe you stop caring about everything except what you feel like doing at any given moment. Eat that donut. Flirt with that guy. Read that erotic novel. Take what you want. Go on that expensive vacation. Nobody has the right to judge you. The New God is You.

[Sometimes Rebels aren’t real rebels - you leave one form of people-pleasing for another. Instead of the older generation of your family, you are now trying to win the approval of your new social circle who have pretty stringent rules about what a rebel can and can’t do. Rebels must be down with party culture, with getting drunk, with sexually permissive behaviour (or are they really rebels?). Rebels may not associate themselves with any one traditional religion. (Cults, communes, new age practises are all okay though.) Rebels must not believe in objective morality. Rebels must laugh at anything associated with tradition. These rebels may reach the same state as the Pleasers of feeling stifled and inauthentic, forced to follow arbitrary rules. And then maybe they re-rebel, and choose to stop caring about those rules too.]

Often real rebels reach a point in their life where they have to question whether ME is a satisfactory or worthy god. Maybe you find that ‘you doing you’, an untrammeled life, free of any expectations or restrictions or demands didn’t bring the satisfaction it promised. And that’s when you get to choose what foundation you want to build your life on.

I propose today a new identity for the Pleasers and the Rebels. And that identity is based on a foundation of Love and Truth. No longer must you do things because that’s what is expected of you. No longer must you do things just because they’re NOT expected of you. Set down your cudgels. You don’t have to please everyone, neither do you have to challenge or convince everyone. Even better, you no longer have to worship at the shrine of the changeable, fickle and selfish god of You. You are hereby set free.

Instead you may choose the Real God—the God of love and truth. There are real demands when you choose this God, but not demands that crush you or drain you of your identity. Instead, you are simultaneously set free from your own ego, and are transformed (slowly) into your truest self.

Pope John Paul II said “Love places demands on us. Modern culture says that anything that places demands on us limits our freedom. “How can I be free if I have responsibilities? How can I be free if I have obligations to others?” However, we become most alive when we live for others. Anyone who has fallen in love knows they are most alive when they have given themselves completely and exclusively to the one they love; forgoing all other loves. Love brings inner freedom.

What does this new life look like? It is not marked primarily by ‘doing your own thing’. Instead it is response to each situation with the question ‘What is the wise, truthful and loving thing for me to do?’ It is no longer a reaction to people’s expectations. People may applaud your choices, or they may criticize them, but that is no longer the defining or weightiest factor in your decisions. Mother Teresa didn’t start serving the poor on the streets of Kolkata because she knew that would make people look up to her. She did it because she heard God calling her to do it. She did not stop doing it because people accused her of corruption and ulterior motives. She instead gave one of the wisest and most peace-filled responses I have ever heard: “People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway… In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.” She was a Lover par excellence.

A Lover can live a sacrificial life without resentment. A Lover can draw healthy boundaries and stick to them without anger, fear, or guilt. A Lover can be open to reconsidering old opinions in the light of love and truth. A Lover can both respect and love the members of their family without having to agree with everything they believe. A Lover can choose to treat people who identify as LGBTQ with love and respect, and yet not support same-sex marriage, which will most likely make both sides mad at them. They can make counter-cultural choices not because they are counter-cultural but because they believe they are doing what is right. They can choose the truth of the Church, and still call out the crap they see in the human structures that are part of the Church.

Let go of people-pleasing and rebellion. Neither will bring you true peace or freedom. Choose instead the God of love, and become a Lover.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

The Catholic Guide to Movie-Watching

“Would you eat chocolate if it had a little poop in it?”

“Ewww! No!”

“Then why would you watch movies with even a little bit of sin in them? If Catholics are watching all the same movies as everyone else, how can we think we are any different?”

Thus goes an argument for boycotting all movies that have any depiction of sin in any form. Unfortunately this leaves the viewers with practically no movie options, except for perhaps saint movies, kid’s movies and movies from before the 1980s (and even those are not exempt from the ‘sin’ criteria). It also almost implies that we shouldn't be friends with those who sin (which again is everyone), rather than seeing there is good and bad in most people (and movies), and we may need better criteria for choosing movies (and friends).

On the other hand, this is how the pro-all movies, anti-censorship Catholic movie watchers argue: “It is not what goes into a man but what comes out of him that defiles him. Just because you watch a movie with sinful characters doesn’t mean YOU are going to go out and start murdering people, and dealing drugs, and stealing paintings. Plus, Catholics aren’t called to live in a bubble. It makes us irrelevant to the rest of the world when we don’t have the slightest connection with the culture of everyone else.”

Both sides have a point. Watching every crappy movie that comes out influences you whether you admit it or not. We become what we consume. So I don’t fault people who almost never watch movies as a way to avoid the pitfalls of senseless consumption of media. At the same time, there are so many good movies that spark discussion and thought and even change that I refuse to condemn all movie watching.

So where do you draw the line? The Vatican has not come out with a List of Movies that are Acceptable for Catholics to Watch. Even though some people would love that, Jesus and His Church leave many matters to our prudential judgment. So how do you make that judgment? Are all movies no big deal? Or are there some movies we should avoid if we are trying to stay close to God? How do you decide which they are? I don’t have foolproof answers. But I can offer you some helpful guidelines that I have picked up over the years of trying to live in the world, and yet not be of the world.

Have you done your research? Before switching on a movie, look it up. You can choose what you put it your mind. Once it’s in there it’s a lot harder to get it out. Look up Decent Films, movie reviews by a Catholic film critic, Stephen Greydanus. He gives ratings for artistic/entertainment value, as well as moral/spiritual value. Look at the plot overview. Most likely it will give you enough clues about what to expect. If the premise itself is ridiculous (look up the description for the movie 40 Days and 40 Nights for example), why go there?

Does this movie glorify sinful or unhealthy lifestyles, blur the lines between good and evil, or glamorize evil? One of the movies I most regret watching as a teenager was American Pie. Crude, ugly, provocative and pointless. When I was a teenager, FRIENDS was extremely popular. (Yes, I’m that old.) It was a consistently witty and often heart-warming show where the characters begin to feel like our friends. But how many of us began to laugh off the casual sex, the irresponsible behaviour, the selfishness, and the short-lived romantic relationships as lovable quirks? You can’t avoid the truth of the existence of sin, but when sin becomes something amusing, then you know you’ve lost the sense of sin. It’s a gradual and almost invisible shift in our perspective.

How do you feel after watching certain kinds of movies? Empty, sad, depressed? A lot of romantic comedies can be used just as an unsatisfying escape from real life, making us fixate on an unrealistic ideal, and making us less and less satisfied with our off screen lives. Pope John Paul II talked about this desire to escape: "Faced with problems and disappointments, many people will try to escape from their responsibility: escape in selfishness, escape in sexual pleasure, escape in drugs, escape in violence, escape in indifference and cynical attitudes. But today, I propose to you the option of love, which is the opposite of escape."

Does the movie use sex scenes or love scenes just to ramp up sexual tension? Sometimes a movie implies that someone slept with someone else, and that’s part of the storyline. But you can tell when the movie makers are using the scene to ‘to plunge the viewer into a heightened state of awareness’ as Alanna Boudreau put it in her blog on the same topic. Most likely, watching overly sensual scenes just makes it a little harder for you to avoid selfishness and lust creep into the expression of your sexuality. Sometimes though the movie is good enough to fast forward your way through the few bits like that.

Is there anything true, good, or beautiful in the movie? Some stories have no explicit reference to God, and yet they reveal Him, or point to Him because everything that is good, true or beautiful come from Him and point back to Him. Themes of self-sacrifice, courage, selfless love, transformation and perseverance come out in any well-told human story and point us to who we really are and what we were made for. I really loved the transformation story in Blood Diamond, for example.

Are you engaging your mind when you watch a movie? A movie always has a message, but you can choose to agree or disagree with the message. I think it would often be very fruitful to talk about movies after watching them, rather than just consuming their messages as if they were Gospel truth. You can enjoy a movie, like the characters, see a lot of good in it, and still see the flaws. I think that’s a great approach when watching movies with kids too. Ask thought-provoking questions, and be willing to have honest discussions. Measure it up with what you know to be true. Look for truth, and look for lies, and talk about it.

How much time are you spending on movie-watching? Public confession- I have spent way too much of my life watching movies. It’s easier to watch life than to live it. It’s easier to applaud courage and love than to BE courageous and loving. It’s easier to get attached to and invested in fictional characters than the real life human beings around me. The people whom I admire the most watch very little TV. That’s because they’re busy LIVING their lives. I was already aware that too much TV was not good for me. But then I attended a retreat where the priest, a wise old Carmelite, showed us clearly the link between lukewarmness in prayer and too much media consumption (especially TV shows/serials or long duration entertainment as he put it), and it became pretty clear that I had to take a big step back. In the past month I’ve watched very little TV and I’ve found my mind clearer and more productive, my brain less distracted and jumpy.

Are you willing to make some changes? Get rid of movies that you know are bad for you. Make a decision about how often you are going to watch movies- once a week, twice a week? Decide to only watch movies with someone else, if that will help you to be accountable. It’s easier to forget all your standards when you’re alone and bored. Many years ago when my sister and I were becoming a little more serious about our faith and its implications to our daily lives, we started watching a movie together. It became clear pretty soon that there was no value to the movie, that it failed all the criteria for a good movie. In the past we would have just kept watching the movie, just because it was on, continuing to hope for redemption. But this time we looked at each other and said ‘Let’s just put it off’. And we did! Look for replacement activities to do when you're bored. Sketch, write, read, bake, write a letter, go for a walk.

Have you really brought this area to God? Ask Him to permeate every part of your life, including your leisure time. It’s too easy to compartmentalize, to ask God to wait in another room while I watch what I want to watch. But He wants to bring light into every dark corner. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds!

Usually after you’ve come to know more fully the beauty and truth of life in Christ, it’s much easier to see how shallow some movies are. I watched a LOT of movies as a teenager, and re-watched them as an adult. I was shocked at the crap I allowed into my mind, or that I thought was normal. But in Christ there is redemption! Living the Christian life is not about restrictive rules, but the freedom that comes from cutting out the crap and living more intentionally.

P.S. In case you’re interested, here are some movies from the top of my head that I’ve enjoyed (far from comprehensive list!):
Blood Diamond
The Martian
Wonder Woman
X-Men: Days of Future Past
The Scarlet and the Black
Lord of the Rings (all of them)
Groundhog Day
Saving Mr. Banks
The Great Escape
It Happened One Night
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Sound of Music
Hotel Rwanda
Pride and Prejudice (BBC mini series)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
The Vow
About Time
Déjà Vu
How to Train Your Dragon

Do you have any good movie recommendations?

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Where's MY Person?

A couple of months ago I was going through one of those self-pity days, where it seems as if being single was the single most unfair fact of any person's existence (never mind terminal illnesses, deaths of loved ones, mental illness, or financial struggles).

I started complaining to the Lord, which is what I do, when I'm in a bad mood. "I have to do so much of travelling, up and down, dragging my heavy bags along, ALL ALONE. Couples are always looking out for each other. One can watch the bags while the other one goes to the loo. I have to drag all my bags into the stall with me."

"If someone is mean or annoying or upsetting or unfair, couples always have someone they can unload to, someone who is on their side no matter what."

"Couples always know there is someone who has their back. They know that no matter how their day goes, they go home to 'their person', who will sympathize and listen to them talk about the same stuff over and over again."

"And what about my future? I have to think about my future, make plans, and even dreams ALL ALONE. Couples get to do it together! They get to plan out their life as a team! What about ME? Where's MY person?"

I was practically in tears at this point, having convinced myself that wow, my life really did suck, and I was the most deprived and pitiable wretch that ever did live. I gazed into the future and it seemed bleak, a solitary figure plodding along, with no hope or joy or companionship.

And then came that still, small voice, that I rarely hear clearly because it's SO DARN LOUD inside my head. But I knew it was Him, because it was a voice of gentleness, tenderness and familiarity.

The Voice said: "Susanna, I'M your person."

That's all.

Clarity returned with a rush of rueful laughter.

Of course! WAS I alone all those times travelling? No, in fact, I sensed His presence even closer then, and every time I faced a travelling disaster, or even discomfort, He made his presence known. And anyway the real life couples that I knew didn't usually have those smooth travelling experiences that I imagined- they often had to travel by themselves, or juggling several young children and even more bags.

He always was there when I needed to unload (as I was doing at that very moment), and probably more so than any spouse could ever be. One of my friends told me her husband would often just fall asleep as she talked. Even the best husbands couldn't ALWAYS be constantly available.

He was ALWAYS on my side, even though He allegedly loved my 'enemies' as much as He loved me, I always knew I was His favourite. How many times had I run to Him furious, or anxious, or falling apart, or freaking out about something, and He held me, and calmed my fears, and put me back together?

My future was NOT alone and bleak- He had been walking with me so far, bringing different people, situations, and experiences into my life. I still hoped He would bring a husband, but even husbands can fail, or change, or leave, or die. He promised He never would. Not only did He walk with me, He sent me people who could laugh with me, and cry with me, and be my 'people' in a tangible ways when I needed them. I've never been part of a couple, but I have tasted and seen the goodness of human companionship. Why did I think that would change? It's so easy to buy into self-pity lies.

But now I choose to remember the truth, to write it, to fix it in my heart. The truth is that I already have my 'person'. And more than anyone else in this world, He's got my back.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

My Love-Hate Relationship with Facebook Comment Threads

I don’t know what it is, but as soon as I see an interesting/ thought-provoking/controversial headline or Facebook status, my eyes and my cursor are irresistibly drawn to the ‘Comment’ button.

“Don’t do it!” screams the rational and sane part of my brain, “You know what’s going to happen!” But like a teenage girl to an obsessive boyfriend, I just can’t/won’t stay away. Why do I do it?

My brain craves stimulation: A common INTJ problem. I just want to know what people are thinking and saying. I want to tickle my brain with more opinions, snarky retorts, and the answer to the question: ‘What does the general public think about this?’

I want someone to do my homework for me: A LOT of the time, I don’t actually want to read the article. But I do want to fact check, and I just know there will always be the Critic who will point out the obvious flaws or factual errors in the article or status. My assumption is that if no one challenges the statement, it’s probably true.

Morbid fascination: Sometimes I just KNOW it’s going to be bad. Any news article even slightly connected with the Catholic Church is going to have everyone with a (justified or ignorance-fuelled) grudge against the Catholic Church expressing their fury in no uncertain terms. Anything about Trump will have both the usual liberal Trump mockers, and the Trump supporters yelling pointlessly at each other. “Fake news! No other President has been treated so badly!” “You ignorant racist Trumpsters have brought this on us!” And I still I click on that button.

How has this Facebook comment fascination worked out for me? 

Facebook comments have sucked away hours of my life: Some of my friends who are wives and mothers keep talking about how much time they had when they were single, to exercise, to read, to create, to pray, to reach out. I agree in a non-committal way, trying hard to hide my guilty expression as I realize I’M SQUANDERING THE GOOD YEARS OF MY LIFE ON FACEBOOK COMMENTS.

I’m often left frustrated with the idiocy of vast swathes of humanity: It’s like entering a stadium and finding huge mobs of people screaming abuses at each other, while absolutely no one listens to anyone. But how much less of an idiot am I by choosing to be in that stadium at all? I could shout “Civil respectful dialogue! Try to listen to one another! STOP CALLING EACH OTHER NAMES!” but that’s as effective as parents yelling over their screaming children, “STOP YELLING! INSIDE VOICES!” (This is not only an online problem though. I realized today that I need to work on listening to understand, not talking to change someone’s opinion.)

This doesn’t help with my mission to love people: Facebook commenters are usually faceless voices. Well, they have faces, but I don’t notice them. Most people I know in real life are not plain good or bad, but a complicated mix of a lot of things. They are more than their opinions for sure. But on comment threads, they are nothing but opinions with names. So it’s easy for me to write them off, judge them, and close my heart to them. In real life though, I can see more of the WHOLE person. I got into a heated discussion with a couple of friends about Trump today, but most of our friendship has nothing to do with Trump. It’s harder to see on Facebook that most people are usually well-meaning with big blind spots, that they are PERSONS first, and as such, worthy to be loved in spite of their weaknesses. (And prayed for!)

Comment threads seem to bring out the worst in people: Commenters usually seem very defensive, offensive, or a scary mixture of the two. I can’t even imagine a real life exchange where people would use that many mean names, or make overt personal attacks.

But they also bring out the scary people: Sometimes people aren’t well-meaning. Sometimes they are mean, angry and violent. I’m going to make a leap, and guess that they may have psychological problems, traumatic or abusive childhoods, or an upbringing that encouraged hate speech and anger towards certain groups. They probably don’t have very fulfilling, balanced, joyful offline lives, and live much of their daily life fighting nasty battles online. This includes (but isn’t limited to) many extreme right-wing Indians who proudly defend a misogynistic, communal worldview or ideology. I find myself mumbling, “How is it possible that people really think like this?”

And mostly they bring out the people who can’t spell. What more can I say? How many times a day can one wince at a wrongly used ‘there’, ‘their’ or ‘they’re’? Let’s not even go into ‘its’ and ‘it’s’!

The reality of echo chambers is brought home: Because I’m a Catholic who believes in the importance of social justice issues as well as defending the truth of traditional morality, not to mention being pro-life in the defence of the unborn as well as every other marginalized and threatened life, I am caught in the middle of two very strongly opposing sides. I see on my Facebook feed very different opinions, news articles, and shared statuses. From these opposing sets of Facebook comment threads, it seems like there is some kind of weird broken reality, or an alternate universe where each side’s opinion makes perfect sense to them, each side is VERY sure they are right, and the other is completely wrong. Each group all seem to follow the same set of news articles and political or religious commenters, and simply echo what they say, reassuring themselves and each other that everyone with any sense believes the same thing.

So where is the love part of this love-hate relationship? 

You’re going to find this very hard to believe, but I have come across a very rare phenomenon- a balanced, thoughtful, respectful, and often funny set of comment threads. I’m talking about Simcha Fisher, a Catholic blogger and author. Not that there haven’t been some unpleasant moments (and a few rather rude commenters), but on the whole I have found that Simcha seems to have gathered a community of intelligent and thoughtful (if somewhat snarky) Catholics. There are usually heaps of anecdotes, often intelligent criticism or questions, and I leave these threads feeling edified and encouraged… even when I don’t agree with everyone. I know there will be at least one devil’s advocate to help a discussion move forward, and not just pointless name-calling or back-patting.

So is there a point to this post? 


1. I need to swear off all Facebook comment threads.
2. Except the ones that edify me. '
3. And so should you.
4. Oh, and also, get off your darn phone and talk to some real life people! (Talking to you, Sue!)