Thursday, May 07, 2015

Saints in Our Midst

For those of us who are Catholic (and some of the rest of you, too), we have all these saints in heaven that we look up to, and we can pray to. We honor them (for those who might not know, no, we do not worship them).

We make much of them as great people, and rightly so. But what if we were to find out some day that we had saints in our own circle of friends, indeed, in our own homes, even among our own children? If we thought of that, would we, today, treat them differently than we do now? 

But they aren't perfect, we might say. No. No one living today - or through many past centuries - was perfect. Jesus was perfect. Mary was sinless. Saint Joseph must have come in at least a close third. But the rest of the saints? Were they perfect? Nope.

A saint, I was taught, is someone who practices virtue to a heroic degree. I never read anything about them practicing every single virtue to a heroic degree. They often had some particular virtue they were especially known for. What I think? I think we have a whole lot of saints running around right now, right where we are. Okay, maybe many of them are actually walking, not running, but they are out there, and we are bumping into them every day. 

So, what if we treated every person like he or she is a saint? What if we honored the good in each person? What if we overlooked the familiarity for a moment ("it's just my..." child, friend, neighbor), and thought about what Jesus did for each and every soul. What if we overlook the sins we think we see, and notice the good? It wouldn't be easy, would it? 

For me, the difficulty would be especially apparent on the road. Just yesterday, I caught myself glaring at a woman in her car for her offense, whatever it might have been; I don't even remember now. And then I realized what I had done, and I thought, "Who appointed me the teacher of drivers?" I don't know why she did what she did in that moment, but I do know I've made my own driving mistakes. And I've had to forgive myself for them. Can I do less for someone else?

What if we stopped, stopped the judgment and criticism of ourselves and others? What if we treated everyone - children, adults, neighbors, strangers - as the saints they have the potential to be?  We might fail many times. I will probably still find myself getting mad at other drivers. But if we just keep getting back up and trying again, we might begin to experience on earth some of the joy and peace we shall experience in heaven, the joy of living among the saints. 

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Is Imperfect Love Still Love?

I've heard people ask, sometimes, if this or that parental love is real love. I've always thought it was an interesting question. Is a love that punishes too harshly real love? Is a love that is too permissive real love? What does it take for love to be "real"? 

I'm referring here specifically to parents with their children, but some of this could also apply to the myriads of personal love: among parents, children, siblings, spouses, and friends.

I once read a memoir by a girl who was badly abused by her mother (even given the worst room and little food), and yet somehow she grew up to be very loving. Of course love comes from God, but how did she connect with it? Did it come only from others in her life? Or did some of it come from little crumbs of love her mother may have given her, too, even in the midst of so much abuse? I wonder these things as I read these kinds of stories.

Or let's say parents raise their children in a loving environment, but when the children grow up, they believe and behave differently than the parents expected; and as a result, the parents choose not to communicate with them. Does that mean the parents never loved them to begin with, but only wanted them to be clones? As strongly as I disagree with parents verbally or emotionally shutting out their children - as unloving as I believe that is - still, somehow, I find it hard to believe that the love with which they brought them up wasn't real, even though it's so very painful for the now-adult children to be cut off. 

And of course that can work the other way too. I've known cases where a grown child cut off communication with a parent. Again, it's so painful for the parent. I can only imagine! But again, does that mean the child never loved his parent? Probably not. Probably he or she is hurting, and may even be wishing he knew how to mend the gate.

Or, on the other hand, sometimes a parent won't let go of their mature adult child (perhaps a child who is a parent himself or herself), and won't seem to recognize that their child is not a "child" anymore. Maybe the parent thinks they recognize their child's adulthood, but maybe that older parent shows displeasure whenever the adult child doesn't meet his or her expectations in some way. I once saw a mother so mad at her adult daughter's choice of where to live - it didn't meet her standards - that she threw a bowl of potato salad across the kitchen. Another time I saw a woman yell at her adult son who came from out of town to visit, and the local grandchildren became afraid of their uncle, because, to their young minds, if Grandma thought he was awful, he must be. 

If we brought our children up in an authoritarian way, maybe we need to let that go, and realize that maybe we are still "punishing" our adult children when we yell at them or sulk. Or if we were permissive, maybe it's because we weren't emotionally present enough. Maybe we should run our attitudes by the filter of how we would treat other adults. Would we yell at our friends, or not make an effort to spend time with them?

But does any of this mean that the parent's love isn't real? Or does it only mean that the love is imperfect? 

No human being walking this earth today is perfect. We all, young or older, have room for growth. We grow, and then we find we need to grow again. We get weary, and then we find we need to pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off, and work at it some more. I, for one, find it exhausting. Yet I think the rewards are great.

It's scary to grow, though, because to grow, we have to admit, somewhere in our being, that we were not perfect. But you know why that's scary? I think it's partly because some of us tend to treat ourselves like that "bad" child too. We beat ourselves up with our words or thoughts or our feelings of shame. Whether it's for the way we treat our children, or the way we used to treat our children, or out of some shame we felt as a child ourselves, we sometimes tend to be harsh with least I know I sometimes do; I don't know about you. 

I think we need to forgive ourselves, not once, but seventy times seven times. Not to forgive ourselves as permission to continue as we are. But to forgive ourselves so that we will have permission to change, permission to keep on growing in kindness, to keep picking ourselves up and trying again. I believe imperfect love is still love. But I believe we can have so much more happiness, and give so much more love, if we just keep forgiving ourselves, and if we just keep trying to be kind to both ourselves and others, over again, and over again. 

At least, that's my opinion. What do you think? 

I would like to add a few words about where this came from. Several years ago, I saw where someone said that conditional love isn't really love. I wasn't sure I agreed with that, but I mulled it over, remembering experiences I had seen, thinking about memoirs I was reading, where one theme I kept seeing was that most people, however harsh their childhood was, still love their parents. So then I had all these ideas roaming around in my head. And I kept feeling like I had to get these ideas out and work them over, like clay. So tonight I tried to get them out, and make sense of them for myself. I hope they made sense to you, too.