Friday, June 21, 2013

A Lesson in Catholic Guilt, or on Fathers and Father's Day

UPDATE: A version of this post also appeared on the Huffington Post website on June 17, 2013.


Father's Day is yet another of those myriad of holidays that we celebrate as if somehow contributions only matter when we publicly acknowledge them on a single special day out of the year. As if those contributions only matter for one day, or only happen for one day. Of course, why should we let a perfectly good reason for a Hallmark card go to waste? As they say, if you "manufacture it", they will buy it....

It's just as I noted in a previous article, "Mother's Day: A Manufactured Holiday":
The recent reality is that Mother's Day seems to have become nothing more than a commercialized, manufactured guilt fest -- as well as a peer pressured, competitive guilt fest. It's all about how much you can spend to show how much you care -- as if money is the only measure of emotions; it's also all about how much you can talk up your mother as the best of all mothers in comparison to what someone else -- posts on Facebook.
So it is with Father's Day -- and I'll be the first to admit that yes, I did in fact ensure to change my Facebook profile picture on Father's Day to a photo of my father and me. As I am not going to be the one who loses that public guilt fest!

Still, the history of Father's Day is fascinating: as it can seem surprising that it took decades to achieve formal recognition for a holiday that honors fathers, and their influence on society. In fact, the woman most commonly credited with being the driving force behind this holiday started her long crusade in 1910 in Spokane, Washington, and it wasn't until 1972 that it finally became a permanent national holiday when President Richard Nixon signed it into law.

Apparently, Congress was worried it might be commercialized..... [snicker, snort] Apparently, Congress is actually sometimes correct.....

I had intended to mostly ignore Father's Day, and not buy into the commercial frenzy that surrounds it, but my instinctive inability to resist the Facebook guilt fest for most public acknowledgement of one's father made me think about my own father and what I did actually owe him.

As, ironically, it was that very inability to resist the Facebook competition that pointed to one of the greatest things my father gave me / taught me: Catholic guilt. And yes, I don't mean just Catholicism the religion, I mean the very key tenet of the religion, guilt. The self imposed, all consuming, most powerful emotion there is. The one thing that truly separates any one raised Catholic from all others (with an acknowledgement that Jewish guilt is closely related -- but not exactly the same thing).

The truth is, Catholic guilt is very different from all other kinds of guilt. Merriam Webster's online dictionary defines guilt:
1: the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty; broadly : guilty conduct 2 a : the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously b : feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy : self-reproach 3: a feeling of culpability for offenses
Yet none of that perfectly encapsulates what Catholic guilt is. Heck, if you search, even Wikipedia has a separate entry for "Catholic guilt"! (According to the site, "Catholic guilt is a term used to identify the supposed excess guilt felt by Catholics and lapsed Catholics.")

Thanks to the fact that my father, Michael Novak, is a Catholic theologian by profession, one can say I could qualify as an expert on Catholic guilt. Certainly I was brought up by an expert on the subject! So I can attest, with confidence, that Catholic guilt is indeed far different than normal guilt.

Notice that the Merriam Webster definition uses terms such as "breach of conduct", "especially violating law", "involving a penalty", "committed an offense", etc. All of those are strong, even biased, words that imply serious misconduct on the "guilty" side. Even the secondary definitions refer to "imagined offenses" and "culpability".

As I learned upon my father's knee, it is not about the offense, nor the law, nor the penalty -- it is about what is "appropriate" or not. In fact, it did not matter if something was legal or illegal, wrong or right, it was a simple equation of appropriate or not, period. This may seem at first very confusing, and certainly a difficult standard to apply or even live by, but it's actually quite straightforward.

My father once gave me the example of painting a chair: the underneath of the chair will never, or at least rarely, be seen. The additional effort to paint that section, and to take the same care there as with what is easily visible, adds up to a lot of extra work and time, especially considering it will never, or rarely, be seen by anyone. So it is easy to justify skipping it, or at least covering it quickly, without any special attention or care. Yet in reality, one still must paint that section -- and must with the same amount of exacting detail and care as the rest of the chair -- because God will see it, even if no one else does.

This is why it is not about what is legal or illegal, what is right or wrong, or even necessarily moral or immoral, as the issue of the chair and its underside being painted or not is none of those things. What the issue of the chair is, is about what is appropriate or not. What we should do, not just what is the legal or moral thing to do.

Understanding this is key to being Catholic; is key to understanding Catholic guilt. Frankly, for me, is key to being a better person. I may not always live up to my standards, but I do my best to aim for them all the time -- and have one helluva dose of guilt always lingering over me to enforce those efforts! Thanks to all of that, I know I can say I am always striving to be better. Maybe not actually achieving it, but trying. To take a few liberties, the important thing is not whether you fall off the path, it's whether you keep on the right path.

My father's lessons on always keeping in mind what is "appropriate" as a much higher standard than simply what is illegal or immoral has made all the difference in my life. Folks may joke that being raised Catholic comes with a high therapy price tag thanks to the guilt, but that's merely misunderstanding the powerful tool they were given. It is not about "excess" guilt or emotional trauma, it's about having been taught how to always strive to be a better person. How to find the narrow path to not just heaven, but also to a better life.

From Matthew 7:13-14,
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
So, to me, Father's Day isn't just a manufactured holiday that requires a Hallmark card and a Facebook profile picture of my dad -- it's a day to be reminded of the critically important things fathers give us. The lessons and tools that my father -- that all fathers bestow upon their children -- provided that will help me, help all of us, to be better people. The lessons and tools we cannot live without, and can never repay.

And that's not commercialization.... That's, well, Catholic guilt.

Insights on One's Self

A little while ago, I was asked to try to describe myself as best as possible...and so I did. In re-reading my copy of it just now, with a similar recent question, it seemed rather fascinating -- and certainly insightful.

At least to me... [ahem]

So. Here is my best as possible description of myself (with just a few tiny edits from the original).

... If you had to describe yourself as best as possible, what would you say?


I always used to joke that Meredith Brooks' one hit could be my anthem. (*See below.) I don't wear make up because I never learned how - tho friends have gotten on my case about it and are trying to teach me how to use it. I don't think it's because I need it necessarily - I think it's because people just consider it "appropriate". My nickname when I worked in Congress was "surly", and I was banned from the phones. Probably the only staffer allowed to skip that part. Truth is though that I'm very kind and thoughtful - in fact, a friend, rightly, criticized me this fall as being "too nice". And yes, that is a criticism. But I do get impatient and short with people. Partly it's a "Novak trait", but nothing excuses it. I prefer company, but definitely need solo time to recharge. I've always joked that the only use I would have for a large home is to be able to know someone was there, while still being able to be on my own. Silence used to make me nervous, and can still sometimes when I'm in a new situation. I tend to be too snarky and sarcastic, as well as loud and obnoxious, especially when drinking. I love books and writing, but have struggled to do both in the last few years - hence my present "sabbatical", where I am succeeding more with the writing than the reading. I am a homebody who loves to go out. I have always had a secret desire to rent an RV and spend time traveling around the US. Spain and Portugal are on my bucket list. Love Italy and London, not a fan of Paris. Would love to see Eastern Europe (have only spent 72 hours in Prague) and Scandinavia, yet don't really have a huge travel bug. Love animals and still deeply regret having given up my cats because of my ex; got my dog to help me thru my separation and divorce. Get bored easily and yet love routine. Used to wish for happiness, and now wish for "peace". Still wish for true love though. Musical tastes are varied but actually not that into music, so more often than not will just find the best top 40 station [and yes, I can hear the horror in many people's minds right now] and turn that on, as I usually only listen in the car, and I like "hyper" music while driving. Once hoped to be a songwriter (and still someplace have tapes of me singing my lyrics), but of course also once wanted to be a bus driver as I planned to have 19 kids (I'm nothing but practical) - and you can see how both turned out [they didn't]. And yes, there is regret on both. On that note, I'm probably far too practical, far too "in my head" and not enough "in my mind", and have been working for years on my control issues. I'm very competitive. I love to cook, but only for others. I will not live without a housecleaner, and will cut TV and phone before I cut that (and have done so in the past). Happily lived without TV until NFL season started and I discovered I couldn't access games online. Love sports (I am my father's daughter), some live, some TV, some both. I'm an introverted extrovert. Or an extroverted introvert. Depending on the day. I love the theater, especially musicals. Any and all (even watched the cheesy movie Pitch Perfect the other night and loved it). My favorite movie is "Sliding Doors" for the concept behind it (I've written several times on this concept on my blog, such as this one). I can be frustrating, but am fiercely loyal. I have ridiculously high standards for myself, which I try not to apply to others. It both devastates me and entertains me when I fail my own standards. After all, if you can't laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at? My favorite saying is: "Prepare every day as if you are going to live forever, but live every day as if you are going to die tomorrow." I originally thought that meant getting out there and seizing the moment constantly. I then realized it must be defined for each person individually, and each day individually. (Hmmm. Sounds like another blog post!) Monty Python; as that's self explanatory. I spend way too much time on my computer, and especially on Facebook, but have been rewarded 10 times over for that in reconnecting with old friends. Kindness is a given, intelligence and humor is key. Wallace and Gromit. Still hoping to write the Great American Novel, but a little concerned I may have to go on a bender to do it: I seem to do my best novel-writing while drinking. In fact, my "simpatico" friend, who is 13 years sober, has dared me to do just that. But first I need to do a better job of prioritizing the writing.... Obviously.


* To understand my statement about Meredith Brooks' hit, you must read / know the lyrics:

By Meredith Brooks

I hate the world today
You're so good to me
I know but I can't change
Tried to tell you
But you look at me like maybe
I'm an angel underneath
Innocent and sweet
Yesterday I cried
Must have been relieved to see
The softer side
I can understand how you'd be so confused
I don't envy you
I'm a little bit of everything
All rolled into one

I'm a bitch, I'm a lover
I'm a child, I'm a mother
I'm a sinner, I'm a saint
I do not feel ashamed
I'm your hell, I'm your dream
I'm nothing in between
You know you wouldn't want it any other way

So take me as I am
This may mean
You'll have to be a stronger man
Rest assured that
When I start to make you nervous
And I'm going to extremes
Tomorrow I will change
And today won't mean a thing

I'm a bitch, I'm a lover
I'm a child, I'm a mother
I'm a sinner, I'm a saint
I do not feel ashamed
I'm your hell, I'm your dream
I'm nothing in between
You know you wouldn't want it any other way

Just when you think, you got me figured out
The season's already changing
I think it's cool, you do what you do
And don't try to save me

I'm a bitch, I'm a lover
I'm a child, I'm a mother
I'm a sinner, I'm a saint
I do not feel ashamed
I'm your hell, I'm your dream
I'm nothing in between
You know you wouldn't want it any other way

I'm a bitch, I'm a tease
I'm a goddess on my knees
When you hurt, when you suffer
I'm your angel undercover
I've been numb, I'm revived
Can't say I'm not alive
You know I wouldn't want it any other way

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

In Defense of Facebook and Social Media

UPDATE: A version of this post also appeared on the Huffington Post website on June 5, 2013.


Social media is spending a lot of time getting beaten up lately. Expert after expert warns about "social isolation" and "fraying community ties" all due to too much time spent on "social media" and not enough time spent on "social connections".

In fact, I just googled "negatives of social media" and 3.22 million results came back within less than half a second. Of course, the concern is that social media allows people to feel like they are making "social connections" while never leaving their own homes. It allows people to abdicate their responsibilities to be a functioning member of society -- and not just functioning, but someone who takes on responsibilities, period.

For example, it used to be second nature that neighbors looked out for one another, and yes, knew each others' business even. If you think back to the dawn of telephones, there were no private lines at all, let alone private mobile lines, you had to speak on a "party line" at all times.

To take a liberty, there was no business, like your business. Privacy was a concept, but not always much of a reality. Certainly there were negatives to this situation as well, but the positives are well known: a sense of community, of shared responsibility, of looking out for one another, caring for one another, stepping up in a crisis to help, having one another's backs.

These are definitely wonderful attributes, and even critical attributes. Society as a whole cannot function if these attributes don't exist in some small amount on some small level. And the corollary is that society as a whole functions much better when these attributes exist in large amounts on all levels.

Just consider some of the recent big domestic news stories: tornadoes (repeatedly) causing death and destruction, three women rescued after a decade in captivity, bombing at the Boston Marathon, and more. All of them are large-scale tragedies that require not just large-scale responses of donations and support from across the country, but also small-scale responses of friends, family, and, yes, neighbors pitching in to help those affected.

In fact, in many news stories, it often comes to light that it was the a neighbor's involvement -- or lack of involvement -- that made all the difference. Clearly, community ties and a societal fabric matter a great deal.

For these reasons, social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit and more receive such bad press. They are constantly hammered with accusations of increasing people's isolation, allowing people to choose not to participate, not to get involved, and not to, well, "be in other people's business."

And yet. And yet. Reddit users not only tried to "social medialize" the hunt for the Boston bomber, but immediately set up platforms to offer virtual "lost and founds" to help tornado victims recover precious belongings. Twitter "social medialized" sympathy, grief, shock by providing a platform to #PrayforOklahoma and be #BostonStrong. Facebook, meanwhile, straddled both forms of "social medializing" by providing pages for virtual lost and founds, as well as a community of support and sympathy.

For that matter, many people -- especially in younger generations -- report finding out about most breaking news via social media. I know that I almost always get more information more immediately by checking out a tidbit of news via Facebook and Twitter. Far faster than the television news -- even the 24 hour news channels -- can respond.

Granted, this opens up potential for serious errors -- reporting made too quickly to verify facts and information. Yet it also provides quick feedback on rapidly unfolding situations. Not to forget tragedies like the protests and crackdown in Turkey right now, where a news blackout in the country means only social media is capable of providing the gritty details on what is really happening on the inside.

Even more important though, is that social media does actually provide a community -- and not just an online one. It is easy to spend hours alone on one's computer or mobile device sifting through one's Facebook News Feed, for example. As a friend points out, it is an incredible time suck. Certainly I'm guilty of wasting hours in this way.

At the same time though, many of these social media platforms also provide a way to create what is first simply an online, virtual community, but what eventually becomes a real, in-person community.

For example, Facebook specifically has brought me closer to people. Thanks to being connected via Facebook, I have multiplied my friends -- real, not just perceived. I have visited with in person -- in many cases, repeatedly -- friends from decades ago that I would never have seen, spoken to, or been in touch with in any way, shape or form were it not for Facebook. I have made new friends with people who previously were merely acquaintances, work colleagues, or friends of friends.

Especially during my time living all by myself in my isolated mountain home, Murphy's Cabin, with limited connection to the grid, my occasional ability to be in touch with the outside world via Facebook made all the difference. I was no longer quite so alone, quite so isolated, quite so without a community. I had friends -- people who worried about me, paid attention to my business -- despite being, in many cases, thousands of miles away. Friends who were not just the wildlife that regularly strolled by my door.

We made a connection on Facebook, a connection that became a friendship. A connection that caused us to decide it was worth spending the time, effort and money to connect in the real world as well. And this is not just true for me.

Granted, I haven't done a scientific study, but in my anecdotal discussions with the hundreds of folks I know on Facebook, certainly the majority of those who are regularly active on Facebook report having made friends (or re-made friends) through Facebook with whom they followed through to a face-to-face meeting. Many of those meetings then led to an ongoing and enriching connection and friendship.

In the same way, but in a lesser, less deep manner, the virtual communities that spring up after tragedy via hashtags or News Feed postings offer an enriching connection as well: a way to express solidarity and sympathy -- yes, express community -- after such an awful event.

So, the critics be damned: certainly any form of "virtual" interaction can lead to more isolation not less -- more social fabric fraying, not less; more broken community ties, not less -- but not all the time. Many times, virtual interaction can lead to the exact opposite: less isolation, more social fabric, more community ties.

And in that, social media like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and more have an important role -- one which we should defend, not just attack. Let them "social medialize"!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Knots and loose ends...

Sometimes it's hard to tell when or what or why or wherefore. It is almost always hard to understand when or what or why or wherefore....

Life has been, well, complicated lately. Heck -- it's been complicated for going on four years now. The truth is, life just is complicated. For all of us, a lot of the time.

We like to think that "at some point in the future", things will get easier, smoother, more understandable, less complicated. That "After all.... Tomorrow is another day" as Scarlett O'Hara so famously put it:

Sometimes it is. Sometimes it is easier, smoother, more understandable, less complicated. But sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it gets harder, rougher, less understandable, more complicated. And sometimes it simply remains the same, flat-lined, no change. Neither easier nor harder.

Those times are usually the worst. Somehow, a seemingly unending landscape of nothing different is far more difficult to face than one that has hope -- or even despair -- at the end. Monotony is a killer; it strangles any thought of change. And you must believe in change to be able to have hope....

It might seem funny to say that remaining the same, flat-lined, monotony is so awful; that it's worse than things getting harder, rougher, less understandable, more complicated. Yet, at least for me, I can see hope still in challenge. I can see triumph in tribulations. I can see the mountains because of the valley I am in....

The Bible tells us:
And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation
worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope
maketh not ashamed; ...
From Romans 5:3-5
Granted, when you're in the midst of the valleys -- in the midst of the tribulations and woe and pain and hurt -- it's not exactly easy to look up and see the mountains, and certainly not easy to appreciate them. But they are there none-the-less.

It's why the unending landscape of nothing different is so much worse. For you end up with no valleys, and so no mountains. There is nothing to even try to force yourself to look up at; nothing to force yourself to appreciate after a while. It becomes ongoing, nonstop sameness.

You grasp at strings in the hope of pulling yourself out of the monotony of despair, only to find that the strings are tangled in a huge knot that seems impossible to undo. The "Gordian Knot" of life. It is "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" as Winston Churchill put it about Russia back in 1939.

You find that you no longer know which string goes back to which problem; which problem is why you find yourself in this desolate landscape. So many things tied into one knot that because you can't tell which string is which any more, you have no idea why the end of one string makes you cry, because you don't even know what the beginning of that string is....

Nothing makes sense any more, nothing is logical, nothing is understandable. It is neither easier nor harder, smoother nor rougher, more understandable nor less understandable, less complicated nor more complicated. It just is. 

So you cry, or feel depressed, or wallow, and pick the best "excuse" among your strings as the reason, even if it may not have anything to do with it at all.... And this is because despair is better than monotony -- so having a reason to cry is better than staring blankly out a rain-streaked window at nothing.

It's why the knots and the loose ends are so awful. There's no end, no beginning, no Alpha, no Omega, no here, no there, nothing. It's just what seems like thousands of strings tied in thousands of knots, beginning with the one in your stomach.

Fortunately though, there is actually an end, though it never seems like it. [Much like driving through Kansas on I-70.] There is, eventually, a horizon. A horizon that can and will be reached. 

The truth is, Scarlett was right; as was Annie. The sun will come out tomorrow. But so was Henry Drummond in the brilliant play, Inherit the Wind, when he argues:
Then you interpret that the first day as recorded in the Book of Genesis could've been a day of indeterminate length.... It could've been 30 hours, could've been a week, could've been a month, could've been a year, could've been a hundred years, or it could've been 10 million years!!
So the knots, the loose ends, the desolate landscape will eventually come to an end. We don't know when it will happen or what will happen or why it will happen or wherefore it will happen (unfortunately), but it will happen.

And yes, it often takes figuring out one string from end to start, through the Gordian Knot of strings, problems, issues -- but just one is enough of a start.

And no, the end will not suddenly make life easier, smoother, more understandable, less complicated. But it will make it less hard, less rough, slightly more understandable, and slightly less complicated...

It will allow the sun to come out, so that you can face life -- and it's ups and downs, mountains and valleys -- with renewed energy. It will allow the sun to come out so you can see those mountains, see those valleys, and see that horizon right in front of you, beautifully highlighted by the fingers of golden light bathed in hues of brilliant colors...

So monotony and knots be damned, desolate landscape and nothingness be damned, I-70 in Kansas be damned. Grab a string and start pulling!