Her Grief is Real

The photo and interview series Humans of New York recently did a group of stories on pediatric cancer, and the story of Max hit me especially hard. Like many of the others, it was a story of a child who died from pediatric cancer at age 7, as told by his mother; but unlike the others, his mother was in a lesbian relationship, and her son was conceived by IVF. She originally conceived twins, and aborted one of them “because I was scared at the time.” Now that her son is dead, she knows the decision to kill his twin “will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

What was your reaction on reading this story? I’ll be honest: I was crushed by the sorrow of it, but I also judged the mother. How could she have created her children so selfishly? How could she complain about one of them dying, when she purposely killed the other one? Why did she think it was a good idea to bring up children without a father? I almost felt as if she did not have a full right to her grief, because she wasn’t a real mother.

Then I kept reading. I saw tender details, like her memories of her son, the way she appreciated the tiniest pieces of his personality, the way she was unable to tell him he was dying, and blamed herself for not having the courage to do it. She was his mother. She suffered like a mother. She was as true a mother as any heterosexual, married, biological mother could be. Her grief was real.

To be merciful is to understand someone’s life, someone’s grief, as they understand it; not as you think it should be. To be merciful is to love Max’s broken, guilty mother, because she loved her son. Jesus have mercy.

(4/5) “I think I have post traumatic stress. I have so many horrible flashbacks. Two weeks after Max was diagnosed, he asked me if I’d be his Mommy forever. I said, ‘Of course I will.’ And he asked: ‘Even when I’m ninety?’ And I told him ‘yes.’ What was I supposed to say? And there were all the times he talked to me about the future. We’d talk about college. I just couldn’t tell him. God I was such a coward. I should have told him. I just couldn’t do it. Even toward the end. The day before he lost consciousness, I read his favorite book to him. It’s called Runaway Bunny. And the little bunny keeps threatening to run away. And the Mama bunny keeps saying: ‘Wherever you go, I will find you.’ Oh God, it was such a horrible way to die. He couldn’t speak or move or swallow or see. He basically starved to death. And the whole last week I’m whispering in his ear: ‘Let go, let go. Please Max, let go.’ My seven-year-old son. I’m telling him to let go. I mean, fuck. That’s not supposed to happen! And the whole time I never told him he was dying. I was such a coward. But he knew. He knew without me telling him. Because a couple weeks before he lost his speech, he asked me: ‘Mommy, do they speak English where I’m going?’” ——————————————————–Today is the last day of our fundraiser to aid Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in their fight against pediatric cancer. Over 65,000 people have donated and we’ve raised over $2.3 million so far. Max’s tumor is the same tumor that Dr. Souweidane is working on curing. (See previous story). In fact, Max was supposed to be part of Dr. Souweidane’s first clinical trial but he passed away too soon. I promised Julie that all money raised during the telling of Max’s story would be given to Dr. Souwedaine and his colleagues to aid in their DIPG research. The gift will be given in Max’s honor. Even if it’s a small amount, please consider donating. Link in bio.

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Image belongs to Humans of  New York on Instagram; I do not own this image.

 

Virtue, Luck, Mental Health, and Pedophilia

Marble, Feet, Legs, Hands, Limbs, Art, Sculpture, Stone

In All the King’s Men, there is a tender scene where teenage Jack Burden and Anne Stanton find themselves alone in the house after a rainstorm and almost, but not quite, make love for the first time.  For some reason he can’t explain, Jack can’t go through with it, because it doesn’t seem right somehow.  Then his mother comes home unexpectedly, and he doesn’t get a chance to change his mind.  In retrospect, though, Jack decides that it was his great virtue that prevented them from sleeping together:

I suddenly had the feeling of great wisdom: I had acted rightly and wisely….And so my luck became my wisdom…and then later my wisdom became my nobility, for in the end, a long time after, I got the notion that I had acted out of nobility….and frequently, late at night or after a few drinks, thought better of myself for remembering my behavior on that occasion.  (p. 447)

This really hit home for me; how many actions or decisions do I pride myself on, thinking they were a result of virtue, when actually they were just a result of luck, or my natural inclination, or my particular psychology?

It is only at the end of the book, when Jack has come to forgive his father for betraying the trust everyone had in his spotless virtue, that he realizes the corollary to this principle: not only can virtue really just be luck or disinclination, but vice can actually be the result of an excess or perversion of virtuous intentions.  “A man’s virtue may be but the defect of his desire, as his crime may be but a function of his virtue.” (p. 660)

I’ve always loved this quote, and recently I realized that it’s very similar to something C.S. Lewis says in the preface of Mere Christianity:

No man, I suppose, is tempted to every sin.  It so happens that the impulse which makes men gamble has been left out of my make-up; and, no doubt, I pay for this by lacking some good impulse of which it is the excess or perversion.

He goes on to point out that God judges us, not by our outward nature–our inclination either to “niceness” or “nastiness” of character–but by what we freely choose to do with the personality we’ve been given:

If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are quite likely to be satisfied with your character as it is….You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper….You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing….it is hard for those who are ‘rich’ in this sense to enter the Kingdom….But if you are a poor creature–poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels–saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion–nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex  that makes you snap at your best friends–do not despair.  [God] knows all about it.  You are one of the poor whom He blessed.  He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive.  Keep on.  Do what you can.” (Book 4, Ch. 10)

Let’s talk about “those wretched creatures” who have to deal with something much more seriously consuming than an inclination to anger or vanity: sexual disorders.  It’s really upsetting to see how many Christians don’t realize that same-sex attraction is an inclination, not a sin in itself; that God (and the Church) does not judge anyone for bad inclinations, but only for acting on those inclinations.  Same-sex attraction is like any other inclination or temptation; something you did not choose for yourself, but which you have the responsibility to conquer.  And here is something I’ve only realized recently: the same is true of pedophilia.  I recently came across a heartbreaking website called Virtuous Pedophiles, which functions as a support group for people with pedophiliac inclinations who find themselves alone in their struggle to stay chaste.  The intention of the website is not only to function as a support group, but to spread awareness of this horrible struggle; to teach non-pedophiles that pedophiliac urges themselves are not sins or crimes, because, like other temptations, they are beyond our control.  Understanding this is the key to helping pedophiles resist temptation and keep children safe; because only if we understand that there is such a thing as a “virtuous pedophile” will we be motivated to give him the help he needs.  As it stands now, most people would recoil if someone confessed pedophiliac urges to them, and many therapists would feel obligated to report them to the police as potential molesters.  How can pedophiles get the moral support and psychological help they need, if we act as if temptations and urges that appear unwanted in their minds are just as bad as actual molestation?

God help those of us who were blessed with healthy psyches, to not attribute our luck to virtue; and God help those who, as my husband pointed out, were saddled with bad self-esteem and attribute their bad luck to moral shortcomings.  Most of all, God help those of us with really “wretched machines” to work with, who need help and prayer more than anyone.

P.S. As I was writing this, I discovered a wonderful post about “Virtue Privilege,” where the author discusses the ways in which virtue without empathy can lead to a lack of mercy.  Here is my favorite part:

Only when we learn to differentiate between the accidents of our birth and upbringing and the truly universal will we find grounds for communion with one another. While I may not be tempted to the things that tempt you, I know what it is to be tempted. While my suffering has different causes and effects than yours, I do know what it is to suffer. Whatever our advantages, we know, or should know, all too well how easily we fall prey to our own pet vices. We need not be able to imagine how a woman could believe herself to be doing good while working in an abortion clinic—we need only be able to remember how often we ourselves have been tempted to ignore or deny a “lesser evil” out of disordered but sincere love for something or someone.

Hozier and T. S. Eliot

Have you heard “Take Me To Church”?  I can’t get over the fantastic sound of this song.  It’s one of the very few recent hits that I listen to all the way through every time I come across it on the radio.  Here’s the problem: when I first heard it, I thought it was a metaphor for a cruel lover–someone who demands worship and sacrifice, but who’s so alluring that he can’t leave her.  Then I saw the music video.  The relationship in it is not depicted as twisted at all–it’s loving and mutual.  But it’s homosexual, and the video ends with a gang hunting down and viciously beating one of the gay men.  Oh well.  Apparently the “church” Hozier is referring to isn’t the singer’s unnatural obsession with his lover, but the Catholic Church.

Hozier is a well-spoken and intelligent-sounding guy, and I can surely understand his bitterness against the Church, because he grew up in the mess that is Ireland.  I don’t think it’s worth getting into a long refutation here, other than to say that his basic premise–that “an organization like the church, say, through its doctrine, would undermine humanity by successfully teaching shame about sexual orientation — that it is sinful, or that it offends God”–is obviously wrong.  (The quote is from his interview here.)  The Church’s actual teaching is that homosexual orientation is not chosen, and not sinful.  It is engaging in homosexual acts that the Church considers disordered, though she demands love and respect for homosexuals in any situation.  (Please see the Church’s teaching in the Catechism at the end of the post.)  It’s a sad fact that there are many Catholics who don’t understand this themselves, and who engage in acts of hate against gays; but that doesn’t justify attacking the Church herself.

Anyway!  What I’d really like to talk about is the way Hozier conveys his message.  I don’t think it’s my fault that I misinterpreted the lyrics at first.  They’re very ambiguous!  He seems to use “her” and “church” to refer both to the homophobic people who tell him he was “born sick,” and to the lover he “should’ve worshipped…sooner.”  “My Church offers no absolutes. / She tells me, ‘Worship in the bedroom.'”  Is this a protestation against the Catholic Church getting involved with what people do in the bedroom?  Or is it referring to his private religion of true love?  (“The only heaven I’ll be sent to / Is when I’m alone with you.”)  If so, why use “she,” when the video depicts a male relationship?  I’m having a hard time pulling out lines to analyze, because the themes are so interwoven.   (Here are the lyrics; what do you think?)  So I don’t think it’s really fair for him to pull out the blatant music video and explain “here, this is what the song is about!”  (Watch the video here, but be prepared for some disturbing content.)

If you want your song to be considered a form of art, the essential meaning should be accessible through the lyrics, even if it’s subtle and you have to dig pretty deep.  I’m pretty sure it’s just cheating to cram it all into the video.  It reminds me of T.S. Eliot, writing footnotes to his own poetry.

Ooh, I’m sorry, you’re soooo deep we couldn’t possibly understand you without footnotes?

It’s one thing to be esoteric, as a natural result of the profundity of your art; but it’s another thing to purposely be ambiguous, just so you can hit people over the head with the explanation.  Personally, I enjoy “Take Me to Church” a lot more than “The Wasteland.”  At least Hozier didn’t include any ancient Greek.

******************

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,141 tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”142 They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.