What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

When you think about how you got where you were, or why other people’s situations are different, how often do you think about luck?  Maybe you feel sorry for people in tough situations, but you can’t help thinking that it’s partly their fault–after all, if they didn’t have a good job lined up, they shouldn’t have gotten into so much debt…if they needed a job so badly, they should have worked harder at applying…if they wanted to live in a better neighborhood, they shouldn’t have dropped out of high school…if they weren’t in a position to get pregnant, they shouldn’t have been screwing around.

I’ve had these thoughts.  But the older I get, the more I realize how little good decisions have to do with it.  There’s a certain logic behind that horrible bumpersticker, “if you can’t feed ’em, don’t breed ’em”–but only if the person with the bumpersticker has never made any sexual mistakes himself.  For every couple shamed for an unmarried pregnancy, there’s a dozen more who weren’t chaste either, but who were lucky enough to never get pregnant, so no one ever found out; and there are hundreds more who made equally serious mistakes, but luckily they weren’t the kind of mistakes that cause such a public crisis.  I’ve talked to someone who thought he had the right to judge people on welfare, because he himself had “never made any poor economic decisions.”  Really?  My guess would be that he did, but that he could afford to, or someone bailed him out.  If not, I’m willing to bet he’s made other kinds of mistakes, just like everyone else has; he’s just lucky enough that they didn’t result in poverty.

Here’s another example: I recently heard from a woman who panhandles for a living, who said that she was very willing to work, but it was hard to get a job because she had shoplifting on her record from when she was 16.  Now sure, that was her fault; but what were you doing when you were 16?  I did plenty of stupid things; I’m just lucky that none of them were illegal.

This runs the other way, too: instead of judging people for making poor decisions, it’s easy to become insecure and bitter over people who didn’t work any harder than you, but happened to have the right connections to land a better job, or the family help they needed to put a down payment on their dream house.  It’s easy to feel like you’re doing something wrong, like you should be working harder, because your situation is so much worse than theirs.  But as my brother pointed out, if you’re living thriftily and working hard, but you still can’t make ends meet without some help, that’s not a problem with you.  It’s a problem with the system (or the economy, or probably just the whole fallen world). But the myth of hard work=prosperity still exists, and it’s so pervasive that we don’t even realize we’ve bought into it. Bill O’Reilly put it very succinctly when he said:

you gotta look people in the eye and tell ’em they’re irresponsible and lazy…Because that’s what poverty is, ladies and gentlemen. In this country, you can succeed if you get educated and work hard. Period.(Quoted in this excellent article, in which I actually agree with Obama about something)

I certainly find myself thinking this way sometimes.  But I’m here to say that I work hard, and I’m well educated, and I’m still poor.  It’s not even just about hard work and responsibility; it’s about a lot more subtle things, like upbringing and family history.  I’m not trying to say that you can blame your shortcomings on society; but I think people are so eager to reject that line of thinking that they rush to the other extreme, and act as if your upbringing and your surroundings have nothing to do with it.  If you think about it, you’re not just lucky if you’re well-educated and have a decent job; you’re lucky if your parents taught you how to save money.  You’re lucky if your parents showed you how to work hard.  You’re lucky if your parents spoke English at home.   You’re lucky if you grew up in a good neighborhood, with good influences.  You’re lucky if your parents stayed married.

I don’t know why God allows some people to have such bad luck.  But I know He doesn’t look kindly on people who attribute bad luck to moral failing.  That’s the way people thought in the Old Testament, and it’s still alive today, in the “prosperity Gospel” and in conservative ideology.  In the Book of Job, Job’s “comforters” try to convince him that he’s harboring some secret sin, and that’s what he’s being punished for.  After all, God punishes evildoers and rewards the righteous.  But Job consistently affirms his innocence, even though he doesn’t understand why God is letting him suffer.  If we believe that poor people are necessarily poor because of their own shortcomings, we’re just as bad as Job’s friends or Joel Osteen.

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Is “Natural” Always Better?

There’s a great scene in the British show Doc Martin where the doctor finds out that some of his patients have been visiting an amateur natural medicine practitioner on the sly.  One of them is nearly killed by an herbal remedy which the natural doctor recommended to him without doing any research into his medical history, which would have shown that this particular herb is contraindicated for people with his condition.  When one of the villagers protests that he doesn’t see what could be wrong with taking something natural, Doc Martin snaps, “poison ivy’s natural, too!  You wouldn’t take that, would you?”

I’m not here to dismiss natural remedies, but I want to talk a little bit about the danger of assuming that natural necessarily means better.  When it comes to women’s health, especially, I am so tired of hearing that your body knows what it is supposed to do.  Yes, most of the time, it does.  But sometimes it screws up.  This isn’t necessarily because nature is bad, or God created us with flaws; it’s because our nature isn’t what it used to be.

Most of the time, pregnancy and childbirth go smoothly, because a woman’s body was made for that. But sometimes, your body doesn’t know how to take care of the baby, or when it’s time for him to come out.  If you sit around for 43 weeks waiting for that baby to come out naturally, he may not make it out alive.  Time for an intervention.

Most of the time, breastfeeding goes smoothly.  They tell you, “if it hurts, something is wrong.  It shouldn’t hurt.”  But sometimes, you’re doing everything right, and it just hurts anyway.  Time for…well, there’s not much you can do, but time to stop thinking it’s your fault for not doing it the way nature intended!

Sometimes, depression can be cured with changes in diet, exercise, and mental routine.  Sometimes, all you need to do is take care of your body, and it will function normally.  But sometimes, if you don’t interfere with your body, it will kill you.

Now, our bodies are still wonderful things.  It makes sense to look for natural remedies first, and to try to be in tune with the way our bodies were intended to work.  But to act as if the “natural” course is always the right course is to ignore the fact that our nature is no longer what God intended it to be.  It’s fallen.  The woman in the NFP forum, who thought that antidepressants were just as bad as artificial birth control, was mixing up “natural” with “moral.”  For her, birth control was not evil because it does violence to God’s original design for our sexuality; it was evil because it was artificial.  In reality, though, the Church doesn’t reject any artificial or technological remedies unless they interfere with the integrity of the person.  As one of my sisters pointed out, if the Church were against artificial medical remedies, she would not approve of any fertility treatments, either.

To be continued when I manage to sort out my thoughts a little more, hopefully without getting a little heretical!  I’m still trying to figure this out.  Thanks for listening!

“I don’t want to be on a pill for the rest of my life!”

Recently someone on my NFP forum asked us how we could ever consider taking antidepressants–after all, as people who are opposed to artificial birth control, why would we want to pollute our systems with anything else?  Why not just used natural methods to combat depression?

I used to understand this attitude.  I had no problem with taking medicine for physical problems, but taking a pill that would “mess with your mind” scared me.  And of course, I’d heard stories of people who felt like “zombies” when they were on antidepressants, or who experienced horrible side effects like suicidal tendencies.  I changed my mind when I reached a point of depression, immediately after the birth of my second child, when I was trying everything else and it wasn’t working.  I tried eating well.  I tried (and failed) getting more sleep.  I tried vitamins.  I tried exercising.  I tried prayer.  I tried meditation.  (Well, “tried” is a bit of an exaggeration.  I started!  A couple of times!)  But here’s the thing: when you’re depressed, you’re not really in the best state to undertake a brand new self-improvement plan.  You may know that getting up and exercising will make you feel better, but you can barely get up and get a drink of water when you’re thirsty.  Going to Zumba three times a week just isn’t going to happen.

Even if you do have the will to make the lifestyle changes happen, you may not have the time or the energy.  That was the final deciding point for me–I couldn’t imagine dealing with depression while I was up all night nursing a newborn and up all day caring for a 2-year-old.  At some point, you have to do whatever is going to make you better, so you can take care of your family as well as yourself.  In the months before making my decision to get on medication, I wrote to my family, telling them that I was worried about the long-term side effects of anti-depressants on my body.  My clear-headed brother-in-law wrote back: “the long-term side effects of depression on your family are a lot worse than the long-term side effects of anti-depressants.”  I’m so grateful he said that.  I know I have been a much better wife and mother since taking anti-depressants.

That last sentence sounded pretty weird.  Isn’t there something wrong with relying on a pill to make you a better person?  Shouldn’t your spiritual condition be controlled by you, not by your doctor?  The original commenter on the NFP forum put it this way: “agreeing to take a daily pill to make me more ME again just didn’t make sense to me.”  I know how that feels, too.  But you know what?  If you were a diabetic, you wouldn’t feel bad about taking insulin every day.  If you have something wrong with your brain that’s keeping you from being the person you could be, it’s okay to take medicine for that.  And the reason it’s okay is exactly the reason the commenter had a problem with it: because it’s making you YOU again.  It’s not a cheat, or an easy fix, or something that makes you a different person.  It just takes away the handicap you had that was holding you back.   My brain absorbs seritonin too fast; my pills stop it from doing that, so it acts like a healthy brain again.

I’m not going to lie: a small part of me still feels bad that I can’t handle life without taking my pill every night.  I’m mad at myself for not being able to “handle life” (whatever that means!  Who can really handle life?), and at the same time I’m mad at everyone else for not needing anti-depressants to be normal.  And I’m mad at God for making it so hard for me to just be normal.  But mostly, I’m grateful that I’m not a slave to my obsessive thoughts anymore; I’m grateful that when I slip into a funk, I can assure myself that it’s just a bad day, instead of sinking down into a week of despair; and I’m grateful that God created scientists who help make me whole again.

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In the next few days I’d like to explore the ideal of doing everything naturally, and what becomes of that when you add original sin to the equation.  I certainly don’t mean to disparage anyone who suggests natural remedies for depression!  More power to you.  I’d just like to offer my story as an example of a situation where anti-depressants were the right choice.

I’m so very grateful to my brother Joey for blazing the trail for me.  His post Mechanical Legs expresses so well how different “normal” feels, and how silly it is to let guilt and anxiety and scruples get in the way of fixing what’s wrong with you.  His blog is unfortunately not active anymore, but there’s so much good stuff in the archives.

Anne Stanton

Speaking of sheltered people, my mind keeps returning to the character of Anne Stanton in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.  (Spoilers ahead, for anyone who hasn’t read it!)  I had never really understood why Anne got involved with Willie Stark toward the end of the book.  She tells Jack that after she fell in love with Stark, she found out about the ignoble crime her father was involved in, and “[t]here wasn’t any reason why not then.” (p. 489) This used to seem ridiculous to me–just because her father wasn’t the perfect man she had imagined, she felt like she had the right to do anything?

I think I understand it better now.  Anne had set up a world of black and white for herself–her father, and Judge Irwin, stood for justice, and Willie Stark stood for corruption.  Her picture of the world was so absolute and unbending that when those distinctions got a little muddied–when she discovered Stark’s good side, and her father’s imperfect past–her entire moral world collapsed.  Or actually, it fell apart because it wasn’t about morality in the first place–it was built around something more artificial.  She hadn’t really resisted friendship with Stark because it was wrong, but because if she’d broken any of her rules she would have been completely banished from the supposed perfection of her family.  She didn’t have a category in her mind for a basically good person who fails sometimes; so with her father’s fall from grace, all her careful distinctions fell apart.  Although Willie was still a corrupt man–and a married man!–when she finds out that perfection doesn’t exist, there’s no reason left to keep her from succumbing to her attraction for him.

Something similar happens to her brother Adam–but for him the paragon of virtue is not only his father, but his sister.  He can’t handle her affair with Willie because his world is also black and white.  There is no category in his mind for a good woman who commits a sexual mistake; instead he is convinced that she has been completely corrupted into a “whore.”  And when he finds out that his father committed a single dishonesty, there’s no category in his mind for that, either; instead, his father has become an irretrievably evil man: “[d]amn his soul to Hell.” (p. 381) Now that I revisit the first scene, where he confronts Anne about her affair, I notice that he’s maybe even more disturbed with what’s happened to his reputation and righteousness: “he said if everything else was filthy a man didn’t have to be….he wouldn’t be pimp to his sister’s whore and nobody would ever say that about him.” (p.588) I still think Adam’s a sympathetic character but this casts a bit of a disturbing light on him.  He’s a good man, but he can’t untangle his morality from his pride.

Willie Stark’s view of the world makes an interesting contrast to Adam and Anne’s, because it’s not simply a flat opposite.  Willie is seeking justice too–in addition to glory and power–but he’s starting from the somewhat more realistic idea that everything is corrupted:

Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.  There is always something. (p. 286)

He’s right, in a way–nothing is untouched by original sin.  But he fails to see the goodness that survived the Fall.  Where Adam and Anne think the original goodness remained pure in their family, Willie thinks it was never there from the beginning; you have to “make it up as you go along.”

….plain, simple goodness.  Well you can’t inherit that from anybody.   You got to make it, Doc.  If you want it.  And you got to make it out of badness.  Badness.  And you know why, Doc?…Because there isn’t anything else to make it out of. (p. 386)

Once again, this is not entirely wrong.  Anyone who’s ever studied politics (or history, like Jack Burden) knows that you can’t get anything good done if you’re not willing to get your hands dirty.

The law is always too short and too tight for growing humankind….You can’t make bricks without straw, and most of the time all the straw you got is secondhand straw from the cowpen. (p. 205)

No one can deny that Willie made a lot of good out of badness.  Even Anne can see that the free hospital he’s planning is going to be wonderful.  But could he have done it without falling into corruption?  I’m not sure if the book answers that question.  Warren doesn’t condone Willie Stark’s actions, but he doesn’t have much praise for the opposite extreme, either.

I can see now why the blurbs always say that this is a book about politics.  But oh, it’s so much more than that!  This post was awfully hard to write, because every time I dipped into the book for a quote, I started reading again and couldn’t stop.  Gosh what a book.  Tune in for some more thoughts on All the King’s Men soon!

What is a “Good Birth”?

My husband and I often talk about how much we plan to shelter our children.  We both know families whose kids have been completely sucked into the worst of pop culture; but we seem to know even more families whose attempts at sheltering their kids backfired badly.  When the kids finally encountered the real world, they often rebelled or succumbed to the worst, because they had not had the benefit of knowledge or exposure to build up their defenses.  (I’m being vague here, because I don’t mean to criticize any of the parents I knew, who were certainly doing their best!  But I have experience with all the examples in this post.)  I have seen parents be so scared of inappropriate sex education that they barely gave their children any at all.  The kids had to learn it on their own, either through experience, or through less reputable sources than their parents or teachers.  There is also the danger of sex being seen as something “dirty” that you don’t talk about, which leads to a really unhealthy attitude toward sex.

What I’ve realized lately is that this is not just a problem for children, but for adults as well.  In my last post, I talked about the dangers of sheltering women from the realistic expectations of pregnancy.  I see something very similar happening with childbirth.  Women are assured that, with the proper “birth plan,” they can achieve the perfect “birth experience.”  Now, I know that I have been very lucky: my midwives and nurses were respectful and considerate, and I was never pushed into something I was not comfortable with.  However, I have also heard of so many women who were led to believe that they could have a low-intervention, peaceful, joyful natural birth, only to be crushed when necessity dictated otherwise.  Once again, we’re setting women up for shame and guilt. No matter how much we understand rationally that a C-section, or an induction, or an epidural may be necessary, that nagging little voice inside our head will say “you’re taking the easy way out” or “you’re not letting your body do what it’s made to do” or “you’re giving in;” but if we’ve let our expectations become completely unrealistic, we are feeding that irrational guilt.

The friend I quoted in my last post made the same connection between pregnancy and childbirth expectations; after commenting on the importance of your “attitude” and “focusing on the positive,” she noted that “the people who helped me have a good birth were the ones who kept telling me a good birth was actually possible.”  Now: how do you define a “good birth?”  A birth that goes as planned?  A birth that is peaceful and expected?  Or a birth that results in a healthy baby?  If you only tell a pregnant woman stories of ideal births, how will she feel when her labor fails to progress, and her baby is in distress?  Google “birth disappointment.”  I have seen so many sad stories of women who felt horribly disappointed in themselves because they “gave in” and got the epidural, or because they had to have a C-section.  Instead of fully enjoying the baby, they feel a sense of loss and grieving. They may feel, like this poor lady, that “this was my fault” because their bodies are “broken.” 

[A side note: yes, your body is broken!  But it’s because of Original Sin.  This is why it doesn’t make sense to me to expect childbirth, or sex, or breastfeeding, to go perfectly just because it’s natural and it’s “what our bodies were made to do.”  Our bodies, like everything else in the world, sometimes don’t do what they were made to do.  If we put all our faith in “nature,” we are going to be let down because our nature is broken.]

Again, I am not recommending that we flood pregnant women with horror stories!  But imagine that we tell them something like this instead: “My first was born naturally, and it was wonderful!  My second had to be induced, and I was hooked up to 3 IVs, and that was pretty awful.  But you know what?  I didn’t even care, because then I got to hold my beautiful baby.”  Or this: “I was really loopy after the pain meds, so I don’t really remember the birth well, but we had nice quiet cuddling time afterwards.”  Or this: “The epidural worked great for my first, and failed for my second.  But either way, I got through it.”  Let’s give them realistic expectations, so they’ll be prepared; but let’s always remember to finish up with the most important part: the baby.  A good pregnancy is a pregnancy that ends in a good childbirth, and a good childbirth is one where the baby gets born.  Period.  Natural birth, water birth, home birth, epidural, induction, C-section, forceps, IV, hypnosis, episiotomy, whatever–I wish you a peaceful and pleasant birth, but please remember that no matter what your “birth experience,” the main thing is getting that baby safely into your arms!