False Dichotomies

Men, Arrow, Red, Contrary, Group, Action, Protester

False dichotomies! I just love using that phrase. You’ve seen the memes: “Why are we paying for illegal immigrants when there are veterans without homes?” “Why are we all talking about genders and bathrooms when the real scandal is those fat cats in congress?” “Why do we care so much about saving animals when babies are dying every day?” It’s the same mindset that says “why are you complaining? People in the third world have it way worse than you do.”  There are two problems with this:

  1. If you follow this line of reasoning out to its logical conclusion, there is only one thing in the world worth caring about. You want to work for social justice? How about first making sure everyone has a right to life? You care about human life so much? Isn’t salvation more important? For me, this is a seductive line of reasoning. But if everyone in the world only cared about The One Most Important Thing (whatever that is!), where does that leave everything else? God gave people different interests, gifts, and callings for a reason.
  2. It’s possible to care about two worthwhile things at once! Just because someone cares about animals (or breast cancer research, or political reform, or domestic violence…) doesn’t mean they care less about people; they’re just budgeting their limited time and energy to one cause at a time. I believe this is why Pope Francis often talks about an integrated world view: a Catholic can, and should, care about social justice, the environment, just government, care for the poor, and discrimination as well as abortion and gay marriage. They’re all connected and they’re all important. And when it comes to your own suffering, that’s important too. Just because you don’t suffer as much as someone in a prison camp or a homeless shelter doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about what you’re going through.

This mindset is also handy for getting yourself off the hook. Who cares if that football player cheated? A lot of other football players raped people! Who cares if that criminal got beaten in jail? Our brave soldiers face worse every day! Again, this forces everything into a hierarchy, until you only have one crime worth caring about, and everything else can be ignored.

This way of viewing the world does have some truth in it, of course. Rape is worse than cheating, and we should focus more energy on preventing and punishing it. But that doesn’t mean you should be able to get away with cheating scot-free, and it doesn’t mean that people who investigate alleged cheating are petty or don’t care about real justice. I struggle with the amount of money, time, and energy that people devote to things like cancer research, when I consider grave issues like abortion much more important; but when I stop and think about it, I realize that we are both concerned with the same thing: the welfare of our brothers and sisters.

We should be able to talk about what’s neutral, what’s important, and what’s non-negotiable without forcing everything except the worst crimes and sufferings out of sight. It’s an easy way to look at the world, but it doesn’t do justice to the complexity of our individual vocations. Instead, it’s a perpetual excuse to skim the surface of important questions just deep enough to glean a satisfying dose of outrage.


Teach a man to fish…


A friend of mine had a great comment on the proverb “give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”  The man isn’t going to live long enough to become a fisherman, my friend pointed out, if he starves in the meantime.  I think the proverb is true, but it’s not talking about two mutually exclusive things.  Yes, we need to teach people to be self-sufficient; but that’s a long-term goal, and they still need to be fed in the short-term, today.  Why can’t we do both?

Yes, I understand that feeding people can discourage them from becoming self-sufficient, and teach them to rely on charity or government aid; but the answer can’t be to cut off aid.  Let’s come up with some solutions–things like job training for people on welfare, or a gradual decrease in benefits as people’s situations improve, rather than a sudden drop-off–but let’s make sure we take care of people in the short run, too.

I recently posted about the problem of supplying living wages to people who were, through one misfortune or another, struggling to feed a family but stuck in a low- or minimum-wage job.  Many people responded, rightly, that we need to address the root problems of poverty, like the breakdown of the family and of community solidarity, instead of just slapping on economic solutions like higher wages.  But here’s the deal: things like that take time.  We can’t leave people hungry while we begin a long-term plan of restoring the traditional family so that there won’t be so many struggling single mothers or so many people abandoned by their relatives.  We can’t neglect the long term culture war, of course; but why can’t we work on both problems at the same time?

I understand that some economists will say we’re not actually helping people by giving them short-term aid, since we’re setting them up for a life of dependence; our intentions are good, but our actions aren’t actually in the best interest of the poor.  But if you’re expecting someone to start building (or rebuilding) an independent life, he’s going to need help along the way.  No homeless man is going to get off the street if he doesn’t learn how to manage money, manage his health, and support himself; but while he’s learning to do that, he still needs a place to sleep and something to eat.  And if you’d like him to go find a job so he can take care of himself, he’s not going to get many interviews if you don’t start by giving him a “handout” of clean clothes, medicine, and healthy food; not to mention a shower and a shave!

By all means, let’s teach men how to fish; but while they’re still learning and they’re not catching much, let’s share some of our fish with them.


“Volunteers of America Soup Kitchen,” 1936

“The Sweet Spot of the Faith”


Pope Francis with a Filipino girl who asked him why children suffer.

A few words of comfort from Pope Francis, both old and new, for people walking in the dark.  From an old interview, “A Big Heart Open to God,” on seeking God in blindness and doubt:

…in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good….The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties….Often we seek as if we were blind, as one often reads in the Bible. And this is the experience of the great fathers of the faith, who are our models. We have to re-read the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11. Abraham leaves his home without knowing where he was going, by faith. All of our ancestors in the faith died seeing the good that was promised, but from a distance….

I find this so consoling!  When you are in a state of doubt and walking blindly, it’s very easy to feel that you are far away from God.  I was surprised to see Pope Francis say that people in this situation are not only on the right track, but are actually closer to God for their uncertainty.  If I understand him correctly, he’s saying that the uncertainty is a positive thing because it acknowledges the mystery of God’s plan.  By seeking and following God even when we can’t see where he’s taking us, we are making that uncertainty a cause for trusting a providence that is far larger than our range of understanding, rather than a cause for mistrusting God.  I was reminded of this passage a few days ago when I read a very recent interview, where the Pope talks about what it means to have stability in faith, even when you don’t feel God’s presence:

In some moments we are conscious of the presence of God, other times we forget about that….How to be consistent in the faith? If you do not deny feeling it, you are going to feel it very close to you, you are going to find it in your heart. Another day, it is possible that you do not feel anything. And nevertheless faith is present, right? It is necessary for one to get accustomed to the faith not being a feeling. Sometimes the Lord gives us the grace to feel it, but faith is something more. Faith is my relationship with Jesus Christ, I believe that he saved me. That is the sweet spot of the faith. Go and seek the moments of your life in which you have felt bad, where you were lost, where you did not hit the mark, and look how Christ saved you. Embrace it, that is the source of your faith. When you forget, when you feel nothing, embrace that, because that is the basis of your faith….At the end, faith is a gift, it is not a psychological attitude….

This is a good thing to remember when you’re in the lost, wandering state of uncertainty that he talks about in the first quote.  Don’t let the feelings going through your head convince you that God is not there!  “Though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I fear no evil, for you are at my side.”

Finally, here’s the Pope’s tender explanation of the gaze of Christ that consoles us in the face of incomprehensible suffering (from a 2013 interview):

One man who has been a life mentor for me is Dostoevskij and his explicit and implicit question “Why do children suffer?” has always gone round in my heart. There is no explanation. This image comes to mind: at a particular point of his or her life, a child “wakes up,” doesn’t understand much and feels threatened, he or she starts asking their mum or dad questions. This is the “why” age. But when the child asks a question, he or she doesn’t wait to hear the full answer, they immediately start bombarding you with more “whys.” What they are really looking for, more than an explanation, is a reassuring look on their parent’s face. When I come across a suffering child, the only prayer that comes to mind is the “why” prayer. Why Lord? He doesn’t explain anything to me. But I can feel Him looking at me. So I can say: You know why, I don’t and You won’t tell me, but You’re looking at me and I trust You, Lord, I trust your gaze.

I can imagine that a secular person might not find this consoling at all: even the POPE doesn’t understand suffering?!  But for me it’s a relief.  My peace of heart doesn’t have to depend on me figuring out everything by myself, because let’s face it, that’s never going to happen.  Instead, I have the gaze of Christ and his Church to return to when I feel lost.  My faith doesn’t have to be constantly defended against doubt or feelings of loneliness, because it all comes down to something unshakable.