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On Privilege, Planning, and Progeny: Wading into the NFP debate

Simcha Fisher, in her inimitable style, has set off an explosion in the middle of NFP week with her lastest piece The Privilege of Saying “No Thanks” on NFP. Her assertion, in response to another blog, is that anyone who can say “no thanks” to family planning is coming from a position of privilege. While Fisher focuses most on financial privilege she notes that this is only one kind. Other considerations include the privilege of a healthy relationship between spouses, or the privilege of good health either mental or physical.

When Fisher speaks of poverty she speaks with the passion of someone who knows this suffering intimately. This powerful and purposefully discomfiting language combined with the word choice of privilege seems to have set off a wave of defensiveness from many readers. It doesn’t sound nice. It shouldn’t. Suffering isn’t nice or clean or pleasant. It makes you squirm. If it isn’t clear yet I don’t disagree with Fisher’s article, and I don’t think her words were cruel but it’s unfortunate how often we can’t hear each other because of a particular word choice.

It is unfortunate that camps exist in Catholic family planning land. I call it family planning because whether you use NFP or not you are planning. You’re making a conscious decision about how to conduct your family life. Which is really Simcha Fisher’s point at the end of the day I think. We’re all examining all the factors involved and making a good faith decision to live God’s will for us as best we can. If your will is not constrained in your choice then, well let’s call it lucky or blessed if privilege feels too loaded.

Since both camps exist in a world hostile to our lifestyle, it’s especially sad that both feel judged and attacked by the other. I can see why people who have bravely (and it is brave even if you are privileged) said “no thanks” feel that their sacrifice is somehow denigrated by the “charge” of privilege. As Fisher pointed out in her piece this was not her intention despite tone designed to shake us out of our complacency. There is no fault in being blessed. It’s just good to note that you are, give thanks, and show charity to the less fortunate.

Maybe if hearing this point feels like an accusation, looking at it from the perspective of the other will help. You are not the only ones who feel their position is misunderstood or portrayed negatively. NFP couples feel the same. Let’s flip the camera for a moment. Saying “no thanks” and having a large family does involve taking on large burdens that many in our world would not undertake. If it feels that having those burdens treated as an advantaged position seems dismissive of their difficulty realize this is actually the exact same feeling many NFP couples experience when they are discussed as a whole. Often having fewer children is discussed as a privileged, easier reality when it is one we would happily trade in.

As I wrote in The Generosity of Catholic Family Planning years ago, we find a lot of sympathy for the infertile and a lot of praise for those who do not use any method of natural family planning. But at best those couples who could have children but sometimes don’t are seen as having an acceptable excuse.

It is assumed, at least by the language we use, that all families who have less children than they might have in fact want less children than they might have and have luckily come down with a perfect case of grave cause to justify that desire. No. Couples using NFP as the church allows are very often grieving their position. First there is whatever suffering is requiring the avoidance of pregnancy. But watching the opportunity for a child come and go is often a cross itself. Of course since they have children they are not allowed to grieve. This should be enough for them to many observers. And since they have slightly fewer children their generosity must be slightly less as well to another set of judges.

On the contrary, such couples are making a tremendous sacrifice and I’m not talking about having to go without sex on the days of fertility. I’m talking about sacrificing fertility and potential children out of a conviction that this is what obedience to God’s plan requires of them at this time. Yesterday I packed away the newborn clothes. Without becoming too awkwardly personal I suffer from layer upon layer of separate health conditions which will eventually make it necessary for me to forgo more children. It is the time bomb at the centre of many family discussions. I won’t lose my fertility mind you. No the decision will be a month by month reminder that I could have more kids but shouldn’t. I sadly realized that in all likelihood this would be the last time I took out at least one set of newborn clothes, either girl or boy.  Forever I will either have way too many children for some or not enough for others. A whole set of people, the set I should have in my corner because we’re all in this crazy counter cultural open to life family life together, will forever see me as privileged enough to have only 5 or 6 while that “only” means something much sadder to me and mine.

Here’s the thing, privilege and disadvantage aren’t mutually exclusive. Joy and suffering often go hand in hand, crosses and blessings. None of this is quantifiable and comparable. Placing ourselves on scales and trying to weigh out who has it best and who deserves what praise and what sympathy will lead to jealousy, pride, scrupulosity, and anger. It isn’t a competition. Where we are blessed let us give thanks and be inspired to help each other. Reach out to the big “no thanks” family and help them. Reach out to the NFP family and help them. Heaven knows we all need it. We may find our own crosses bless us with the ability to help others with different ones. Often the best way to lighten a cross just a little is to help carry another’s. It can be a privilege.

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Living between To Be and Not To Be

I wrote this over a year ago and set it aside in the hopes I’d never publish it. Nobody wants to say this stuff about themselves. But at the top I wrote that I might decide to sometime when suicide was in the headlines again, because the discussions that follow such news are often very disappointing. I often cringe as good kind Christians with the best intentions say things that ensure their friends struggling with depression (and we all have them whether we know it or not) will never come to them for help. Having been mentally healthy for a good while now I feel some obligation to put into words publicly things that can be hard to reveal for people still in that place. Sadly suicide is again on the minds of my generation with the deaths of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, singers we listened to as we grew. So I’d like to share today a little about self harm and suicide, to help you stand in some different shoes. Maybe it will change the conversation a little.

[UPDATE: I find it disturbing that when someone dies by suicide Christians are quick to judge them as they would a murderer. This is to ignore for a moment that it’s never our job to pass judgement in this sense. But the mentally ill are facing a disease. This is entirely different from what moves a mentally healthy person to act. After speaking to a dear friend I realized that I had not made abundantly clear that when I talk about sin, fault, temptation and so on here there is not a direct correlation because there are medical factors severely impeding the usual operation of the mind. So let me say first and foremost that depression is an illness that needs treatment not a character flaw that needs sheer will. Still here I will speak to those who judge in the language they often use and to hopefully aid their imagination by using their experiences to understand a fundamentally different way of experiencing the world. Forgive me if I am clumsy.]

I remember as a child being both baffled and appalled that anyone ever committed a mortal sin. I would NEVER!  Who could do such a thing?  Then grown up life and grown up temptations came along and it turned out I hadn’t been good up to then because of my outstanding moral character. I just hadn’t met a sin I found appealing enough yet.

No matter how humbled we are by our own mistakes, how easy it is to fall back into that old mentality when we meet someone else’s flaws. Well sure I have my weaknesses but that one? That one is unthinkable.

Those questionnaires you get on doctor visits usually have a question on them like this: Have you had thoughts of harming yourself? Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Often. I’ve had to pause and think long and hard about my answer a few times in my life. I don’t think I’d ever describe myself as suicidal. I feel that would probably be insulting to those who have struggled deeply with this temptation. However it would be untrue to answer never.

Depression can develop a physical presence in your body. For myself depression often lives like a mass in the pit of my stomach. If I could just vomit it up I know I would be healed. At one point the ball of despair in my belly was so very real that I could not bring myself to eat. I was already full. And when I did I would throw up, sometimes automatically, sometimes intentionally as I sought to expel this horrible thing from inside me. In two months I lost 20 pounds. Of course, the depression never came out, but the sense that it could was profound. And the sense that it was a real, tangible, measurable presence in a specific location was compelling.

At other times this physical pain was less of the tumor like image I pictured in my guts and more of a terrible ache in my chest or an itch in my wrists. I would have fleeting thoughts that it might be possible to excise this as well, but I was luckily far too squeamish to make any attempts of that nature. The thought would shock and frighten me. I would shove it aside and distract myself which is a good thing. But the thought came, unbidden all the same. Because of this I understand that temptations to self harm are very real things and very hard to control.

In the cases above you may note that the pain, while not “real” in the sense that a doctor could have found it in an examination, felt real and so the solution that flitted through the mind was in some way a twistedly logical one. It was a suggested solution to a perceived problem. Certainly it’s the reasoning of an 19th century  quack doctor but it has a kind of internal consistency. There is poison in our guts that must be purged and bled.

At my most depressed I am usually overcome with exhaustion. The desire for rest is very very strong. In fact, if I am driving while I am in this state I often feel a strong urge to simply jerk the wheel and drive off the road. Not because I desire to hurt myself but because I feel suddenly that I have absolutely no energy left, that I cannot do anything any longer. I have to rest NOW. I can tell you they are frightening thoughts to find jumping out at you from within your own mind on the way home from the grocery store!  Again, I have been blessed never to be unable to control these thoughts. I summon all my will power and concentration to keep my arms behaving as they should, to keep the car between the lines. I tell myself that if I must I can gently pull over to the side and park until I have the energy to continue.

I believe that most suicides are not seeking death so much as they are seeking rest, or relief from agony. This becomes so twisted in their minds, the agony is so all consuming and ever present that the “logical” solution becomes to no longer be conscious, to no longer face living, as Hamlet said: “to die, to sleep”.

So as you see, a person in this state is not thinking rationally. They are both experiencing reality differently and their ability to choose wisely is lessened. So in terms of  moral culpability it’s a whole new playing field. But, in the sense that they are experiencing inclinations they must resist we could call all of these things temptations.

We all face temptations. Temptations to lie, to gossip, to steal, to fornicate, pick your poison. Temptations themselves are not our fault and we do not control how or when they come. The whispers from my own head that I have shared with you may seem strange, disturbing and unthinkable but they are just a shadow of what some people face. Perhaps you cannot imagine such temptations but you can certainly call to mind your own.

Imagine that whisper in your ear that urges you to give in to your own particular demon. Imagine it whispering to you night and day. Imagine that the pain it urged you to flee never let up. Imagine, as is the case with depression, that the cause of the temptation robbed you of sleep, of energy, of many tools we rely upon to help us to think clearly and overcome our passions. Now imagine that you decided to listen, just this once.

Most of us have done this at some point, just this once give in to a powerful urge. In fact, for many, just this once is the excuse we give ourselves to fall over and over again. The great difference is that there is no going back from giving in to this kind of temptation. For this reason suicide is a terrible tragedy. Imagine your one failure was your last.

Now for every person heaping cruelly worded condemnation on the suicide there is another portraying his decision as somehow brave and beautiful. Is suicide heroic? Of course not. It steals your life including the opportunity to seek and live in peace with yourself. It throws away a precious gift. It deprives your family and friends of your love and presence and leaves them with terrible pain, in a sense bequeathing them the suffering you sought to escape. Suicide is not romantic or heroic. What I want you to consider is just how heroic it is for the person tempted to suicide not to give in. This is a level of heroism not everyone needs to summon up. So on the day that the next celebrity takes their life, certainly we can’t praise that horrible decision. Certainly we must take the opportunity to urge others not to make a similar one. But let us mourn for someone who stopped being heroic just once, and paid a terrible price.  Understand the mitigating factors that robbed these poor souls of the ability to make good decisions. Thank God your failures of strength do not have such irrevocable consequences. Then reach out and respond to your brothers and sisters fighting this fight every day with love and compassion. Help them find the strength to keep going.

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