Some folks have asked if my doctors are putting pressure on me not to have more children. I usually respond with a sound like hoooooo-ho-ho-hooooo (which is not supposed to be a sound like what Santa says, but rather a hearty laugh to indicate, YOU HAVE NO IDEA).
The doctors have said this before, when I was diagnosed with the clotting disorder after getting a deep vein thrombosis during my second pregnancy, but, luckily for my third, fourth, fifth, and sixth children, I knew that they weren’t that serious when they said, “You seriously can’t have any more children.”
But now they’re saying it with extra drama, and there’s nothing like lungs full of blood clots (for me) and lungs full of holes (for the baby) to make me think that they might actually mean it this time.
So what does that mean for me? When I converted to Catholicism, to my great surprise I came to agree whole-heartedly with what the Church teaches about contraception. I do Natural Family Planning (badly), and probably have about eight years of fertility left. Am I still going to stick with it? Am I resentful of these rules? Do I even want to have more kids? If the subject lines of my email inbox are any indication, a lot of folks are curious about this; hey, I would be too if I followed someone’s blog who found herself in this situation.
So let’s go ahead and crack open that can of worms, and I’ll give you my long answer to the question: Your doctors said you can’t have any more kids. What now?
Let’s talk about risk
First of all, let’s remember that when we speak about the dangers of pregnancy or any other undertaking, we’re talking about risk. This is not certainty. Nobody has a crystal ball. It’s all just educated guesses.
This sounds obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget.
You hear a doctor say, “You shouldn’t do XYZ because it would put your health at risk,” and it’s tempting to immediately declare, “‘Risk,’ you say? I SHALL NEVER DO XYZ AGAIN THEN!” But it’s critical to do the best we can to identify what level of risk we’re talking about.
In my own case, for example, I have a responsibility to my existing children not to take unnecessary risks with my life. The word to hone in on here is “unnecessary,” though, because the reality is that we take risks with our lives all the time. I’m thinking about taking a road trip this summer that would involve driving for hours down two-lane roads with 70-mile-per-hour speed limits and no barriers separating oncoming traffic. I would be driving on a weekend, when plenty of people are on the road after having beers at nearby lakes. There is no question that my life would be in danger if I went on that trip; in fact, the danger to my health in that situation is probably not even drastically lower than it would be with another pregnancy. Yet we perceive the pregnancy as being so much more fraught than the fun road trip.
For a variety of reasons, we’re always tempted to freak out and get all fearful when it comes to new life, much more so than in other areas of life. A mother setting out to climb a famous mountain as a personal self-fulfillment project would be congratulated and encouraged, whereas another mother being open to pregnancy despite concerning health conditions would be chided and discouraged, even if the risk to both women’s health from their respective activities were the same.
So, especially when it comes to the question of more children, we need to look very carefully at the question, “How big is the risk?” There are times when we’ll take a closer look and find that the risk is real and huge and deeply concerning; but other times we might just find that the risk isn’t all that much greater than it would be with plenty of other “normal” activities, and that the doom and gloom predictions about future pregnancy were fueled as much by our culture’s fear of life than as by a reasonable analysis of risk.
The hope factor
Every risk has a flipside, and this is another area that is too often forgotten about when we’re talking about pregnancy: the benefits of undertaking the risk.
We have this problem in our society of seeing new human lives as burdens. Instead of celebrating new people, too often we chalk them up to carbon footprints and mouths to feed. We deem others (always others, not people we know) to be “overpopulation.” And I’m not using “we” rhetorically: Seriously, I’m not immune to the mentality either.
The soundtrack to all of my pregnancies is the noise of my whining voice. I always forget about the life of the new son or daughter that I’m carrying, and talk about the huge burden that “the pregnancy” is placing on me. Maybe it’s all those years I spent immersed in secular culture, but I am naturally sympathetic to the frame of mind that wants to immediately shut down the pregnancy train as soon as the doctor says the word “risk.” Especially in the case of those of us who already have a lot of children, why not? After all, how many kids does one person need?
But children are more than a number in the family birth order, and each human life is infinitely valuable. Think of someone you love: When you consider the worth of his or her life, it makes you view the pregnancy that brought him or her into existence differently. It makes you willing to accept higher levels of risk to add a person like that to the world.
Imagine that you were diagnosed with a rare and fatal illness, and you discovered that there was a doctor who had developed a brand new way to treat it. Imagine that this doctor cured you. Imagine the waves of joy and relief that would sweep over you when you found out that he had defeated the disease that threatened to cut your life short. Now imagine that you found out that he was his mother’s seventh child, and that her pregnancy with him went against warnings from her doctors not to have any more children. Would his mother seem crazy for becoming pregnant anyway? Would she seem irresponsible for deciding that adding another soul to her family was worth the risk?
Unfortunately, sometimes we need to remind ourselves what other people can do for us in order to remember the value of their lives.
I’m not suggesting that there’s never a good reason to avoid pregnancy; even aside from health risks, there are plenty of other reasons couples might decide that it’s not a good time for another kid. I only suggest that when we make those decisions, it’s critical that we make them in light of the hope that every new baby brings. When you think of making sacrifices for a nameless, faceless “pregnancy,” it doesn’t seem worth much effort. But the cost/benefit ratio changes drastically when you really think about the worth of one boy or girl’s life.
NFP is worth it
All that said, I do think there’s enough risk in my own situation that I should chill on the pregnancy front for now, maybe forever. In that case, then, wouldn’t contraception or sterilization make everything easier? To put it concisely:
First of all, Natural Family Planning can be an effective way to space children. (I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing and clean up the drink you just spilled on your keyboard.) No, seriously, if you’re willing to invest a little time to learn the ropes, it can work just as well as contraception. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not always easy, and that the challenges that come with NFP are very real. However, it’s not like the alternatives offer problem-free solutions either. As the great Simcha Fisher once said, “When it comes to facing fertility, all God’s children got angst.”
I know a lot of other couples who have given up contraception to use NFP, and not a single one of them has ever returned to contraception use. I’m not saying it never happens, but, at least in my experience, it’s rare. That’s totally counter-intuitive since NFP is a sacrifice-based system, but I think what most couples find when they give up artificial birth control to space children naturally (especially when they involve God in the process), is that the high level of personal sacrifice involved is a feature, not a bug. NFP is not just another form of birth control; it’s an entirely new lifestyle. It makes you see yourself and your spouse and your children entirely differently. It makes you see the meaning of life differently. It even makes you see your relationship with God differently. And once you’ve spent a while living that kind of life, you don’t want to go back.
Intellectually, I don’t think that contraception is a good thing. I’ve come to believe that it takes away women’s reproductive freedom, and, on a societal level, fuels abortion culture. But, when I think of my own situation, I never even get that far in the analysis. Like so many other people who have made the switch to NFP, I simply couldn’t be okay with any form of sterilization anymore, whether temporary or permanent. I don’t know how to articulate it other than to say I just couldn’t do it. On a purely visceral level, in that place deep in the heart where the most important truths about our humanity reside, I know as surely as I know anything else that those Catholic teachings about human sexuality are true and good.
So what now?
As you can imagine, I’ve gotten some flack about all of this lately, especially in light of this disastrous pregnancy. Sometimes I catch myself reacting by saying:
“I didn’t know!”
I mean, yeah, I knew that I had a blood clotting disorder that’s exacerbated by pregnancy, and, okay, there was that one just slightly life-threatening DVT in my second pregnancy. BUT! I thought that it would be fine once I took preventative Lovenox. I didn’t know that it was possible to end up with bilateral pulmonary embolisms when you were on blood thinners — I thought that I was stabbing myself with needles every day to prevent that kind of thing! I didn’t know that a one-month supply of said blood thinners would set me back FOUR THOUSAND dollars. I didn’t know that I’d end up having to undergo medical procedures that were like something out of a bad episode of Fear Factor. I didn’t know that one of my veins would turn black from having over 10 blood draws in the same arm over a few hours. I certainly didn’t know that my baby would have his own, unrelated life-threatening lung issues that would put him in intensive care for two weeks. Sheesh, people, I didn’t know!
The implication there is that I would have done something differently if I had known that I was signing up for a pregnancy that was like something out of a homeric epic.
But would I?
I look down at my sweet baby boy, who is sleeping in my lap as I type, and I am overwhelmed with love and joy at his existence. I am filled with certainty that his life was meant to be. I can barely even remember all the pain I went through to bring him into the world, because that finite amount of suffering seems so utterly insignificant in comparison to the infinite value of his life.
Yet I am also sitting here saying that it would probably be best if I didn’t have more children. It leaves me in a place of strange tension: If this baby was so worth it, wouldn’t that be the case for another one? As a mother, I certainly have a duty to my precious children not to take risks with my health; but if I’d followed that train of thought more closely before, most of said precious children would not even exist.
It is when I ponder these truths that I realize: It’s so freaking complicated.
There are no more difficult, complicated, messy decisions in the human experience than the decisions we make about having kids. In no area of life is there more at stake, more opportunities for suffering and loss, and more opportunities for joy and love and connection that will last through eternity.
I don’t have all the answers; many days, I don’t feel like I have any. I have no idea if I’ll ever have another biological child. Today I’m thinking that I probably won’t…but will I feel that way tomorrow? If I’ve learned anything so far this year, it’s that your whole world can be turned upside down in a matter of hours, leaving you with an entirely different perspective on life than you had the day before. Luckily, with NFP, you make these kinds of decisions on a month-to-month, rather than a long-term basis. I’ll have regular opportunities to re-evaluate my choices.
And so when people ask about whether I think I’ll have more children, I usually respond with a responsible-sounding answer about how I am aware of the risks and currently plan to take the prudent course and avoid pregnancy for the rest of my fertile years. But then I’ll glance over at my little blond-haired son, and sometimes his tiny, ink-blue eyes will catch mine, and I can barely suppress a smile as I think: Never say never.
Today is my birthday. I turn 36.
Not only have I now passed the halfway point of my thirties, but it’s a brand new year, I just had a brush with a medical condition that is often fatal, and my whole life has been turned upside down by my recovery. So, as you can see, I have no choice but to write a long and reflective blog post that opines about the meaning of life today.
It’s a lot of pressure, really. I was lying in bed yesterday, mentally writing my post about all the Important Things I’ve taken away from this situation, and was mildly disgusted with myself that the first thing that came to mind was a list of tips about how to sneak contraband into the hospital that you’re technically not supposed to have. (And the next thing I thought of was a recipe for this amazing-sounding martini I discovered while surfing the web in the ER that I cannot wait to try as soon as the baby’s born.)
But I do think that I have learned a lot from this situation, even if the real insights were buried under ah-hah moments about sneaking Bendaryl into the hospital so that you can actually sleep.
Interestingly, facing my mortality was not what jarred me out of my usual routine — we Catholics are always thinking and talking about death, and since my conversion I’ve lived with a fairly constant awareness that, truly, not one of us knows the hour or the day that our time on earth will end. Having the ER tech whisper to me that the last guy who came in with a pulmonary embolism was dead 15 minutes later wasn’t what shocked me into a new way of seeing life. Instead, what has been the real bucket of icewater over the head for me has been the shattering of all my plans. I’ve only now realized that I tend to live in this weird mental space where I am pretty aware that death could come at any time…yet not all that aware that something mildly less catastrophic could happen. If I found out that I was going to die tomorrow it would shock me less than, say, if I found out I was going to lose the use of my right arm. I guess you could sum up my outlook as, Today could be the day the Lord calls me home…but if he doesn’t, good thing I have all these carefully laid out plans and that nothing could possibly go wrong with them!
But now all my plans are toast, and as I face a third trimester of pregnancy with a compromised ability to breathe, wonders about whether there will be lasting lung damage, and tricky long-term health management questions, I have been smacked upside the head with the reality that all my delusions of control through planning were just that — delusions.
I’ve been sitting here thinking of all the things I thought I would be doing in 2013 that I will not actually be doing. The crazy-intense curricula that would forever ensconce me as Queen of All the Homeschoolers, the cool speaking gigs in interesting places, the challenging but exciting writing opportunities, and those elaborate home organization projects that would surely make our entire house look like something off of Pinterest, have all either had to be hugely modified or scrapped altogether. Heck, I’ll be excited if I can walk up the stairs without flopping on the bed to gasp for breath at any point before summer. And here’s the most surprising part of all of that:
I don’t really care that much.
Starting with the moment my OB came to my hospital room to explain my diagnosis, I kept waiting to feel a great wave of mourning for all my plans. I waited and waited. But it never came. And when I look back on what God was teaching me in 2012, I see why.
In 2012 there was a very clear, specific message that was presented to me over and over again, reinforced to me countless times in countless ways. It seemed kind of random, and I wasn’t sure exactly how it would apply to daily life, but it was undeniable that it was something God wanted me to understand. The message was this:
It’s all about the human person.
Though I had felt the silent whispers of this concept in various forms as the months went on, it was Cardinal DiNardo whom I first heard articulate it, in a speech he gave at a benefit dinner in which he recounted something that John Paul II told him on his first ad limina visit to Rome. The great pontiff could have talked then-Bishop DiNardo’s ear off with hours and hours of advice about what it takes to be a good shepherd, but instead he left him with that one truth to ponder. On the bishop’s last day in Rome, John Paul II leaned in close to him and said, “Remember, Your Excellency, it’s all about the human person.” No matter how important or sweeping our plans may be, no matter how big or small the scope of our authority, everything we do must be ordered toward connection with individual human beings.
The message simmered within me all throughout the year, but it’s only now that it’s all gelled.
I’ve come to see the radically freeing truth that our plans only matter to the extent that they’re ordered toward deeper intimacy with individual people. What makes this truth so freeing is that, if your ultimate goal is to make the world a little brighter of a place by touching one person at a time, you can do that under any circumstances. You can live a life ordered toward human intimacy as a jet-setting movie star or as an invalid confined to a hospital bed; whether you find yourself surrounded by Hollywood directors or the nurses on night shift, you will always find yourself surrounded by people in need of love.
And so, to the extent that my plans for 2013 were rightly ordered in the first place, they actually haven’t changed all that much. I may have thought that on that one weekend in March I would be connecting with the people seated at my table after I gave my speech; instead, it looks like I’ll be connecting with my family, my neighbors, the people in my parish, or whoever else I can encounter without getting on a plane. The details may be different, but the goal is the same.
This is especially freeing in light of my birthday.
I’m not immune to the occasional pang of “I’m getting old!” thoughts that probably plague most citizens of our youth-obsessed society. MTV culture tries to paint aging — or illness, or disability, or any condition other than being young and healthy — as a great limiting of options. Alas, you can no longer [insert description of supposedly glamorous activity]. That’s for people who are [younger / healthier / prettier / wealthier] than you are. But the truth, which I understand with such great clarity after all I’ve been through in the past week, is that if your plans were not love-driven in the first place, then they were the kind of stupid, time-wasting plans that people shake their fists and rue through tears on their deathbeds; and if they were love-driven, then there are no worldly circumstances that could prevent you from executing them, even if the details change a bit.
And so I find it profoundly liberating here on my birthday, as I enter into the daunting territory of a year full of questions and unknowns, to know that as long as my life is ordered toward love, it is a life with limitless possibilities.
As many of you probably already know, the Dobrovits family lost their special little boy named Henry last week.
The story of his short two years on earth, and of how he ended up in their family, is an amazing one that needs to be shared. I had the honor of meeting Henry’s mother, Carla, at the Behold Conference both in 2011 and this year, and was profoundly impacted by the story of her discernment to adopt, and the journey they’ve been on since then. I’m glad Carla has been keeping a blog the whole time, so I can let her tell you their family’s story in her own words.
Here’s how it all started:
Usually I spend the first week of each January deciding what I want to focus on over the next calendar year. One year it was running – and I did a 1/2 Marathon. One year it was having my household run more smoothly – and I streamlined my laundry and cooking system to what works so well for us today (I really should add in cleaning one year though……)
But on January 1 of 2011, I did something totally out-of-character for me….I decided to let God decide what He wanted me to focus on this year. And as I prayed I thought it might be “helping orphans.”
Not knowing where else to start, Carla Googled helping orphans, and came across the Reeces’s Rainbow site. She saw the faces of all these beautiful special needs children in desperate needs of homes, and her soul was rocked. She continues:
I thought I had my mission. So many amazing families were raising money to pay the “ransom” to get these children home….there was NO TIME to save the thousands of dollars needed….these children had to get here to the US now!! So I resolved to give money to RR families in 2011. I was SURE that was what God wanted me to do in 2011.
But then, as I shared in my last post, I started looking at the “Waiting Children” listings….and I saw Henry.
It was like a lightning bolt.
He was the same age and at the same orphanage with a little boy called “Winston” who was missing part of his leg….Winston had a committed family with a few weeks. But Henry did not.
So I resolved to pray specifically for Henry to have a family. I prayed for him every day….often at Eucharistic Adoration (where Catholics go spend time in the presence of Jesus who we believe is present body, blood, soul and divinity in the consecrated bread)….and then one night….at 3 am….I woke up….and knew that God was telling me that WE WERE HIS FAMILY.
I did not hear voices. I knew this in the deepest part of my heart. I truly had no thoughts AT ALL of adoption before this. I was just going to pray and send money.
But God had other plans.
And then the thought hit her: how could she tell Paul, her husband?! Henry had severe special needs that would require extensive medical intervention. International adoptions are always expensive, international special needs adoptions even moreso — but this one would be a whopper even by those standards, not to mention the huge amounts of time and other resources this kind of adoption would require. Carla’s family already had six kids, so it’s not like they were sitting around with nothing to do. Carla was terrified. So here’s what she did next:
I was scared to death. Paul and I had been talking about how we were going to afford to send Brent (my oldest) to college in the fall and then Luke the year right after him…But we had also been talking about how to truly live our Christian faith in the very secular suburbs we were living and raising our children in.
So I prayed some more….asking God, “ARE YOU SURE??? I ALREADY HAVE 6 CHILDREN!!!” and also, “Please help me tell Paul. I am so scared.”
So on January 30 I presented all the information about Henry and Reece’s Rainbow to [Paul]. I told him that he is the head of our household and that I would not badger him about it but that I really felt this was what God was calling us to do in our marriage and family.
Then I did one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life.
I SHUT MY MOUTH for a month.
And over the next month their family faced severe, intense spiritual attack (yes, it’s real, and I will note that I’ve rarely seen it be as obvious and intense as when couples are discerning adoption). You can read Carla’s post for all the details, but let’s just say that pretty much everything that could have happened to make their lives difficult and put pressure on their marriage happened that month. Carla kept praying through it all, not badgering her husband about the adoption, but instead turning it over to God:
So I kept praying and Paul kept trying to keep up with the unexpected repairs and bills….and one Sunday…February 28….
Paul came home from an afternoon watching sports and celebrating his brother’s birthday with his mother and other brother….
and said we should do it. We should commit to Henry.
And we never looked back.
You can read her blog archives to get a feel for the roller coaster that ensued, with countless delays and frustrations getting Henry home. Finally, in September of last year, Carla was able to bring Henry home to meet his new family. Just a few weeks after they had him home, though, they found out that he’d been given the wrong diagnosis in his country, and that his disabilities were more severe than they’d realized. Thus began a whirlwind of doctor visits and therapist appointments and surgeries, sometimes far away from home. The medical bills and appointments began to pile up. Just last month Carla was writing about how desperately fatigued she’d become from yet another hospital stay full of complications and problems. But there was never any question of whether it was worth it, no calculations of whether the sacrifices the family was making for Henry were “paying off” for them. On November 3 of this year, Carla wrote:
When your adopted child rouses from post surgery anesthesia on a vent searching frantically with his eyes… And his meet yours… And his whole body softens and relaxes and he squeezes your finger and slowly and peacefully closes his eyes again.
Yeah, that moment…
Worth every penny, every sleepless night, every hardship.
Then, last Wednesday, after fighting an infection that suddenly got worse after one of his many surgeries, Henry passed away. He was only two years old.
The same day that Henry was called home, this amazing article by Cristina Nehring was published in Slate. Nehring was a self-described career woman who never wanted children, and she writes powerfully about what she has learned since becoming a single mother to a daughter with Down syndrome who is also battling cancer (h/t to the Evangelista). The piece centers around Nehring’s response to a book by Andrew Solomon that examines parent-child relationships, often from a coldly utilitarian perspective. In response to the “what’s in it for me?”, “I want to have perfect kids that don’t interrupt my important goals” mentality that pervades the book (as well as so much of our culture), Nehring responds powerfully:
[Her daughter, Eurydice's] gifts are the opposite of my own: Where I am shy, she is bold; where I am good with (known) words, she is good with drama, dance, and music; where I am frightened of groups, she loves them, and the children in her preschool compete hard to sit by her side at lunchtime as the nurses in her hospital petitioned to be assigned to her room.
Am I “cheerily generalizing” as Solomon says of other Down syndrome parents, “from a few accomplishments” of my child? Perhaps I am. But one thing I’ve learned these last four years that possibly Solomon has not: All of our accomplishments are few. All of our accomplishments are minor: my scribblings, his book, the best lines of the best living poets. We embroider away at our tiny tatters of insight as though the world hung on them, when it is chiefly we ourselves who hang on them. Often a dog or cat with none of our advanced skills can offer more comfort to our neighbor than we can. (Think: Would you rather live with Shakespeare or a cute puppy?) Each of us has the ability to give only a little bit of joy to those around us. I would wager Eurydice gives as much as any person alive.
I kept thinking of that second paragraph as I mourned Henry’s death along with Carla and her family, and watched from a distance as they displayed such hope — and even a certain kind of joy — in the face of their circumstances. If there were a crystal ball that would have revealed how everything would play out with Henry’s adoption — that he would be on earth with his family for a painfully short time, that he wouldn’t live long enough to be able to say “I love you,” or even to lift his little head — worldly wisdom would tell the Dobrovits family to skip the whole thing. The cost-benefit ratio would tell them that this adoption wouldn’t be “worth it.”
But the Dobrovits’ understand something that the world does not: That you can’t run cost-benefit ratios when it comes to relationships with other human beings. It’s impossible. Because on the “cost” side you might have finite things like a dollar amount of medical bills, or missed deadlines on personal projects; but on the “benefit” side you are have an eternal connection with another soul that will last even after everything in this world falls away. You can’t compare dollars or time to love; one is finite, the other is infinite.
Carla and I were exchanging notes earlier this week, and she talked about the explosion of love and graces that came from Henry’s short life, that have had an impact far beyond their own family. At the end of one of her emails she said, “I just keep thinking how God truly uses ‘the least of these’ to do his most important work.” As Cristina Nehring said in her article, we walk around thinking our worldly ambitions are so important; we worry about other people inconveniencing us and preventing us from carrying out our oh-so-important plans. But to look at a life like her daughter’s, or Henry’s, is to be profoundly humbled, and to realize that none of that matters. The most important contribution any of us could ever make to the world is also the simplest, and perhaps the hardest: it is simply to love.
This week Joe and I celebrate our ninth wedding anniversary.
We also found out recently that we’re expecting baby number six! (For those of you who need a refresher, we have an eight-year-old boy, and four girls ages 6, 5, 3, and 15 months.)
We’re so busy and tired, I’m not sure if we’ll even do anything to celebrate. Between homeschooling, dance class, soccer, scouts, general chaos management and me feeling astoundingly exhausted and vaguely sick all the time, I think that what we’d both like for our ninth anniversary is the opportunity to get 12 straight hours of sleep (that is the traditional nine-year gift, right?).
This is not the easiest phase of life I’ve ever been in. The baby spends about 30% of her waking hours yelling at the top of her lungs (which is a huge improvement from the six-month period she spent yelling at the top of her lungs for 90% of her waking hours, otherwise known as THE LONGEST SIX MONTHS OF MY EXISTENCE and OH MAN HOW AM I STILL ALIVE). Depending on the whims of the Insurance Fates, which are even more temperamental than the poop fates, we may end up spending more than our mortgage payment each month to get Lovenox to treat my clotting disorder during pregnancy. Our three-bedroom house is crowded, with people as well as terrifying arachnids, and we somehow have both an extreme night owl and an extreme morning person among our children, which makes it feel like there is someone who needs something from me 24 hours a day.
I forgot to get an anniversary present for Joe, and was looking through old pictures so that I could print one for a makeshift card (look out for my tutorial about how to print a photograph on office paper and fold it in half to be the next hot thing on Pinterest!). I laughed out loud when I saw some of these old shots. Ah, yes, there was the time we swung on down to Argentina to tour the vineyards of our favorite winery…
And that elegant weekend in San Francisco…
And that time we sipped champagne and watched the sun set in Florida…
We were seeking the good life, and we thought we had it. Yet even at the time, we felt a sense of emptiness. We wouldn’t have labeled it as such — we were so convinced that we were doing everything that we needed to be fulfilled, we never stopped to ask ourselves if we were actually fulfilled. But the emptiness was there, and it manifested itself as a carrot on a stick. There was always “just one more” thing we needed to own or achieve or do, and then we could rest, then we could be happy.
We put most of our energy into thinking about ourselves and what would bring us most comfort and happiness. We created a museum life, and said that we liked it. After all, we would have seemed ungrateful to have all that we had and say that it wasn’t doing what we thought it would do. But the truth was that our museum kind of started to feel like a prison. Thomas Merton captured it well when he said, “To consider persons and events and situations only in the light of their effect upon myself is to live on the doorstep of hell.”
It would take us a few more years and a profound religious conversion before we realized that the way to be happy isn’t to amass nice stuff or go on awesome vacations or even to think about yourself much at all. The way to be happy is to love. And real love always involves self-sacrifice; in fact, love and self-sacrifice are basically the same thing.
It was scary to take that leap from a philosophy of “happiness via self-focusedness” to one of “happiness via self-sacrificial love.” What if all this Christianity stuff was wrong? What if we underwent this massive lifestyle change, stopped chasing dollars and material possessions, lost our condo and our nice car and our ability to travel, and ended up with a lame and boring life?
It didn’t take long to see that there was nothing to fear. Immediately upon our conversions, our marriage experienced an explosion of life: we became open to life, which led us to see children completely differently than we did before. Not only did we start having more kids, but we were surrounded by the people of our parish, our diocese, and the entire Body of Christ. Our new suburban house suddenly became a hub of activity, with kids and friends and neighbors in and out all the time — none of which would have ever happened in our old life. It was loud. It was chaotic. It was messy. It was more work than I’d ever had to do in my life. It made us wish the original owner of our house had not installed white carpeting. But, interestingly, we never yearned for our old way of life. Not once.
One day we looked around and saw that our museum was gone. All the stuff that we’d arranged so carefully to suit our tastes had had to be rearranged to accommodate other people’s tastes. The hustle and bustle of so many other people running through our lives meant that things got knocked down, broken, and moved. Life was no longer about just us anymore; we had to consider other folks’ comfort in addition to our own. And it was a wonderful feeling when we realized that our museum was no longer there…because it had been transformed into a home.
Tomorrow night Joe and I will probably celebrate our nine years of marriage with a quick toast, in the approximately four minutes we will have between when the last kid goes to bed and when one or both of us falls face-down on the floor from exhaustion. And when we do we’ll toast to the good life, and thank God that we finally found it.