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.
I think I had a mid-life crisis a few months ago.
It was a weird experience, because I didn’t see it coming. Ever since my conversion I’ve had this unshakable sense of peace at the foundation of my life, a sort of root-level happiness that I never knew was possible. Yeah, things are hard, sometimes really hard, and I whine now and then (okay, a lot), but all of that stuff has to do with day to day annoyances. When you look past all that, I’m actually deeply fulfilled with this crazy existence of mine — after all, life doesn’t have to be easy to be joyful.
So I was caught off guard when, one warm afternoon last fall, I found myself riddled with stress and panic at the thought of turning 36.
It was one of those moments when information that I already knew well suddenly struck me completely differently than it had the first thousand times I’d thought about it: a nurse at my obstetrician’s office asked how old I would be when the baby is born, and I answered casually, “Thirty-six.” She left the room while scribbling notes on my chart, and I was left stunned, sitting rigid in the chair as if I’d just received some grave diagnosis.
“Thirty-six? Thirty-SIX?!?! My thirties are mostly gone! Forty is just around the corner! I’M SO OLD!!!!”
Now, I realize the ridiculousness of a 36-year-old thinking that she is old, and I’m sure I will laugh heartily if I re-read this in 30 years. It’s not even that I think that 36 is old, objectively; I just didn’t realize that that’s my age. I guess I’ve been so busy for the past half decade that I never really noticed that I was out of my 20s.
But whatever. No big deal. I tried to brush it all off as soon as I left the doctor’s office, assuring myself that I must just be in one of those moods where everything seems overwhelming and horrible. (Just that morning I had called Joe to wonder loudly if life is even worth living anymore, which resulted in an awkward silence when it came out that the question arose because we ran out of butter.)
The hours turned into days, my mood improved, and yet I continued to be plagued by some unsettling feeling about my age. I’d be going through my routine, feeling fine, and then — boom — that I’M GETTING OLD! feeling would slam into me and leave me reeling.
I tried to get to the bottom of this weird new anxiety, but had little luck. I went through this mental process I often turn to in times of stress, where I think through possible explanations and try them out like trying keys in a lock. Yet this time, none of them fit: Anxious about mortality? Nah. We Catholics think about death all the time, and I’m fairly comfortable with the knowledge that my life on this earth won’t last forever. Worried about looking older? I’m not immune to bemoaning new gray hairs and wrinkles, but it doesn’t bother me that much. Missing the “freedom” of youth? Oh my gosh. I was never more of a slave than when I was supposedly living the high life in my 20s. Do not want to experience that again.
I walked around like this for days, maybe even weeks: stressed about my age, stressed about the fact that I was stressed, and stressed that I couldn’t analyze my way out of my stress about being stressed. (Yeah. It’s hard to be me.) Then, finally, it hit me, and I understood what was at the root of my anxiety.
The ah-hah moment came when I stumbled across an old DarwinCatholic post, in which Darwin makes a profound point about our little daily choices adding up to create a life – specifically, that if our choices are poorly thought out, it may not be a life we want to live. He analogized it to constructing a building:
The house or office you are sitting in was built according to a plan and a purpose, a purpose from which it is now only able to deviate to a limited extent. My house cannot suddenly become an office tower, though it has an office in it. My office building would make a very poor house. But they are built knowingly, according to a plan. And yet, our lives seem often constructed to a purpose without the architect knowing that he is in constructing something with walls and doors — an edifice which will suit some ends well, and other poorly. Individual choices pile up unto some particular type of life, and once that life is built people sometimes find it is not, in fact, the kind of structure they want to live in.
After reading that, I got it.
People probably experience mid-life crises for a variety of reasons, but, for me, what happened was that I looked up and realized that my building is well on its way to completion. Even though I am happy with the way it’s turning out, it was startling to realize how much of it is done. Last time I checked, it was still a bare foundation with endless possibilities; it now has a definite design, a clear trajectory. Many of the choices I have already made rule out other, future choices I might have once considered. As a 36-year-old mother expecting my sixth child, it’s extremely unlikely that I will ever be a top makeup artist or ascend the Seven Summits or become a professor of physics. It’s not that I care that much about doing any of those things, but when I was 20, they were all options.
Now, they are not.
It was when I internalized that fact that I realized that the pain of my mid-life crisis was, at its root, fueled by my attachment to options.
I’ve long given lip service to the idea that the secret to life is seeking God’s will on a day-by-day, even hour-by-hour basis. Ever since I read the (incredible and life-changing) book He Leadeth Me, I have been a big believer in this idea that the most important way to be fulfilled and have an impact on the world is simply to ask God what he wants you to do right here, right now; to rest in the knowledge that God always has something important that he needs you to do, no matter your age or your physical abilities or your circumstances, and that it’s probably more exciting than your own plans anyway.
But believing something and living it are always two different things, and it wasn’t until my little mid-life crisis that I realized just how much hope I placed in having options. Rather than resting in the life that God has given me, and trusting that he’ll give me whatever opportunities I require to do what I’m meant to do in this world, I still relied on having lots and lots of choices for the future in my back pocket (you know, as a backup, just in case God dropped the ball with his plan and I had to take over).
And when I realized that many of those choices were gone now, with more disappearing with each passing day, it was a startling moment of coming face to face with my own attachments.
As I would find out a few months later when my health took a dive, this happens in other areas of life as well: in addition to time, you often don’t realize just how much you rely on things like power, money, or (in my recent situation) health until you don’t have them anymore. I always thought that my hope for a truly fulfilled life rested in God alone. Now I see that the breakdown was more like: 30% hope in God, 30% hope in robust health that allows me to engage in activities of my choosing, 30% hope in having plenty of time to do all sorts of other stuff in the future, and 10% in having the resources to make it happen. As we age, those other commodities dwindle — a 110-year-old doesn’t have a whole lot of health or time or resources, for example — and only God is left.
At least for me, a mid-life crisis is nothing more or less than a realization that every day brings us a little closer to that point when all we have left is God, and that we may be closer to that point than we thought we were. It sounds kind of depressing, like something I’d shout into the phone at Joe at 3 PM when I’m exhausted and the baby won’t nap and someone just spilled yogurt on the wall (“ALL I HAVE LEFT IS GOD!!!”), but it’s really quite inspiring. To go through a mid-life crisis and to come out the other side is to go through a process of purification, in which you accept the things that are gone, and realize that they were were never the source of true happiness to begin with.
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.
One of the topics I’ve struggled with since the beginning of my conversion is the role of ambition in the Christian life. I have an odd personality type that could be described as “mostly extremely lazy, with occasional flashes of Type A behavior.” In other words, by default I sit on the couch and do nothing; but when I do decide to get up from the couch, I make it worth my while. I think this is why the concept of being ambitious is a tricky one for me: It’s easy for me to be tempted to do nothing and call it virtue, passing off sloth for holy detachment. On the other hand, it’s also easy for me to get so into whatever project I’m working on that I turn it into an idol.
This has been my main topic of prayer for months now. I know that placing too much value on worldly accomplishments leads to misery and spiritual death. I also know that we’re not supposed to sit around and do nothing, and that we can bring glory to God by producing top-quality work. So, how can a Christian be both intensely motivated to do his best work, yet still remain detached? I still don’t have all the answers, but I think a lot of it comes down to this:
Rock the present moment.
First, the rock part:
One thing I noticed recently was that I brought great energy to my various writing projects. I wanted to do my best at these tasks, and I wanted to do it for God. The problem was that the Jen’s-Passion-for-Bringing-Glory-to-God-o-Meter dipped down to about zero when it came to work that I didn’t like as much and/or that didn’t have a worldly payoff. I would devote myself with zeal to learning how to write a quality book; but when a lonely neighbor needed someone to talk to, I suddenly had all the enthusiasm of a prisoner on a chain gang.
The problem with ambition is that we tend to put it into practice selectively. This is what Fr. Walter Ciszek was always talking about in He Leadeth Me (a lesson which, somehow, didn’t sink in the first five hundred times I read the book): to turn your life over to God means to turn each individual moment of your life over to God. A God-glorifying life doesn’t hinge on the outcome of grand events; it isn’t dependent on the future. Rather, it’s created from the small moments of each day: the enthusiastic conversation with the chatty woman on the bus, the cup washed with extra care before it’s returned to the cupboard. A new litmus test I use to keep myself from becoming overly ambitious in the wrong areas is, “Do I devote this much care and attention to every area of my life?” If the answer is no, it’s time to recalibrate.
This brings us to the present moment part:
By default, being ambitious is a very future-oriented state of mind. We want to have accomplished X by the time we’re 50, we’re passionate about achieving Y by the end of next week — all of this takes place in the future. I think one of the devil’s most clever tricks in this department is to take our honest efforts to live in the present moment, and use them as fodder for temptation to fixate on tomorrow. For example, a while back I was writing something that I thought was turning out to be great. I could feel the Holy Spirit with me, and just knew that this was what God wanted me to be doing at this moment. All good so far. But then my thoughts drifted to the future: This must mean that God wants this piece to be really successful! It’s going to go viral! Everyone is going to read it! I ended up drifting around in dreams of the future, ignoring the present moment to become more and more attached to what was surely going to happen later in the week.
As it turned out, the piece was mostly a flop, except for some people who wrote me to say how much they hated it. Rather than using it to teach thousands of people about the Lord through my writing, God used it to teach me some lessons in humility. It was a painful experience, mainly because I had relied so heavily on my God’s Will ESP and had gotten attached to my visions of what the Holy Spirit was surely going to do with this project. If I had simply done my best during the writing, then moved on to doing my best with the next thing God called me to (which, in this case, was changing the bag in the kitchen trash can), I don’t think I would have been so impacted by the outcome of the project.
Again, I’m still working on all of this, and will probably struggle to find balance in this area all my life. But I wanted to share what I’ve learned, because it has really helped me be both motivated and detached, simply to remember to rock the present moment.