Friday, June 8, 2007

Lower the Shield

The discussion on modesty, veiling, vanity, gratitude, and related topics continues here and elsewhere on the Internet. I'd like to extend a special welcome to those clicking in from the Catholic Answers forum on veils--please feel free to look around, get acquainted, and leave comments, even if (especially if!) you disagree. All voices are welcome here.

Some comments left in the comment boxes beneath the earlier post made me think about the problem of vanity and its related ills a bit more. The following speculation is pure fiction; any resemblance to actual people or conversations is both accidental and regrettable:

You are meeting your cousin Edwina for tea. You've always thought of Edwina as a good Catholic wife and mother, overall, but you do think she tends to be a tad critical sometimes. As you choose your outfit for the meeting, you notice that you're being a bit more careful than usual. Slacks? No; last time you met Edwina she mentioned that her spiritual journey had led her to a place where she saw slacks as being the textile equivalent of satanic clothing as far as women were concerned. She expressed her sadness that your journey was lagging a bit behind. No need to go there again.

A skirt, then. Not that one; she's seen you in it at four family gatherings, and at the last one she jokingly called it "Miranda's uniform." Not this one, either; it falls a mere four inches below the knee, and is therefore what Edwina calls a 'hussy skirt.' The two which meet or exceed Edwina's length requirements are scarlet and a sober brown, respectively. You take the brown, bracing yourself for the inevitable question about your "Franciscan" spirituality, but knowing that it will be better than Edwina's conclusions about such an 'abandoned' shade of red.

Jewelry and makeup are easy; none but your wedding set, and none but a little powder. Edwina has made it clear that she disapproves of jewelry-wearing as "frivolous" and that she thinks of makeup as something that would only be worn by the kind of woman who'd choose the red skirt. Shoes are a bit more difficult, as you usually wear sandals in this kind of weather, but unless you're prepared to play off the "Franciscan" thing to the point of having to endure discussions about how secular Dominicans are much, much better for you spiritually, you'd better not. So you choose closed-toe loafers, plain brown, and then realize that you will have to wear stockings, too, as Edwina considers the absence of them to be "uncouth."

By the time you add the stockings, you are running late. Edwina is never late. You grab your purse and go.

When you reach the little cafe that Edwina always chooses for these little outings, you see that she's already there, and that she's already ordered the tea, which means it is jasmine tea, or as Edwina says, "The only tea fit for a lady's consumption." You hate jasmine tea, but it wouldn't have mattered even if you'd been there on time.

"Miranda! I was just wondering if my watch had stopped," Edwina calls out, a thin vinegar-ish smile crossing her lips.

"I'm sorry, Edwina," you say, sliding in to the chair opposite her.

"That's a nice handbag," she adds, zeroing in at once on the one weak point in your armor. "Where did you get it?"

Time almost freezes, but not quite.

Which way do you go? Do you tell her the name of the discount store whose clearance bin you found it in, which will make her despise you as a bargain shopper? Do you tell her the designer, which will make her despise you as an extravagant spendthrift? Or do you act as if you've had it a long time and can't remember where you bought it, which will make her despise you as a liar, and a fairly unskilled one to boot?

You thought your armor was sufficient, and that your shield would deflect her poisoned barbs. But she's been engaging in these sorts of battles all her life, and she could outflank you in her sleep.

You mention quickly the name of the designer, mumble something about a sale and a gift certificate, and turn the topic of conversation elsewhere. But the damage has been done. Edwina's eyes glitter with thwarted vanity; she carefully feels you out, testing your position. That wonderful Catholic book she just read--oh, you've read it, too? Father X, her new pastor--oh, he used to teach at your high school? This wonderful new recipe for vegetable soup--your mother's recipe? Really? One wonders how Aunt Caroline ended up with it, then...

Your shield takes hit after hit. It's going to crumble, sooner or later. A chance remark about your three-year-old's struggles with toilet training does the trick. "Really?" Edwina purrs, retracting her claws as the shield of your self-esteem falls to pieces. "Three? Why, all of mine were trained by eleven months--except poor Ethelbert, of course; we were so worried that he might be slow in other ways, too, since he wasn't trained until a month after his first birthday. But the flashcards and the Mozart CDs have done the trick, we think," and she leans back in her chair as if there were an actual mouse between her paws.

For the rest of the interminably long tea-party she's like a cream-fed cat, contented to give you stinging advice on the management of your children, and the name of a really good child specialist who can help with "that toilet issue," which she whispers behind her hand, attracting a lot of attention from the two tables closest to you. Her whisper has always been more like a very audible hiss than a sotto voce.

You are very glad when it's time to go.

I enjoy science fiction, as I've mentioned before. Writers in this genre have a tendency to create technologically-advanced shields to protect spaceships, space stations, planets, cities, and the like. But one thing I've noticed about these shields is that nearly all of them can only be operated with a significant amount of power. Often there isn't sufficient power available to operate the shields and other important functions (engines, weapons, life-support) all at the same time. The shields borrow power from something else; they are draining; they are enervating; sometimes they simply cost too much.

The shields we put up to protect ourselves from other people's vanity, judgmentalism, envy and spite exact a similar toll from us. They force us to engage in a battle we have no taste or inclination for on terms we'd never willingly accept. They make us crawl inside someone else's dark and narrow reality and navigate the unfamiliar labyrinth of their hatred and anger toward the whole world. We think we can manage to protect ourselves, but the more we try to deflect their criticisms or appear to absorb their 'advice' the more we run the risk of losing all our power to avoid being injured or damaged by our contact with them. The shields fail, and we are diminished yet again.

Defensive weapons, however valuable, can only do so much, even in the fight between good and evil. If we really love the people we encounter, we will be willing to use some offensive weapons, like honesty and truth and even mirth.

A Miranda who enters the cafe on time, dressed in slacks, wearing her usual makeup, and ready to laugh aside all of Edwina's silly prejudices and to show her, gently, persistently, compassionately, how wrong it is to sit constantly in judgment on her fellow men, to rob them of their God-given worth, is a Miranda who needn't be afraid of being judged herself. Oh, Edwina may still judge her, but Miranda isn't given her the ammunition necessary to do any real damage; Miranda isn't cowering behind that power-draining shield, which will only do its job as long as Miranda is willing to let Edwina be the one with all the power.


nutmeg said...

I just did a post on this.

But, of course, yours is much more clear. (No envy, I promise!!)



That is EXACTLY what I was going for. Be yourself, cheerful, and friendly. Make it easy for people to be as charitable to you as you are to them.


AnnonyMouse said...

This is very true and entertaining! You have a gift.

Have you read "Please Don't Drink the Holy Water"?
I am also reminded of the sitcom..."Keeping up appearances"...
If this ever developes into a sitcom we can provide the comic relief if needed :)

God Bless You

Red Cardigan said...

annonymouse, I have read Susie Lloyd's book, and remember her from the tiny Catholic college in NH which I attended my freshman year, when Susie was a senior. I always thought of her as a very nice and down-to-earth person, which comes across in the humor and refreshing honesty of her book!


Sheila said...

I went to that tiny college too. Not so tiny anymore compared to my day. I think Sue was a sophomore when I was a senior. She's a wonderful writer, as are you.

Red Cardigan said...

Hi, Sheila! It really is a small world, isn't it? :)

diana said...

Please excuse my long post and if I come across as uncharitable. This has been an issue for me for a few years while I bear with me please!
In my situation, it isn't just the clothing, makeup, decorated house,etc. It's HS'lers who love to continually criticize and nag and scold on everything!
For example:
This woman I barely know comes up to me after mass and starts lecturing me over the fact my husband's job requires travel at times. She starts with how terrible this is, for him to do this to us, and when I say I don't mind, that he worked more hours when his job was in town, she says" oh really, but he still would be home at night," and I say, "Yes, for an hour before the kids' bedtime; this way he has all of Friday off and since we homeschool we spend the whole day together", then she says, "but it's too stressful on the family to have him gone during the week," I say "well, my dad worried constantly about losing his job, and many people in this HS group have husbands out of work for some time now. This is a good job that values him." She says,"But he doesn't even CALL you when he's gone!" I say, "What? he calls me and we talk over two hours a day when he is gone!" She looks at me doubtfully and then goes on with the criticisms. Finally I say," You know, I pray, and we pray on his job and thank God for it, and this is what God seems to want and we are happy," and again she looks at me doubtfully, like this just cannot be, and finally drops it. She belongs to this Catholic organization that promotes family, and I also belong to it, (not as long) so I complained to the priest in charge that all she managed to do was to make it so my husband didn't want to go to these meetings the organization has. The priest agreed with me and though I never said her name it got around, and then HER husband was giving me dirty looks, as though I was such a jerk. I wanted to stuff her veil in her mouth I was so angry at her. My husband is so sweet! He gets 4 hours of sleep a night and does nothing but sacrifice for us just to have some woman criticize him.

I will go on...another woman from this same organization and I are talking and I casually mentioned putting up the Xmas tree early, like we always do, because our tree has a lot of heirloom ornaments with special memories we and use the Thanksgiving weekend to do this and make it an event. Otherwise we would have no time to do this. She lectured me for twenty minutes on how uncatholic this it, how it's still Advent as though I don't know. We don't even need to have a Christmas tree! Finally I told her, "Fine, its a winter tree then. Does that make you happy?" She comes from a town where I know a few people, calling them "good old boys" as a joke and I talked about how I enjoyed them, and she says, "I highly doubt they were 'good'" while rolling her eyes.

Yet another homeschooler lectured me for a half of hour, because she wanted to start this religious class for kids. I didn't know the teacher and so when we met with her,I asked, "Is whoever teaching the class going to be teaching in accordance to the Magisterium, ie, women priests, contraception etc."
This teacher got really angry at me and snapped at me, and the homeschooler got angry. She said she was trained by the archdiocese. Big deal. This is the Milwaukee archdiocese and anything goes. The catechesis here is awful. So later this HSler talks to me about it, saying, "This teacher felt attacked". I said, "I just asked a question that my husband and I feel strongly about." I said maybe her guilty conscience attacked her (I know thats a little mean). She went on saying "well, this program just isn't for you! "but acting like I was rotten for it not being for me, and I said, "well I guess no religious program is for me, since I would question any teacher who was teaching my kids!" She just kept saying I have no heart,and it's too bad, because this program would show me a heart, (although it's for kids, not me), that if I had a problem with anything the teacher said we would all be right there ("and get that kind of nasty reaction"? I said, because this teacher got nasty!)She finally ends with telling me to read this book, so that I could be shown "how to be a Saint". During this conversation I kept reiterating that *MY HUSBAND AND I* have this policy *FOR OUR FAMILY* and this is none of her business, since it in no way is against church teaching for me to question where a religious teacher is coming from. In fact I think it is my God given right to care.
I'll move on, this other HS is at my house for a Little Flowers. I had at the time, a 5 month old, a 3 month long migraine that was causing me to live half my time in tears, terrible allergies etc. My husband said, cancel this meeting but I wanted to do it for my girls. anyway, I was trying to smile and not let on that anything was wrong when this HS (who I do like but she is so bossy) starts in on me why I have now been going to her parish for mass. I despise her parish its so liberal. But I don't say that, instead I just say I have been under the weather. She starts lecturing me in front of a bunch of people : "That's because you stay up too late getting mom time. I know this. I used to do it "(this was not true!!!! umm, I have a 5 month old???). "You have to get to bed early and get yourself to mass every day. Its at 8 am. I get up at 6 then I go to Curves with my mom. Then I go to mass...."
"You need help raising your kids. Let me tell you what I've noticed, blah blah blah" yet I have noticed not so nice things with her kids she lets slide.

She has teenagers and her littlest is 8 years old. Here I was barely getting out of bed the migraines were so intense (I didn't know what they were yet, thinking they were sinus headaches). My husband had to do everything.

She is still lecturing me after all this time (4 years) and assuming I say up all night, along with everyone else she blabbed in front of. I try to plead with her, tell her what is really going on, but she just goes on to the next thing to lecture. "Why is that baby gate here"?(I say I have a sick dog and and I don't want him peeing in there, plus I am trying to train the dogs to keep out of there). She says "Let me teach you how to live. Those things add character." Dog pee adds character to hardwood floors? No, I don't think so!

She sees the rug under my dining room table: "You mean you are eating on that"?
We put in a door way between the LR and DR: "you mean you are closing that off! I want it more open"!
I mention having a glass of wine: "THAT'S why you have all those allergies!" (the first glass of wine I have had in years with 15 years of allergies)while she points her finger in my face, shouting.
I could go on but I will spare you.

I will make brief mention of another who scolds me over using Seton curriculum (especially with YOUR personality! she said because I like to make sure my i's are dotted and t's crossed) and and for using a blanket while nursing (she flung it off saying LOSE This.

That's what I am talking about, I know I got off the subject, the constant criticizing.

I am sorry if I abused your forum! Please forgive, I just needed to get this off my chest before I go crazy and give up!

freddy said...

Looks like God has certainly been putting you on the front lines on this one! I'll keep you in my prayers.
Some people really do criticize out of misplaced charity, others seem to see every conversation as a game with winners and losers. There's no one right way to deal with them (although I love the advice of one guru who says, "Put your hand to your brow and say in a whisper, 'My doctor says I'm not supposed to get upset.'")
God bless you! And maybe get your bossy friend a plaque -- you know, the one that says something about not criticizing your neighbor 'until you've walked a mile in his moccasins.'

Red Cardigan said...

Oh, Diana!

I was out today running errands, and missed your comment. I'm glad you were able to get all of that out in the open.

It seems as though there are quite a few Edwinas in your life; I think you should be commended for your patience with them, and your willingness to continue to be around people who have such negative personalities.

Sometimes I think we may end up in these situations because our culture tends to think of Christianity as synonymous with "nice" and then "nice" as the equivalent of "pushover." The message gets drummed into us that it's not "Christian" to stand up to abusive people and defend ourselves from them, when in fact that's not the case. A priest may have to work with all sorts of unpleasant people; a nun may work among people who are very hard to endure. Their vocations require this of them, but at the end of the day, they can joyfully offer up any suffering they've put up with from, to put it bluntly, jerks, busybodies, and idiots, for the greater glory of God.

For us lay married people it's not always the same story. We have to remember that our family comes first, and the community second. To the extent that we can give of ourselves to the wider community without hurting our families we should do so, of course. But I think it can hurt our families for us to be the target of incessant criticism and bottomless negativity such as you describe in your comment. Our children watch so much, and if they see other people taking us down constantly, it may diminish their love and respect for us. At the very least, it's going to confuse them to have their friends tell them it's evil or pagan to put up the Christmas tree before midnight Dec. 24!

(A digression on the tree question: the Christmas tree is an evergreen which is a sign of hope, and thus is eminently suitable to put up during Advent, the season of hopeful and vigilant waiting for the birth of Christ. Puritans disliked all signs of revelry associated with Christmas, and sadly some Catholics out there have fallen into a kind of neo-Puritanism which I find troublesome. Food for a later post, perhaps.)

Frankly, I'm not as patient a person as you must be. Any woman who removed my nursing blanket (back in the day) would have found herself unceremoniously outside in my driveway, and I'd probably be holding a can of bug spray menacingly at the front door if she showed a tendency to linger. I'm also a fellow migraine sufferer, so I know how you must have felt, having such unsympathetic people around when you weren't feeling well. The worst part is that they're all standing there patting themselves on the back for 'helping' you, when in fact they're 'helping' about as much as toddler, and with much less good will.

God bless! I hope things get better for you.

diana said...

They just got better, having such sweet and understanding people like you all to converse with!

I try to say to myself, what does God want me to learn from this? I guess I was praying for some closer friends, maybe this is His way of saying, "Get your needs fulfilled with me."

I also remember how St Therese suffered at the hand at some other nun and offered it up. If you knew how I used to be, someone, somewhere HAD to have offered SOMETHING to change me so maybe this is payback time!

It also makes me wonder how many people are in our HS group who might be tired of the over devout, if thats even a good term for it...

Thanks so much ladies. You are an answer to a prayer!

nutmeg said...

Diana, you need to get new friends.


Here in the south, there are some intolerant people, but I don't associate with them. AnyONE of those incidents would have sent me over the edge for weeks. You are amazing for sticking it out with them.

God bless.

matilda said...

It took me a long time to learn that many of the "good Catholic people" in my former HS group were neither "good people" nor "good Catholics".

I think for a family in today's day and age to choose homeschooling means that they must believe it is the "right thing to do". Unfortunately for some, it translates to a belief that they know the right way to do everything.

People as vampire-ish as you have described need to be cut out of your life before the have the chance to drain you dry!

AnnonyMouse said...

A sense of humor never hurts.
One thing I have learned, healthy boundaries are the key. Also, I would not look for "true" friendship with the people you have mentioned.
BUT if your boundaries are set, and sense of humor in never know...God may use you to change their hearts.
I would definitely find similar friends first...and we are out their.....just undercover most of the time. :0)

God Bless

AnnonyMous said...

PS...I am a fellow Seton user

One more thing...when trying to figure out if your parish is up to par or a course is on the right track...I have found a little discretion goes a long way.

For example....I might bring up the subject that the pope got a lot of COVERAGE regarding his support of the Mexican Bishop's decision to withold communion to the politicans that voted for the legalization of abortion. You can usually "feel" out the situation from their responses and be direct...just not tooooo blunt. Take it from get chosen for NOTHING when you are blunt....trying to tap into that femine genius...Maybe I need more skirts...:0)

Anonymous said...

nutmeg and matilda, I'm with youse guys.

Some people are looking to hurt you. They get off on it. And you know what? That's perverse. I've gotten it from both the HSers of 12 kids dressed like medieval hermits and the divorced pseudo-lesbian Hillary pro-abort types.

I got new friends.

Life is too short to be poisoned by such toxic people. And if you want to look at if from the Christian perspective: you are giving them occasion to indulge their sinful behavior. You need to get away from them, for both of your sakes. Plus, time is a gift from God that has a limit. Treat is as the precious gift it is; don't squander it with people like that.

~Catholic NYa

T with Honey said...

I got here from nutmeg's blog. I love this little follow up story. It really is easier and more loving to face such people with a humble smile and honesty. And sometimes that approach will help them grow, too.