Digging Deep into the Peanut Butter

Last night I was going to eat peanut butter out of the jar – what? I’m a guy – and found myself rifling through the cutlery drawer in search of a particular spoon that I wanted.  The jumble of mismatched silverware at the Fortress of Solitude reflects the fact that I don’t entertain much, and when I do, it’s usually with finger foods and an emphasis on drinks.  So the spoon I was looking for, and eventually found, was one that I’ve used many times in the past for this purpose, and have become accustomed to.

Aside from my (questionable) bachelor eating habits however, the search for the spoon at the end of my day was strangely mirrored by a search I had gone through that very morning, through the silk and wool jungle undergrowth I call a tie rack.  I was looking for a tie in a particular shade of blue, to contrast with the gingham shirt I intended to wear to the office, and ended up having to take every tie off the rack until I found it.  Yet there was never any question, to my mind, that the tie in question was the one I had to wear that particular day, any more than my protein overload later that night was going to take place using one particular spoon, or not at all.

Why do we give inanimate objects this kind of power over us? Would the peanut butter have tasted any different had it been eaten with another spoon? Or would my shirt have been spoiled by wearing a different, but perfectly acceptable tie from the one I had intended?

Psychologists tell us that children with Asperger’s Syndrome can develop rigid fixations on particular objects, which help them to find a sense of order in the universe.  When the object which they feel is critical to the completion of some task or activity is unavailable, they may become inconsolable or withdrawn.  This is behavior which can be observed even among children who do not suffer from Asperger’s: one thinks of the character Linus from the “Peanuts” comics, for example, and his security blanket.

As adults, despite all of our supposed sophistication and wisdom gained from leaving childhood behind, we can all point to certain objects we possess which we associate with a feeling of continuity in our lives.  It may be a shirt we consider “lucky”, because we wore it on the day we met that certain someone for the first time.  Or it might be a certain box, where we keep ephemera like concert tickets or birthday cards.

However the real power of these otherwise ordinary objects is not intrinsic to the objects themselves.  Destroy them, and you do not destroy the self, any more than you destroy what such objects represent, unperceived though that meaning may be to the untrained eye.  Rather, their power lies in their ability to transform us, something which, maybe without even realizing it, we are the ones granting them the ability to do.  You won’t love your grandmother the less if you accidentally smash the dish she left you in her will, or ruin your marriage when you burn a hole in that favorite chair you bought on your honeymoon – although there may be other consequences, in that instance.

What matters in such cases is the good that these objects lead us to do, whether it is enjoying a simple pleasure, recalling someone dear to us, or serving as a reminder of what matters in our lives, and the goals we are striving toward.  So yes, the peanut butter would taste just as good with a different spoon, and the shirt would have looked just as well with a different tie.  As long as I recognize the fact that I’m the one who gives them their significance, then I will be sure to keep things in perspective.

Now where are my Superman socks…

Clearly this kid didn't need a spoon...

Clearly this kid didn’t need a spoon…

Hope and Shoelaces

Have you ever stopped to think about how you learned to tie your shoes?  It’s a skill which is pretty close to a necessity, at least in Western culture.  For me, the experience was rather difficult, yet now I can look back and say that I learned about fear and hope, and how they motivate us.  Perceiving the difference between these two motivators is a much more valuable lesson than simply learning how to work with shoelaces.

When I started kindergarten, I was playing with action figures and watching Saturday morning cartoons, just as most 5-year-old American boys do.  Unlike my classmates however, I was already at a comprehension level somewhat more advanced than theirs.  I read adult-level books on subjects such as astronomy, Egyptology, and paleontology, for example, and enjoyed listening to Haydn and Beethoven symphonies.  In short, I was (and still am) a nerd. 

Yet whatever intellectual capabilities I may have had, there was one thing which I absolutely could not get down: tying my shoes. In fact, I was the very last person in my kindergarten class to learn how to tie my shoes properly.  Despite my interest in subjects like physics, I would sit there for hours trying to figure out how in the world to coordinate my fingers to pull the two ends of the shoelace into a bow.

As the school year wore on, I became more and more embarrassed by the fact that I seemed to be the only one who could not tie his shoes. Frequently, I had to go to my teacher for help, if my shoes became untied on the playground.  She would show me how to do it, but try as I might I simply could not replicate her movements.  And kids being kids, my classmates started to take note of my inability to learn this skill, and began mocking me for it.

At home, my parents did their best to try to help me learn how to tie my shoes, although with my being left-handed and naturally clumsy, no doubt I tried their patience no end. Despite hours of practice, I seemed to make no progress at all. I became deeply upset, and asked God why He couldn’t just show me how to tie my shoes.  Yet I was doing so not because I thought it was important that I learn, but rather so that the kids at school would stop making fun of me.  In other words, I was motivated by fear, rather than hope.

Then one day in late spring, as I was approaching my 6th birthday, I remember being in the coat closet – or “cloak room” as they were called in Catholic schools – and noticing that my left shoe was untied.  By this point, I had become so used to being mocked that I just accepted it and told no one about the regular taunts I received.  I still wanted to learn how to tie my shoes, but whereas before I wanted to do so in order to avoid humiliation, now I wanted to learn how to do it because I was really looking forward to moving up to first grade, and being in school all day long.  I knew there was a risk that I might not be able to go, unless I could tie my shoes.

So instead of asking for help one more time, I bent down to try to tie my shoe.  And for no apparent reason, everything finally fell into place.  Eureka!

I was so overjoyed that I ran out to tell my teacher the good news.  I can still remember the look of relief on her face when she found out I could do it.  No doubt she had not been looking forward to writing an end-of-year report on whether I was ready for 1st grade, explaining why I still could not tie my shoes.

Last evening I thought of this experience following a conversation with someone whose opinion I value highly.  Over the past few months I’ve been thinking about what I ought to be doing with my life, since I just keep ploughing away, doing what I do, but at the same time sensing that I ought to be moving in another direction.  To date, I have seen no lifelong instruction manual saying,  “Here’s what you should do next.”  The response to my observation was, maybe He already has shown you what to do, but you just haven’t realized it yet.

And that comment brings me back to where this blog post began.  Because when it came to learning how to tie my shoes, I did not have a supernatural messenger appear beside me and guide my fingers, no matter how much I wanted someone else to just make things happen for me.  People showed me what to do, but my primary goal for a long time was not to improve myself, but rather to escape from something negative.  Fear, rather than hope, was my motivator.

Eventually, I stopped worrying and starting hoping.  I wanted to succeed and move up to 1st grade, so I could enjoy all of the knowledge I would be able to pick up there.  I wasn’t going to get there if I kept worrying.  Instead, I chose to keep trying, until eventually I was finally able to achieve what I needed to.

Sure, I would have liked the instant gratification and deliverance from self-doubt that a sudden answer to my prayers would have given me.  Instead, I had to learn – not for the first time – the virtue of holding on, and persisting in the face of the unknown, whatever the difficulties.  In other words, by having to wait so long, I had to learn how to hope.

And hope does not disappoint.

Remembering That I’m a Father

When you try to write a blog regularly and are in need of subject material, you sometimes need to look to the newspapers to find information or ideas.  At other times, things happen to come your way for no particular reason, provided that you are paying attention to the world around you, and not ignoring the direction in which you may be led.  This means being open to the possibility of perceiving the connections to be made even if you cannot see why.

This morning on the way to work, my bus passed a young couple in their early to mid-20’s. The young woman had pale, celtic features and dark, long, curly hair piled on top of her head, and was visibly rather pregnant; she looked as though she was in some distress.  She was clutching tightly to the right arm of the light-haired, preppy young man with her, who was holding what looked to be a large, quilted baby bag, like women often take with them when they are going into the hospital to give birth.  My guess is that they were walking across the circle, to George Washington University Hospital a few hundred yards from where I saw them; let us hope that it goes well for all.

Now as it happens, last evening I received an email from a good friend containing the first pictures of him with his wife and their new baby girl, just home from the hospital.  And within some minutes of this, another good friend told me of his baby son’s need to visit a pediatric specialist today for a consultation on a possible surgery; he texted me a smiling photo of the two of them together this morning.  Since there appears to have been a plethora of baby-related incidents crossing my radar over the past twelve hours, and I am trying my best to pay attention, I suppose this means I ought to write something about having children.

Of course, the problem is that I do not have any biological children of my own.  Nor am I a teacher, with a new crop of children every school year to tend to, nor a priest, with a flock of children to shepherd in my parish.  Indeed, as our departing pastor noted at mass recently, before being transferred to a large suburban parish with many children, he would suddenly find himself the spiritual father of many, many children, whom he would have to guide and help raise in the Church – a daunting task to be sure, though one he is more than up to fulfilling.  That being, said, this spiritual fatherhood is perhaps something which those of us in the laity ought to consider in our own lives a bit more closely, even if we ourselves are not blessed with children, if we happen to be a godparent or a confirmation sponsor.

In my own case, I have a goddaughter who was born here in the United States, but is now living in England, and whom I have not seen for a couple of years.  There was a time when, in love with her smallness and funny nature, I would make a point of going up to visit her several weekends out of the year, just to be able to spend time with her.  Once she moved away that ended, of course.  Now she is in primary school, has made her First Communion, and is busy with friends and activities.  And as happens in such instances, there can be a drifting apart due both to the absence of physical separation, and the child growing older.

Perhaps the lesson or reminder here for me is that I made a promise, in front of God and Father George Rutler – difficult to know which one I ought to be more careful about displeasing – that I would do my best to make sure my goddaughter receives the guidance and example she needs to grow in her spirituality.  At this distance, that role must be largely left to her parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and teachers, but that fact alone does not get me off the hook.  The godparent always has a role to play throughout the life of the person whom they have agreed to watch over in the Faith, as the Catechism tells us:

1255    For the grace of Baptism to unfold, the parents’ help is important. So too is the role of the godfather and godmother, who must be firm believers, able and ready to help the newly baptized—child or adult—on the road of Christian life.  Their task is a truly ecclesial function (officium).  The whole ecclesial community bears some responsibility for the development and safeguarding of the grace given at Baptism.

Thus, even though I may be neither a father in either the biological or in the roman collar sense, I am still a spiritual father to a little English girl.  She needs some periodic guidance and reminders from me to say her prayers, obey her parents, and partake in the life of the Church, and I am responsible for attempting to at least do that to some extent for the rest of her life.  And that, gentle reader, is a more important realization or reminder for me this morning, rather than the question of simply coming up with a blog topic.

Detail of “The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece” by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1445-1450)
Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp