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.

Just Go Away

No matter how much one likes to make plans, life has a way of throwing in a monkey wrench – or five – to throw things off-balance or get things moving in a completely different direction from what one intended.  For people of faith, like this scrivener, there comes a point when one must recognize that a brief respite for reconsideration before proceeding is necessary.  That point is usually when your spiritual director tells you that you need to get out of town. Now.

So last week when I heard those words, I began to look for a retreat center in the Washington metropolitan area I could go to for the long Columbus Day weekend.  Unfortunately, everything within a reasonable distance seemed not only to already be full, but catering to specific issues or groups which would not make sense for me to join even if there were open spaces.  Purely by chance, I happened to reach out to some friends who live several hours away, who agreed to put me up for a self-directed retreat weekend.  

Apart from my immediate family and a couple of very close friends, I told no one where I was going, and promised that I would stop communicating with the outside world via text messaging, telephone, email, or social media, once I arrived at my destination. This was a promise which, apart from a couple of necessary interactions, I stuck to during my retreat. The result was a combination of reading, writing, prayer, fellowship, and relaxation, which were very much needed after a particularly hectic few months, and with more travel, responsibilities, and events on the immediate horizon.  

Regular readers or followers on Twitter know that I put on the Superman suit for the sake of humor and jovial interaction with my followers, to try to get their attention and then keep them engaged, so that they can think about what is transpiring in the world we are living in. In reality of course, I am no superhero.  I do my best, and keep firm to a continual purpose of improvement and amendment, though often this gets blanketed under the compelling need to assist others.  It also means that I am often too busy doing things for other people to be quiet and listen.

However as the priest I went to for confession during my retreat pointed out, what God has to say to us, when we finally sit down and shut up long enough, is far more interesting than anything we may have to say to Him.  If we cannot be quiet, He will eventually make Himself heard, but we may not enjoy how that happens.  As C.S. Lewis points out in “The Problem of Pain”, if God whispers to us when we are experiencing pleasure, He shouts to us through our pains.  In fact pain, difficulties, sorrow, and so on, are what Lewis calls “His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Admittedly, for many people achieving this kind of silence for anything longer than a minute or two during the day is easier said than done.  I can simply lock up the manse and head off for a few days without having to worry about anything. Many of my readers however, have families to care for, and cannot simply disappear for a few days with short notice.

All the more reason, therefore, to actually make plans to make such a getaway, in order to get a chance to hear what God wants to tell you.  Planning it in advance, and making it an absolute commitment on your part will bring it about, provided you stick to it. It must be one of those non-negotiable points which everything else must be worked out around.  Otherwise, you will find some excuse as to why you may back out at the last moment, doing yourself and those around you no good at all.

In my case, I came away from the experience not fully certain of what turns and intersections are coming up on my path, but more aware of the fact that they are coming, and that now is not the time to chicken out and play it safe.  St. Teresa of Jesus, whose feast day was yesterday, wrote that “To have courage for whatever comes in life – everything lies in that.”  In my case, that was something that I returned from my retreat focused on, even if I had heard it many times before.  

For you, what you take away from such an experience may very well be something completely different, but there is no way you will know, until you just go away.

IMG_20131012_145832St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church (1897)
Portsmouth Virginia



An Unsatisfying Evening

There’s nothing like beginning an evening discussion of contemporary love and sexuality by scandalizing the audience.

Last evening’s presentation at the Catholic Information Center here in Washington with author Christopher West began with a bit of a bombshell.  In announcing some of the highlights from the extensive curriculum vitae of the event’s moderator, Katherine Lopez of National Review Online, it was announced that, “She’s also written for Playboy.”  If you have ever read KLo then you know why this caused whoops laughter among all present, including Miss Lopez herself, who clarified that in fact she had been quoted negatively by that publication, rather than having written for it.

In many ways if it were not for purveyors of personal emptiness like Hugh Heffner, then one might argue that Christopher West’s new book, “Fill These Hearts:  God, Sex, and the Universal Longing” would not have been written.   For Heffner, and others like him, made what used to be considered socially unacceptable material into the ordinary and commonplace.  Images and ideas which led men away from their wives and families to encourage promiscuity, adultery, and so on, became part of the furniture in the modern American home.  And we can see the results of that invasion of the family unit all around us, whether we look at the levels of promiscuity, abortion, cohabitation, and so on, which at one time would have been considered not only unacceptable, but simply unimaginable in a civilized society.

As he pointed out during the discussion, West notes that culture likes to turn what today is referred to as eroticism – though it has really nothing to do with the concept of “eros” –  into entertainment.  West’s underlying argument last evening was that man is hungry for something in his heart which contemporary society promises to satisfy, but ultimately cannot deliver.  For although we are hungry, we are filling ourselves with junk food rather than nutrition.  As a result, by living on such a diet we are slowly but surely killing ourselves, not unlike Morgan Spurlock in the documentary “Super Size Me”.

Good stuff, no doubt – but the problem was that while last night’s discussion certainly had its good moments, it was not for me.

Given that the average age of the audience was about 20, and it has been quite a long time since I was that age, perhaps I should simply accept the fact that I am now middle-aged and always have been, even when I was about ten years old.  It is all very well to reference popular culture in order to get people interested in what you have to say, although referring Bruce Springsteen and Rolling Stones songs with such a comparatively young audience might not necessarily have been the best way to go.  At times the presentation felt like a retreat for high school seniors, including asking us to sing along to the somewhat insipid, 1970’s suburban parish communion hymn, “Gift Of Finest Wheat”, to make the point that the Eucharist satisfies the hungry heart.

Mr. West then went on to reference Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, noting that even secular art can become a sacred experience.  That is certainly the case, though it must be approached with caution.  Someone with a good foundation in the faith and the intellectual maturity to engage with someone directly opposed to the Church, such as with those creating the more egregious examples of human depravity celebrated in the contemporary film world, may emerge from the battle relatively unscathed.  Most of us however, cannot do so, and to think that we are invincible in such instances is to court folly.

At one particularly wince-worthy point in the evening Mr. West referenced the moment in the Gospels when St. Andrew approaches his brother St. Peter, and announces that he has found the Messiah.  We were asked to imagine what an impact such an announcement would have had on a Jew of that time.  West then analogized this impact to that which he would have on Mick Jagger, in regard to the Stones’ classic “Satisfaction”, if he were to approach the singer and announce that he had, in fact, found the satisfaction that Jagger had been looking for (i.e., the love of God.)

This comparison was, quite frankly, rather tasteless and intellectually inept.  First of all one suspects that the aging British lothario would not even care if Mr. West informed him that God was the answer to everything, given that Jagger is a rather well-known atheist.  Second, such a comparison belittles not only St. Andrew’s declaration of faith, but the history of Judaism and indeed all of salvation history itself.  St. Andrew is making a statement of belief, drawn from what he has heard preached in the synagogues and prayed about his whole life as a Jew, and combining that with what he has seen in the person of Christ, to reach a startling and indeed a highly dangerous conclusion.

Even if Mick Jagger had been complaining in “Satisfaction” about the fact that all of the affairs he was having were making him feel like life was meaningless, and that he needed to find true love through something larger than himself, even then such a statement would not be analogous to that of a 1st century Jew publicly testifying that not only had the Messiah of Israel arrived, but that he had actually met Him.  Such a comparison would be ridiculous, even if the highest art was put into the muscial composition at issue.  For as it turns out, while everything may be art, not all art is equally worthy of our examination at this level of analysis.

With all due respect to JPII, It is not true to say that art is the language of the heart, as Mr. West stated last evening.  Sometimes it is, even in its ugliness, as Mr. West rightly pointed out.  There is great heart to be found in the horrors of Goya, the terrors of Beethoven, and the chills of Poe.  Yet sometimes what may technically be “art” is not actually any good.  It can be simply meaningless junk: an expression of base motives and desires and nothing more, not worthy of the average person’s time or attention.

To make statements of eternal qualities from material not intended for such a purpose is rather like trying to coax a cat into using a leash so you can take it outside for a walk.  Even if you can achieve it – and in fact I have seen it done, once – is it really worth that much effort on the part of the average person to attempt it?  It would be far easier to simply get a dog, which was designed for just such a purpose.

Engaging popular culture in order to pursue the truth is something which we are all called to do, particularly when our long-held values are being intentionally degraded by purveyors of entertainment, advertising, and so on.  It is laudable that books such as Mr. West’s attempt to counteract the influence that such forces have had on our society.  Yet sometimes, we simply have to have the honesty and the strength of character to call a thing what it is, and leave it where we found it.


“The Treachery of Images” by René Magritte (1929-1930)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art