Relationships- IV

I wanted to spend a post talking about being a parent, but I realized I don’t know how to do that. We delivered our first six months ago to the day. People say things to us like “Well, you’ll understand when you’re a parent,” or “We’ll see if you still feel that way when you have kids.” Some days I only want to scream “We’ll see if you still feel that way when you’ve buried your children!” I had a lot of ideas of how I wanted to raise the kids, and what life would be like. Now I mostly just hope that I get the chance to raise them, or at least hear them cry once before they’re gone forever. So, like I said, I don’t know how to be a parent yet. But I know what happens when that parent-child relationship ends early, and I’m starting to get a handle on how to get on with life. There are still bad days–a lot of them–but the last half-year has shown improvements.

The first thing I had to learn was to stop asking “why,” both in the mechanical and metaphysical senses. The gross physical examination didn’t show anything specifically wrong, any biological cause for the death, and I’m probably not getting any answers from the Big Man about where Jamie Shannon’s death fits into The Plan. It was hard to stop asking, because that meant accepting the death and moving on. Some days I still catch myself mulling and puzzling, but the simple fact is that nothing went wrong.

I’m also learning how to deal with criticism again, especially from people who default to being critical. Criticism was hard for two reasons, which were really two sides of the same coin. The first is that when our child’s life could go so wrong for no reason, how much worse are things when people can point out that things are wrong? Second, we’d already been through one of the worst experiences possible, so minor issues paled in comparison. Slightly-less-formal-but-still-correct-comma-usage, words-that-only-encapsulate-90%-of-the-idea, lifestyles-that-are-slightly-harmful? Dead baby, don’t care, shut up. Of course neither of those interpretations are correct, they’re excuses at best, but it’s hard to cut people slack when you can’t find any footing in life.

The crutches will come back out in full force. The excuses in the last paragraph were the kind of crutch I mean, but I’m really talking about the big stuff here. I’ve struggled with sarcasm, procrastination, extreme introversion, skipping church, caffeine, tobacco and alcohol at some point in my life, and booze and smoking are the only ones that I really ever licked. Guess what came out to play? All of them. I shut myself in, doing nothing, lashing out, bringing out the pipe, drinking half the time, and dosing on coffee the other half. My circadian rhythm was interrupted, progress on my thesis stopped, I fell behind on grading, lesson plans were executed half-assed, coughs and headaches filled the day, and I snapped at everyone. The worst part is that you just have to break those habits again before anything can get better. I tried waiting it out, to see improvement. I would have been fired first, and fallen even deeper. I’m still overusing coffee, and I’ve made my peace with that for now, but the rest are mostly gone. Get back into your healthy routine as quickly as possible.

Everyone wants to help, pretty much nobody knows how, which means you need to figure out some stock responses. I defaulted to “nothing.” People were great about offering food, friendship, comfort, and other things that we genuinely needed, but I’ve never gotten the hang of asking for or accepting help. I felt bad about it, like I was denying people the ability to be useful. Some people just helped anyway (Kristen, Angela, Keith, Heidi, Family), while others waited for a signal from us (Joseph, Hillary, Crystal, Eric). I appreciate all of it, even when I didn’t accept. I was stuck on the big picture issues that there was no help for, things like work. So find the small things people can do, and ask for help. It’ll save a lot of time.

Don’t rush it. I’m still trying to heal, six months later and with another one on the way. Do what you can, but don’t worry about what you can’t do. As long as you’re trying, and happy for any progress, chances are that things will be okay. But that means not giving up. There were days that I imagined driving down the road and just…failing to turn. I would have sailed over the edge of a few hundred foot cliff, and I don’t think our Hyundai is rated for that kind of driving. I could have kept up the heavy alcohol or nicotine. I could have given all my students an A- for the semester. There were a hundred ways that I could have given up. I didn’t. Emily didn’t give up on hers, either, and she’d just lost grandma a couple of weeks before. I think that’s really how things improve in general: a lot of small improvements or stagnant days and a big change every once in a while.

That’s it for relationships. There’s a lot more that I could write about: mom, teachers, thesis committee, friends, extended family. They all have an effect, but I don’t know how I would write about them. Thanks to all of you I didn’t mention in great detail, too. Everyone I’ve ever met has made me a better person, even if it’s by showing me who I don’t want to be.

I hope this series has done some good for readers, either in helpful advice or at least comfort. Good luck out there.

Relationships II

Last time, the topic of discussion was my dad. Today I want to continue that train of thought, but move on to how my understanding of family has changed my faith over the years.

Let it be noted at the onset that I don’t consider myself an especially religious person. I grew up in Catholic schools. My parents didn’t actively practice anything, but they were vaguely christian and we were in the bible belt, so I was marinated in judeo-christian values. In school, we had a daily religion class, where we learned all about God and the bible and things outlined in the catechism. We saw the priest twice a week in mass and once a month during the religion class. The priest and teachers always referred to God the same way: God the father, Jesus the son, and the Holy Spirit.

Because of that language, my understanding of God was tied to my relationship with my dad. When things were okay, then God must be okay. When life was stressful, or mom and dad were fighting a lot, I didn’t feel like God was very nice. Every time dad threatened to move out and started packing his clothes into bags, it felt like the world was going to be flooded or the city would be destroyed with fire. It wasn’t that I imagined my dad was God, of course. God had a beard and lived in the sky, everyone knows that. More that my dad was doing what God would do, because they were both my father.

As a teenager, I didn’t get along with my parents very well. Shocking. But as a result of that, and finding new friends in high school who also questioned the faith, I was starting to have some pretty serious doubts about God. Being the awkward, non-catholic nerd in a catholic elementary school full of future college athletes didn’t hurt matters, either. I still went to youth groups, especially if whichever girl I was chasing also went, and performed in both youth and liturgical choirs, but there wasn’t really any faith there. I was an atheist keeping up appearances for social reasons, and not really doing a very good job of it.

I went to college, continued associating with atheists, dated a number of people who were practitioners of various religious to varying degrees, and then met my wife. She’s what I’ve come to think of as a new-school Catholic, the people who are more into forgiveness and kindness than reminding people they’re sinners who are damned to hell if they smell bacon on a Friday. It’s quite a change from the atmosphere I knew in school, when God’s followers handed out demerits for tardiness, untucked shirts, forgotten belts, and long hair.

There are two major differences I’ve observed that I think correlate with whether or not people can be Christian. The first is the nature of their family. People who come from small or angry families seem to struggle more with Christian belief than people from larger or happier families. It might be a cause-and-effect relationship, or they both might be expressions of something else, but it seems like there is a correlation of some sort. The second difference is how happy they are with their lives. Again, I can’t speak to causation, but the people I know who identify as Christian seem to be generally happy with their lots. I mention both of those causes because there does seem to be a causal relationship between happy family and happy adulthood, which leads me to believe the nature of family is very strongly related with faith.

Agree with my observations, or disagree. None of those correlations are one-to-one, but I have observed them. For the record, my understanding of God is no longer affected by my relationship with my father, but it seems like my relationship with my father is affected by my faith. Given the stress and loss I’ve lived through in the last year, I don’t believe in Don Miller’s vending machine god anymore. I don’t see a bearded man in the sky who smells like cigarettes. I imagine a being filled with hope that all of his creatures will live in harmony, and learn how to enjoy the time they have on this earth. I imagine that hopefulness is there even in spite of the intense sadness that comes from our constant and continued failings, because there’s almost always a second chance. I don’t think God is interested in whether or not we wear belts or cover bra straps, and I can’t imagine there’s any anger when we have a burger on Fridays or a bagel before Mass.

Relationships: A Primer

I want to start a short series on here, given the overwhelmingly ambivalent feedback from twitter, that details the nature of relationships. Not just romantic relationships, but all of them: family, friends, spouses, children, strangers, even relationships with concepts. This might get a little weird, just roll with it. I don’t know that I’ll say anything especially novel, but Allie Brosh said here, you have to sift through some pebbles before you find gold.

I remember my early life as a series of opposing relationships. My religious schooling contrasted with a secular home life. Mom was always around, Dad was usually at work. I was either the happiest kid on earth, or absolutely miserable. I think most kids are like that to a certain extent, and I’m sure my vulnerability to depression didn’t stabilize anything. As time goes on, all of those have evened out, but my relationships still feel very polar.

As my mom-by-marriage recently said, the only options are hell yes or absolutely not. So, let’s spend a few posts talking about how that’s played out in my life. Even if we don’t learn anything, we can have fun on the journey.