Tuesday, January 24, 2006

An early mid-life crisis

A recent comment asked where my husband is on all this. I actually had already started on this post, which I think answers the question. The short story is that he's as excited about all of this as I am, and he's probably farther ahead than I am since he already believed in God to begin with (in fact, I don't think he's never doubted).

I think my husband and I are going through an early mid-life crisis. Luckily it's not the sort of crisis that involves man-ponytails and red sports cars. Quite the opposite, actually.

Ever since we started really getting into Catholicism in early December a strange thing has been happening with us. We've been re-evaluating everything. Everything. What we wanted to do with our life used to be so clear, and suddenly it's not at all. It's such an overwhelming, nebulous feeling that I'm not sure if I'll be able to clearly explain it, but here's a try. First, a bit of history.

- When we were first married we were focused on getting rich. We didn't think of it or talk about it that way, but that was the intention. My husband got his MBA from a top school during the economic boom and practically all his friends had huge salaries, so we just sort of assumed we'd end up there too. The industry track he was on would have meant tons of travel for him and very long hours at the office, but being able to have enough money to retire early made the path appealing.

- That grew old really quickly. We realized that we didn't want to be part of the corporate machine anymore and wanted to do something more fulfilling. We started our own business about a year and a half ago. It seemed perfect because it's the sort of business where we'd be able to help people with their problems yet probably make good money in the long-run. We were sure that this is what we'd do for the rest of our lives.

But now that we're actually in the trenches we see that a) we're not helping people as much as we thought we would, b) the ability to bring in a stable income that will reliably cover just our basic bills is farther in the future than we thought, probably two more years or so and, most importantly, c) it's very difficult to combine making a difference in the world with your career, especially when you have a family -- no matter how low your monthly expenses, you have to be focused on bringing home X amount each month in order to avoid ending up on the street.

- That brings us to now. We both feel a very strong pull to something...more important. I'm not sure how to articulate it other than to say we feel drawn to do God's work, or to follow his plan for our lives, or something like that. Meanwhile, we're tired of being obsessed with money. We used to be obsessed with money for the sake of having a lot of it, now we're obsessed with money because sometimes we have trouble paying our basic bills if the business is having a slow month. (Also, as small business owners we don't have insurance that covers pregnancy so we're hit with a ton of new expenses there as well.)

So what now? I think it's safe to say that we're literally considering everything. Should my husband go get a regular job? Should he go get a 9 - 5 government job so that we can use our newfound free time (he currently works 6am - 8pm) to work on things that matter? Should we push forward with our business and stick it out until we have a steady income, meanwhile making an effort to truly help people more?

So here are my questions: How are you supposed to balance paying the bills with making a difference in the world? Also, how do you figure out what God wants you to do with your life? I have the Purpose Driven Life and have scanned it, but it didn't really grab me. I suppose I should give it another try though.

We both feel that we're a) being strongly pulled to do something and b) are currently on the wrong path, and we don't know where to go from here.

I'm sure that if any one commenter out there had all the answers to this age-old dilemma he or she would be an internationally famous life coach/guru, but give it a shot. If anyone has any thoughts, even if they're incomplete, on what we should do from here, where we should turn for guidance, etc. I'd love to hear them.


At January 24, 2006 9:01 PM, Anonymous SteveG said...

You may scoff at this, but having gone through something similar, I learned that this is not nearly as tough as it might seems (in the philosophical sense). Problem is that it’s not that glamorous, and has a lot to do with carrying crosses, self sacrifice, humility, and lots of very ‘boring’ stuff (from the ‘worlds’ perspective). I suppose that’s why I am not an internationally famous guru (or more correctly, since what I have to say as always is simply a reformulation of Catholic teaching, it’s probably more correct to say it’s why the church is so reviled).

Start by realizing that what you and your spouse have been called to in matrimony is nothing short of a vocation. A vocation, as in becoming a priest is a vocation. And your vocation is actually a sacrament, and one of only seven in the church (and in good company with the likes baptism, Eucharist, Ordination, etc.)*

Your calling is first and foremost to live your marriage vows by helping each other in the work of growing in holiness. An absolutely integral part of that is the act of procreation and raising your children. Each of you is called in this vocation to love each other utterly selflessly (you can reference the comment from 1/16/06 for more on this), and to love your children together in that same selfless way.

Realize that clearest (not perfect mind you) symbol of the Trinity is the family. We speak of the Trinity as the life giving communion of persons. God the father pouring his love out perfectly and fully to the Son, and the Son returning that love totally selflessly to the father (see again the discussion of sacrifice and selflessness), and the two of them doing so perfectly that their communion of love is fully realized in the person of the Holy Spirit.

What else in all of creation can be called a life-giving communion of person? Marriage, family: husband giving to wife part of his very self, wife receiving the husband and at the same time making a gift of herself, and the two become one, and sometimes literally so. The two become literal lives giving communion of person in such a real way that sometimes you have to give that love a name 9 months later. A true life-giving communion of persons made in the very image and likeness of the Trinity. We have to keep clear that this is a symbol and not God, but it’s the best symbol we have.

With this as background, you might be wondering what this has to do with your questions. It means that whatever you decide, your vocation needs to be kept in sight. Job, money, house, and all the rest should be seen as only tools that you two will use in the work of helping to get each other, and your children to know and love God, and to learn to give and receive love in this life so they can do so in the next. Your job, in the words of JPII, is to build a ‘domestic church’, a ‘school of love’ where each of you works to love each other into what God meant for you to be (or as C.S. Lewis might put it, each of you is to be instruments God uses to help ‘love us into real’).

That IS the work of God for each husband and wife. Whether that means that we work for the parish, or if our jobs are directly helping others, or even if it means God gives us the responsibility of tons of money to use for good is secondary. For husband and wife, the admonish of Christ to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and clothe the naked starts right there with your spouse and kids. There’s plenty of opportunity to care for the sick while comforting a spouse or child whose being ravaged by the flu. There’s plenty of opportunity to feed the hungry just by bringing your babe to the breast to nurse. There’s plenty of opportunity to cloth the naked by providing for spouse and childrens material needs.

For us married folk, it starts in our families. If we can win the battle there (and make no mistakes it’s an ongoing battle to conquer our selfishness for all but the most saintly of us), we are winning THE battle. If we can show our children God, by loving them as God loves us, then we are winning the battle. If we can manage to build a little oasis of love in the desert of modern western hyper individualist, ultra-materialistic society, we are winning the battle.

Like I said, it’s not glamorous, and it won’t make you famous. In fact it’s more likely to earn you mockery and revilement from most folks. But it’s the most glorious work that we can strive to accomplish as husbands and wives, and it’s nothing short of the vocation God intended for you when you got married.

That’s God’s plan for your life. That’s how you can help people (your spouse and kids-not to the exclusion of others, but as a start). That’s how we work on things that matter. That’s how we can make a difference. The temptation is to do something BIG, but the answer is to do the small things right in front of you well.

As you’ve noted, each of us has to balance how we handle the nitty gritty details of how we practically accomplish putting food on the table, and paying the bills. But if our decisions are made with this overarching understanding, we can’t go too far wrong.

I don’t think anyone can truly answer how to achieve that balance for you since only you know all the circumstances involved in your particular situation. The best I can do in practical terms is tell what all this has meant for us, and offer some observations.

For us, it means my wife being at home with the kids, and no job for me that requires travel, or long hours. I don’t have a government job, but it is 9 to 5 and with LOTS of flexibility so that I can make to midwife appointments, kids Dr. visits, etc.

It’s meant a slower career track, less money (I’m in IT and doing OK, just not necessarily equivalent to some peers willing to give more), less ‘glamour’ at work, one used car instead of two new ones, no cable, infrequent vacations, and lots of other sacrifices. But it affords me a tremendous amount of time with my family. The tradeoffs were a no-brainer to me. My kids will only be kids once, and they need my time, my love, and involvement far more than anything else.

My mom owns her own business, and I’ve dreamed of that on occasion (along with other things). But knowing what it takes to have your own business, I couldn’t envision getting involved with something requiring that type of commitment if it hadn’t been established prior to kids.

Well, I dunno if all this helps at all, but you said you’d be interested in any comments even if they were incomplete, so there you are. :-D

With my mind always at least 50% on my baby girl being due any day now, it’s the best I can do.

I have the Purpose Driven Life and have scanned it, but it didn't really grab me. I suppose I should give it another try though.

I’ve not read this, but every knowledgeable, orthodox Christian I know who has, seems to think it pretty much fluff. I’d pick up Greg Popcak’s ‘For Better Forever’ (see reference from a couple posts ago) marriage book if you want something that could be an aid in helping you live out your vocation.

*If your not sure what a sacrament is, It’s classically defined as…

Sacraments are outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for our sanctification.

…which is a short sentence with tremendous meeting. The sacraments are where God most definitively meets us and imparts his grace and love to us towards the end of our being transformed by that love and slowly becoming what we are meant to be.

At January 24, 2006 9:08 PM, Anonymous SteveG said...

Darn! I meant to preview that and check for typos and clean it up, but I published instead. Hope it's still somewhat intelligable.

One glaring error is in paragraph 5, this...

The two become literal lives giving communion of person in such a real way that sometimes you have to give that love a name 9 months later.

should read something like

The two become a literal life giving communion of person in such a real way that sometimes you have to give that love a name 9 months later.

At January 24, 2006 11:22 PM, Blogger Joel said...

Hey TRA, you are so brave to solicit advice! I'm hardly qualified to give it, but your post resonates loudly in my own experience.

Steve G has, as usual, covered very solidly the bases (and in one coat I might add). I could not hope to improve what he has said, but I will diverge a little.

God will put desires, dreams and an urge to serve others in your heart. Those things may seem to be in tension with the responsibilities which you know you have to fulfill. Trust Him for your dreams. He knows what your dilemmas are. I think He's even pleased by the apparent impossibilities we face. He deliberately doesn't act alarmed. "Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies."

Hang in there. If you and your husband have dreams and a desire to serve others, that's exciting. That's how I know we are all siblings, all children of the same Father!

At January 25, 2006 7:44 AM, Anonymous SteveG said...

Well said Joel!

Since posting my comment, there's been something troubling me that I want to be sure I clarify. I know for a fact that several of the other commenters and readers are either unmarried, or single parents and I have been worried that my post would come across poorly to them and I want to be sure no one was offended.

My perspective is by nature that of a married parent, and with Jen being a married parent as well, my comments were naturally strongly framed in that context. However, I don’t want anyone to think that I was implying that unmarried folk, or single parents can not equally serve God, or that they can't grow in holiness and selflessness in equal proportions.

We are of course all called to the selfless path regardless of our state in life. Our vocation takes on a different form depending on our circumstances, but it is no less real, and no more or less achievable for all of us.

At January 25, 2006 11:54 AM, Blogger Colleen said...

I think Steve is worried about me, at least in part! But I was incredibly moved by his post and, it seems to me, it is self-evident that our first duty is to do right in the position we are in. So, he is absolutely right that you, Jennifer, are called to be the most loving wife and mother you can be. I on the other hand am called to be the best darned cat owner...

No I am kidding. I am free to use my resources time, money, etc. with maximal freedom. That is a blessing, too. It seems to me that with the desire you have in your heart, God will show you other ways of serving.

But don't discount the family model. As someone who grew up in a pretty dysfunctional home, I am really blessed by seeing how loving families act. It was only after I became a Christian that I could start to believe in familial love or call God "Father" without a certain amount of baggage attached to that term.

I rejoice in your progress!

At January 26, 2006 11:17 AM, Anonymous SteveG said...

Colleen-It was indeed with you in mind (along with at least two other folks) that I added that comment. I figured you all 'got it' already, but it's something that should go without saying that I felt compelled to say nonetheless.

I am in the process of reading Pope Benedict's 1st encyclical DEUS CARITAS EST (God Is Love) and was stunned to see that many of the the themes he wrote about are exactly in line with the things we've been talking about here.

In particular, one paragraph that literally jumped out at me (amazingly, I notice that Dawn Eden was struck by it as well) was this gem...

"In the gradual unfolding of this encounter, it is clearly revealed that love is not merely a sentiment. Sentiments come and go. A sentiment can be a marvellous first spark, but it is not the fullness of love. Earlier we spoke of the process of purification and maturation by which eros comes fully into its own, becomes love in the full meaning of the word. It is characteristic of mature love that it calls into play all man's potentialities; it engages the whole man, so to speak. Contact with the visible manifestations of God's love can awaken within us a feeling of joy born of the experience of being loved. But this encounter also engages our will and our intellect. Acknowledgment of the living God is one path towards love, and the “yes” of our will to his will unites our intellect, will and sentiments in the all- embracing act of love. But this process is always open-ended; love is never 'finished' and complete; throughout life, it changes and matures, and thus remains faithful to itself. Idem velle atque idem nolle—to want the same thing, and to reject the same thing—was recognized by antiquity as the authentic content of love: the one becomes similar to the other, and this leads to a community of will and thought. The love-story between God and man consists in the very fact that this communion of will increases in a communion of thought and sentiment, and thus our will and God's will increasingly coincide: God's will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will, based on the realization that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself. Then self- abandonment to God increases and God becomes our joy (cf. Ps 73 [72]:23-28)."

...Is his more complete, eminently more intelligent, and pastoral way of explaining what I've been trying to say about your lack of 'feeling'. You are at the front end of the relationship, and you've made the intellectual and willful decision to want to believe. If the pope is right (and I am confident he is), as your relationship with God matures and grows, the feelings and sentiments will follow. You are just barely on the cusp of entering that relationship and it isn't surprising that the fullness of that relationship isn't something you've experienced yet.

Beyond that, the encyclical is a wonderful (and surprising easy and accesible) read. I highly recommend it. I think you'll be surprised (as I was) at how many of the themes he touches on are the same themes we've been working out here.

At October 15, 2008 1:19 PM, Blogger Tim Larsen said...

Read Father Luigi Guissani's books:

The Religious Sense
The Christian Claim
Why the Church

But the best to start with is "Is it Possible to Live this Way," but it is pretty hard to find as it is very new.


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