Grace through Suffering

This originally appeared  in the East Tennessee Catholic in 2006. 
It was late at night–later than a twelve-year-old should have been awake–when Jake discovered me crying in front of the computer. Like all children, he doesn’t like to see his mother cry, and he asked me what was wrong. I told him about the website I was looking at, and he went up to bed.
He caught me reading and crying again the next night, and the next night too. “Why do you keep reading something that makes you so sad?” he wanted to know. He’s still too young to understand how joy and sorrow can be wrapped up in one package. He’s not alone–the idea of grace and joy flowing from suffering isn’t a popular one even with adults these days.
These personal stories are the most heart wrenching things I have ever come across in print. And yet there is a beauty in them. Last month I wrote about people who would abort a baby for having an extra finger. The families in these stories welcome babies developing without much of their brains. The news is full of articles about women “terminating” for “defective fetuses.” These stories are full of mothers who pray for their doomed babies to survive long enough to be born alive, who welcome surgical birth to give their sick babies a better chance at a few more minutes of life, who treasure every second of their pregnancies because that is the only time they will have to love and care for their babies.
You’d expect the stories to be sad, of course, and they are. For every story of a diagnosis that turned out to be a mistake, there are 20 about babies who proved to have terrible abnormalities, from anencephaly to missing kidneys to rare chromosomal additions that are incompatible with life. For every story of a baby who miraculously survived after medical intervention, there are ten about babies who breathe for just a few precious days.
But they are also joyful, peppered with such adjectives as “amazing,” “happy,” “beautiful,” and “thankful.” Nobody says, “I wish I’d had that abortion my doctor suggested.” Nobody says, “They were right. It would have been better for my baby to die sooner.” They don’t talk about defective babies, but about much-loved family members. And while many of them begin with anger at God, they end with acceptance, peace, and a respect for His dominion over life and death.
As I write this, my beautiful two-year-old, my fifth healthy child, is falling asleep in my arms. I am grateful for her perfection, but it bears remembering that God’s concept of perfection is not ours. I hope never to receive a poor prenatal diagnosis; I hope the same for you. Nevertheless, I’m glad these stories are there to remind us all that suffering is not meaningless and that its eradication by immoral means is never justifiable.

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photo credit: Jubilee Lewis used by permission: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

If you are on Facebook (and who isn’t?) you can “Like” BeNotAfraid’s page and see additional inspirational and informative posts by and about mothers and fathers dealing with prenatally diagnosed fetal abnormalities.

Books That Change Lives

I want to do some book blogging here from time to time.  I’ll share some of the books that have been important in my life, or that inspire me, or that I just enjoy.  And I hope that in the comments you will share some of your favorites as well.  The topic today is the nonfiction books that have had the greatest impact on my life.  I was going to make it a top five or top ten list but then I decided it would be more authentic if I just wrote about the ones that popped into my head first without setting a specific number, or even looking on my booksheves (or in the many, many boxes in the garage!).
The following are in no particular order unless you ascribe some significance to the order in which they popped into my head!

  • Surrendering to Motherhood by Iris Krasnow.  Judging from some of my recent posts, I need to read again Krasnow’s autobiographical journey from high-powered ambitious challenge-chasing career woman to mom-in-the-moment.  One quotation: “Being There [is] an emotional and spiritual shift, of succumbing to Being Where You Are When You Are, and Being There as much as possible. Its about crouching on the floor and getting delirious over the praying mantis your son just caught instead of perusing a fax or filling the dishwasher while he is yelling for your attention and you distractedly say over your shoulder: ‘Oh, honey, isn’t that a pretty bug.’ It’s about being attuned enough to notice when your kid’s eyes shine so you can make your eyes shine back.”
  • Let’s Have Healthy Children by Adelle Davis.  Davis is considered a crackpot by some, but I credit her nutrition advice with the buoyant good health of my kids, who each had maybe one ear infection, have never had strep throat, never take antibiotics.  (Seriously:  Emily, age 19, was last seen by a doctor for illness when she was two years old.)  I say Davis was ahead of her time–she had me taking folic acid years before anyone thought to fortify bread with it.  One quotation: “Research shows that diseases of almost every variety can be produced by an under-supply of various combinations of nutrients… [and] can be corrected when all nutrients are supplied, provided irreparable damage has not been done; and, still better, that these diseases can be prevented.”
  • How to Raise a Healthy Child in Spite of Your Doctor by Dr. Robert Mendelsohn.  Dr. Mendelsohn was suspicious of vaccinations.  He thought antibitotics were overused.  He didn’t think kids need to be taken to the doctor at the drop of a hat–most childhood illnesses clear up on their own.  I agree with him.  One quotation:  “The pediatrician’s wanton prescription of powerful drugs indoctrinates children from birth with the philosophy of ‘a pill for every ill’. . . . Doctors are directly responsible for hooking millions of people on prescription drugs. They are also indirectly responsible for the plight of millions more who turn to illegal drugs because they were taught at an early age that drugs can cure anything – including psychological and emotional conditions – that ails them.”
  • Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing by Sheila Kippley.  I love this one as much for its philosophy of natural mothering as for the child spacing aspects.  One quotation:   “We tend to forget that these artifical aids–bottles and pacifiers–are merely substitutes for the mother.  The infant’s need to nurse or be pacified at the breast is nature’s way of bringing mother and baby together at other than feeding times.”
  • Nursing Your Baby by Karen Pryor.  We’re talking the 1970s version here, which I picked up at McKay’s while expecting baby #1.  It’s a simple, basic, practical, and yet beautiful guide to breastfeeding–just the best one I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot.  One quotation:  “Nursing a baby is an art; a domestic art, perhaps, but one that like cooking and gardening brings to a woman the release and satisfaction that only creative work can give.”
  • Between Parent and Child by Haim Ginott.  My mother’s copy of this book was sitting around our house for as long as I can remember.  I read it long before I had kids of my own.  I may not follow its principles all the time, I’m sorry to say, but I try.  One quotation: “What do we say to a guest who forgets her umbrella? Do we run after her and say ‘What is the matter with you? Every time you come to visit you forget something. If it’s not one thing it’s another. Why can’t you be like your sister? When she comes to visit, she knows how to behave. You’re forty-four years old! Will you never learn? I’m not a slave to pick up after you! I bet you’d forget your head if it weren’t attached to your shoulders.’ That’s not what we say to a guest. We say ‘Here’s your umbrella, Alice,’ without adding ‘scatterbrain.’  Parents need to learn to respond to their children as they do to guests.”
  • Kids Are Worth It by Barbara Coloroso.  I’ve read a lot of parenting books, new and old, and I’m sure you have too, but never one that was simpler, truer, and less gimmicky than this one.  A former school-teaching nun, now married with three kids and a popular inspirational speaker on parenting topics, Coloroso’s descriptions of three kinds of families will make you cringe if you are a Brickwall or a Jellyfish.  One quotation:  “Our children are counting on us to provide two things: consistency and structure. Children need parents who say what they mean, mean what they say, and do what they say they are going to do.” 
  • Relating.  I still have this battered paperback religion textbook from my junior year in high school.  It was the first place I learned about fair fighting rules.  My friends and I used its ten hallmarks of love vs. infatuation to evaluate our college romances.  I made my future husband do all the quizzes in it with me before we were married.  Thank you, Mr. Dan Darst, a religion teacher we thought was goofy at the time but whose lessons we carry with us today.  No links or quotations, I’m afraid–it’s here, but I don’t know where, and the title is all I can remember right now! [I wish so much that I had pulled it out and written down something that day.  I have searched and searched online for a replacement but I just don’t have enough information.]

How about you?  Have you read any of those?  What nonfiction books have you read over and over?  Would you say there are any books whose effect on you was so profound that they helped you become the person you are today?  Please share yours in the comments.

Who Gave You Life?

This originally appeared as a column in the East Tennessee Catholic in 2006.
Today is my “baby” sister’s 29th birthday.  My mother reminded me today that Anne owes her existence to her two big sisters. I remember well how much we begged and begged for a baby.  According to my mother, she decided to have another baby because she loved us so much that she wanted us to have whatever we wanted!  Luckily, we were very pleased with the gift.  We did everything for the baby except feed and change her. And I frequently said, “What if we had never had her?  It would be terrible if we never had her!”

Three sisters at my wedding
Three sisters at my wedding

When Anne was two or three, I taught her to recite a few lines paraphrased from George MacDonald’s poem “Baby.”  I would say, “Where did you come from, Baby dear?” and she would reply, “The blue sky opened and I am here.”  Then would come, “Where did you get those eyes so blue?” “Out of the sky as I came through.
That’s about all I remembered; then yesterday I happened to come across the book the poem was in, pulled out by someone and left lying on the back stairs.  What struck me upon re-reading was the end of the poem.  After cataloguing all of baby’s sweet little parts, the poet asks:
How did they all just come to be you?
God thought about me, and so I grew.
But how did you come to us, you dear?
God thought about you, and so I am here.
Isn’t that a lovely thought? And how many people really think of babies like that these days, as a special gift, planned just for us and presented by a loving God? It seems to me that on the one hand people see babies as mistakes, accidents, inconveniences. Something like 60% of babies are unplanned, and don’t they seem to come at the worst possible times? They cost lots of money, they cause us physical problems, they interrupt our busy lives.
I think many times people don’t even consider their intended and wanted babies in terms of gifts from God.  No, then babies are something they planned, something they earned, something perhaps they even paid for, considering the widespread reliance on fertility treatments, artificial insemination, donor eggs, and surrogate mothers. If they think of a baby as a gift at all, it’s more like a gift they think they are giving themselves—there hardly seems to be room for God in the equation.
And often as kids grow we try to give them the feeling that it is we who gave them the gift, the gift of life. I hate that particular guilt-tripping phrase, “I gave you life!” Well, no, I didn’t give my kids life; God did. Life was His gift to them; they are His gift to me.
And I don’t always appreciate it either. Longfellow said that into each life some rain must fall and the Shollys have been in the midst of a rainy season for a while. Today at the dinner table we were discussing things we were grateful for and I talked about how 16-month-old Lorelei had given me a gift today. I was supposed to be working but she begged and begged to go outside.  Because of her I took the time to enjoy the Spring.  Because of her I got down on the ground, examined pine cones, smelled daffodils, tore up handfuls of onion grass, remembered what it was like to be a child in the springtime.
As I write, Lorelei sits in my lap, half-asleep, nursing. She is wearing pink striped long johns and a t-shirt which reads “Sholly Creations. Size small. 100% joy. Made in Heaven.” I couldn’t agree more.
Lorelei at about 18 months (with William, aged 5)

And tomorrow I will write something new, I promise.  So many ideas, so little time. 

The Secret to a Happy Life

The following is a reprint of a column that appeared in The East Tennessee Catholic in 2002.
When I was pregnant with my third child, friends, family, and strangers in the mall all seemed desperate to know: “Was it planned?”
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At first I answered, “I’d have to be crazy to plan this.”  (I had a three-year-old and a three-month-old at the time, and my husband had just graduated from law school and didn’t have a job.) Later I came up with a truer and better answer: “God planned it.”
A few years ago I was flipping through The Daily Beacon, the University of Tennessee student newspaper, when I came across a local abortion clinic’s ad with the catchy slogan THE SECRET TO A HAPPY LIFE IS PLANNING.  The bold words grabbed my attention even before I realized what kind of planning was being promoted.  No! I thought.  That’s not true at all!
If I were to attempt to define the secret to a happy life, I’d take the opposite position:  The secret to a happy life is flexibility.
Life is full of twists and turns that not even the best planners can predict.  Plans go awry every day–when you are late instead of early for work because a train stopped on the tracks in front of you, when you walk to the Weigel’s with your kids only to find that the Icee machine is out of order, when Attack of the Clones is sold out when you arrive at the front of the ticket line.
No matter how complete your plans or how carefully you follow them, you can’t plan happiness.  And some of the happiest moments in life are the ones you can’t plan: an unexpected rainbow seen while you’re caught in a traffic jam, a spontaneous cup of coffee with a long-lost friend, a song from your youth playing on the radio, feeling your unborn baby kicking for the first time.
Attempting to map out every aspect of our lives is saying, “I’m the master of my destiny.  I know what’s best for me.” There’s no room in this philosophy for serendipity, for chance, for the hand of God.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus counsels us to accept the fact that we don’t control our own destinies and to relinquish ourselves to God, secure in the knowledge that HE has control:  “Do not worry about your life . . . or about tour body . . . Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life span? . . . Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself” (6:25-34).
If we think happiness lies in planning, if we’re unable to trust in God, we’ll feel angry and cheated when our plans fail.  An unplanned pregnancy is viewed as an unwelcome interruption to the plan.  We forget that God’s plan might be different from our own.
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Abortion is all about control.  We can’t control our fertility, we don’t want to control ourselves sexually, our children are little individuals whom we quickly learn we can’t control.  Jobs come and go, people must eat, and rent must be paid, no matter the size of the paycheck.  So much of life is uncertain and doesn’t go the way we plan or hope.  But an aborting woman takes control.  She eliminates her pregnancy—this flaw in her plans–and prevents a whole new set of complicating and uncomtrollable factors from entering her life.
At the time they occurred, I wouldn’t have chosen or planned many of the events in my life–but what joy I would have missed.  Without the cloudy days for contrast, the sunny ones would have little meaning.  Most of the blessings in my life today are the result of unplanned events.
For an abortion clinic to proclaim that “the secret to a happy life is planning” as a way of advertising its services is irresponsible and deceptive.  This philopsophy ultimately leads to a closed attitude toward life–and to more abortions.
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Considering everything that’s happened in the eight years since I wrote this, I’m grateful that I have learned to appreciate flexibility over planning!  So what do you think?  Do you know any secrets to a happy life?  Should the goal of life be happiness in the first place?  Share your thoughts in the comments section.