Because Life is Like an Epic Poem (Not a Report Card)

Report cards used to be a once every nine week event. Remember those halcyon days? Information technology being what it is, nowadays we can check our children’s grades daily. Oh, the horror!

I say that because lately, the picture hasn’t been pretty for several of my little darlings. Not that I ever hoped that my kids would make straight A’s or anything like that. That would be a miracle, considering my part of their genetic make up.

Confession time: I didn’t out and out hate school, but I just never gave my studies the attention they deserved. Truth be told, I know that I never gave more than a fraction of my best effort to school work when I was growing up. My home life was a train-wreck, my parent’s had divorced just before I entered the first grade, and it was all I could do just to maintain my sanity growing up. I wasn’t into sports either because that was my older brother’s department. Oh, but I was into reading, though not into reading my textbooks for homework assignments. Unless it was a subject I really liked.

I was also a very young high school graduate too, and I left home when I was seventeen to join the Marines. I had to have my mothers permission, of course, because I was under eighteen. My mom, knowing that I was called to serve in the military, agreed to this in my case. How did she know I was called to this? Because since I was about 8 years old I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. And I figured that school was just a delaying action until I could join the service. On top of all that, college was unaffordable, for me anyway, so I figured why get all uptight about it?

My mom had one condition on agreeing to sign her little boy’s life away to the Marine Corps. For starters, she would only let me join the Reserves because she wanted me to go to college too. I didn’t mind this condition at the time, because I knew that all Marines, whether Reservists or Regular, both went through the same training, and that I would spend six months on Active Duty, at which point I would a) have an idea if I liked the Marines or not and b) I would be 18 and could apply to re-enlist as a Regular Marine, which is what I wound up doing. The second condition was that upon my return, I promised to attend the local college in our area. That part of the plan didn’t last long.

What does all this have to do with homework, grades, and parental performance anxiety? Well, though I may not have spent much of my childhood mental horsepower on trying to understand square roots, or on learning what a gerund is, I did know one thing beyond a shadow of a doubt: my mom loved me. And she taught me that God loved me even more. And that when all was said and done, what was most important in life was for me to realize this and to love God back. And that God had a purpose in mind for me was something I understood too. I figured I was meant to be a soldier, sailor, airmen or Marine. And I was happy, like Joseph of Cupertino.

And that was good, because with my grades in high school, there wasn’t much chance of my being accepted by a college, not to mention a prestigious one. You know, the ones that you and all the other parents are salivating over when you chit chat with one another at the ball field, or at the family reunion, or amongst your co-workers. Uh-huh, like which school they wind up in is the absolute most important thing in the world to you.

Because, see, if Janie or Johnny doesn’t make it into “Top o’ the Heap” University right out of high school, their lives, and by extension yours too, will be over. What will the neighbors, and oh my heavens, the relatives think?! I don’t know, nor do I care.

And as for my children’s teachers thoughts? Well, let’s just say that teachers of children have no better success at choosing who among their students will be “winners” and who will be, ahem, not, then does a random coin toss. And despite their best intentions, they see only as man sees, and not as God does. God, seeing the heart,  is ultimately the career planner of my children. I’m not, and neither are the guidance counselors at school.

I sincerely believe that God has a plan and purpose for all of my children. For all of His children. And all of my children are His children, so I try not to make mountains out of mole hills. I realize that as a parent, I am called to provide for my children the best education I possibly can, and opportunities to discern what it actually is that the Lord is calling them to do with their lives. And that is what my wife and I try to do. But in reality, only the Lord knows what He has in mind for them.

As I was pondering report cards and what really is important to teach my children, I ran across Heather King’s blog Shirt of Flame. She recently wrote several posts about Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success. I really enjoyed these essays as she turned the spotlight on some of Gladwell’s assertions and helps explain that if Gladwell’s model is the path to success, then I’m happy to let him know that he can keep it.

I too had thought of writing a post about Outliers once. I was going to title it Because of Malcolm Gladwell…Not! way back when Webster first invited me aboard YIMCatholic, but I never got around to it. Now I don’t have too, thanks to Heather.

For those of you who haven’t read his book, here is a taste of Heather’s essay:

One thing I saw right away: Gladwell’s book isn’t about outliers, defined as “something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body.” His book is about the opposite of outliers: people who’ve managed to parlay their talents into utterly mainstream, predictable and garden-variety money, property and/or prestige. For the most part, he doesn’t mean outliers: he means the extra rich, extra famous, extra lucky, and/or extra smug.

You’ll want to read the companion piece too.

Maybe Gladwell means what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “black swans,” only in this case the rare and improbable event is the success of a single person in “the world.” Taleb’s book, on the rare events in finance that come out of nowhere, and can’t be predicted, is really the opposite of Gladwell’s book too. Because Taleb’s thesis is that you can’t predict these event’s, even though we fool ourselves into thinking we can. Meanwhile,  Gladwell’s book tries to tease out the behaviors and circumstances that separate winners from the losers. And as parents, we want our kids to be winners, right?

So Gladwell preaches that it all comes down to doing dreary stuff, like putting in at least 10,000 hours shooting free-throws, for example, or to just being lucky enough to have been born in Seattle and having a wealthy dad who gives you carte blanche at the office, or having the good fortune to have been born in the Great Depression, or in January if you are a little league hockey player, so you get an extra year of playing time etc. It’s all so simple. And there is absolutely no room for the Holy Spirit to transform anyone in Gladwell’s world.

None of us have any control over many of these events, for example, like when or where we were born. And Gladwell would have you believe that the Beatle’s really were successfull just because they played more gigs at an earlier age than anyone else at the time?! I wonder what Keith Richards and Mick Jagger think about that? I don’t know, but I can think of one word—balderdash!

But enough of Gladwell and back to why I won’t be losing any sleep over my kids grades any time soon. Because as someone who was almost killed, an event that was completely unplanned I might add,  I know that life is too short for me to ride herd over every decimal point of my kid’s grade point averages. I’m not saying I don’t help them with their homework, or give them pep talks to do their best, etc. I do.

Thank God this is the phony ending!But I will be teaching them something that I noticed was missing from Gladwell’s book. And that is that the Holy Spirit will work through them and will change them, and bring gifts to them too. And I’ll teach them that they shouldn’t be surprised if their best laid worldly plans turn out to be all made of straw, and that their lives take a radically different turn away from the one that they had planned for. And that they shouldn’t be so quick to kill Hobbes (Thank God that is the fake ending!).

After nine years in the Marines, I decided to give college another try. At that point in my life, I was a much different person than I had been in high school. I met my wife, and she missed out on meeting the lousy high school student and instead met the young man in a hurry. He looked a lot like the faux Calvin in that last frame.

It may be a minor miracle that this C-/D+ high school student from Tennessee eventually graduated from UCLA, but that is surprisingly what happened. I don’t think a single teacher in my high school would have seen that one coming. But the Holy Spirit saw it coming, even when I had no way of knowing that this would even have been possible.

Now I’m all grown up and I can’t be a Marine anymore. And how in the world did I wind up here in this space? Hmmm.

Nowadays, I think the most important classes my children attend currently are their CCD classes. That may seem like a strange assertion, but I believe it to be true. Because though everything else passes away, our faith and the Church will still be here for them. And the love that my mother has for me, and the love of God that she taught me, is the single most important intangible thing that I can pass on to my children.

I came across these words by Kenelm Digby while adding books to the YIMCatholic Bookshelf (I certainly never saw that hobby coming!) which prompted me to title this post as I have. This is from the preface of a poem in twelve cantos he wrote entitled Ouranogaia: Heaven on Earth,

The design of this Poem (if such it may be called) is to represent the happiness, comparable in some degree, we might think, to what reigns in Heaven— which results from taking a cheerful, sympathetic, tolerant, and Catholic view of human life, as being on the confines of our celestial country, with constant means of access to it, amidst our various ordinary, or comic, or tragic conditions, hearing and observing with delicate exactitude the most minute things, whether jubilant, or, in a material sense, sorrowful, while escaping from impediments to this intense intellectual enjoyment, by mentally merging, as it were, in a confused way, one’s own individuality in some other person, or, at least, losing for the time self-consciousness, as if it were others who felt, heard, witnessed, and realized the approach to Paradise.

The object is also to suggest that human pleasures in this world, even those which are deemed most strictly confined to earth, and to our twofold formation in the present state of existence, are enhanced immeasurably when associated in a general way with such higher thoughts as may be said, without extravagance, to culminate in Heaven, being tempered and colored as it were by an all-pervading tone of trust in that forgiveness which constitutes an Article of the Christian Creed.

The whole is so arranged as to show in detail that some of the bliss of Heaven, as far as we can conceive it, may be enjoyed by mankind in this life by means of the spectacle of Creation, and in particular of Beauty, as also Mirth, Admiration, Friendship, Love, Goodness, Peace, Poetry, Learning, Philosophy, the Festivals of the Church, as developing, even by the rites attending them, those internal dispositions which render man what a theologian calls “animal carissimum Deo,” and in fine, through sanctity, untroubled and unaffected by human follies, while ignoring, rather than trying to extirpate the inevitable.

There is an attempt to show likewise with what effect Heaven may be said to descend especially on youth and age, and on those who have gone astray without having had, as a famous author says, “the foretaste of evil, which is calculation, or its aftertaste alone, which is zero.” Poverty, and a low social rank with its consequences, are shown to present no obstacle to this vision of two worlds; and, lastly, Heaven is represented as brought down to the sick and to the dying.

Digby’s first lines from Canto I ? I thought you would never ask.

Oh, joy, wing’d guest, how wonderful thou art!
Yes, just as wondrous as the human heart,
Or all that in the universe we see
Replete with wonder and divinity!
Joy at its highest is the lightning’s gleam,
Dazzles the sense and passes as a dream.
But then its precious memory can last,
Denoting through what golden gate we pass’d.
And, oh! that moment’s glimpse of what’s beyond
Once caught—no, never more should we despond.

That about sums it up for me.  Because the Catholic view of life is about a whole lot more than making straight A’s, hitting the high life, and reaching the top of the earthly pyramid. Because as St. Paul explains,

It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.—Ephesians 2:8-9


  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10566533905159791882 HEATHER KING

    "I think the most important classes my children attend currently are their CCD classes." Right on, Frank. Thank you so much for this thoughtful post and for linking to Shirt of Flame. I'm sure your kids are smart AND kind. And even though when I was a kid I didn't CONSCIOUSLY have much use for Sunday School, something took root that later stood me in very good stead.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Thanks Heather. I really think you nailed it when you wrote that the true "outliers" are the saints. That is absolutely true.


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