Pondering this story, yesterday, about how focusing less on your own concerns and more on the needs of others leads to happiness, I recalled a childhood episode worth revisiting*:
Recently I came across two items which superficially would seem to have nothing at all to do with each other. The first was an advertisement: a religious sister was promoting a women’s retreat about “finding oneself” and “coming to a place of ‘centered’ peace.”
Highlighted within the ad was a sort of inverted pyramid using decreasing-sized fonts to illustrate exactly how Sister intended to lead these women back to themselves, and center their peace:
The second article discussed an alarming trend of teenagers debasing themselves physically, materially and spiritually on their prom nights, thanks to parents who provide the ways and means for every sort of excess imaginable, from exorbitantly priced gowns to beach houses rented (but largely un-chaperoned) by the parents so that the party can continue through the weekend.
Reading these two very different items, I marveled at how upside down the world has turned in the last forty years, and I wondered if the inverted pyramid from item one may have a great deal to do with the tawdry details outlined in item two.
Flashback, forty-some years: as my friends and I prepare to make our first confessions God is very much on all our minds, as are the notions of sin and shame and forgiveness.
Contrary to modern thinking, we six year-olds are not little dopes incapable of comprehending moral concepts. Knowing that we will soon be kneeling in a confessional and facing up to all of our smallish venial sins (“told a fib, fought wit’ my bruddah, used the good spoons for diggin’ up moss”) we decide that for the whole exercise to be really worth while, we will need an honest-to-God mortal sin on our souls.
We settle on theft, anticipating additional penance for follow-up lies, and proceed to steal a large bottle of grape juice from Mrs. Garfinkle’s fridge.
We’ve stolen juice, and even as we drink it down under a shady tree we are preparing our lies. We know exactly what we’re doing, and how wrong our actions are. In fact, the knowledge that we are both stealing and planning to lie gives the whole endeavor an added patina of glamour and sophistication. We are edgy little mavericks, brazen in our purple-lipped defiance.
Enter Zeyde Garfinkle, grandfather of our non-Catholic consort, Joey. He approaches our tribal base behind the tallest pine trees and pretends not to notice our quick maneuvering as we hide the empty bottle behind us.
“It’s chilly in the shade! What are you children doing, here behind the trees?” he asks.
“Nuthin,” we answer, convinced that we are sly.
“Nothing,” he corrects, stressing the hard g . Peering through his glasses he tsks in concern. “But you children must be cold, your lips are purple!”
Gasp! We criminals exchange wide-eyed looks, noting for the first time the shared, incriminating, violet mustaches. Tongue-tied, we can offer no plausible excuse. It requires a lie we have not planned!
I won’t describe the subsequent projectile vomiting of purple grape juice brought on by pricked consciences, overfull bellies and the workings of fully engaged sympathetic nervous systems. Suffice it to say, between that and Joey Garfinkle’s bawling admission of our collective guilt, we children learned a lesson about the consequences of sin. Our cavalier attitudes about confession disappeared too. If Grandpa Garfinkle’s gentle probings could produce such a messy, stinging rebuke to our consciences, how would we survive Fr. Valentine?
I submit the Caper of the Grape as evidence that forty years ago children were being raised with an unambiguous sense of right and wrong, and a distrust of rationalization and relativity. It was not an unusual thing for the sacred and the secular to intersect in our lives on a daily basis, and that such intersections, rather than burdening children (and adults) with excessive guilt and shame, brought us balance and insight — insight which seems to be lacking in the lives of those pitiable, spiritually impoverished prom-parents, and balance that simply cannot be achieved by an inverted pyramid.
In 40 years our society has traveled from knowing with absolute certainty that even the smallest actions could impact our spirits for good or ill, to believing with equal certainty that everything is subjective and that small stuff ought not be sweated.
But really, there is no such thing as “small stuff.” We learn right judgment in small ways, so we needn’t learn it in larger, more brutal ways.
Reading about parents who facilitated the prom excesses, I wondered if their decisions were born not of recklessness but of plain old helplessness. Parenting to the conventional wisdom, perhaps they had allowed too much “small stuff” to go un-sweated, missed too many opportunities to instill values of personal dignity and human consideration, for fear damaging self-esteem. If that were the case, how would they suddenly know how to teach boundaries?
When parents balance praise with an honest recognition of smaller errors, they help their children understand limits more readily. After all, one mild reprimand was enough to forever erase thievery from my career plans. The trick lies in knowing how to correct the young in ways that are forthright, but also spiritually and mentally healthful.
Grandpa Garfinkle was a master in healthy teaching. When we children next encountered him, he noted our discomfort and did not try to excuse us. The juice had been meant for others, and we had been thoughtless and selfish. But the old man knew how to reinforce a lesson with kindness.
“Now, listen all of you, because your priest is going to tell you this too: there is one very best way to live your life. First, you love and serve God, and you keep the commandments. Then, you look around at everyone else and see where you can love and serve them. Then, if you have any energy left over, you can think about yourself. This,” he said, raising his finger to emphasize the point, “is the way you walk on a road made with diamonds,, by forgetting yourself, and what you want. It is the diamond path.”
*Originally published at First Things. Reprinted with permission.
UPDATE b/c Related:
Just one year later, I had to relearn my lesson. I was a horrible child.