When Anna was diagnosed, one of my deepest convictions was that I wanted to “leave it all on the field,” as the saying in sports goes: to spend myself entirely in the short time I had with her, giving all my love, so that I would never have any regrets.
I consider the love I was able to show Anna in her short life probably my greatest accomplishment so far, although in the deepest sense it was all grace. But as you might guess, I was not always successful. I did not always cooperate with grace. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. And so once in confession I had mentioned a particular failure in this regard, that I was spending too much time on the Internet with online friends in far-flung places to the neglect of my family and my work, and I got a great bit of advice.
The priest mentioned the words of Jesus, when He said we must pick up our cross daily and follow Him. He did not mean, of course, that my family is a cross in the sense of “that woman is going to be the death of me.” What he meant was that God in His providence gives us a particular life to live, in which real people are given to us as our families, our neighbors, our friends, our coworkers. Our lives are not abstractions, they are concrete and full of particulars, particular duties and particular people.
Those people are beautiful and wonderful, but just like me they have bad days, they have quirks, they are not yet perfectly who God made them to be. And as for duties, sometimes I would rather not do those dishes, or I would rather not watch that Disney movie for the 1,015th time. What I was doing online was creating an alternate world of my own choosing as an escape from God’s will for me.
As time has passed, I have seen more and more the wisdom and wide application of this advice. The temptations can be very ugly, like the pride which says I must be Mr. Big Shot thinking profound thoughts rather than Dad playing Littlest Pet Shoppe with a 6-year-old. Some temptations present themselves as very pious – that I must pray the entire Liturgy of the Hours today, rather than giving that woman who stayed up all night with the baby a back rub and turning this act of love into a prayer. Surely my time is much better spent arguing with someone who is badly wrong on the Internet than it is working on proofing the calendar section for the next paper.
The bottom line is always the same: I’m going to choose some other thing in life, rather than the life God has given me. But my first vocation is holiness, to live as a child of God, a disciple of Christ, which means doing His will, not mine. My second vocation is as a husband and father. It is my wife, and by extension to my family, whom I am to love as Christ loved the church, by laying down my life.
And that means doing all those little things that count. It means doing seemingly insignificant chores, over and over again. It means that instead of discussing great literature with a friend across the world on a WiFi connection while I sip latte in a coffee shop, I might well be called at that moment to discuss the plot of “The Aristocats” with a precocious six-year-old while I try to convince her to pick up her fork and eat, all while juggling a baby and trying to feed myself.
One of the great maladies of the age, it seems to me, is the idea that your life isn’t of value if you’re not a star, if you’re not blazing some trail, if you’re not “following your bliss” (whatever the heck that is today), if you’re not living like a rock star, or whatever. Isn’t that why there are so many blogs? Isn’t that why we hold motherhood, that great vocation, in contempt? Isn’t that why we’re afraid of the words “janitor” and “secretary”?
It strikes me that this is related to why special needs kids like Anna are so often not welcomed as the gifts they are.
Only Original Sin can answer this mystery, that I can know all this and still fail. I can know that sitting by a bed of a terminally ill child in the middle of the night holding her hand through another bad spell is one of the greatest things I have ever done. I can know the value of even the weakest, smallest human life. I can know that in God’s providence I am exactly where He wants me to be, with my duties clearly before me. And I still sometimes opt for the video game when I have dishes to do.