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Why They Really Complained About the Manna

In the book of Exodus, the Israelites are brought by God out of the land of Egypt where they were enslaved, and taken into the desert. God has worked miracle after miracle for them by this point, ten plagues, walking through the Red Sea, but once they find themselves in the desert, the Israelites complain that they have no food. Somewhat understandable. After all, they have no food. But then God literally makes it rain food. Food appears every morning except on the Sabbath, and all they have to do is go pick it up. 

But then they complain about that! When I was a kid and read this story, I thought, “Those dumb Isrealites! God has given them absolutely everything, and now they’re going to whine that they don’t like the way it tastes! What a bunch of ungrateful brats!” 

And there’s something to that. We complain about our blessings too. We forget just how amazing the things we have are and whine that they are not exactly to our liking. And there was likely some of that in the Isrealites complaint. 

What really bothered them about the manna

But I think there was more to it than that.

The manna came down every night (except the sabbath) with the dew, and melted away with the dew. They could only gather enough for each day; there was no saving up, no planning for the future. 

That, I think, is the real reason they complained. They had to trust God for their food, every single day. They couldn’t rely on their own efforts. They couldn’t plan ahead, store up, or anything. They just had to radically trust that God would keep sending the mysterious food. 

We humans like to feel in control. We like to think our lives are in our own hands—and we do certainly have agency. But ultimately we are thoughts in the mind of God, utterly dependent for our very existence on His continuing to think us. We are as dependent on God as ideas you’ve never expressed are to you. If you cease thinking that thought, its existence ends. 

We hate to be reminded of our radical dependence. We hate to be reminded that we aren’t in control, that we aren’t permanent, that we can’t know all the answers. And that’s exactly what the manna was doing. It was God saying to His people, every single morning, “Remember, I am God, and you are not. You cannot live unless I provide your food.”

I think that’s why they complained. Because none of us want to be reminded of our ultimate dependency. 

The things I complain about

I certainly don’t like being reminded that I’m dependent and temporary. I realized lately that the things that upset me the most are precisely the things that remind me of my dependency and the impermanence of material things. 

I am furious when my kids break things or waste things. And I’m somewhat justified in that; they shouldn’t be doing that. But my anger is out of proportion to the cause, and I think it boils down to the same thing: I want the order that I have set in my world to remain. I want to feel that I am in control of at least my little corner of the world. 

Besides waste and damage, the other thing that I find most frustrating in my life as a parent is the constant changing of plans. I organize a fabulous plan for my day…but then the toddler throws up. I envision a workflow for making dinner, but then the toddler wants to “help.” (Yes. I visualize a workflow for making dinner. You don’t?)

I imagine a schedule…and then my child can’t find her shoes…again. 

Little things, all of them. But frustrating. The degree to which I find these little things frustrating, is, I think, a sign that there is more to it than the thing itself. 

Perhaps my anger and frustration with my children comes from the same source as the Israelites’ complaints about the manna. I just don’t enjoy being constantly reminded that I am not God. 

Both the manna and our children are direct gifts from God, and they serve the same, not always welcome purpose: to remind us that we are dependent on God for our “daily bread.” 

 

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Finding Meaning for Suffering and Life

 

No one likes suffering. Suffering is evil. 

Modern Americans are determined to eliminate pain. We keep patenting stronger painkillers, designing softer and stretchier clothes, and inventing new ways for mattresses to perfectly conform to our temperature demands. 

But at the same time, many of us deliberately inflict pain on ourselves. On the healthier end of the spectrum, people work out and brag about their sore muscles, or proudly complain about their strict diets. Military boot camps are made deliberately miserable, partly to encourage physical and mental toughness, but also to give the soldiers a sense of unity and pride, since they succeeded where others did not. More unhealthily, some people form addictions to tattoos and body piercings, and finally there are the sad and desperate people who cut or otherwise abuse themselves. 

But why? Pain is always seen as something to be avoided. No one likes pain. And yet people deliberately seek it out. 

Reasons people seek pain

This is by no means a phenomenon which is limited to 21st century Americans. Most cultures have some ritual practice which involves discomfort if not actual pain. Many of these practices are religious in origin, such as fasting for Christians–and the Lenten fast used to be much stricter than it is now–or dangling yourself off hooks on procession floats for Hindus

Others are more social. In many tribal cultures boys need to prove themselves men by suffering some sort of ordeal–sometimes a prolonged, horrifying one. Girls too are often expected to undergo painful rituals to prepare them for adulthood. These ceremonies simply indicate that the initiate is now part of the tribal group, with all its rights and privileges. 

But pain remains something that humans try to avoid, and rightly so. Pain is a signal our body sends that something is wrong. Pain, except considered as information, is a physical evil. And so pain cannot be sought for its own sake. This would be contrary to human nature, which is ineradicably directed towards goodness. Why then do people in every place and every time seem to seek it out? 

While some more or less imbalanced people seek physical pain as a counter-irritant to mental pain, or in a misguided attempt to assuage feelings of guilt, the majority of people who deliberately undergo physical pain are looking for something else.

Everything worthwhile has a price

Nature teaches us that all good things come at a price. The beautiful flower must shrivel and die to produce the seed-bearing fruit, and the seed in its turn must die to produce a new plant. Trees must die to provide shelter and heat for humans, and animals must die so that other animals can live. No child is born into the world without pain. 

Everything worth having comes at a price, and for humans, the highest price is the price of pain. 

So painful tribal initiation rites, though some of the more horrifying are probably satanic perversions, have their purpose. Undergoing an excruciating initiation rite does not indicate a desire for pain as such. Rather it expresses the initiate’s desire to accomplish something great, something deeply worthwhile. If achieving full adult membership in a tribe comes only at tremendous cost, it must be worth a tremendous amount. What we value most we pay the most for, and vice versa. 

Religious rites that cause pain or discomfort are similarly logical. The purpose of religion is to honor God. And how can we as humans show that we value God above ourselves but by paying some price? Sacrifice of some valued object is a common element in pagan religious rituals, as is undergoing physical pain, mutilation, and even human sacrifice. The idea is that the favors asked of the gods are worth something, and the worshipper is willing to pay that price. The greater the favor, the higher the price. 

The Christian view

Christianity transforms this idea into something nobler. In Christianity, religion is not a servile grovelling for favors, but a simple recognition that God is God and we are creatures.  Fasting has always been a part of the Christian tradition. By fasting and other penances encouraged or allowed by the Church, the Christian shows himself and God that he values God and God’s laws more than he values himself and his own comfort. Religious vows–like the vow of celibacy that Catholic priests and religious take, or the vow of poverty that some religious take–take this idea even further.  The religious is saying that God is more important than even his primal human instincts to own property and reproduce. 

Even outside the realm of religious sacrifice, Christians also believe that pain and suffering can have real value in helping people grow in virtue. But Christianity also forbids mutilation, and encourages people to seek good health and happiness, and to alleviate the pain of others.

So Christianity and human nature seem to agree that pain is both valuable and to be avoided. And while this might seem like a contradiction, it is resolvable, because it’s not really about the pain. Many of us face frustration, loneliness, depression, and anxiety. But these sufferings, while they can be so painful as to overwhelm the spirit, do not build up the person in any way. You cannot strive against a feeling of pointlessness in your life, or achieve moral victory over depression. No spiritual writer recommends feeling anxiety as a way to God. 

It is not about the pain. Pain and discomfort in and of themselves are evil. Being more uncomfortable is not the recipe for virtuous living. 

Meaningful effort

What is necessary for both human flourishing and Christian perfection is not suffering as such, but meaningful effort. 

We humans need to strive. We need to overcome obstacles on the way to meaningful goals. What are games if not artificial obstacles we create so that we can overcome them? But there has to be a goal, a meaning to make the struggle worthwhile. 

The endurance required by tribal rituals is given meaning by the social context. However brutal these rituals might be, they are undergone because they give the participant a sense that he has accomplished something worthwhile. And when he joins the brotherhood of his tribe as a full adult, having passed the test, he is closer to his fellow tribesmen than he would be without that test. 

Suffering the pains of childbirth for the sake of a new life is meaningful. It is hard—I’ve done it three times, twice with no pain meds—but the results are worth it. 

Suffering the pains that hard physical labor brings in order to grow food for your family’s survival; that too is meaningful. But most of us have never had to do it, and that—I think—is a good thing. It is good that most humans do not have to work every waking hour to provide a bare survival diet… but with our prosperity and comfort comes the cost of having to find a new struggle. 

Finding meaning in ordinary life

Christianity offers meaning. The sufferings Christians undergo, whether chosen as penance, or simply accepted as God’s will, are given meaning by our Faith, and bring us closer to God. The connection between these actions (or sufferings) and their supernatural meaning is hard to see, however. 

To suffer discouragement and depression for the salvation of souls… where is the connection? Suffering loneliness for the good of your country? How does that work? 

We suffer, not the same way other Christians in other times and places have suffered, but we do suffer. No Roman emperors stand by with racks, whips and ravening lions to test our Faith. The specter of starvation rarely lifts in head—the last major famine in the West was over 100 years ago. Even the fast of Lent prescribed by the Church has been mitigated. 

Our sufferings come from health problems, financial worries, family drama, worry over our children’s future. And even if we manage to escape from those, mental anguish, loneliness, frustration, the pain of misunderstanding lie in wait. We might surround ourselves with more and more physical comforts and distractions to drown it out, but we cannot escape the suffering in our own minds. 

But this suffering is unconnected to anything. It is not the result of striving—as the pains of childbirth or physical labor are. It is the opposite. It is the result of having nothing to aim for, no goal on the other side of our obstacles. 

To be happy healthy humans, that is to say, virtuous humans, we need to strive for a difficult goal. It is the nature of humans to shrivel without a goal to live for. 

But what goal? And how shall we strive? What mission can we undertake? 

Yes, we strive for salvation. Yes, we strive to follow the commandments. We raise our families. We do our jobs. We do routine maintenance, the million sisyphean tasks of housekeeping and parenting. These things must be done. And we can “offer them up” along with our physical and mental pain. Spiritual writers like St Therese of Lisieux assure us that these tasks and pains and struggles can bring us closer to God, if taken in the right way. Far be it from me to contradict St Therese. 

What if we need more?

I wonder sometimes, however, if we expect too much from our mental muscles. It is hard to see the connection between routine tasks done every day (even with a morning offering) and the glorious service of God.  It is hard to see how renewing car registration paperwork or suburban loneliness relate to the passion and death of the God-man and the work of salvation. Maybe you, reader, are capable of this mental workout. I personally find it all but impossible. 

Much of the life of a religious involves the same daily grind as the life of a layperson. Monks and nuns have to take showers, scrub dishes, cook meals, and tidy things up, just like laypeople. But their lives are dedicated directly to the service of God, and everything about their rule is designed to remind them of this fact. They wear a uniform and live together with others who have made the same consecration. They have scheduled prayers and activities. 

The religious rule is, of course, not applicable to married people like myself. It would be inappropriate for me to wear a religious habit. The very existence of babies—those maddening and delightful creatures—renders order and schedule and fixed prayer (or sleep) routines impracticable. As for life in community—well, I do believe in single family dwellings and the autonomy of the married couple, within reason. 

Is it possible though that we spend more effort than necessary in doing the mental gymnastics of trying to see connection between our Faith and the daily grind, when perhaps what we should be looking for is a way to make more connection between them? 

I haven’t yet come up with a solution to this question. Are active and dynamic religious third orders for married people the answer?  Or community living and radical charity as practiced in the Catholic Worker houses associated with Tradistae? Stronger parish associations? 

We don’t need more suffering in our lives. What we need are more reasons to suffer. We need friends who will suffer and pray with us and for us; who will hold us accountable and encourage us. We need concrete goals to work for, a way of bringing our Faith to life in physical reality.

I don’t know what this looks like. If you have any ideas, please share them with me. 

 

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No More Polite Lies

I recently heard it said that white lies were the lubricant of society—that everyone lies constantly and that social life would be intolerable if we didn’t. If you go to a dinner party and the conversation was mediocre and the food bland, you say, “It was delicious and I had a wonderful time.” A lie…. But doesn’t society work better when everyone tells that sort of lie? When we smooth out the rough edges of reality for our neighbors, and let them see only what they want to see? 

This is merciful. This is right. Or at the very least, it’s how you have to do things to be liked. Or so we tell ourselves. But this is itself a lie, a deeply destructive one. 

“White lies” rob the hearer

Perhaps white lies take the sting out of failure, but they also take the shine from achievement. 

Let’s suppose I host a dinner party—as all who are able should—and it is an utter failure, but people tell me, “I had such a great time. Your cooking is fabulous.” In their mind, they are sparing me embarrassment, making me feel better, and in general being good, responsible friends. But I am not an idiot. I know if I did a decent job cooking or not. I know if I planned badly and invited an incompatible group of people. Their praise will fall flat.

Worse, if my failures are praised as wonderful, what about when I think I have succeeded? Will I receive the same feedback? Will I be told, “I had such a great time. Your cooking is fabulous?” If I am told I succeeded when I didn’t, how will I know when I have really done something good? There will always be that lingering doubt. “Maybe they’re just saying that to make me feel better?” 

Imagine for a moment how glorious it would be to know that no one would ever tell you a lie about yourself to make you feel better. That any praise you received was the person’s absolutely sincere and convinced opinion.

“White lies” are not the only way to be polite. 

This is not to say that we should say whatever nasty thoughts come to the top of our minds all the time. Telling all of the truth all of the time is hardly the right answer. It would be horribly impolite and possibly even cruel to tell the hostess of a dinner party, “I was bored out of my mind and the roast was dry.” But it’s not as though there are only two options: either be rude or lie. 

Suppose the meal was really terrible. Suppose you were bored out of your mind. Was nothing about the experience good? Maybe as you leave you can tell the hostess, “Thank you so much for inviting us. That was such a lovely bouquet you had on your table.” Or “That pie was good.” If you honestly cannot think of a single truthful compliment—and I think it would have to have been a remarkably bad evening for that—then simply say, “Thank you so much for inviting us.” 

It is not rude. And you have not degraded the truth by saying it. 

“White lies” rob the teller

To go back to our failed dinner party—not that anyone wants to go back to one of those—imagine that you do always fall back on the white lie so that you don’t have to say the unpleasant things in your mind. Then there’s no motivation for you to change the things you notice. It’s not socially unacceptable to have negative thoughts… just to express them. Even if you never express your unpleasant thoughts, they still poison you. You will come home from that lousy dinner party after telling the hostess what a wonderful time you had and how much you enjoyed the food, and your thoughts will be something like this: “Wow. What a waste of an evening. What horrible food. I really can’t stand that one guy who was there telling lame jokes. I should just stay home next time someone invites me out. It would save a lot of trouble. I’m so disappointed in humanity.” 

But now suppose for a moment that you had made a pact with yourself never to say anything you did not honestly think. You would have to search your mind for something positive about the evening. Perhaps there was nice wine, or maybe the hostess set the table in an elegant way. Perhaps you were just grateful to get out of the house and the dinner party was an excuse.

Whatever the case, you are now looking for the positive. Courteous truthfulness is like keeping a gratitude journal. It forces you to look beyond the negative and see the other story you could be telling yourself. 

Let’s start being courteously truthful instead of telling polite lies. It makes everyone’s life better, starting with yours. 

 

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Why I make time for reading in my life

I’m a wife and a mom with a three year old and a one year old. Both children are very active and inquisitive, and enjoy actively inquiring into my cabinets and the fridge, experimenting to see what happens if they pour water on the floor, and if they hit each other. They keep me on my toes. 

I also cook pretty much every meal from scratch–what exactly is scratch anyway? Does anyone know? I bake my own bread, and don’t own a dishwasher. I do the grocery shopping, keep track of endless piles of laundry–or try– and I go on playdates, by which I mean that I try to hang out with other moms while my kids hang out with other kids.

I have a lot on my plate. 

But I make time for reading. I have read at least 2 dozen books since the beginning of the year. Sometimes I use audiobooks, some ebooks, but mostly I check out print books from the library. 

So with so much on my plate, why do I prioritize reading? 

It Keeps Me Sane

When I was pregnant with my first child, I quit my intellectually stimulating job as a middle school history and literature teacher to stay home and take care of the baby. I need intellectual stimulation, and babies, delightful as they are, don’t provide much of that. Reading gives me new things to think about, and is, incidentally, amazingly compatible with breastfeeding. It’s also easier to do with jumping toddlers next to you than just about any other hobby. So basically, reading is a major part of my self care and self-development routine. 

It Gives Me Something to Talk About

There was a period of a few weeks where I had stopped reading, because I thought I was “too busy.” Not only did my brain feel dead, I also discovered that the quality of the conversations I was having with my husband was declining. I had nothing to bring to the table except stories about the kids’ naughtiness, or what I found at the grocery store. I decided this was not ok, and resolved to read something every day, just so that I would have something to bring to the conversation. My husband married a woman who was interested in all sorts of things, presumably because he liked me that way, and I think I should try to keep being that person. 

It’s an Example I Want to Set

When I prioritize reading, this shows my children, young as they are, that books are interesting, and that reading is something that people do. This will make them more likely to be readers and learners when they are old enough. 

I also want them to see that I am a separate person and not just their mom/servant. I think it’s important for my kids to see me doing things that interest me. And for them to see me continuing to learn as an adult. 

How do you fit reading into your life? If you don’t have a lot of time, here’s five books every woman should read. 

Otherwise, here are some of the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year. I hope you enjoy some of them too.

 A guide to natural childbirth inspired by Catholic principles and illustrated with stories of Catholic moms giving birth. Good information, good stories. I was glad I read this one.

 Why yes, I do love science fiction. Timothy Zahn is one of my favorite authors, and this is quite the series. I just re-read it recently.

This is a new one from one of my fellow authors over at Catholicteenbooks.com (Which you should totally check out if you have teenage kids or students, are a teen yourself, or just enjoy YA fiction.) It’s a hard-to-put-down dystopian story about faith, love, martyrdom, and a bunch of other stuff. A lot of fun.

Yes, it’s a kid’s picture book. I thoroughly enjoyed it though. It’s a story about how some young students protect some Jewish children their age during WWII.

Sort of like grown-up Narnia. This is the third book in the series, and I haven’t gotten around to reading the first two, but I did enjoy this one.

The best book on taking control of your digital life that I’ve seen.

Yes, I love science fiction. This is an exciting story of pursuit, compulsion and conversion.

Editing counts as reading, right? I hope you’ll consider checking my book out as well!

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How Your Tech Changes You

This is the third and last part of my series on relating to technology in a healthy way. I’d love you hear your thoughts in the comments.  If you haven’t read the other two parts, they can be found here: Part 1 and Part 2 

(This post contains some affiliate links. These links allow me to earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

A few more thoughts on our relationship with technology. 

The tools we use change us. Archeologists can tell the difference between the skeletons of sword-wielding warriors and ordinary people because using the sword at that level actually changes the structure of the warriors’ body. The British archers who ended the age of armored knights on horseback as the ultimate weapon of war similarly became one with their bows. An archer’s bow arm became highly overdeveloped, and this is visible even in the skeleton. 

These are extreme examples, but every tool we use changes us both physically and mentally. The swordsman becomes one with his sword when he fights. He does not “use his sword” to fight. He fights, and the sword is an extension of himself that gives him new powers. 

Our phones and computers are extensions of our powers as well. 

My phone gives me the ability to speak to people across the world, to learn new things, to take notes about things that are important to me. I have become accustomed to having these powers, and I do not think this a bad thing. In a certain very real sense, we do become one with our phones and computers. It is not surprising that many people become anxious without their phones. I am sure many swordsmen feel incomplete without their weapons. They are missing a part of what they have come to think of as themselves. How could they not be anxious? 

It’s fine to become one with your tools. In fact, only when you are one with your tools can you work at your highest potential. The only trouble is if your tools somehow diminish you, if you lose the abilities you had before you had the tool. 

If the swordsman gains the ability to fight with his sword, he gains as a warrior, but if he can never set the sword down, he will be diminished as a man. It would be hard to write, to eat, or to show affection while constantly holding a naked blade in your hand. 

The same is true of our phones. We gain abilities from our phones, but if we can never put them down we lose parts of our humanity. The information they make available to us is wonderful, but we can’t lose our ability to just be bored occasionally. As Manoush Zomorodi says on page 5 of Bored and Brilliant, “We may feel like we are doing very little when we endlessly fold laundry, but our brains are actually hard at work. When our minds wander, we activate something called the ‘default mode,’ the mental place where we solve problems and generate our best ideas, and engage in what’s known as ‘autobiographical planning,’ which is how we make sense of our world and our lives and set future goals. The default mode is also involved in how we try to understand and empathize with other people, and make moral judgments.” These are important powers which we can only access if we’re just a little bit bored. If we have a constant stream of phone calls, texts, games, and videos keeping our brains constantly busy, we will never go into “default mode” and we will be less than we could be as a result. 

Keep the control in your hands

It’s also important to keep our tools as tools and not let them make us slaves. We should have tools that fit us, not force ourselves to conform to our tools. Really good sword fighters often had swords specially made for them, or at least chose a sword that suited them better than others. 

We should customize our devices to do what we want them to do for us, and to not do what we do not want them to do. I want my phone to enhance my ability to communicate with friends, to organize my life, and to share my ideas with others. Otherwise I want it to be as unobtrusive as possible. I have turned off all notifications except email, text, calls, and my library app, and have muted everything except calls from my contacts. I have no games and no social media. (I kind of wish the news wasn’t so easily accessible, but I don’t usually have a problem with it.)

I installed Google Docs for writing, Todoist for organizing, and I take lots of pictures of my kids so I can send them to my parents and in-laws. I have been trying to call my friends more than I text them lately, as I think the level of connection achieved is higher, and I can do other things (like laundry and dishes) while talking, but not while texting. 

My phone—while I do use it very extensively–is my tool and not my master. It is an extension of myself that I am comfortable with and which I believe makes me better at being what I want to be. 

I hope you’ve found these ideas useful and interesting, and that you are inspired to make your devices healthy and welcome extensions of yourself. It will probably take a long time and a lot of adjustment to find the exact set of tools and rules that helps you lead your best life, but it is worth every bit of effort you put in. Your future self will thank you, as will your friends and family.