Betty Duffy

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Laying My Mediocrity on the Table

In college, I was obsessed with extremes. Things had to be all good, or all bad. Faith was either impossible or it was an all out change of lifestyle and location. Several academic mentors tried to tell me that the spiritual life could be sort of a middle road, not an extreme—and I was appalled at the thought. Mediocrity scared me. I did not want to pick and choose what I would believe and practice. It would be all or nothing, whatever I did.

A professor of mine was good friends with an Episcopal Priest in Boston, and got me a job as nanny and personal assistant to the priest’s family and children. I would live on a piece of prime Boston real estate, cook dinners for the family, help the kids with their homework, write during the day, and spend the year being sort of an understudy of the spiritual “middle road,” where I could get comfortable with a level of moral ambiguity.

At the last minute, before starting the job, I went on a retreat with the Catholic Church, with Regnum Christi, to be exact, and fell passionately in love with the Christ I had glimpsed only a few times before, but had never been able to obtain—because my lifestyle, and my soul were not conducive to a cohabitation with Christ. After the retreat I decided that I could not camp out on the fringes. If I wanted to know Christ, there was no point in being a spiritual understudy in what seemed to me, a compromised Catholicity. I had experienced a living, breathing faith on that retreat, and that is where I wanted to stay. So I did.

I have mentioned before how powerful and painful the following year shaped up to be. And I have mentioned before my feelings on learning about our founder. Neither one of those issues are the fodder for this essay. What I have learned recently about myself, is that in the subsequent years, in my marriage, in my family life, in my motherhood, I have become, by virtue of my human nature, a student of the “middle road,” and not necessarily with positive results.

It begins slowly, with wanting to allow myself some indulgence, some continued communication with a culture that mocks my values. That culture is still attractive to me, even while I can’t afford its luxuries, fiscally or spiritually. It’s that old battle that all of me is in God-land except for this hand and this foot, that cannot sacrifice the luxuries nor tolerate the humiliation of being considered “out of touch” or “extremist.”

Discouragement follows, because I do not live up to my ideals, of being a patient, self-giving mother, for instance, or a dutiful housekeeper, or a forgiving, and prayerful spouse (not by any means to suggest that these are the only manifestations of a healthy Christian life). And I begin to consider activities at which I would experience undoubted success, a paid job for instance, in my field of knowledge, or simply, lowered standards on my current duties. Mediocrity is a slow and sly seducer. It is a salve for failure, a consolation prize—that at least I’m not an extremist, at least I can see things both ways, even while my heart is conflicted and I’m troubled that I’m not living up to my ideals.

To put all these nebulous thoughts into context, I’m having trouble making a decision about schooling my kids, and yes, school starts tomorrow. To make a long story short, we are faced with a decision: Either make some serious financial cutbacks and sacrifices to continue sending the kids to Catholic School or Homeschool. Either way, I am called to a greater level of self-giving, and the bottom line is that I. DON’T. WANT. TO.

I am not one of those people who think that Public Schools are evil. I am a product of public schools. I refuse to fear monger, and assume that the public schools will sabotage my children’s innocence and send our family to hell. But if the public school has only become a serious consideration because it allows me to continue living in a state of relative comfort, without any sacrifice on my part, but with the considerable sacrifice to my children of uprooting them from what they know and have come to expect, then something is wrong with my motivation.

I don’t have a conclusion to this post at the moment. But writing is how I am currently dealing with the ickiness of my mediocrity. Now that I’ve confessed, it seems I’ll need to take it to prayer.


TheSeeker said...

I hope you find the answer you're looking for, and I hope it brings you unexpected joy. I too struggle with mediocrity in some areas.

jenX said...

i homeschooled from january - may, betty. it did not work well for me or my child. it does for a lot of women, i know, though.

entropy said...

Here's my two cents,

First, don't be guilted into homeschooling--you're not a bad mom for not wanting to. If you don't want to, don't. If the financial strain of private school is too much then put them in public school (remember: if it sucks you can always reasses, even halfway through the year!).

What do the kids want? Not that I think they should always have a say but it might make things easier if you weren't worried that it'd be too big a deal for them. They might be up for the adventure.

Hope you find some peace about it soon!

Anonymous said...

Mediocrity surrounds us all at some level whether we chose to see its presence or not. Reading your blog, shows me my own sense of mediocrity as the school year begins. It would be easy to sit on the side lines and do what I am being asked to do this year, but I am struggling with following my passion versus taking the easier/less fulfilling road.

When faced with our own mediocrity, I think we must search for options and alternatives that will provide us with a sense of pride and confidence (even if only temporarily) until peace about the decision is discovered.

I wonder what you hope your children will find/learn in parochial school that they won't in public school or at home. I wonder if less financial strain will allow you to share more of your spirit with your family. All schools and home schools have opportunities the others cannot create. You must look at what your goals are for your children and see where they can best be met. Goals, like children, change constantly and only you can lay out the best path for your kids.

I don't believe self or family sacrifice is necessary at every turn and the simple fact that you are worrying about this choice shows me that you are not in a state of mediocracy. Mediocracy is the middle of the road, and no matter what educational path you choose - you will guide your family down the correct meandering path.

Wishing you peace on your decision.

entropy said...

I came back to add more to the pot but I see anon beat me to it.

I was going to say that you don't have always sacrifice to be doing the right thing (that sort of thinking can be a slippery slope but so can thinking everything in life must be painful). Maybe at this point in your life you need to take a road that is a little easier, if only for a little while.

After all, God loves a cheerful giver. :)

Betty Duffy said...

Entropy, you make a good point about sacrifice. Why do I assume that if I'm not hurting, I must be doing the wrong thing? I called my sister who has homeschooled her six kids until this year (they are now going to school), not for any answers, just to hear her thing, and tell her mine, and this homeschooling thing--It does sort of feel like the "Good Catholic" thing to do, though the thought of it makes me want to poke my eye out. And my sister said that if just the thought of it makes you want to poke your eye out, then the actuality will make you really poke your eye out, and your kids' too. I know that this is not the year for me to attempt it--and maybe never, if I can't get to the "cheerful" point you mention. I guess what's different about this year is that I have begun to have an inkling that maybe I can do it (where I used to have a very solid "no"), and maybe it would be good for one or two of them (though not all of them).

To answer anon's question on what I think they will receive in a parochial school that they will not in the public school, it's this: I want them to receive their education in the light of faith, to be able to speak openly about their faith tradition and to have it affirmed both in the classroom and in their spiritual practice with their classmates. I want their youth to be steeped in a culture of faith--something I did not have in my youth--so I always felt like something of a cultural oddity. There was no coherence between my home life and my school life, which is why, when I left home and was immersed only in school (college) and was faced with serious moral questions, I faltered. I compartmentalized my faith.

And I know that my kids' experience will be totally different from mine. Maybe they'll take their faith for granted, or feel it as something restrictive since they haven't chosen it in freedom--but I am attracted to the seemless garment--at least at this stage in their life when they are not ready to face serious questions on their faith.

So it's not just a matter of not wanting to uproot them, though I did have a wonderful experience of being in the same class with the same 150 people from kindergarten through graduation.

Your questions bring to light for me that I may unconsciously be asking the money put out to compensate for my own failures in living the faith at home. I know that my husband and I have to be the first educators in the faith, so in a sense, we are homeschooling, no matter where they go to school--and maybe this is where my mediocrity has gotten the best of me.

Anon (if you're still reading--bear with me, my lengthy meandering) I think you make an excellent point about finding something, even if only temporary that gives a sense of pride and peace. And I do think that I may have found that option. I'm discussing the possibility of doing some volunteer teaching at the parochial school in exchange for tuition.

Anyway, the uniforms are laid out. I told my husband to let me know where he drops them off in the morning.

TS said...

Discernment seems so difficult, doesn't it? Will say a prayer for you today at Mass. Don't forget St. Ignatius saying that "discouragement is not from God".

mrsdarwin said...

Homeschooling is definitely not for everyone, though there are enough different styles to compensate for numerous personality differences. I do want to state, though, that homeschooling should NOT be seens as the "Good Catholic" way of doing things, and don't let anyone guilt you into thinking so. That mindset would be destructive to you and your family. I've seen that situation play out before.

Maybe volunteer teaching will restore that sense of purpose for you, or maybe it will make you realize that this teaching stuff is easier for you than you thought. Or maybe it clarify for you the reasons you don't want to homeschool. :)

I'll keep your decision in prayer today.

Marie said...

It seems to me that you are struggling more with the question of motive -- if you are making a choice for the right reason. Sometimes we go to the most painful option when that is the question because we feel safer, like if I really don't want to do something and I do it anyway at least I can be sure that I'm not doing it for selfish reasons.

But I suspect in this case there are better ways to discern the best path. The best way for your kids may be the one that involves the most sacrifice for you, but it might not. Your own desire to not to homeschool might be blinding you to the fact that you should do it -- but it might not. It might be just an aside, not a sign that you should do it (as a sacrifice) or shouldn't (you're not suited) -- it's just an extra.

Best to you in this, and thanks for the insight. I've recently had to "sacrifice" my desire to do school a certain way, and realized it was about that "whole package" thing. It definitely seems more direct to buy things bundled. But think of it like building a house? You are supposed to build a house on a strong foundation that will shelter your family and bring peace and warmth to your life, the whole package. But that doesn't mean it has to be prefab. Sometimes you have to find and put together the parts yourself.

Emily said...

After trying homeschooling and loving the ideal but not the reality, I've come to the conclusion that there are a few types who do really well at it: those who are well-organized, those who are really laidback and easily excited about special projects, and those with perfect kids. Not that other types can't succeed or enjoy homeschooling, but it makes it easier if you are one of the above.

We know some people with really great kids in public school and others with rotten kids in private school and others with rotten kids in public school and great kids in private school... a big part of who your kids are/become is out of your control no matter where you send them to school.

Dan pointed out last night that people drop $5-6000 on televisions and vacations. Others spend $500 on cell phones they throw away in a year. And buy their kids $200 ipods that get broken.

If you end up not saving any money for retirement, at least you have 5kids who, inspired by their costly education, go to law or med school and could potentially take you in or pay your nursing home bills one day.

Betty Duffy said...

The kids went back to the Parochial School. When it comes to three choices in none of which I have 100% confidence, I think we picked the one with the highest percentage of confidence--even if only because it is what we know. I would have had some degree of dissatisfaction and confusion with any of the choices, and in this case, it's only with the money. I suppose I can feel good that we're doing our part to keep the Parochial school afloat in a recession. And for us, it's only sacrifice, not starvation--so what am I complaining about?

I really do appreciate the thoughtful comments and prayers. I'm going to try not to wait until the last minute to do all my fretting for next year.

Marie, I really think you nailed this: "Sometimes we go to the most painful option when that is the question because we feel safer, like if I really don't want to do something and I do it anyway at least I can be sure that I'm not doing it for selfish reasons."

And I appreciate what you said about not purchasing the whole package. We are evaluating whether or not one of our children in particular might be better off in another environment.

Emily, I've been chuckling all night. Maybe if our husbands die before we do, and our children fail us, we can move in together and play the old widowed sisters--maybe even take a trip to Florence and put cornflowers in our hair.

Emily said...

Do we have to wait until we're widows? Let's put the kids in public school, take the tuition, and go now! heh heh

Anonymous said...

I am always encouraged by the discussions and comments left here because they are often so well thought out, but also so honest.

In our constant search for what is right, moral, and seamlessly fitting with our own value system, I find that it is so easy to judge ourselves harshly when others are often confronted with similar situations. I think that sometimes the most difficult sacrifice is the self discussion/evaluation that comes from both simple and complex day to day occurrences because we think that life should somehow be simpler than it often is. I think we must remember that judging ourselves and our decisions critically can lead us to greater understanding, but it can also be a deterrent from truly enjoying this life we've been blessed with.

I'm glad that you decided on the parochial school and am positive that your kids will have a terrific year. I'm also excited that you know that while your kids may be away for 7+ hours a day, how you and your husband model your lives is always a much stronger example than will ever be learned in school. Most teachers can teach reading, math, as well as their own set of values (even if it's unintentional), but a parents belief system is passed on without a textbook, reflection journal, or any direct instruction.

Anononymous II said...

I'm fascinated by entropy's comment about how we start to think that everything in life must be painful.

I'm allergic to the idea of "religion as hobby". But where I think I went wrong was to think that therefore consolation is only for hobbyists. But consolation is really not optional, even the consolation merely of recognizing that God loves us even if we don't feel His love.

Reverence, not strength, is prized: (Psalm 147) “God’s delight is not in horses / nor his pleasure in warriors’ strength. The Lord delights in those who revere him, in those who wait for his love.”

But then came across this quote from a Russian martyr of the 20th century, Maria of Gatchina, who implies that we unconsciously sabotage ourselves but to good effect:

"Depression is a spiritual cross. It is sent to help the pentitent who does not know how to repent, that is, who after repentance falls again into earlier sins...And therefore, only two medicines can treat this sometimes extremely difficult suffering of soul. One must either learn to repent and offer the fruits of repentance; or else bear this spiritual cross, one's depression, with humility, meekness, patience, and great gratitude to the Lord, remembering that the bearing of this cross is accounted by the Lord as the fruit of repentance...And after all, what a great consolation it is to realize that your discouragement is the unacknowledged fruit of repentance, an unconscious self-chastisement for the absence of the fruits that are demanded...From this thought one should come to contrition, and then the depression gradually melts and the true fruits of repentance will be conceived."

Lisa said...

Lots of good thinking here. We've straddled all these decisions, too -- and struggled with the balance between sacrifice that is necessary and sacrifice that ends in suicide. What we've thought were compromises have often turned out to be our greatest choices; what we've thought were great choices have turned out to be mediocre compromises. Don't ya hate that? It's so hard to know which way way we think must be God's plan and which way really is. Since He just will not send us a post card we pray. watch. pray some more. step back and look at the big picture. pray some more. tweak as necessary or about-face when needed.

A mom who cares as much as you do is watching closely enough to know when something works or not. Your kids are in good hands.

TSO said...

BD-- you asked if I was anonymous but if I said 'yes' than I wouldn't be, now would I? A conundrum. Fwiw, I'm "anonymous II" in this thread. :-)

Betty Duffy said...

I thought so...I won't tell on you.