“Eight kids!? Wow, that’s great. As long as you can support them, that’s great.”
Preparing for my daughter to be released from the hospital after a long and exhausting week, I was chatting with one of the nurses. Making conversation, she had asked me how many kids we had.
I might not have really noticed her reply, other than that it was said (all unknowing) shortly after my husband had lost his job, and therefore hit me like a punch to the gut. We were in a terrifying place of uncertainty and insecurity at that time.
Let me just toss out there that no one knows, when they have a baby or two, what the next 20 years will bring. No one knows if the economy will crash, wipe out savings, and gut the field where the breadwinner is competitive. No one knows if a job will be lost and hard to replace, or a disability or injury will run up medical bills and limit employability, or a spouse will die, or a child will have special needs that preclude that second job and rack up bills.
No one knows if a shift in the political landscape will send your insurance premiums through the roof, or eject you from your policy altogether. No one knows if, after you lose your insurance, somebody will get cancer.
No one knows. So we try to prepare, as best we can, for all of them. And some of us win. Our preparations are on point, and we get lucky and evade the disaster we couldn’t have withstood.
And, some of us lose. Some plan for all the wrong contingencies, and get slammed by the crisis no one saw coming.
Then, if we “did it right” and remained self-sufficient through our kids’ childhoods (or maybe never had any kids for fear of not being able to support them), we can have a lot of pride and self-righteousness wrapped up in our “success,” as though it came from us, and not from Providence.
And for someone with kids and financial problems, there can be a lot of shame – but, paradoxically, that shame can really be another form of pride. Our vanity is stung by our condition, and we can respond in two ways.
- Our problems might be “ALL our fault.” We can review every choice we ever made in the harsh light of hindsight, and become bitter against ourselves and those who counseled us.
- Or, we make excuses. We take our mistakes and missteps, and pretend that NONE of them were our fault, and that none of them could have possibly caused our problems.
I believe both of these responses are caused by vanity. If we allow ourselves too much pride when we land that job or promotion, buy the house or car, pay the bills and the debts, even give generously to charity, if we believe that we really did cause these things ourselves (rather than realizing that God blessed our labors, and that we may have had advantages that we didn’t earn), then conversely when we lose them, or can’t achieve them, we’ll feel the sting of shame and anger. Our wounded pride will turn on us like a treacherous friend.
And if we hit on hard times and focus too much on our shame and loss, then we are still viewing the situation through the self-centered eyes of vanity.
We might feel like we’re being humble by focusing on our humiliating circumstances, but it’s a trap, friends. Pride is sneaky like that. When we do this, we’ve made our world about us, about our own dreams or about how others view us, not about fulfilling God’s dream for us. In her excellent post on the profound humility of Mary, Chloe at Old Fashioned Girl says this:
“We often think that humility is about thinking less of ourselves, or thinking that we are not worthy. But the reality is that humility is not thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less.”
The only escape from this net of pride and vanity is through grace. The grace to embrace a holy resignation to the will of God, and to trust that things are as they should be, though we feel that our very soul may bleed out from the pain, fear, and disappointment we face. The grace to know that when a well-meaning stranger says that kids are great if you can support them, that the reality is that sometimes you might have to get help, and kids are still great anyway. The grace to know that “success” in the eyes of God has nothing to do with your credit score, whether you are debt-free, or your level of financial independence (which is largely imaginary, anyway. All of us are highly dependent to one degree or another on the social network in which we live).
Shame isn’t always a bad thing, of course. Shame as part of repentance for sin is completely appropriate. But even then, as Fr. Mike Schmitz mentions in his video on learning from the past that I put up on Facebook the other day, dwelling on these things too much and refusing to move on after we repent can also be a form of self-centeredness. As St. Teresa of Calcutta said:
“Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in His love than in your own weakness.”