22 . . . Over the Hill?

Elizabeth Hanna Pham

When I was little and went to the grocery store with my mom, I liked to occupy myself by looking at greeting cards. There were funny cards, cheesy cards, stupid cards, pretty cards, sentimental cards — and I found it all very interesting.  But perhaps most interesting of all were the cards for those people turning forty or fifty.  They actually disturbed me a little bit.  There was so much color on all the other ones but when you got to these, it was like they were the death cards.  And if you didn’t know how to read you might as well have assumed that that’s exactly what they were.  Cards for the dead people . They were almost always black and they might even have a reference to a grave stone or something else rather morbid.  You’d open the card and there would be some sort of half-hearted, well, at least you can celebrate.

To little me, this was very confusing.  Birthdays were supposed to be a great thing! When and why do they become so terrible?  And if they are so terrible, why even celebrate them?  Why buy a card?  Why not pretend they aren’t even happening? Unfortunately, as I grew older, I began to realize that this indeed is the coping mechanism of choice for many people — pretend they’re not even happening or get drunk enough to forget they’re happening.

And what’s even sadder is that that age — 40 to 50 has lowered dramatically. Ironically, as our life expectancy increases it seems that we become more and more afraid of getting older.  Now it’s not the dreaded 40.  It’s the dreaded 30.  Because the end of your twenties is like the end of your life.  But it seems to trickle down even further.  I can count on one hand the number of peers I have who are actually excited about turning anything above twenty-one.  Indeed, you hear some version of this all day or all week long on your twenty-first birthday:

Enjoy it! It’s the last birthday worth celebrating anyway.

To make matters worse, it’s not even the first twenty years that are considered the prime.  It’s roughly the years between sixteen and twenty-one.  So while the adults are all wishing they could go back, with each year our culture is shoving the ten-year-olds further and further into a desperate climb towards the day they can get their license or the day they can drive off finally to the freedom of college.  We literally act as if life is only great for six or so years.  And we counsel those living them to live them well as they pass quickly and they’re gone before you know it.

Maybe I’m too idealistic, but this just doesn’t seem to cut it.  To live a life in which you believe that six out of your eighty or so years are going to be anything worth your time doesn’t sound like a life very much worth living.  There has got to be something more. There’s got to be a better answer.  Especially for women.  For women are probably the most plagued by this syndrome.  We all know how increasingly mature little girls are starting to dress.  And we all know how much older women are increasingly desperately pouring themselves and their money into “miracles” of botox and tucks and suctions and add-ons and push-ups and cover-ups.  Women are told a lie that with each year gets stronger and stronger.  And this lie is that their sexual prime is what defines them.  And that the time before and after it will never measure up.  If we were animals, I could maybe understand this lie, and it might not be such a lie.  But we’re not animals.  And I’m pretty sure life has more to offer.  And I’m pretty sure that most of us would agree it does.  But even if we won’t outright say it, why do we continue to perpetuate the lie?

I believe we do because we are part animal.  And we have instincts.  And when we start down the road of instincts, when we start to let instincts take over, we begin to forget about everything else.  We all know how increasingly sexualized our culture is becoming.  But why at such a fast rate?  And why is it so overwhelming?  Because instinct is strong.  And when let to run wild, it runs wild and it knocks over everything in its path.  We have, as a culture, let the sexual instinct rule.  Just listen to the beats and the grunted words coming from so many of the songs on the radio.  Sometimes they don’t even sound human.  And I would argue, that at some point, they aren’t human anymore.  We have resigned ourselves to the part of us that is enslaved to the instinct. And once we are enslaved to the instinct it is very, very difficult to turn back.  Even if we have many wonderful things in our life at thirty we can’t help but gaze backwards at the women younger than us, increasingly anxious as we see ourselves looking older and getting further and further away from that prime.  The more sexually focused our culture becomes, inevitably the more sexually focused we become.  The more instinct driven the advertisements and people and movies and music around us become, inevitably the more instinct driven we are pressured to become.  Because our culture is our pack. And in the wild, the pack defines your survival.

But the good news is, we are not all animal.  We are human.  And our humanity raises us above the silliness of the pack.  Our humanity allows sexuality to be merely a facet of who we are, and even still, our humanity makes sexuality so much more beautiful than it ever was when ruled by instinct.  Humanity has so, so, so much more to offer. Humanity is not the time between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one.  Humanity is eternal.  But we cannot know and fully understand and fully reap the benefits of being human until we learn to stop looking backwards (or forwards) in anxiety.  We have to accept where we are and until we do that we will never know what that point in eternity has to offer us. Sadly, too many ten-year-olds will never have known the beauty of being ten.  Sadly, too many forty-year-olds will never have known the beauty of being forty.  And sadly, too many people will have lived and died without ever having known the beauty of being human.  All they will remember is the crazy party days of satisfied instinct.  That will be the summit and high point of their lives and how sad that is.  So I challenge us to resist being slaves to the instinct.  There’s no need to be.  (Besides, it’s a losing game anyway!  There’s no rush and there’s no ticking clock.  And to live like there is, is to miss life itself.)  So celebrate your birthday this year.  Tell everybody how old you are and how proud you are of it because it’s a beautiful and amazing thing.  And the more you choose to act like it, the more you’ll believe it and see how true it really is.  In turn, you will then give others the courage to be human too.


A Gun For Christmas

Marjorie Murphy Campbell

I want a gun for Christmas.

My New Year’s Resolution will be to learn how to carry and use my new gun safely.   I will carry my new gun wherever I am legally allowed to carry it and I will abide by all laws.  I will use my new gun if I have to, to try to protect any child, young adult or innocent person threatened with being killed.  I may prove not to be a good shot – but if I can distract a lunatic trying to kill children and make him come after me, I will be satisfied.

I’ve had enough.  This Christmas is unlike any other I’ve known in my 56 years.  I can’t forget the profound pain of Newtown Connecticut.  I can’t sweep away my shock and dismay so that I can have a jolly holiday.   These are parents, just like me,  who were supposed to joyfully watch their innocent 6 and 7 year old children setting out cookies for Santa, who were supposed  to grumble and tease when their little ones shook them awake too early on December 25, trembling with excitement in this or their own holiday celebration.  Instead, the children are literally gone – and the parents are trembling because they cannot imagine life as good ever again, cannot abide the pain.

I’ve had enough of the slaughter of innocents.   We are not “healing” today because an angry young man with untreated mental illness barged into a nursing home and gunned down elderly.  No one is puzzling over the cold blooded murder of police officers and fire persons as they relax over steaming cups of coffees at the station.  Our legislators sit safely behind multiple layers of security in statehouses and the nation’s capital with armed, trained personnel a gasp away should some weapon-bearing young male out of his mind actually get through the protections we have funded for these politicians.  No, Newtown’s victims, this year’s victims, like all victim’s of these massacres, are young unsuspecting lives, lives of joy, hope and laughter who knew no cause to be wary or prepared to defend themselves from attack. 

It’s been a year of unbridled assault on innocents, harmlessly – obliviously – going about their daily business in schools, on campuses, in churches and temples and at shopping malls.   These are the places deranged, angry males favor, armed as if single-handedly braving terrorists in Afghanistan.  These males seek out seemingly safe environments, populated by innocent, unarmed people:  like only-recently babies sitting at desks for the first time in their lives, trying to stifle giggles (Newtown, MA); like young adults trudging between classrooms, tackling adult schedules and ideas for the first times, trying to focus and get it right (Oakland, CA); like excited movie fans, finally getting tickets to the opening night of a Batman movie (Aurora, CA); like peace-seeking Sikhs worshiping at their temple (Oak Creek, WI); and like holiday shoppers at a mall (Happy Valley, OR).    All this, in one year.   

Headlines proclaim that survivors, family, friends and everyone as a nation need to “heal” again from the slaughter of innocents.   This is starting to seem like some new, twisted exercise of modern life – as if we’ve entered a period of grief and recovery following the sacrifice of virgins to raging gods who humans dare not defy.  We are not supposed to be angry.  We are cautioned not to be judgmental or make decisions without a full, factual report.  We are told that this is a failure of gun regulation and we ought not to arm ourselves in anticipation of more attacks.   We are assured laws are coming soon which will prevent the next assault.  We are supposed to heal, forgive and move on.

But we all know with chilling certainty that, even as we talk, the next slaughter of innocents is in the planning.  We all know that innocence itself is under assault.   Mine is not a post to blame people, their ideas or their weapons for the death of 20 small, sparkly eyed children.   I support Senator Lieberman’s call for a professional panel to analyze the massacres and recommend measures that can actually begin to get ready to start to give a modicum of protection to the innocents.  But, meanwhile, how can we blithely, wistfully ignore that these are murders of the most innocent amongst us – as calculated to affront life itself as Al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Centers was designed to cause terror?  Gun regulation may well be overdue and may help reduce casualties during future assaults on innocents.  But even the most avid gun opponents know that guns are the weapon of choice, not the subject of the attack.

For me, time for individual action has arrived.  I believe any woman with a child for whom she would lay down her life is reasonable to arm herself, the same way women on the western frontier had guns to protect their young from predators, the same way Jeanne Assam armed herself to protect her congregation.  On the morning of December 11, 2007, Ms. Assam shot 24 year old Matthew Murray who entered New Life Church in Colorado Springs “carrying an assault rifle, two pistols and a backpack holding more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition.”  Ms. Assam was on voluntary security detail for the congregation and carrying a pistol.  When Murray arrived at the church and opened fire, there were over 7,000 people in and around the church.   He killed two teenagers and injured 3 adults before moving toward the building where Ms. Assam was already alert to the sound of gunshot.  Ms. Assam crept up upon him as he entered the building and shot him.   According to authorities, that shot saved “untold lives.”

I do not know whether I could handle a gun as well as Ms. Assam did.  I do not know whether I could stop a Matthew Murray and limit his carnage.  What I do know is that I could try, that I’d have the determination and capacity to distract him and slow him down.  I do know that I would be completely prepared to exchange my life for 20 small, bubbly 6 and 7 year olds who might actually get to celebrate Christmas. 

I am told that I should not ask for a gun for Christmas.  I am told that all schools, churches, temples and colleges should not permit weapons or arm even designated trained administrators, teachers or staff.  I have heard year after year, slaughter after slaughter, that we (that is … all of us unprotected persons without armed security details) must “wait for the police to come.”  The unarmed teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook Elementary school took all this advice.  They had no guns.  Adam Lanza pursued his murderous plan while the teachers and administrators, with no means to protect the 700 children in their care against the death rampage of this 20 year old male, waited for the police.  They waited 20 minutes for their protection to arrive.  By the time their “first” responders arrived, the massacre was over.  The police did not fire a single shot.  “Waiting for the police” no longer makes an ounce of sense in today’s conditions.  In today’s world, “wait for the police” is now code for “unchecked slaughter” until the police get there.

I want a gun for Christmas.  I will learn how to carry and use my new gun safely and legally.   I will use my new gun if I have to; to try to defend the innocents we have somehow left as an unprotected target for males bent on destruction of life.  I may not be a good shot – but if I can distract a lunatic trying to kill children and make him come after me, I will be satisfied.   I have never thought of asking for a gun for Christmas before, but I never thought we as a country would face Christmas mourning 6 and 7 year children gunned down without a shot fired in their defense.  It’s a different Christmas this year – for everyone.

Humility Not Humiliation

Henry Karlson

Humility is one of these great virtues which can make us soar.  If practiced, it can bring us great peace, as St. Anthony of Egypt was to find:  Abba Anthony said: ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said, groaning, “What can get from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers).  

Humility allows us to understand and accept our own limitations. If we know our limits and work with them, they teach us why we need others, why we need to work together in a community, not thinking we can do all things by ourselves.  If we can accept ourselves, our weaknesses, we can accept others and their weaknesses.  We can learn to love and respect each other without trying to manipulate them.  Even if we know the truth, we are still limited in its execution, and we must be willing to accept such limitations, otherwise we end up in bitter distress, taking it out bitterly on those who do not agree with us.  Ilias the Presbyter said it well: 

Truth without humility is blind. That is why it becomes contentious: it tries to support itself on something, and finds nothing except rancour. (“Gnomic Anthology I” in The Philokalia. Volume III.)

By truly knowing and understanding ourselves, we do not try to become something which is impossible for us to be and we avoid frustration by our lack of success.  This is not to say humility is about accepting unjust impositions upon ourselves, such as social constructs meant to limit us and prevent us from achieving our full potential.   

Humility is not humiliation, though humiliation often tries to use humility to force a given end on us.

For example, it was quite common throughout the centuries for society to treat women as incapable of many tasks, such as rational discourse, and women were told that humility required them to accept such declarations without challenge.  Time and time again, brilliant women would allow such humiliation to keep them from self-perfection; if they entered into social discourse, they would do so with the caveat that they are women.  Even if what they said was good, they would still qualify their thoughts, “But what do I know, being a woman?”  This is also true in many other situations.  Slavery was often kept in place through such humiliation.  Aboriginal peoples would often be humiliated by “civilized society,” being told to take their proper place behind those who conquered them. The history of humanity includes a history of humiliation, of one group or another finding a way to lord it over others through a claim of superiority. 

Humiliation works on and corrupts the virtue of humility.   It uses ideologies to promote its agenda.  If there is any challenge to the system, humiliation seeks to turn back and repress that challenge by socially disabling and humbling the transgressor. 

Humiliation often uses the rhetoric of humility, twisting it from within, taking phrases and statements of truly humble people and turning the spirit of humility into the legality of humiliation.  Humility, on the other hand, seeks self-transcendence: by accepting the limitations of oneself, one can reach out to others, to become strong together in communal society, allowing one to perfect that which one is great at and give it to the community.  Humiliation is about self-destruction, about finding a way to encourage some person or another to admit defeat and not strive to better themselves, but to be trapped by the expectations of another.  Humility relies on truths, allowing one not only to know their own limitations, but also their strengths. Humiliation twists the truth, never allowing one to know their strength, but only to see, and be trapped by, their own weaknesses.  Humility is about truth, while humiliation is about the falsification of humility: so-called false humility is the end result of humiliation.

Humility is the opposite of pride, while pride is the foundation of humiliation.  Humility seeks the integral good of the whole person, while pride only seeks the elevation of the ego.  Pride wants to create a vision of reality which cannot exist, and impose that vision upon the self (destroying it from self-transcendence) and upon others (by trying to push them down through humiliation). Humility allows for unity and love and is needed to heal the rifts which create disorder in the world.  Those who have and those who have not, those who consider themselves victors and those who consider themselves losers all have need for humility and a true and honest assessment of oneself and of others.  In this way, humility promotes finding ways to come back together and heal the rifts.  Pride works against humility, seeking to belittle and destroy the other.  If I am a “have not”, my pride wants to humiliate the “haves”; if I am the winner in a contest, my pride seeks to humiliate the losers so they will not threaten me in the future.  Humility wants what is best for all, while humiliation only wants a simulacrum of the best for the ego. 

Humility is not an easy virtue to achieve.  Humiliating oneself can create false-humility, but this drifts toward a nihilistic self-hatred.  Seeking to be humble, we often become our own worst enemies.  We let our pride create a vision for the self and then look down upon ourselves for not meeting our own requirements.  The true battle is the battle for humility within, a battle which allows us to love and be loved, to accept that there is good within.  Humility prevents us from imposing false expectations on ourselves, and so we do not get hurt even when others seek to humiliate us.  But if we have not learned humility, but practice self-humiliation, our pride is hurt even worse by the humiliation done to us by others: we take their words to heart, and turn it in upon ourselves, destroying ourselves even more even as we erroneously believe that we are being humble.  

Humility is one of the most important and yet most abused virtues.  True humility sets us free from false expectations, while false humility creates socialized inferiority leading to the humiliation of one or more people for ideological reasons or as a result of pride.  If we want to move forward as a people, if we want to make sure as a society we do not wallow in our own pain and sorrow and self-destruct, we need to embrace humility – true humility, not the false humility of humiliation which we so often confused with true humility.  If we want to know how to save ourselves as well as our society from the damage of pride and humiliation, the voice spoken to St. Anthony is as prophetic to us today as it was to him.  There is only one way: true humility.