On Becoming a Hero: Roles, Rituals and the True Self

Yesterday at the grocery store, a man handed me a wad of cash, saying “Here ya go, ma’am. Merry Christmas.” And the fifty-year-old, tall white man wearing a black baseball hat and backpack, walked away. To be honest, I was rather troubled–I looped around odd places before driving home to make sure no one was following me.

It prompted me to consider “Why me?” I attract a good deal of attention when I’m out with my two kids pushing mini-carts in the store and a baby wrapped to my chest. My guess is that me as “mom with three kids” met some kind of ideal in his head someone working hard and “doing it right,” so to speak.

The irony of me matching someone’s ideal is such an odd thought to me, because, despite how stereotypical we are, I (and my husband) never set out to be a certain way. In fact, we’ve just sort of stumbled and fumbled our way since we fell head over heels in 2006. In truth, I have watched people my age go off, continue their education, travel and do other things that we really couldn’t and I’ve felt so massively and heavily at times that I’m doing everything wrong. Yet through no intention of my own, I align to someone else’s view of “the good life,” a “hero” in a certain sense, someone to-be-admired. Strange.

Roles and Rituals

It got me thinking about our roles in life, the roles we play with each other and the rituals we use to enact these roles and their ontological status–are they real? And quite honestly, the answer is yes. Many a faddish magazine dismisses rituals (religious, family or otherwise) as “play-acting.”  But the jobs we do for each other in our roles actually enact our values: as a mom, I take my kids to the grocery store, I pack their lunch, I help them decorate a Christmas tree and I snap their photo all-the-darn-time. I’m not play-acting. Yes, these jobs come with the territory of the relationship — a mom helps kids do certain things — but they are also rituals. In the words of _________, a ritual is “The story we tell ourselves about out ourselves.” I would paraphrase that to say rituals are the culturally sanctioned actions through which we enact our values.

When I pack a lunch, I am playing a role in the cultural set-up that has designated school as the socializing setting for young children; I am playing a support role to meet the kids’ basic bodily needs of eating within the cultural context of school and what that does for them and me in ordering our lives and relationships. And yes, it is a role. But it is critical, and when I participate, I enact or bring into reality my own approval and buy-in to our value system. These rituals hold our cultural, relational fabric together. To dispense with them is not to be more “real,” but to cut individuals off from relational, cultural unities and isolate them.

The roles we play then are more than empty motions, and I think people become heroes when they learn to play the roles for the good of others, to recognize and transmit the goods of community and culture. Indeed, as Aristotle said, man is a political animal. We exist in and of communities; a person alone is not fully realized. Roles and rituals function to preserve and transmit community, an essential good to human life.

To give an example, a young man to aspires to be a firefighter in order to be thought of as strong and attractive, does it for the wrong reasons. A man who serves in the job (or role) of firefighter and forgets himself as he works to save others, becomes a hero. Without his intention, he draws the admiration of others. And a person who dismisses the role of firefighter as empty, prestige-seeking has lost a sense of the fundamental value of putting one’s abilities to the service of others in a particular way.

Vocation

Whether we pursue it or not, people become heroes or attain to holiness without seeking this directly–to seek it directly would be impossible. But by intending to serve, to play roles and do jobs for the aid of others in the service of goodness, we attain to what the roles and the rituals signify–goodness, unity, love–the holy, spiritual realities immanent to the physical.

Super heroes

This same phenomenon appears in super hero movies. The hero typically doesn’t intend to go out and “be a hero.” Rather, he or she becomes a hero when she starts to use her abilities for the good of others simply because those powers are hers. Captain America, for instance, doesn’t become a hero when he gets super strength. He becomes a hero when he breaks orders to rescue the captured POWs. Peter Parker doesn’t become a hero when he uses his abilities to win wrestling matches; he becomes a hero when he recognizes that “with great power, comes great responsibility,” and he takes up that responsibility.

Heroes and Saints

So I don’t think that any of us can set out to become heroes or saints, in Christian-speak. But I think that people become heroes when we use our abilities to service of others, for the transmitting and caring for the good of others, the unity of our societies and authentic values. And this comes out most often through our roles and rituals: brother, daughter, sister, mother, firefighter, nurse, priest, teacher, planning committee co-chair, mom’s group leader, artist, ball player etc, etc, etc.

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Freelance Repost: Black Panther and Unity

This lil piece of mine appeared on Popcultureandtheology.com

Black Panther and Theology: Unity and Our Call to Face the World

Stevens, nicknamed Killmonger, takes to neither unity nor isolationism, but righteous fury at the injustice in the treatment of black people, particularly in the death of his father.  Stevens’ backstory includes the former King, T’Chaka, killing Stevens’s father over the latter’s role in the theft of vibranium from Wakanda. Stevens’s father, like Stevens, was a proponent of the view that Wakandan vibranium ought to be distributed to people of color to assist them overthrowing their oppressors. Stevens tells T’Challa, “There are about two billion people in the world who look like us, but their lives are a lot harder. Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all.” Having lost his own father for the protection of vibranium and having grown-up alone and facing racial injustice in America, Killmonger presents a compellingly sympathizable anti-hero.

….

Killmonger’s dedication to his cause moves even T’Challa himself. When his throne is restored, Black Panther branches out from his father’s policy of isolation and sides with Nakia, who he then asks to be his queen, agreeing that the injustices faced by black folks are formidable and venturing to put the full heft of Wakanda’s resources towards helping them. He founds a center in America to start the work of aiding others, and finally, he proclaims the necessity of seeing others as “one, single tribe.”

____

More at the link. Movies are our mythological stories–and I think it makes sense that our most compelling values as a society play out in them.

Embracing Differentiation in Education

Differentiation in the classroom – the idea of having choice within assignments and adapted assignments for different student levels — tends to get a hard knock from the older generation. In my first year teaching last year, I was introduced to this concept, and admittedly, I found it new, different and slightly hippie-seeming. After all, I also grew up doing the assignment as it was given and memorizing my butt off for the tests. But I have had the chance to learn more about differentiation and especially about the changing dynamics in the student population over the last half-century, and I can say now that differentiation may seem new agey–but really, it’s very good for students and fits the reality of the set of learners we have in the classroom today.

The group of kids filling desks in 2018 is not the same group that filled Catholic schools in the 1970s. One huge change was legislation mandating that all children receive free, public, appropriate education. In 1975, this came to include children with special needs as well under the IDEA law, which created the modern IEP process for kids in any form of special education.  So, in days past, kids who didn’t sit still and listen well, simply wouldn’t have been in most schools, certainly not in private schools where they could easily be kicked out. Today, all kids are in school, public and private–for different reasons, and that creates a new reality within the classroom.

Before, rote lessons and whole class instruction went over just fine. Today, those methods don’t get much of a foothold. Maybe we can blame it on increased screen time, more distracted kids, spoiled kids. Those probably all do play a factor, but I wonder–were those really better methods? Granted, I believe in memorization–that a solid grounding in math facts or spellings must be the foundation of more advanced skills. But that doesn’t mean lessons and methods can’t also be more interesting and include more choices for the student.

From my point of view as a teacher, creating a solid differentiated lesson is more effort intensive. But when I do it right, it has gone over so much better than me trying to stand in front of the room and talk. Overall, what goes on today looks a good deal different than when I was a student, but I do think it’s mostly good (nothing is perfect), and it is actually desirable to adapt lessons to different student interests and abilities. While there is a time to sit and memorize, Mary Poppins said it best with “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down!”

Rambling on now to connect to another social issue: the homeless and high rates of incarceration in America. In my special education class, we learned about how in the early 20th century people with intellectual disabilities, what used be called “retarded”, were often cared for in state or privately run institutions or “schools” where they lived and never left, much like those with severe mental illnesses. Then, in the 1960s and 70s, a number of abuses were exposed, notably at Willowbrook School in New York, and these institutions gradually closed, and the family re-emerged as the center of care for those with such disabilities or mental illnesses.

A few things followed: these young people became part of the school-aged population, now part of our student population with needs that must be addressed, creating another change in the dynamics of the student population. Second, as adults, especially if the family couldn’t provide high-cost care, many of these people became the modern homeless and often those who are incarcerated. This isn’t to say that all/most people in jail have disabilities, but that in the cases of people with disabilities, many ended up in jail for petty crimes in such a way that modern prisons almost serve as institutions.

I found this a fascinating revelation; it means that today’s homeless population and high incarceration rates are more complicated than first meets the eye. It means that there is more to it than: “Jim just needs a job” or “Too many people are in prison.” That’s not even to mention the contribution of drug abuse issues to both problems. It means that neither with institutions nor with today’s methods of helping the homeless or imprisoned have we found an adequate way to address the needs of people with intellectual disabilities.

As I turn this over in my mind, the homeless, incarcerated and drug-addicted social ills of our society seem to call out much more strongly than other hot-button issues today–such as those related to sexuality. A compassionate approach from a compassionate population is needed; and this is something it seems easy for all of us to work together on: finding ways to help these people and integrate them better into society.

 

 

Abandoned Places

[A Note to readers: I seem to lack consistent subject matter lately, but oh well. Here are some recent interests of mine.]

Driving around in Delaware and Maryland, I noticed the variety of old, abandoned and falling part structures–it seems to be cheaper to build new than to tear down and/or restore.

And this

And some winter ones

Thor, growth mindset & hope

In school, I’ve been teaching the students about Carol Dweck’s growth mindset: the idea that we actually get smarter and train our brains to do so by facing challenges believing that we will be able to meet them, that we will be able to learn from them and eventually to gain the skills required to succeed and excel.

It helps in math.

Then it started connected with a bunch of other things in my brain:

  1. Thor Ragnarok. He’s a bit meat-headed at times, but Thor literally runs straight at whatever problem he faces, even after the goddess oimagesf death crushes his mighty hammer.  As hard as it is, we grow when, like Thor, we run at problems–believing that we will be able to overcome, even if we aren’t sure exactly how.

Now, this is very difficult advice to take myself, but still. Running away from problems–like Loki–breeds only fear and a smaller world.

2. Growth mindset also reminded me of the Christian virtue of hope. Rather than succumb to defeatism or despair–which I can prone to–we hope in the future. Pope Benedict XVI said, “To have Christian hope is to know about evil and yet to go to go to meet the future with confidence.”

That’s it. Those are my connected dots of the day: Growth mindset, Thor, hope. Funny how truth from different sources overlaps. Truth is truth.

Happy (belated) Feast Day of St. Francis!

I haven’t been posting much. It’s been a busy summer, and I started teaching 5th Grade at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington. Prepping for each day has been a lot of adjust to. But I do get to teach Religion, so I thought posting shorter posts may be better than not posting at all.

I celebrated the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi October 4 with the students and had the chance to tell them about his inspiring example of giving up his inheritance and living contentedly as a beggar. And we aloud St. Francis’s Canticle of the Sun.

Front Cover

I have a lovely, illustrated copy from my mother in law that I brought in to read them, and the students were truly captivated by it.

The Canticle of the Sun celebrates all creation and God’s wonder that Francis sees in prosaic parts of nature that we pass by every day. To St. Francis, a blade of grass was not just something to step on and pass, it was a work of a art, a piece of eternity that made a little telescope out for us to view God’s glory.

I especially love Francis’s sense of kinship with nature as being a fellow creature of God.

Here is the full text, unadapted, of the poem:

Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor,
and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.

Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.[3]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canticle_of_the_Sun

Francis finds peace and glory even in death. Nothing was mundane for him; the smallest fragment of life held infinite transcendence. Francis is at home in nature and among others as few of us ever really are, and his poem holds it up for us to glimpse what we long to experience, but rarely do.

Happy (belated) Feast Day of St. Francis! Do you have a favorite saint? 

Two Freelances: Wonder Woman and Pro-Life Feminism at CUA

Pop Culture and Theology: Wonder Woman: Facing the Darkness and Embracing her Gifts

“Nevertheless, our calling is precisely to join that inner fight. The Catechism continues, even taking up the analogy of battle: “Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God’s grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity” (409). To see the evil outside in the world and the urges to it inside our own hearts, and to seek to counter that, as Diana’s friends do when they elect to continue their mission despite lack of payment and high likelihood of death, is the central focus on our life on this planet. They master their own selfishness, their inner temptations, and in so doing challenge evil in the great war itself.”

Wonder Woman: Facing the Darkness, Embracing Her Gifts

Truth and Charity Forum – How Abortion Divides the Feminist Movement

“Best, was both sides recognizing the structural factors lead to the demand for abortion and agree that those are problems. The demands of caring for young children can prevent hard-up women from from supporting themselves. As pro-life Catholics, glossing over these realities makes us lose our credibility.

Meanwhile, hearing the abortion supporters articulate the philosophical worthlessness of the person: whether born, developing, dying or suffering was the most tragic part. This mentality that easily permits physician-assisted suicide, abortion in general and abortion of the disabled, poses a rapidly-eroding threat to the value of life which must undergird a healthy society, one that values all its members.”

More here – http://truthandcharityforum.org/how-abortion-divides-the-feminist-movement/

Learning Latin is like learning English

A latin student of mine asked what it would take to get ready to be ready for AP Latin? And it made me reflect on what it really takes to learn a language and how we learn even our native tongue. I thought I would share my answer and my ponderings.

I think that language is more transformative than we tend to realize. (NB I’m not that great at it, but I’m a little further than my students). Language is part of the building blocks of our mind, how we think, how we live. Words make abstract feelings and experiences communicable. George Orwell was onto something when he wrote 1984 and imagined the government limiting language in order to limit thought.

I told my student that to be ready for AP Latin, you need the latin equivalvent of what it takes to be ready for AP English. Advanced English is more than noun/verb agreement. Reading novels introduces the advanced middle-schooler, for instance, to stylistic language, an expanded vocabulary, building scenes, implications, repeated metaphors and meanings that carry between sentences. To make this linguistic level jump, a student must have the basics of language down, as children do. Children converse with their parents about concrete objects; they listen to songs and watch television in it. The Latin student should likewise have a child’s level of fluency before beginning advanced and abstract and stylistic texts.  Learning Latin is hard because the culture that goes along with it just isn’t around anymore. So we have to make it up through anachronisms such as the video above of a latin professor singing Adele’s Hello.

To get to fluency, the language must become our own, internalized. It isn’t enough to memorize charts of verb conjugations; to learn a language we have to care; it has to be part of us; it has to start to form the shape of our thought. It’s the difference between reading Shakespeare on the page and being confused, and watching it played out well–seeing the words in action, embodied by actors who express their reality and about whose fate we are actually concerned.

I’ve heard it said that it takes a relationship to learn a language, a person that we care about enough to make the jump of total communication in that language. I think this is true. I recommended memorizing text, reading in basic Latin and listening to songs in Latin. Middle schoolers listen to songs in English–it’s one of the cultural, subconscious ways they experience language as tied to art and emotion.

That’s it. The question was interesting to me because it made me reflect on the effort it takes to learn and what it takes for us to rise the levels of linguistic experience in our native tongue and how that corresponds with learning another language.

For me and Latin, even though I’m not that good at it, a large part of why I care is because I am Catholic. I wanted to learn Latin to read theology, to access the history of the Church, to pray in Latin. I have Latin prayers memorized, and I sometimes try to read the Bible in Latin–which was recommended to me by a professor. It’s smart because as Christians, the Gospel stories are so familiar to us, that it’s almost impossible not to understand them even in another language if we can pick out just a few words. Then our brains can  make the jump to piecing together all the meaning connections between the words. It’s a funny sort of experience. I like it, and I’m still not the best language student, but I do want to keep working at it.

Have you learned a foreign language? How long did it take? What strategies helped? If you could learn any language, what would it be and why?

Video & Song: I heard the Voice of Jesus Say

Music and the Spiritual Life

I have found that music has a profound ability to remind me of truths and lift me out of a dark mood. Also, as I reflect on it, I realize that the Christian musical canon had a more formative impact on my development than I realized.

In school, I did chorus, and we learned plenty of medieval and Celtic music. Sometimes the lyrics were Christians, sometimes not.

In church, I began to recognize the melodies of many hymns because they were the same traditional ballads carried over from the old countries and brought to new life and reshaped by new communities with new lyrics.

It’s both a cultural phenomenon and purely beautiful. I credit my exposure to medieval music and chant as one of the primary reasons I never dismissed the Catholic Church as just archaic and weird. The beauty that rose from the tradition in music and art was already part of my own foundation.

One of my favorite songs I first learned as a celtic ballad and then relearned it as a hymn: “I heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” It’s one I sing to my kids at night

A formal choir version is in the video above. What do you think? Do you have favorite hymns, spiritual songs or others that just put you in the right place?