Triskaidekaphobic Thoughts

It’s a clumsy title, I know. But triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number thirteen) is a bona fide reality for some individuals and communities. Building floors jump from eleven to twelve; city streets avoid a 13th avenue; and even Judas Iscariot, betrayer of Jesus, was believed to be the 13th apostle. But my intention with this post wasn’t to discuss fears but to consider how numbers in general can overwhelm, but also empower, our lives.

I’ve tried to resist writing about the pandemic, but at the same time felt overwhelmed by how it has saturated every aspect of our lives with virtual meetings, socials, and even playgroups. As a somber footnote, today marks eight months since the COVID-19 epidemic impacted our school and the U.S. as a whole (coincidentally enough also on Friday the 13th). It was a time of panic and concern about the unknown with so many asking “what’s next?”; in many painfully obvious ways, not much has changed. The number of cases continue to rise as do hospitalizations and deaths from a virus that is indifferent to the destructive path it carves out. At one point 20,000 daily cases felt overwhelming, yet as I write this this we have eclipsed 140,000 daily cases in the U.S. While we know a majority of those who contract the illness will recover there is the lingering mental and economic impact that will likely last for sometime. Simply put, numbers weigh on our shoulders like wet cement, slowly wearing us down while collapsing the very social structures we rely upon.

There is a point where we cognitively disassociate with reality because of this exponential increase; we have no choice. By way of an example, global poverty is expected to rise for the first time in twenty years because of the compounding issues surrounding the pandemic. Still, it is easier to think about the fact that 1 out of 10 people live in extreme poverty (defined as living on less than $2/day) rather than trying to fathom 700 million people. How do you begin to help, or even think about that kind of number? (Spoiler: you can’t). We are not wired to process suffering of that magnitude. At its best, we express concern; at its worst, we become numb.

But there is a number that should represent an antidote to these worries: one. One community. One family. One hope. We rightfully recall specific dates like birthdays and anniversaries and recall them with joy and excitement. In the aftermath of a presidential election, we can call to mind the traditional motto, E Pluribus Unum, “one out of many.” That even among our struggles, differences, and sometimes competing interests, we are unified in some way. We can help one family member overcome struggle. We can save one person from having a bad day. We can model the Corporal Works of Mercy each day in a way that does not overwhelm us or others. One is a number that we can process, that we can make work. Solidarity embodies the number one. That notion of unifying ourselves together can only improve our outlook on life. It won’t magically make pain and suffering dissipate, but it will allow us the mental room to stop and be mindful about the next step in our journey.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Heaven, not Harvard

Students this time of year often begin working on saint reports, studying the likes of Sts. Theresa, Rita, and Michael, among many others. The recent beatification of Bl. Carlo Acutis reminds us that individuals of this title. In the Catholic realm of heroes and heroines, saints are often misunderstood as an untouchable league of perfection of uncompromising virtue and valor; they’re not. They serve as imperfect models of perfect grace which should serve as a teaching moment to build habits of excellence. In turn, our goal as educators and parents is to prepare our youth for their ultimate reward: heaven.

At the same time some are working on these saint reports, others are drafting their response to the perennial academic dilemma and proverbial gateway to higher education: the college essay. You are subtly asked to be creative but not verbose; erudite but not simplistic; proud but not boastful; and all the while, be sure to tell the truth. Our societal push for students to get great grades to attend great schools so that they can have a great career feels like it starts earlier and earlier in life. Sure, values and morals are important to teach but high test scores are the real benchmark of one’s worthiness, right? Competitiveness may be its own virtue in American society, but the real struggle is within ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against being a high achiever; after all, I am one. And striving for moral and academic excellence are certainly not mutually exclusive goals. But the artificial pressure put on children to be scholars before saints can risk putting the emphasis on the wrong syll-A-ble. Higher rates of anxiety, depression, and social alienation speak to this changing landscape. We need more people to strive for moral excellence but not confuse it with some ethereal plane of perfection.

Encourage children to major in relationships with a minor in friendship; build community with their peers; and be able to model better choices in a world that lacks models of virtue. In doing so, we will witness greater authenticity as a natural outgrowth of taking ownership for one’s actions. Getting into Harvard is easy compared to all that.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

(Re)imagining Reality

I recently participated in a virtual EdCamp for school leaders where we were asked to think of a “re” word that described our experience at the start of the school year: reboot, reexamine, rework, renew, etc. And it became abundantly clear to me that we have all been forced to participate in this same exercise of doing things “again” but by thinking and acting differently. I find myself in the act of revisiting everything from health and hygiene, to supporting faculty, to fostering community for students, to creating normalcy in abnormal circumstances. In short, I feel like we are experiencing reality in a uniquely different way. Reimagining.

Two examples, one historical and another personal, illustrate this thinking of mine. In 1515, the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci traveled from Italy to China in what would be a watershed moment on a number of levels. As the first westerner welcomed into the Emperor’s imperial court, Ricci had to adapt his European customs to meet what was expected of him as a foreigner. He had to meet the East where they were and suspend his way of seeing the world through the eyes of the West. In doing so, he not only helped author numerous Chinese maps and math curricula, he helped bridge what were once considered different cultural worlds. Revisiting.

A few years ago, Santa brought my son Gabriel a Lego Star Wars ship that was over 1,500 pieces with strict instructions not to break it apart (cf., the ending of The LEGO Movie). Of course, ignoring Santa’s letter he proceeded to slowly dismantle the ship and it became a joke between us that he’d never get one like it. Fast forward to a few months ago when Gabriel told me he was going to try to reassemble the ship from his collection of (no lie) thousands of Lego pieces rebuilding from scratch. Reconstructing.

We should never accept the notion that redoing something is a sign of defeat or failure. Rather it represents the very fabric of who we are as moral beings. Skills, habits, and customs are not innate operations that we are born with; they are learned through trial and errors. Embrace the opportunity to reimagine your own reality: careers, relationships, feelings. It doesn’t have to necessarily lead to changing anything or jettisoning your beliefs or commitments. But it should give you solace to know that we are always able to renew ourselves and it doesn’t cost us anything!

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

The Irreconcilable Paradox

Around this time of year I relish the gradual change of seasons to a cool and crisp autumn. It’s my favorite season but there’s nothing special in saying that; it’s entirely subjective. We call weather “bad” when it’s rainy or too windy and remark how “nice” it is when the sun finally makes an appearance after a long stretch of storms. We usually desire the opposite of what we’re experiencing, e.g., during a harsh winter we like to imagine being in a tropical setting.

Emotional states are not entirely different in that we often yearn for the weekend come or try to convince ourselves that we’ll feel better once we get past a difficult patch in our lives. The phrase “once [insert event] is over” is how all too many thoughts begin. And yet it makes sense given the fact our minds have evolved to redirect our feelings to a natural equilibrium of calm and familiarity. Psychologists would see this as our natural bias to rationalize or believe certain things while being unwilling to change or adjust our mindset out of a sense of self-preservation. The current pandemic provides a cultural crucible to meld conflicting beliefs about what we were used to and what we struggle with and how so much suffering comes from this desire to “return to normal.”

One aspect of this normalcy is that we are drawn to people like us and ideas like ours; in short, similarity breeds familiarity. But in our minds, hearts, and neighborhoods, we struggle with the conflict that is an irreconcilable paradox, a tension that reflects a more authentic appreciation for differences and one could say life itself. In the Western world we tend to eschew conflicting or clashing beliefs or desires, ignoring dualities of good/bad, light/dark, joy/pain. A common symbol in Asian philosophy, the yin-yang, represents harmony coming from seeing these binaries as one: not avoiding pain in the search for pleasure or desiring warmth in the cold, for example.

So while this wording of irreconcilable paradox may be mouthy or too philosophical or just straight up confusing, it is a call to remember that life does not present us with clear objective realities. This is another reminder to be mindful of joy when we experience joy and pain when we experience pain. Fight against the tendency to avoid one for the other or to hold onto another emotion as if that’s possible. Embrace the paradox of life and find the real bliss of life!

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

New Spirit Animal

At some point you may have been asked, “What’s your spirit animal?” Many of us have engaged in this game of totemism whereby you associate your personality with the likeness of an animal. An eagle may symbolize wisdom while a penguin could be associated with loyalty, for example. For some time, I’ve identified with sloths as my animal spirit with their seemingly permanent smile, kind disposition, and blasé demeanor; but I digress. Another “animal” has recently risen to the top for me and in many ways reflects the human characteristics needed to endure struggles, overcome hardship, and evolve continuously: tardigrades.

Also known as “water bears,” tardigrades are microscopic and, admittedly, not very cuddly. They belong to a group of organisms known as extremophiles, known for their ability to survive in extreme conditions and have attracted quite a pop cultural following. While this post isn’t meant to be a bad microbiology lesson, there are definitive values to be drawn from this fascinating species:

  1. Resilience: As a species, we are uniquely gifted with the ability to anticipate the future and plan accordingly. Yet we often struggle with the emotional toll of negative media, caustic relationships, and mental duress. Being resilient doesn’t mean avoiding pain or pressure but calls on us to recognize the strength in our vulnerability and the need to embrace a growth mindset that is open to change. With more workplace gurus citing the need to search for resilience, it’s important to make this value a priority in our lives.
  2. Adaptability: While we may have cornered the market on social adaptations in terms of neighborhoods and cities, we still force the square peg into the proverbial round hold by making our environment conform to our needs, as opposed to the reverse (e.g., the advent of heating and air conditioning). The (over?) use of the term “pivot” lately speaks to the need for adaptability and how we must be positioned to react rather than plan. This can be unsettling for some but it helps rewire our brains to embrace change, rather than actively resist it, and actually allows us to be calmer and more focused by realizing change is the universal constant.
  3. Perspective: This requires a bit of cosmic humility. The theologian John Haught has written extensively on Catholic theology and evolution and uses the analogy of book chapters to frame the age of our universe (and our infinitesimal place!): if 13.8 billion years of the universe was a set of 30 volumes of 450 pages each, humanity wouldn’t appear until the last page or so of the final chapter! Factor in our tendency to equate size/ magnitude with strength/longevity and you see that we are blind to so many examples in the natural world that do not conform to our expectations. (After all, how could a .01 inch organism survive multiple catastrophic disasters over the course of millions of years?!) This sobering fact should give us all pause about the arc of life in the universe but also serve as another reminder of our interdependency upon one another and how we have been privileged to live at this time and in this place.

These three values are nothing new to us. But our ability to find examples of them sometimes needs to be refreshed. The human species may never be able to go for three decades without food or water, live in a volcano, or withstand the vacuum of space on our own like our friends the tardigrades, but we can still take away invaluable life lessons from this unlikely new spirit animal.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

The Good Ol’ Days

We all romanticize the past. The way things were and the people we knew were second to none. Children today “don’t know what it was like” to live when we were younger. Undoubtedly, older days were simply better days. And yet when we see children today against the backdrop of global turmoil and an epidemic that has led to nothing short of an existential crisis for many adults, we forget to remind ourselves that for them the good ol’ days are now. Today. Not eventually or at some point. Now.

The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote a collection of reflections in his work Pensées (French for “thoughts” or “reflections”). Written as a form of Christian apologetics, he explores humanist and theological concepts including our perception of time itself. In one of his more poignant lines he writes:

“We never keep to the present. We recall the past. We anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does…”

I often think of my own parents and childhood at the start of every school year, my own “wander about in times.” My father worked for the airline industry and my mother was a homemaker and worked in the food industry when me and my three brothers were all in school. They put the four of us through a combined 52 years of Catholic education. I often joke with parents that they believed in two things growing up: braces and Catholic education. As if a good smile and the sacraments were all you needed; in many respects, they were right.

But during my childhood, I never lacked necessities. We certainly weren’t what you would consider upper class or affluent but you’d never know it from our childhood and our “good ol’ days.” One of the graces of childhood is being immune to the worries and struggles your parents endure: making ends meet, mounting bills, and general parental anxieties. Only now as I raise my own boys can I experience this reality, that my worries and concerns are not theirs nor should they be. Their “good ol’ days” are now.

These days, it’s all too easy (and yet completely understandable) to recall a better past time when faced with so much uncertainty, confusion, and pain. But in working (dare I say fighting) to be more mindful of the present we retrain our mind to be calmer, focused, and quite frankly, happier. Mental pain stems more from our inability to be mindful than it does from the present itself. The way we allow ourselves to be comforted by a familiar past or in the perception of a joyful unknown future is the source of our anguish. By recognizing the glimmer that shines in even the murkiest of waters we remind ourselves of the overflowing grace that surrounds us at all times.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Hope

Today marks the feast day of St. Augustine, one of the early Church fathers and a prolific theologian who composed Confessions, often regarded as the first autobiography. In a quote often attributed to him (but in the spirit of academic honesty difficult to verify) he writes, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

The past several months have been marked by anguish, struggle, and change. I have felt anger and courage during this time in a seemingly endless cycle, a paradox of sorts. Policies changing daily; protocols varying across institutions; and a dramatic increase in tentatively worded communications. In short, nothing about planning for schools to reopen has been easy yet everything about the end goal of the process has been worth it. In our culture, hope can often be relegated to fantasy or wishing. But in the theological sense it stands as an infused virtue, a grace bestowed upon human beings as a moral compass which leads us toward new life rather than an abyss of anger and confusion.

As we enter this new school year, we are ever mindful of the constant that is change and the need to embrace hope as the eternal guiding light in our lives. We pray for the safety and well-being of everyone in our community and beyond. The COVID-19 epidemic hasn’t just disrupted our lives; it was unwoven the very fabric of society. And there is no exaggeration in writing that. But as Catholics who believe in the true incarnation, we recognize that hope will always appear naive to the outsider. To those who know, hope is what has always guided our hearts to be still regardless of whatever raging tempest stirs in our world.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Sacrifice is Love

“I don’t know.” There may have never been a time when the entire globe felt the same way. We don’t know what to make of empty storefronts, masked neighbors, and an uncertain economic future. We want to know when it will end, when normalcy will return. We simply don’t know.

But I know what I know. I know that we need family and friends to thrive. I know we don’t need much to survive when food, water, shelter, and clothing are available. I know our psychological well-being is essential to remember that this is all we need. Most of us are encountering a radical confrontation with (and consequent shattering of) privilege; namely, the expectation that our wants will always be met on our timeline. The other day at the grocery store, they only had 2% milk available. Privilege. I have a house large enough to shelter my mother-in-law, wife, two boys, and dog. Privilege. I am trying to donate more to my parish. Privilege. I can’t physically visit with colleagues, friends, and other family members but instead call, video chat, and otherwise socialize online. Privilege. Being aware of this creates the space in our hearts and minds to allow for greater sacrifices as acts of love.

The sacrifice we are all enduring is an appropriate act given our commemoration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, marking the start of Holy Week. Symbolically, this marks the beginning of the (penultimate) end. The sorrow of Good Friday leads to the patience of Holy Saturday only to be transformed by the grace of Easter Sunday. The darkness always passes by just as grace appears to be fleeting. It is the waiting that is most difficult. But in remembering the loving nature of our individual and collective sacrifices, we can all the more appreciate the warmth that Sunday morning will bring to us.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Blurred Clarity

This year was supposed to be different with the perennial illusion of new beginnings. Every year begins the same way, really. But this year is entirely different altogether. COVID-19 is now part of our historical lexicon in the same way we can’t ignore the sheer gravity behind the numbers 911. It is not a change anyone made a resolution for but one that descended upon us. Eerie, strange, surreal, and bizarre all speak to the shared global experience of seeing closed storefronts, empty lots, and an acute awareness of the oxymoron “social distancing.”

At the risk of coming across as naively confident, we will emerge from the struggle that comes with solitude and the unknown. It’s perhaps fitting that in this season of Lent we celebrate Laetare (meaning “rejoice”) Sunday this weekend being the 4th Sunday of Lent. And while I realize joy may not be at the forefront of our collective consciousness, we should know that it is coming. Personally, these past few days have brought me much joy among the angst: pictures and notes from families reinforce the beauty of the human spirit even at its worst moments.

As we adjust to a normalization of working and schooling from home, we should remain mindful about our what is essentially essential to our lives. Wants and desires already feel so antiquated. But there is joy in the mundane. The oft-quoted line from the epic Latin poem The Aeneid (Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit) roughly translates as “perhaps it will please us one day to remember these things.” In the story, Aeneas’ crew has just been shipwrecked and all hope was lost–at that time. We should all remember that there will be a time when that joy returns knowing it will be refreshingly sweet like the sun glistening on our face after a turbulent storm!

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Being Vulnerable

Vulnerability often carries the connotation of weakness or frailty. It is a cultural antonym to what appeals most to our sense of strength and courage. And yet in numerous ways, nothing could be further from the truth. Brené Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability highlights the many ways in which this trait is paramount to successful leaders and their constituents.

Yet as I write this, our world is facing a pandemic of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) which has escalated our physical and psychological awareness about what it means to be vulnerable in a very raw way. Social and athletic events are being postponed or cancelled altogether; travel is reconsidered or restricted; and we are reminded about some of our most vulnerable populations in the elderly and homeless. In short, it has upended how we perceive what we understand about the common good for all. In his encyclical Mater et Magistra (1961), St. John XXIII wrote about this core value of Catholic Social Teaching and its relevance to our collective lives:

To this end, a sane view of the common good must be present and operative in men invested with public authority. They must take account of all those social conditions which favor the full development of human personality. Moreover, We consider it altogether vital that the numerous intermediary bodies and corporate enterprises—which are, so to say, the main vehicle of this social growth—be really autonomous, and loyally collaborate in pursuit of their own specific interests and those of the common good. For these groups must themselves necessarily present the form and substance of a true community, and this will only be the case if they treat their individual members as human persons and encourage them to take an active part in the ordering of their lives [Italics mine] (no. 65)

We are both individuals and part of a community, independent and interdependent, private and public. Respecting the dignity of all peoples is most needed when we feel most vulnerable. And we shouldn’t shy away from using the word or feeling its effects. Vulnerability is not a call to retreat or withdraw but a time to deeply consider the needs of our respective communities. It challenges us to sacrifice in many ways, not simply for some generic cause of the greater good but for the betterment of every individual’s ability to flourish and grow together. Being vulnerable is bearing witness to the vulnerability of others in a way that empowers everyone. It is the radical awareness of our shared humanity.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!