Thursday, April 15, 2010

My Attempts to Better Discern People

A dear friend introduced me to St. Ignatius of Loyola's concept of "discerning spirits." In a nutshell, things that incite fear and depress our desire for God are from "bad spirits" and things that incite love of God and raise our hearts to heaven are from "good spirits." This litmus test works great for discerning reading material, TV programs and movies.

Lately, I've thought about applying this concept more consciously to the friends in my life.

I had a funny moment last Wednesday. An old co-worker from Ohio called, she said she was planning to visit D.C. and hoped to meet up me and my kids at the National Zoo early next Thursday.

As any local knows, a trip to the zoo is a difficult task on a good day. Our National Zoo is built on a steep incline, more like a mini-mountain, in the middle of Woodley Park. A visit to the zoo with a toddler means pushing a heavy stroller up a 70 degree angle for hours.

When my friend called I was in bed, hunched in a fetal position with an ice pack on my spinal cord. Pregnancy has caused my bad sciatic nerve problem to flair up. I've literally spent three days lying prostrate on the floor or hobbling around my apartment, trying to avoid taking serious pain medication in order to shield my wee baby from any unknown side effects.

There I lay, a cripple, a pregnant woman doubled over in pain taking to a girl who I haven't seen in six years and cheerfully agreeing "Sure, no problem! We'd love to meet you at the zoo next week!"

I didn't fully realize the absurdity of a pregnant woman pushing a double stroller up "the zoo hill" alone with a sciatic nerve problem until the next day.

As I mused about other options for meeting up in the city during her visit, I started having cold chills. I recognized that there other aspects of our phone call were disquieting my spirit. My old friend was shocked to discover that I'm now pregnant with a fourth child. Our tense phone conversation didn't signal a comfortable and relaxed reunion after six years.

I now think that my back pain is a sign from God that I'm not supposed to be a cheerful tutor guide to an old friend from my pre-conversion life next week.

I realize now that I'm now longer a lady who is available for leisurely Saturday brunches. I'm no longer, the "no problem girl." I now have five people's needs to consider before saying "yes", the youngest of which is entirely dependent upon me for air, moisture and food. It's time to trim the friendship tree to refocus on my family

There are other negative influences from "friends" that I need to avoid. The hardest ones to spot are fellow Catholics.

I've ran into a couple of church friends who subtly attack my vocation as a wife and mother. "Oh, you need to get away from all those kids!" "You can't stay locked up in your house forever!" These false friends come with offers of a free lunch or demands that I volunteer for a church project with a large time commitment. The bitter taste comes from their insistence that they are doing me a "favor" that the demands of motherhood are awful and unreasonable and that "I deserve a break."

Oh course, the breaks that these false friends offer are not ones that truly refresh to my soul. For example, these friends don't offer to babysit so that I can spend an hour of silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, or take a walk in among cherry blossoms, or sip a cup of decaf coffee with my beloved husband. Instead, God is the one who sprinkles these little "refreshment" stops throughout my week.

Instead, false friends will attempt to "rescue me from my life" in ways that are self-serving and stressful. Their conversations disquiet my soul and make me doubt the wisdom of committing myself fully to my vocation.

Our work as mothers is hard. Yet it is also good. Our vocation is a form of cement that holds the church together. The small things we do; cook meals, clean clothes, make sure our loved ones can walk on the kitchen floor most days without gross things crunching under their feet- is humble work. Yet our work is no way boring or intellectually unstimulating.

When we do our mothering in union with GOD- the universe is open to our contemplation. We find rest for our weary spirits and our hurting backs.

The next time someone pats me patronizingly on the shoulder and offers to take me away from my awful life for a "free lunch" or "stimulating worldly conversation at the zoo," I hope I say no.

I'm too busy to dance with the Devil voluntarily anymore. My dance card is filled with G-O-D.


  1. thanks for the post!

    Sorry to hear about your sciatica.

    God bless

  2. This sounds like a good litmus test in practice and one I should probably use more often.

    Maybe I'm just naive, but the notion of false friends, to me, implies malicious intent where only misunderstanding might be the case.

  3. My sympathies. I had terrible sciatica with my last pregnancy too.

    Of course, you are the best judge of yourself, your friends, the specifics of the situation; but... I'd be reluctant to write friends off without first trying to redirect them. Like Meredith said, it might be more cluelessness than malice and perhaps if you suggested your preference to them, they'd love to come watch the kids so you could do a holy hour of have coffee with your husband. Sometimes people are just projecting and offering what they'd want if they were in your shoes. They just need a hint about how you perceive the situation.

    Of course sometimes you really don't have the resources to deal with kind but misguided people and sometimes people really are self-serving. But since those weren't options you explored in your post, I thought I'd bring them up.

    The same goes for the out of town friend. Could you call back to suggest an alternative plan: You know I think the zoo would be too much for me right now with my sciatica but we'd love to have you over for lunch. That shows her hospitality and gives her the benefit of the doubt; but she's free to decline if she's really not interested.

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