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The strength to know how to be weak

I grabbed my mother by the elbow and whispered, “is everything okay with Dad?”

“Yes,” she assured me, but the look on her face suggested she wasn’t quite telling me everything.  Mom had gone through a lot in life, not as much as many but no rose petal littered path either, and had learned to deal with things quietly by herself.  I, for my part, had learned how to figure out when she wasn’t saying what she was thinking.  Time to put on the stupid kid bit and just ask.

“Well it’s just that I haven’t seen him touch a cigarette all day and it’s almost noon,” I said.  Dad smoked a cigarette before getting out of bed and had another with the coffee and orange juice that were his breakfast almost every day; he’d go through at least a pack on most days, so him not lighting one up here or there sent off alarm bells.  I wasn’t yet worried, but my usual mix of curious and concerned.

Her face relaxed some and then twisted to a perplexed look as she glanced in his direction.  “I asked him that this morning,” she said, “and he just said ‘Nope, I’m not.’   So… I’m not going to push it or ask anything else, just let it go and see where it goes.”

To this day, somewhere around twenty years later, Dad has never smoked a cigarette again.  No meeting with a doctor, no ultimatums, no sudden health scare, no death in the family.  He just woke up one Sunday morning and decided to quit a smoking habit he’d had since High School.  I was old enough to know that just kicking a habit as tenacious as tobacco doesn’t just happen all at once when it has been that deep and that long.  As my mother would tell me later though, “when your sets his mind on something, he just does it.”  I found myself marveling at an ability that to this day has eluded me even as I’ve sought it every single day.

It’s the quintessential American trait – to pick yourself up by the bootstraps and quietly go about doing something others thought couldn’t be done; to ask no applause, to shrug off any assistance.  The rugged individual built this country.  Or so the legend goes.

I’ve spent twenty-some years of my life subconsciously trying to live up to the example set in that moment – to pick myself up, dust off and by sheer force of will simply do what seems beyond any reasonable expectation.  There is a saying that fathers live through their sons; I think in many ways sons also live through their fathers.

This past week that concept finally crashed down all around me.  Nobody died, no catastrophic changes in life, just the usual string of sins and failings that have chased me around for years like a string on a tiger’s tail.  Oh I’ve heard and said a thousand times such fine lines as “let go and let God” and “without Him you can do nothing”; I’ve taught those facts to people in RCIA classes over the years.  I even thought, from time to time, that I was living it out, if only in my own small way.  But in the back of my mind was always that image of my Dad just walking away from cigarettes and never once complaining.  Somewhere Screwtape was egging me on, “c’mon, you share all those genes, you can do things yourself too.”

Sometimes, yes, it’s true – I’ve done things that others just don’t think should have been possible.  That was just the loophole in logic I needed to think that maybe I just wasn’t trying hard enough or didn’t really want it enough.  The real trick was that those very things I’d allowed myself unknowingly to develop pride in were, indeed, not particularly significant and had been done by many far better and with far less fanfare before and since.  There are, as the saying goes, none so blind as those who do not wish to see.  I had been blinded to my own blindness and took a perverse sort of joy in it the whole time.  Well played, Screwtape.

It’s rather strange, but I can’t even remember an exact moment when I came to the realization of what had been going on these many years – you’d think I’d know bingo it was at such-and-such a time.  In this case it was more like an unfolding over some short period of time – as if the bandages over a man’s eyes were slowly removed and more and more light slowly filtered through.

My recent post about being just “normal” was, I think, the starting point for this.  First I had to be willing to be something other than average, milquetoast blend-into-the-background beige and do something out of the ordinary if the opportunity presented itself.  That was, surprisingly, the easy part.  The hard part was coming to the realization that I, just like all the saints, could not do that on my own.  It is, as with all great spiritual discoveries, far easier to say than to do.

It was not coincidental I should think that on the very day this flower was opening in my soul I should come across these words by Dietrich von Hildebrand in his book Transformation in Christ, a work I am still making my way through:

This creed must refer, first to the omnipotence of God.  It is not enough for us to entertain a theoretical and general belief that God has the power to do everything.  In every concrete situation we are faced with, the omnipotence of God must be so palpably present to us as to lessen the reality of all other facts, immutable as they may seem.  Even in the face of outward dangers, which make our situation appear desperate – of a person whose state of mind robs us of all hope as to his conversion; of our own wretchedness when we see ourselves relapsing again and again; of the crushing weight of our sins committed in the past – we must always remain vitally aware of the paramount truth that the archangel Gabriel announced to the Blessed Virgin:  “No word shall be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

So be it said, so be it done.  It is a consolation and a joy to know we are all called to something more than just ordinary and that we go on that path not alone.  Indeed, we could not ask for a better traveling companion.  The first step – is to take the first step.

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