In a 2011 essay in the New York Times, young mother Emily Rapp described some of the pressures she felt to be the best parent she could possibly be.
During my pregnancy, I devoured every parenting guide I could find. My husband and I thought about a lot of questions they raised: will breast-feeding enhance his brain function? Will music class improve his cognitive skills? Will the right preschool help him get into the right college? I made lists. I planned and plotted and hoped. Future, future, future. …All parents want their children to prosper, to matter. We enroll our children in music [lessons] or take them to Mommy and Me swim class because we hope they will manifest some fabulous talent that will set them — and therefore us, the proud parents — apart.
I discovered Emily Rapp’s essay in a new book called Seculosity. It’s by Episcopal layman David Zahl, and reviews and interviews about it have showed up a lot of places: the LA Review of Books, The Guardian, the Associated Press and seemingly every podcast in the world. The title, Seculosity, is a word that Zahl coined: secular plus religiosity. The book is based on the empirical observation –which to me seems inarguably true, though of course you are free to argue with it – that now that very few Americans shape their lives around any historic religion, the human instincts and needs to which the historic religions respond have not disappeared – far from it. They’ve just attached themselves to other things.
As Zahl writes, “[Polls] tell us that confidence in the religious narratives we’ve inherited has collapsed. What they fail to report is that the marketplace in replacement religion is booming. We may be sleeping in on Sunday mornings in greater numbers, but we’ve never been more pious, and we’ve got the anxiety to prove it.” Zahl tracks the ways people – including himself – now fasten our essentially religious drive for meaning, hope, and most centrally what he calls “enoughness” onto several areas of contemporary life. After all, once you think about it it’s obvious: The fact that people have lost interest in the capital R religions doesn’t mean that we no longer need to feel that we’re enough, or that we matter, or that we’re making a difference, or that everything’s going to be OK.
From a Christian point of view, we’d say that it was God who implanted those needs in humans, and that he did that to help us desire and receive the gifts he wants to give us out of his love. When our life is oriented towards God in Christ – when, to use the image I used last week, Christianity is a living language that we just naturally speak all day long and not a dead language that we don’t actually use every day – when it’s a living language, we are receiving our enoughness all the time as a gift from God, thanks to the work of Jesus in his cross and resurrection. God gives us identity. God gives us worthiness. He gives us our place and our role in the story of the universe. He gives us more and truer love than we could ever fully absorb.
That’s the Christian promise, but so many of us now don’t even know it’s a possibility. I mean, these days almost the last place people think to look for enoughness is in a church. In fact, what I see more often is that many people have it completely backwards, and think that Christianity is going to tell you you’re not enough and you should be trying harder! I certainly hear that assumption from Episcopalians all the time.
So we largely no longer turn to God for the needs only he can fulfill, but the needs don’t go away: they just fixate on another object, or two, or three, or lots, as Zahl points out in Seculosity. The quest to be enough has metastasized in all sorts of domains, looking in a few cases like people for whom the world has become so senseless that senseless violence looks like a good recourse, in others like people who have numbed themselves enough that they shrug at the senselessness and say nothing can be done – and for lots of us, looking like the prosperous but delusional businessman in Jesus’ parable today. “I’m going to build larger barns! More storage units! Then I’ll be happy! Then I’ll be enough! Then I can relax!”
The picture of seculosity Zahl paints is thorough, contemporary, quite witty, and all too easy to recognize yourself in, as he travels through examples from areas of life like romance, parenting, busyness, technology, food, politics, and leisure. Isn’t that ironic – leisure! Our anxiety-producing quest for getting even leisure right, for optimizing your relaxation in all the best ways and making sure it’s instagrammable. The book does a great job of helping us notice all the rules, the orthodoxies, the shaming, the #humblebrags, the loading of spiritual and moral significance onto a whole smorgasbord of things because without a living relationship with God we just don’t know where else to put it.
Jesus in his parable today does not emphasize, as Zahl does, the anxiety or the scramble or the shaming of self and others that human beings fall prey to when we misdirect onto lesser, finite things all those instincts God designed to point us towards him and his infinite love. But Jesus does emphasize how that misdirection eventually blinds us to reality, how we can fall for the lie that this is our world, that we are little gods who write our own stories and curate our own wellness and amass our own triumphs… and that once we get the next one, we’ll finally be happy. The man in Jesus’ parable has all kinds of success, but he discovers that everything he’s focused on, everything he worked for, is meaningless, trivial in the face of death. As our first reading put it: that it’s vanity, striving after wind.
In my 25 years as a priest, I’ve seen this over and over. Nice, contented, busy people who suddenly discover that every project they had created and managed to try and make themselves enough, make themselves loved, make themselves important, make themselves secure, has distracted them from what’s really important, and that their time has run out. Fortunately, God is so merciful that even at that moment, he remains willing to open his arms in love and forgiveness. But the people have still lost all those years of opportunity to become what Jesus calls “rich towards God.” To experience what life is made for. If you prioritize that, no matter how prone you still may be to seculosity, everything else at least starts to fall into place.
And this is what Emily Rapp, who wrote that 2011 New York Times article about parenting that I mentioned, eventually discovered. Because the part I quoted is actually just the very beginning. Her son Ronan ended up teaching Emily Rapp that her seculosity of parenting was vanity, striving after wind, because he was born with Tay-Sachs, a rare genetic disorder for which there is no treatment and no cure. It saw him regress into a vegetative state and, just over a year after the article was published, die before his third birthday. Here’s what his mom wrote:
Our parenting plans, our lists, the advice I read before Ronan’s birth make little sense now. No matter what we do for Ronan — choose organic or non-organic food; cloth diapers or disposable; attachment parenting or sleep training — he will die. All the decisions that once mattered so much, don’t.
We’re not waiting for Ronan to make us proud. We don’t expect future returns on our investment. We’ve chucked the graphs of developmental milestones… Ronan has given us a terrible freedom from expectations, a magical world where there are no goals, no prizes to win, no outcomes to monitor, discuss, compare.
The only task here is to love...We are dragon parents: fierce and loyal and loving as hell. Our experiences have taught us how to parent for the here and now… for the humanity implicit in the act itself…. Loving my child today. Now. In fact, for any parent, anywhere, that’s all there is.
See, for anyone, anywhere, that’s all there is. In the world of the Gospel, in the world of Jesus, there also are no prizes to win, no graphs of milestones to measure up to, no demand to fulfill those expectations and make mommy or daddy proud. We have the terrible freedom in Christ to live, now. God is a dragon parent, fierce and loyal and loving as hell, now. We’re made to let God love us like that, now. And to love him back like that, now.