Days of Fragmentation and Wholeness, available at: ForYourMarriage.org


Happily Even After

Days of Fragmentation and Wholeness


July 21, 2010

by Josh Noem

One of the constant challenges of family life with small children is trying to get a word in edge-wise.

It is routine to carry on two or three conversations at one time. Stacey and I can be in the middle of discussing a recurring issue, trying to dig in and get to the bottom of something personal and important, when suddenly one child needs help with the toilet, one needs help with homework, and the other needs help with tying a shoe. It is stressful to simply try to keep track of who is saying what to whom.

For me, in particular, it is difficult to stay engaged with the process, when such a conversation requires me to both think and identify how I might be feeling. I think it is like this for many other men—speaking, thinking and feeling seem to be three separate functions, all requiring focus in their own right. (Stacey, like many women, seems to be able to function in all three areas instantaneously.)

Last night, I was bemoaning the challenge of this aspect of family life. This morning and throughout today, I discovered the other side of that equation.

In the span of half an hour this morning, I had a significant exchange with Stacey and with each one of the kids. I went upstairs to retrieve something from my room and side-stepped into the boys’ room to sit next to Oscar for a few minutes. I observed him playing with his Legos and stepped into his shoes for a moment. (How does one create water with square and rectangular shaped Legos?) I gave him some affirmation and we exchanged a hug.

I then joined Stacey on the front porch—she was finishing the chocolate-chip pancakes I had just made her—and watched her joke with Lucy, who was asking for piggy tails to match her mommy. Simon, meanwhile, plopped down in the small rocking chair next to me and explained he was taking a halftime break from an imaginary football game. All of this transpired in the span of 15 miutes in the middle of the first sunny, clear, bright morning we’ve had in several weeks.

A busy, ever-moving, dynamic family life can often make my days feel fragmented. But the other side is that a busy, ever-moving, dynamic family life can make my days feel richly integrated. I am at my best when I can recognize this harmony and take a deep breath to offer God my gratitude.

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My Core Sin

My Core Sin

My main New Year’s resolution this year was to figure out and name my weaknesses.

I started with simply taking a good hard look at what I think I have heard most often as the challenging sides of my personality, whether in work performance reviews or personal relationships. Joshua, of course, was very useful in confirming or nuancing those insights (and adding a few of his own). Then I turned to those friends nearest and dearest to me.

I have had to proceed carefully to get some substantive feedback. The problem, of course, is that folks are generally far too kind and thus struggle to be completely honest in naming another person’s shortcomings.

Almost everything I have learned—almost every insight I have received—points back, more or less, to one core foible: control. The vast majority of my weaknesses, at least as those who know me best experience them, stem from some element of control.

In April, David Brooks wrote an article called “The Moral Bucket List” in the New York Times. He names the characteristics of those people he experiences as “radiating an inner light” or who are “deeply good.” He noticed that such people have been profoundly honest about their own weaknesses and can identify their “core sin.” He names a core sin as a consistent weakness that makes them feel ashamed. The act of naming this sin, according to Brooks, helps them achieve “a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.”

I found the article affirming since, by the time of my reading it, I could confidently name my “core sin” as control. I also thought it put some helpful language on why it is a worthwhile endeavor to identify our central downfall.

First, from our Catholic point of view, we understand “sin” to be fundamentally a break from God. When we sin, we separate ourselves from the fullness of communion with God. When I attempt to impose disproportionate amounts of control on my environment—or worse, on the people around me—I am most often exerting my will over and against others. At worst this can be damaging. At best it is severely lacking in humility.

Second, using the next helpful element of Brooks’ article: when we are able to name and own our core sin, it frees us for a “profound humility.” We see and acknowledge our most broken parts, which, in turn, allows us to recognize how that brokenness impacts others.

I realized when I read Brooks’ statement about “self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness” that possibly our core sins may simply be the shadow side to some of our greatest natural strengths. I think that, left unchecked (or perhaps inappropriately oriented), our most unique God-given talents have the capacity to become our most glaring weaknesses.

That is to say, control is my core sin, but it is also the shadow side of my greatest gift at home and work: clear-sighted, comprehensive order. When I humbly put that gift at the service of our family and those I work with and train, it IS a gift. When I wield it unchecked by consultation and in single-minded isolation it separates me from others and from God by breaking down relationships instead of building them up.

Josh shared with me that his core sin is intemperance. There are obvious ways that intemperance can be destructive and unhelpful. But in its most helpful and healthy iteration, it leads Josh (and those lucky enough to be with him) to experience joy fully and unabashedly, to have an unreserved sense of curiosity and wonder, and an utter willingness to give new and unknown experiences a try.

In an interesting twist, you might notice that my core sin, control, and Josh’s core sin of intemperance are pretty much exact opposites. This is likely no shock to anyone who has ever met both of us or heard us give a presentation together. Although they seem utterly at odds, I think our very opposite dispositions allow us to call one another to very specific areas of growth. You could even go so far as to say where we are weakest the other is strongest. In that way, we get to incarnate grace for each other, to call each other to be the best version of ourselves.

After all, isn’t it part of our job as spouses to help one another shed light on our shadow sides? Without that light, how can we hope to grow?


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