Swimming in the Deep End, available at: ForYourMarriage.org


Happily Even After

Swimming in the Deep End


August 9, 2010

by Josh Noem

On our recent road trip home to South Dakota for my grandfather’s funeral, we stopped at a hotel in Missoula, Montana. We picked a hotel (I won’t say which one) that a franchise guidebook indicated had a pool. After driving for 10 hours with three small children, we arrived at 9 p.m. to find it did not.

The kids were disappointed, but we filled the tub and let Simon and Lucy splash and play a bit. Oscar got to watch some TV. After voicing our complaint, the staff discounted our room, which we appreciated. The next morning, Stacey and I noticed that the hotel next door had a small outdoor pool. We could see it from the window in our room.

Before packing everyone in the car for another 10-hour drive, I decided to take the kids next door to the pool and let them burn some energy and have some fun. On the way over, Oscar noted the sign that said that the pool was for that hotel’s guests only. I told him that we’ll be okay and will only be there for a little while.

We were the only ones in the pool, but after about 30 minutes, an employee came out and asked us if we were staying with them. I said we were staying at the hotel next door and she told us we had to leave. We got out, gathered our things and went back to our room and began our long drive.

Stacey and I and Oscar had a long conversation in the car about what happened. Our conversation made me realize that Oscar closely observes my decisions, and the rationale I use and give for my decisions. He is at a stage in his development where he is discerning his moral compass. It is a gift for a parent to have influence on this stage of development. Knowing that Oscar is watching closer than ever, this gift is calling me to greater integrity and intentionality in how I live.

I realized that my own decision for using the pool was based on muddled thinking. I gave myself several half-hearted excuses to do something that I wanted for our family: we weren’t hurting anyone; we were going to use it for less than an hour; we weren’t costing the hotel anything; the kids needed some playtime before a long day in the car; we had stopped there expecting to be able to swim; etc. I found there to be a lot of grey in this situation, and in the grey areas I saw an opportunity for our kids and I took it.

When Oscar asked why we were asked to leave, and why we had decided to go in the first place (given that it was the pool of a different hotel), I stepped back and found all of my reasons disingenuous. I imagined Oscar in any number of “grey” situations as a teen and applied all of the rationales above and panicked. For example, there are things I don’t want him to do, even if he’s not hurting anyone else. Any one of these rationales used by itself would lead to a problematic moral compass.

At the bottom of it all, I decided to use the pool because after evaluating the risk, the worst thing that could happen is that we would be asked to leave. I could bear the risk of a small amount of embarrassment in return for kid time in the pool with 10 hours in the car ahead of us. This rationale is still not one I would like Oscar to use exclusively, and I also realize that strictly speaking, there is no good rationale for breaking a perfectly fair rule.

We shared all this with Oscar and asked him what he thought we should have done. He wasn’t sure. I’m still not sure myself what was the right thing to do. There were good reasons to use the pool and there would be good reasons to not use the pool. There are poor reasons to use the pool and poor reasons to not use the pool.

One thing I did learn, though: I’ll be much more careful in how I make similar decisions in the future, and I will strive for greater personal integrity and honesty, knowing that God isn’t the only one watching me.

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Sweet Nothings

Sweet Nothings

This past August marked 20 years since Stacey walked into my life.

We were college freshmen, and she argued for an adjustment to her schedule that placed her in the same first-year seminar that I was in. The moment she walked in the door, I knew I wanted to get to know her more.

Her natural beauty struck me first—she wore no makeup and did not wear flashy clothes. I also noticed her manners—in negotiating the schedule adjustment with our professor, she was polite and clear and humble.

So, when the anniversary of this date rolled around last August, I wanted to celebrate it as the watershed moment it was in my life. God’s providence was at work in the first week of classes of the fall of 1994 because our meeting changed my life in an utterly unanticipated, transformative way. I wanted to renew my appreciation for that mystery, and I wanted to share with Stacey something of the grace-filled surprise she has been to me, so I committed myself to writing her 20 poems. That would be one poem for each year our lives have touched, and I told her she’d receive them all by our anniversary date (which is this week, May 9).

I’m pleased to report that I’ve been able to keep my promise—I have 20 poems written and shared. They took every form—limericks, free-form, sonnets, ballads, rhyming and non-rhyming alike. There are more than a few haiku, my favorite form to write and the most convenient for their brevity.

After composing each poem, I found some way to surprise her with it—dropping it in her work items, or under a pillow, or in a shoe. I wanted her to come upon them in unexpected ways.

I had to stretch a bit to find new subject matters, but I was glad for the challenge because it gave me a chance to draw upon important memories and impressions from the past two decades to share. Some made her laugh, some made her blush. All made her smile.

I had been feeling a little humdrum in our relationship—after 20 years, the routines and rhythms of interaction are very familiar and predictable, which is a great comfort in many ways, but also can lead to monotony. I found myself “settling” for less in some ways—not always giving 100%, or falling a little too easily into selfishness. I thought this would be a good way to shake things up—to keep things fresh. It was a discipline that had me reflecting on our relationship and offering affirmation to Stacey in a regular way (to stay on pace, I had to write a poem every other week).

And this poetry project has accomplished that end. One pillar of virtue ethics is the notion that virtue is not inherited or learned, it is acquired through practice. That is to say that if we want to be brave, we must act bravely in large and small ways until we become a person who is brave in all situations. I found that reflecting on our relationship in this creative way has grown my capacity for loving Stacey, and appreciating the gift she is for me.

Theology defines a mystery as something that we cannot come to the end of understanding. In other words, it is not that we know nothing of a mystery—it is that we can’t come to the end of knowing a mystery. The 7,400 days that we’ve known each other have not worn off the sense of wonder that struck me when I first saw Stacey—they have only deepened it.


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