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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Family Pilgrimage

Family Pilgrimage

As soon as Stacey and I learned that the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) was coming to Philadelphia, we decided to attend with our three children. It was a no-brainer for us.

Since it was first convened in 1994 by Pope St. John Paul II, the WMOF is held every three years and is the world’s largest Catholic gathering of families. We both had moving experiences attending World Youth Days, so we had great hopes.

My experience of World Youth Day in 1993 profoundly shaped my understanding and relationship with the universal Church—simply being in the same space with thousands, even millions, of Catholics from around the world changed how I thought about being Catholic. I think that when we look back at the WMOF, we will say the same thing about its impact on our family.

At every turn this past week, we were surrounded by Catholic families from around the world. Our children met kids from Paraguay, Brazil, Louisiana, California, Argentina, and Texas. We heard world-class speakers while sitting next to parents changing diapers. Above all of the theology and Scripture and ideas that were shared, we were most moved by simply being with so many other Catholic families. We were pilgrims, but we felt at home.

Pilgrimages are a way to invest our lives and bodies in our faith. This week, we set out on a journey, put our feet on the road, and sought a deeper connection to God and others. Our main goal in this experience was to spend time together encountering the Church. Our time has not been without its share of meltdowns and angst—what family travels perfectly?—but we returned with good memories and a recommitment to one another.

Though we took in the sights of Philadelphia (we liked Pat’s cheesesteaks over Geno’s, viewed Van Gogh and Monet paintings, and studied Ben Franklin’s experiments), we traveled first as pilgrims. We packed lunches and walked long distances. We ran out of peanut butter and band aids. Our hotel room smelled of sweaty socks. We all had our moments of frustration and discomfort, but it was enriching to be on the same journey together. We returned more seasoned in the faith and bonded to one another.

There were two refrains in many of the talks we heard—including Pope Francis’—and they offered a solid theological grounding for family life. First, the Trinity: God is a communion of persons; we are created in this likeness; therefore, we are created for love and relationship, which is most fully realized in family life. Second, the Book of Genesis is rich in imagery that proclaims who we are and how God made us for one another. Relationship—especially in the family—is how we learn and practice love.

“Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love,” Pope Francis said in his homily at the concluding Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. “That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith.”

I’ve been savoring that last line for a few days now: the family is where faith becomes life, and life becomes faith.

The motto for this WMOF was, “Love is our mission.” Our family took this to heart by huddling several times a day, placing our hands together, and calling out, “What is our mission?! Love’s our mission!”

The best advice I took from the meeting came from Greg and Lisa Popcak. They are well-known Catholic authors and speakers, and we’ve come to rely on their books in navigating parenthood. They said that every family should play, pray, work, and talk together. They suggested doing these four things every day for at least 10 minutes, and for an hour each at least once a week.

Talking, especially, is fundamental—on average, families share only 15 minutes a day together. Spending time together having conversations of depth is essential in grounding the family as the primary relationship in our lives. That is how family becomes a school of love, a “factory of hope,” in the words of Pope Francis.

Speaking of the pope—it was thrilling to see him. I was excited that our kids were so excited. We held our two youngest on our shoulders to see him drive by in his pope-mobile; we all waved and cheered. I was grateful for our children to have a personal connection—even if quick—with the head of the universal Church. It unified us with the crowd and with Catholics around the world.

At the opening of the World Meeting of Families, Archbishop Chaput (who confirmed me) said that the gathering would accomplish the purpose God intended for it if it renewed our commitment to one another as a family, and our awareness of the fundamental role of the family in society. It has certainly done that.


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