Monday, July 13, 2015

The Benedict Option: What We Should Do Instead

Last week, I discussed what is becoming known as “The Benedict Option”, why it’s attractive to some (myself included), and why I don’t think it’s an appropriate option for the Catholic Church.

The question of what should we do instead is a hard one to fully answer, largely because there are a lot of components to it, but we certainly can’t keep banging our heads against a wall like we have been. It leads to the kind of emotional exhaustion that led me to abandon Facebook entirely for over six months.

Something I heard on Catholic Answers recently really touched me. They were taking questions about the SCOTUS marriage decision and where we go from here, and the guest mentioned as part of an answer that before we do anything else, we first have a morale problem to handle.

I immediately knew this woman couldn’t be wrong - because I know that what I have experienced is first and foremost a morale problem.

I don’t think I can fully address the morale problem itself, as I am neither a spiritual director, nor a professional counselor. If you’re frustrated and angry, and really struggling emotionally or spiritually, I would suggest seeing a spiritual or mental health professional to help you dig out of the hole you’ve found yourself in, then I have a few practical suggestions to help keep this from happening again, in addition to whatever they suggest for you.

First: Establish some clear boundaries for yourself.
Why? Because half of the reason people seriously consider something like a “Benedict Option” is because they are exhausted from fighting while they appear to be “clearly losing ground”.

If you have clear boundaries that you do not overstep, you can allow yourself to have small breaks, more frequently, so that a six-month sabbatical, like the one I’ve taken, doesn’t become necessary for your mental health.

What might these boundaries be? You’ll need to come up with your own list, but here are some of the ones I am considering for myself, before I go back on “active duty” as it were. Note that these will be mostly geared for Facebook, as that is where I’ve run into the problem most myself.
  • (for Facebook)Make no more than one comment in any cultural argument.
  • Pick only one issue to engage, and stay away from all the others. (Choose, say, the one you take the least personally.)
  • Set a time limit on arguments (say, 20 minutes), and say “It’s time for me to bow out,” after that time is fulfilled.
  • Don’t start the argument. Let people come to you.
  • Ask people before wading into one of those hard conversations, “Are you actually willing that this discussion might change your mind, or do you just want to argue with me?” If it isn’t important enough to ask this question, it isn’t important enough to merit your emotional energy.
Mind that the answer to this question will usually be either that they are honest enough to admit that they will not change your mind, OR they will take offense that you don’t think their mind is sufficiently open to take seriously a conversation with someone whose opinion differs from their own.
  • Ask yourself, “Have I already had this conversation with this person?”
If you have, leave it alone - they know you opinion, and your silence is not likely to be mistaken for agreement, especially if there were bruised feelings on the matter.
  • If people get nasty, get out.
This was fully three quarters of the reason I abandoned Facebook, as far as posts were concerned.

There were people among my friends on Facebook who got nasty, both on Facebook and in person. (I even had someone decide that it was simply necessary to block me back in January 2015. Yes, really, it was necessary to block someone who at that point hadn’t even been on Facebook in two whole months.)

This is a matter of respect. If people get nasty with you, they have shown that they do not have enough respect for you to engage in real civil dialogue, and you don’t have to put up with that. They need to grow up.

Politely tell them that regardless of how much you disagree on the issue you’re discussing, their behavior isn’t acceptable, and you’ll be happy to talk with them another time, when they are more calm and ready to be polite.

Second: Take a sabbatical for a while, but make sure you come back.
You getting frustrated and angry because you’re tired of fighting. I get it, I’ve been there. You need a break - you need this. You really, really do.

Soldiers get leave. You need to take some, too.

I made an important mistake when I went on my “Facebook sabbatical”; I didn’t give myself anything like a time limit. You need to give yourself a back end. Don’t just say, “I’m waiting for God to tell me,” try to set some specific trigger conditions. Like re-evaluate how you’re doing after a month. If you’re not ready, then do it again in another month.

What do you do while you’re on your sabbatical?
Whatever you do, don’t be idle. That veers too easily into spiritual sloth. There are a lot of things that would be appropriate to do. Here are a few ideas.
  • Pray - How will God tell you that he is ready for you to go back into the field if you are not regularly meeting him in prayer?
  • Study - Undertake some spiritual reading. This is one way that Christ can feed you while you are away from the front line. It will make you stronger before you go back.
As a practical concern, I would choose something that is no more than tangentially related to the things that got you down. If the SCOTUS decision on same-sex “marriage” is what got you discouraged, then I wouldn’t undertake a lot of reading about the Church’s teaching on marriage, it will keep your emotions high, and that will not help your worn out feeling. If you remain emotionally charged, it will also be hard for you to approach the problem with new eyes and a renewed heart, so you will burn out faster the next time.

Instead, pick something like the Sunday readings, or Gaudium et Spes, or Fides et Ratio, or do some reading in the Summa Theologica.
  • Work - Undertake some charitable work. Replace the time you’d have spent on fighting the culture wars with something else. Volunteer at the soup kitchen. Knit blankets for the homeless or for the local crisis pregnancy center. Get involved with an unrelated church ministry. Consider starting a blog.
These are things that will feed you while you’re away, and will make you a stronger when you come back.
Third: When you do come back, look out for your fellow soldiers.
You got battle-weary. You aren’t, and will not be the only one. Watch for people who may be suffering in the same way, and express your concern for them. Let them know what you did to look after yourself and how it helped you.

This isn’t to say you can make them take the same kind of break as you did, but you can certainly make them think about it. In many ways, we are our brothers’ keepers.

As I’ve mentioned, I've been living in a sort of "Benedict option" for Facebook for the last several months (since November 2014). All I've done on Facebook in the last several months is respond to invitations and sporadically help my mom promote honey stuff. (My parents are beekeepers.)

It doesn't really work. In my absence the issues haven't gone away. My friends just haven't been hearing from me on Facebook in that time, and you know what? They haven't missed being challenged.

The battle for the culture has raged on in my absence.  Any soldier who disappeared from the battlefield without notice and didn’t come back for over six months would have some very hard questions to answer about the reasons. He could find himself suddenly in some very serious trouble.

I guess that’s what I’ve been trying to get at about why it is such a bad idea for the Church to stop engaging the culture. God loved us so much that he gave us a role to play in salvation. We are his missionaries. This is a battle for souls, and it isn’t terribly appropriate to call ourselves the Church Militant if we aren’t willing to fight for them.

We can’t stop engaging the culture. Not entirely. I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but there is a balance to be struck. The Church Militant needs solid Christian “Soldiers” who are in good fighting condition, Christian Soldiers with PTSD aren’t able to effectively fight the good fight. (Please don’t misunderstand - I do not intend to make light of PTSD - it is a real and terrible problem with which many veterans have come back from the field. The kind of shell shock that people get from prolonged emotional stress from the culture battles is not at all the same, but people do get severe burnout, and they aren’t emotionally fit to engage the culture battles anymore. I hope the comparison is both clear and respectful.)

In short, I will be getting back on Facebook, but this time, I’ll be doing it with a plan. I want to be able to engage the culture, but doing so in a manner that allows me to continue to do so is important. 

I’d encourage you do do likewise. Do some self care and personal maintenance. Take a much-needed break from engaging the culture battles. Get fed and your injuries treated.  Make some rules for yourself. Get back out there as soon as you’re ready, but when you do, make sure you take care of yourself and your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Part 1    |    Part 2

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