Sunday, July 22, 2012

Experiments in Virtue

I just got done reading "The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment," by A. J. Jacobs. It was a quick read and quite entertaining.

Jacobs, also the author of "The Year of Living Biblically," and "The Know-It-All," frequently tries out different modes of living and then writes essays or books about them. For one month, he was Radically Honest, saying absolutely everything that came into his head. Another month, he outsourced all his email and shopping to India. He went a month fully concentrating on the present task, rather than multitasking. Another month, he was completely obedient to his wife.

He is a likable and humorous writer, but what I had not expected was how, from each experiment, he succeeded in holding on to some lesson. He decided to go back to giving "white lie" compliments, but to stop lying to get himself out of trouble. He started closing his eyes during phone calls so he could concentrate on the conversations. He and his wife discovered they had been getting way too snarky with each other, and both started treating each other with more consideration.

I think all Catholics can relate to this life of experimentation, because we do it at least every Lent. Read the whole Bible. Say the Rosary every day. Go on a retreat. Start saying the Office of Readings. Volunteer. Give alms.

We enter these actions with as little intent on lifelong commitment as Jacobs does, but with the hope that we will find some lasting benefit.

Outside of Lent, we can have other experiments in virtue when we join parish groups or start volunteering. I think this area is a little more scary; Lent ends every Easter, but we could keep on teaching that 3rd grade Bible class until we die (or move). SCARY!!! OH NOES!!! But, really, it's not like we're taking vows to these activities.

We must walk a fine balance between fickleness and slavish loyalty. We do not take vows to stay in the choir forever, or even to lead Newman Center retreats until graduation day.

When we are children, we want to quit activities as soon as our fantasies crash up against our real limitations. We can't play the piano (even after 1 week) like the prodigy on the latest musician-worship movie, so we want to quit. Well, so we've discovered it won't be all that easy for us. It's in those moments that our parents encourage us to keep going.

It's an important lesson, but I think that for some people, it needs to be re-examined.

On Seraphic's blog, a lot of college women write in worried about some romantic drama in their lives with a guy in their Newman Center. The women are involved, he's involved, and they can't stand the sight of him anymore, but feel obligated to keep going to all the same activities. I've met women like this in my own life too, and I thought of them when I read A.J. Jacobs' book.

We can get a lot out of things and activities that we quit.

There can be excellent reasons for backing out.

Maybe the choir you joined has changed directors, styles, music, and just isn't that challenging or fun anymore. It used to make you happy, but now it's something you dread each week. You aren't getting paid to be there; you don't need to keep going. The musical skills you learned there will still be with you in the next choir you join.

Maybe the Newman Center Bible Study used to be a fun place where you deepened your faith and made great friends. Now you are supposed to be a "leader," but you don't really like being the organizer, and you don't like going because you have to watch your ex-crush flirt with his new crush. What used to pick you up after a tough week is now the worst part of it.

So stop going.

Look, if you are a "leader" in college, you already know that life will move on for the organization after you graduate. You are allowed to move that day up a little bit. Try Mass at the nearby parish. Go to one of the other groups at the Newman Center. Start a prayer group instead. If you go for 1 semester to the nearby parish, you could just go back to being a participant, rather than dealing with the stress of planning and cajoling your fellow students.

If you are frustrated with your current schedule, make a little experiment. Drop the extracurriculars you don't enjoy and replace them with something. Just for a month. Or a summer. Or a semester. Plunge in whole-heartedly, and reassess at a specific date. If you miss the old group, the drama will have died down, and you can go back with less worry.

If you have actually been sitting on the sidelines and are bored or lonely, make an experiment of joining some group. Purposely decide on a time to evaluate whether you should stay in or leave.

I like the Jacobs way of life, and I realize I've been following it for a long time. I tend to stick with things, but the freedom in beginning new ventures without making a big commitment has helped me be more social and creative.

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