Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Faith Purified by Trauma (continued) [for posting 3/28/16]

In The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work” (New York and Mahway, NJ: Paullist Press, 1998), Kathleen Norris, an American poet, best-selling spiritual writer, and Benedictine oblate, recognizes that simple, non-dramatic faith of the purest sort is actually as quotidian (“everyday”) as pregnancy—or, rather, as the free, un-coerced consent to that condition of a woman who, finding herself pregnant, decides to go ahead and bear her pregnancy to term.

In my earlier series of posts on “An Anxious Peace: ‘God’ After Auschwitz,” I quoted Emmanuel Levinas’s suggestion that the final meaning of Auschwitz may well just be “that God requires a love that entails no promise on his part,” one that undergoes “a suffering devoid of any promise, totally gratuitous.” Norris gives an unexpected undertone to that suggestion by writing: “At its deepest level the pregnant woman must find the courage to give birth to a creature who will one day die, as she herself must die. And there are no promises, other than the love of God, to tell us that this human round is anything but futile.”

Norris is not proclaiming any “pro-life” dogma that would deny women the right to terminate a pregnancy, if that is their choice. Nor does what she says entail that, once a woman discerns she is pregnant, the only truly courageous choice, “at the deepest level,” would be to continue the pregnancy. In fact, those who freely choose to abort a pregnancy often show no less courage in so choosing that do those who freely choose to embrace one. In some circumstances—circumstances, in fact, that were all too common in the United States not so very long ago—it often takes far more courage to abort a pregnancy than to continue it. When general social conventions, the expectations of significant others (husbands, parents, friends, etc.), the availability of proper medical resources, financial circumstances, and even laws, all militate against abortion, to choose to do whatever is necessary to obtain one can take great courage. Under such circumstances, it is going ahead and having the baby that is typically “the easier, softer way,” to borrow a phrase.

The damage that women in the United States before the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade often inflicted on themselves because they were denied access to inexpensive legal abortions is well known, no matter how often certain segments of the American public might like to forget it. However, even beyond such grisly realities, the damage inflicted by coerced continuations of unwanted pregnancies—damage done not only to mothers but also, and above all, to their children—is incalculable. To put it mildly, a mother who does not really want a child, but who is pressured by laws or social norms into having one anyway, is not likely to be a very loving mother. She is unlikely to show her child the sort of love all children are entitled to receive from their mothers (and fathers, be it added). The fault for such sad states of affairs lies neither with those made unwilling mothers by being forced against their own desires and interests into carrying a pregnancy to term, nor with the children unfortunate enough to be born to such mothers-by-coercion. It lies with those who continue to derive selfish benefit from denying women the opportunity to live their own lives fully, by making their own choices for themselves, and then living with the natural consequences of their own decisions—rather than having arbitrary penalties imposed upon them by others, should they choose differently than those others want them to.

For some women under certain circumstances, choosing to carry a pregnancy to term does indeed take great courage “at the deepest level,” as Norris says. For other women in other circumstances, however, the greatest courage at the deepest level may be shown in choosing to terminate the pregnancy. In general, whether any choice or decision bears witness to courage and the faith that goes with it, or betrays cowardice and the lack of any real faith, is not a matter of what we might call the “content” of the choice. Put in terms from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, “choosing and acting rightly and well” is not a matter of choosing this over that. Rather, it is a matter of how one goes about doing the choosing, as it were. If one chooses rightly, which means goes about the business of choosing in the right way, then in those particular circumstances one has make “the right choice”—regardless of what one chooses.

When it comes to choice, there’s always a choice. No one choice fits all.

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