ambivalence

Between Finitude and Openness to the Infinite

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By Claire Bischoff

Recently, it was President’s Day, one of those horrible Monday holidays that schools have off and corporate America does not, meaning I would be STUCK at home with my three kids while my husband went to work. I use the verb STUCK intentionally here; the weekend before all I could imagine was an endless day of interrupting sibling squabbles, refusing their requests for screen time, and trying to suppress my frustration when they whine, “There’s nothing to do. I am so bored!”

My first strategy to deal with this impending doom’s day was to make plans with another family and to get out of the house. When that option did not pan out, I decided to orchestrate an at-home Winter Wonderland Day, complete with an art project, an indoor “snowball”/sock ball fight, and a special lunch that my four-year had enthusiastically picked out of the kids’ cookbook he got for Christmas. As I puttered about on Sunday night, gathering the items we would need the next day, visions of sugar plums danced in my head, or rather, visions of my three angelic children and a completely calm and composed me spending a magical day together, laughing and cuddling, creating and cooking, making memories that would last a lifetime.

Do I even need to write the next paragraph? When my six month old daughter went down for her morning nap, I announced it was art project time. Groaning, my four and six year old sons said that they wanted to play “Run and Tackle” instead, a game they had just invented which involved one of them standing by a couch and the other one running at him and tackling him onto the couch. “Okay,” I thought calmly to myself as I put away all of art supplies that were supposed to turn into adorable doily snowmen, “At least they created their own game and are playing nicely together.”

When their sister woke up from her nap, the boys asked if we could have the snowball/sock ball fight. As it turned out, we spent more time gathering and balling white socks than we did actually throwing them at each other. (Although all four of us were all smiles for the roughly two minutes and eighteen seconds the fight lasted.) “We’re getting hungry,” the older one said. “Time to make my special lunch,” the younger one chimed in. “Okay,” I thought, a little less calmly to myself, “At least they are excited to do some cooking, even if it is only 10:30 in the morning.”

In theMess kitchen things really unraveled. My daughter, who is usually content to sit on the floor while I cook, sucking on an ice cream scoop and dumping spoons out of a mixing bowl, started to cry anytime I tried to set her down. She attached herself to my hip, leading me to employ the ever-tricky, making lunch with one hand maneuver. And the boys could not be much help; the only part of the recipe my son had picked out that was safe for them was spreading Nutella on crackers. The low point came when I was yelling at the boys to quit wiping Nutella on each other, trying to sush their crying sister, and crying myself because I had just spilled the soup I had made all over while trying to pour it from the heavy soup pot into a blender with one hand. When we finally got to the table, the crackers with Nutella were a hit, but the boys spit the soup out on their first bite, and I honestly could barely eat it myself. It tasted like I had just dumped tomato sauce into our bowls, and it took me all of my daughter’s afternoon nap to clean up the mess we had made trying to make incredible memories.

As I wiped spilled soup off the counter, the work of Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner came to mind, which admittedly is not the usual place my mind goes when I am cleaning. While I have forgotten most of what I worked so hard to know about Rahner for my comprehensive exams in my PhD program, there is one line of his that sticks with me to this day and that seemed particularly apropos  not only to my President’s Day morning but also to my experience of parenting more generally. Rahner asserts that human beings exist between our finitude and our openness to the infinite. In other words, what makes us human is that we have limits at the same time as we strive to overcome these limits. We live in this middle ground of ambivalence, aware of our dependence and vulnerability yet always aiming to step beyond this toward the infinite horizon that is God.

In my openness to the infinite, I dreamt of a wonderful President’s Day at home with my children.  In my finitude, I could not will my sons to acquiesce with my plan for the day (nor, after careful reflection, would I really want to!).  In my openness to the infinite, I strove to balance the needs and desires of the various members of our family. In my finitude, I got caught between the demands of a crying daughter, hungry sons, and my own sanity.

As I loaded the dishwasher that afternoon, I realized that I have gotten in trouble in the past when I have let go of one end of this tension. When I have quit reaching beyond myself in parenting because of a fear that my visions will not be realized or because I was simply too tired and sad to dream, I resign myself to existing only in the mind-numbing, soul-squelching monotony that parenting can be. Yet when I ignore the mind-numbing, soul-squelching aspects of parenting in favor of presenting a vision of our family life that speaks of “success” and “being all put together,” I silence an important aspect of the truth of my existence and make it impossible to connect with others in the human vulnerability that we share.

That evening when I finally got my sons tucked into bed, we proceeded with our usual routine of sharing our “ups and downs” from the day. Without hesitation, my four year old replied, “My first up was getting to have an indoor snowball fight, and my second up was having an awesome lunch!” Bless his heart! As he thought back on the day, it was not the limits that he remembered but rather the joy and wonder and fun. It was an important reminder to me that lasting memories are not made in some magical Neverland but instead are forged in that human place we cannot escape between our finitude and our openness to the infinite.

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