In Randall Jarrell's Pictures From an Institution, one of the characters says there are thirty hours in every day, “if only you know where to look for them.” Lucky man. I guess I don't know where to look. I've never found more than about eighteen useful hours and normally far fewer than that. What I find myself forced to do — what you undoubtedly find yourself forced to do — is to undertake some things and let others slide. We aren't clever enough to find those thirty hours, and we aren't saints who can bilocate, thus being in two places at once and getting twice the work done.
Worse, when it comes to choosing which tasks we will tackle, the choosing often is done for us. Our own preferences are subordinated to the demands of family or school or workplace. Even in the workplace our freedom is circumscribed. The enjoyable tasks must take second place to the daily routines. We have to please the boss before we can please ourselves, and often enough we never even please the boss. The day flits by without giving us an opportunity to turn to the things we really enjoy. (If that leaves you disgruntled, tough. As that great American theologian, Jimmy Carter, once observed, “Life's unfair.”)
These thoughts come to mind as I review e-mail messages I have been receiving. Having intruded myself into the public forum, I find that people feel free to ask me to give a seminar here or attend a conference there. Usually I have to turn down the invitations, not having discovered those thirty hours. I wish I could accept every invitation that came my way, but that wouldn't be possible even if I forswore doing any of my “real” work, and nearly all my time is taken up with the “real” work. There isn't much left for going out on the hustings.
Normally inviters accept a declination with good graces. They understand the constraints. I tell them that a decade ago I could give as many as five parish seminars a week for several weeks running and not collapse, but no longer. They understand why I now try to spread things out — not just because of the ravages of middle age but because, well, I'm just not in the mood to run myself ragged like that. (Certain ascetic practices are for the young. In college you had no trouble “pulling an all nighter,” but now, you think, no exam would be worth skipping sleep for.)
Even though most people are good sports when an invitation is declined, not all of them are. Some just won't take “no” for an answer. This is especially the case with folks associated with certain fringe groups. They think every challenge to debate must be accepted because a declination implies a mental or moral lapse. A negative answer can't be based on reasonable considerations, such as not being scheduled to be in that section of the country any time soon, or not having the time, or not wanting to give encouragement to fruitcakes. To decline a challenge is to condemn oneself — sometimes literally.
“Please debate the issue so that your soul may not be condemned.” That's how one woman phrased it. She insisted that I take up a challenge issued by a group that promotes a rigorist interpretation of Church doctrine. The members of that group interpret the Church's dogma in a harsh and unbending way. Even so conservative a pope as Pius IX had a different interpretation, but that doesn't faze such people — like liberals, they say Pius wasn't issuing an ex cathedra definition, so it didn't count and can be ignored.
The challenges to debate have been prompted by a Web site that gives my e-mail address and asks visitors to contact me, apparently on the theory that it is proper to try to annoy someone into debating. Another woman took the hint and wrote, saying, “Your refusal to respond to the challenge leaves one to suspect that you are not as confident about your position as you would have others believe.” That comes about as close to a catch-22 as a quondam debater is likely to get. If you decline an invitation, it must be because you think you'll lose. What other reason could there be?
Such notions make me wonder whether these people have families, jobs and lives outside their fringe groups. It never seems to occur to them that, while the issue itself may be worth debating, their standard-bearer may not be. Debates take much preparation — much more than a lecture — and, after a while, by necessity you find you must discriminate. Will a debate on this topic, with this opponent, help people understand the faith? If so, accept the invitation, other duties permitting. If not, or if you just don't have the time, then decline. This strikes me as a sensible approach — but folks on the fringe keep sending those e-mail messages.
Karl Keating is founding director of Catholic Answers. Doctrinaire debaters can hassle him into an argument at http://www.egghimon.com