Other People's Souls

I really enjoyed this commonsensical piece, “Other People’s Money,” from the Wall Street Journal. The author is “caught” by her father squandering money on individual apples. She asks:

[A]m I profligate? I don’t think so, but Wall Street’s crisis—itself following a surge in gasoline prices and a downturn in the economy—seems to have everyone turning a judgmental eye toward spending habits, their own and, more righteously, those of others.

Finding herself under scrutiny, she reflects on how her she does arrive at her sometimes inconsistent financial choices—and how she judges other people’s choices, too:

In my head, I construct entire budget plans for friends. If they would only quit paying so much in rent in the city, I think, they could save up enough for a downpayment on a house in the suburbs. In the meantime, if they would only ride the subways instead of taking cabs ... But I don’t generally share such ideas with my friends because, well, it’s rude. And besides, financial calculations are rarely as simple as they seem.

She realizes that we all make trade-offs based on our priorities: One friend skimps on the heating bill, but pours money into the care of her dogs, because it’s worth it to her. The author is willing to pay for a housekeeper so she can use the time writing, to make more money than she spent on the housekeeper. She doesn’t spend time clipping coupons, but shops quickly, to “earn” more time with her daughter.

I loved these concrete examples, and the conclusion she drew: that we all make choices—have to choose one good over the other—and so reveal our priorities. The other day, I bought milk at the convenience store down the road, rather than driving ten minutes into town. It cost an extra $1.50, but I figured that if someone offered to drive to town for me for a dollar, I’d gladly pay it, because I’m tired and busy. So I paid myself the $1.50, and just skipped over to the convenience store.

The point is, someone else might very easily make other choices, and they wouldn’t necessarily be more or less virtuous than mine—they’d just be different. Very relevant, I think, to recent discussions about personal spirituality: Opus Dei vs. Knights of Columbus; God as stern judge vs. God as tender benefactor; fear of hell vs. desire for heaven. As we flounder around more or less gracefully, trying to find the right path to God, we can often find ourselves comparing ourselves to each other.

The most interesting Catholic publications always have a slant—they emphasize politics, or Marian devotions, or corporal works of mercy, or family life, or missionary work, etc. Hearing about what other Catholics are up to can be enriching or discouraging, depending on what we do with the information.

When women read about other women’s lives, we tend to think, “Oh, I’m a failure as a mother! All I do is hang around reading with my kids all day, when I ought to be doing liturgical crafts!” or “My husband must be so disappointed with me—those other woman are so beautiful and exciting, and all I do is cook and clean!” And meanwhile the kids and husband in question are perfectly happy—it’s only the mom who sees a problem.

I think men do just as much comparing—they just tend to reach the opposite conclusion from women: “I see so-and-so approaches life in a different way than I do. Well, he’s an idiot.” (Not all men and all women, of course, think this way—but in general, that’s how it goes.)

Anyway, I was reminded of the passage from Corinthians, when Paul chides, “Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe — as the Lord has assigned to each his task.”

So, it’s fine to take a look around myself and think, “Could I be doing things differently? Is my spiritual life in a rut? Am I following my vocation, or just following the path of least resistance?” But once I’ve considered these questions honestly, I need to just get back to work. Of course I’m doing things differently from how other people are. Of course some worthy works are being neglected. That’s because I’m following my vocation, and a vocation is just a means to an end, not an end in itself.

We all ought to have the same priority of pleasing God. But casting a fishy eye at other people’s choices almost never gets us there.