This is not the NFP post I was going to write for Natural Family Planning Awareness Week.
I had an insight yesterday, something that I thought expressed something true about NFP and its application, especially in the postpartum period. (Bear in mind, when I write, that baby is seven months old this week and that signs have been ambiguous since before he was four months old -- the sort of pattern that is infertile in retrospect, but makes every day a decision point for a couple not willing to risk conception right now, as we are most unitedly not.) I thought I might write about it, but I wanted to talk it over with Darwin first, because it is a good policy to talk over one's planned public discussion of sex with one's spouse. The resulting conversation (and non-conversation) showed me that the point was hurtful to him, though that wasn't my intention, and I wished I'd bitten my tongue and kept the reflection in my heart (as I'd halfway intended to do anyway) rather than bringing up something that could have been construed as a criticism.
I hurt Darwin not because I'm malicious or bitter or abnormal, but because my insight tangentially touched on the fact that no human couple can possibly fill all of another person's needs. That's true of the most virtuous, most balanced, best-suited marriage (the Darwins, in short). I hurt Darwin because what I said underscored my own humanity, that I am broken not even by sin (though by that too) but by the limitations of my body in this world. But it wasn't unreasonable or wrong of him to feel that pain. In marriage, when the two become as one and your flesh becomes my flesh, there can't really be any, "It's not you, it's me." Everything is a reflection on the other, which is why small comments become big fights and one's person's small actions can have such an outsized effect, positive or negative, on the other. But if we're both doing our best, and we both fall short, and our problem is not sin that can rejected, then how can this be reconciled? When even our best, most virtuous human efforts fall short, what recourse is there other than isolation and civil silence?
The only solution is to confide ourselves and our marriages deep in the heart of Jesus, who is the only person who can ever fulfill all needs. Every earthly marriage, friendship, parenthood, childhood, will fail, because no mother can be everything, no father can be everything, no wife or husband or friend can meet every physical, mental, and spiritual need. The only way to grow into a deeper relationship with someone is to trust in God to repair and better our deficiencies, and then to constantly be willing to lay down our lives so that He may take them up again. Not closing ourselves off, but constantly opening and stretching ourselves in him.
Truth is, I think, the key application of NFP. Naturally, the observation of cycles and the day-to-day decisions about sex, the health of the body, the respect for the body's natural capabilities, and a lack of delusion about our capacity to control all aspects of reproduction: all these are important aspects of Natural Family Planning, by whatever system one practices it. NFP is not perfect, not because of the "failure rate" or because someone's cycle is just too crazy to chart or because abstaining from sex can be really really hard or because of some inherent flaw in the concept. It's imperfect because everything this side of heaven is imperfect. It's imperfect because spouses are imperfect. Look around and you'll find that the relationships in which each person believes the other can totally fulfill all needs are the newest ones, the least mature ones, the ones untried by shared suffering, shared joys, shared daily life, without true judgment about real life and real people.
The reason to practice NFP, or to live a Christian life, despite the difficulties and the inevitable hardships, is that truth and openness and virtue will always bear fruit in a way that lies, misdirection, or taking the easy way cannot. The fruit may seem stunted or worthless or bitter at first. Or it may ripen immediately and be appealing to the senses and the will. But either way, it is divine, and participating in the will of God is never an empty exercise. We sow where we will not reap. We harvest what we did not sow. Between the sowing and the harvesting, which can be human activities, is the hand of God, mending our imperfect efforts. We transform our works and joys and sufferings in Him, and He transcends our flaws and our seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Here's what happened. We were able to talk about last night's discussion a bit more freely over email today, once the immediate rawness had worn off. The pain I caused wasn't the destructive damage of a malicious, sinful action, but the constructive damage of a muscle being exercised. That muscle will repair itself if it is given rest and nourishment. The rest, I think, is key -- we didn't have to hash out every detail of this idea at that very moment, something that could have really strained our relationship as we both tried to justify our points of view. The work of being married doesn't have to be achieved in a moment of catharsis. It takes a lifetime of listening and adjusting, revisiting and rebuilding, and in making the good, hard decisions every day, and every night.