Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Car Talk

A few weeks ago, we had a very pressing and time-sensitive need to practice parallel parking. My oldest is almost 17, and her temps would expire in two weeks -- which would mean taking (and paying for) driver's ed all over again, and getting fifty more hours of practice (ten of which must be night hours). So Darwin went out and bought five orange cones and stored them in the trunk of his commuter car. We had to use his small car for maneuvering practice, as it's a good deal smaller than the big blue van, and somewhat smaller than the beater minivan we bought for cash for the teen driver to learn on (and one day drive to work).

However, on the weekday morning that my 16yo and I planned to practice parallel parking in a nearby parking lot, we found that Darwin had indeed taken the big van to work, but had not left the keys for his car. This was a problem, since my key fob for his car, a big clicky thing, had recently been dropped and broken open, and hadn't worked since.

No matter. We would grab the cones from the trunk and take the minivan, since the goal was to practice in some form. However, Darwin's car was locked (unusual as it's normally parked in the garage), so there was no getting the cones from the trunk.

At this point I considered my options. Sending a passive aggressive text to Darwin about not being able to get into his car to get the cones wasn't going to further our ultimate end of being able to practice parking. What would further that end would be driving the minivan to the store and replacing the battery in my key fob so that we could get into the car.

So my daughter and I took apart the key fob to find out what kind of battery we needed. The battery was wedged in tightly, and it took a lot of shaking and a tiny screwdriver to pry it out. And the long and short of it was that the battery had been put in backwards when the key fob fell apart, and once it was turned around, it worked again. So we were able to take the small car and practice parking, with the ultimate result that my daughter passed her driving test, and now we have three licensed drivers in the house.

And I don't have it hanging on my conscience that in a moment of frustration I took it out on Darwin.


A day or two after the driving test, the beater minivan began to whine and moan at us when we turned the steering wheel. It seemed serious enough to be looked at, and indeed it was: steering fluid had been leaking out, and the work could potentially cost as much as we'd paid for the van in the first place.

So we called a family council and let the kids help us hash out the options:

Replace -- sell the van for parts, use the cash to buy another van. Cons: we wouldn't get much cash; who knows what problems a cheap minivan might come with; if we bought a more reliable used van, we'd be taking on another car payment, which might cut into some people's dance lessons and tae kwon do.

Repair -- fix the van. A faster option than buying a new car, and one that kept a third basic car in the family. At least we'd know the steering would be repaired. Cons: Expense; who knows what might break next on this old car?

Reduce -- sell the van for parts and go without a third car. We already have a large family van, so do we need another car Cons: the big van is much harder for teenagers to handle than the basic minivan, and is hard to learn on; oldest daughter wants to get a job, meaning she'd either have to take the family van and leave me without a car, or I'd have to drop her off and pick her up; another driver is coming up soon.

In the end, we chose to repair the van. Darwin sourced the parts and ordered them from a third party, which cut down the price of the initial work, and then a part that the mechanic had feared was damaged turned out to be fine. So the cost turned out to be half of the initial estimate, and certainly far less expensive than replacing the minivan.


And yesterday my second daughter, 15.5, announced that she would be able to get her temps next week...

Monday, February 25, 2019

Dear Reader,

Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return, and that thou shalt hear these somber words on Wednesday next.

As I did last year, this Lent I am giving up Facebook (which I hope will lead to more, and more varied, posting here). And as with last year, I'd like to write letters for Lent. If you, Dear Reader, would like to receive a letter, on real paper, written with a real pen, in which I set forth whatever random thoughts the spirit moves me to express, please email your name and address to darwincatholic (@) (And my sincere apologies to Mr. GB, who last year received a multiple-page missive containing my meditations on a book I'd just read about lynchings in the 1890s.)

I don't often write longform by hand; it's much easier for me to compose using a computer, where I can delete and rewrite to my heart's content. Writing by hand forces me to slow down and consider and polish my words before I put them on a page. As a result, I feel like the end result is slightly stilted and formal. Still, in this day and age of ultra-stylistic informality, it can't hurt to practice being a bit more genteel.

So! I wrote more than twenty letters last Lent, and I'd be glad to write more this year. You needn't promise to write back, or send me anything other than your name and address (though if you tell me a bit about yourself I can tailor the letter to you).

Yours in correspondence,

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Marriage, Suffering, and God

Mindy Selmys, who writes a blog anachronistically titled Catholic Authenticity despite having announced some months ago that she was leaving the Catholic Church, has written a blog post that has been shared around a good bit in which she both recounts her experiences of divorce and cohabitation and also makes an argument that the Catholic Church should change its teaching on the permanence of marriage. Readers of this blog may recall Selmys from a series of three posts I wrote about a year and a half ago, arguing against her series of posts laying out a case for dissent from the Church's teachings on contraception. Those posts actually followed a very similar basic argument structure (following the Church's teaching is hard, therefore God clearly doesn't want us to do it because he loves us), and my response to them can be found here: Part one. Part two. Part three.

Selmys's post on divorce draws heavily on her own personal experiences, but also seeks to make a broader point. The personal narrative describes how Selmys separated from her husband due to the escalating alcohol abuse which he had committed throughout their marriage. This separation left Selmys to serve as a single parent to their seven children, which was incredibly hard. After about a year, during which she and her husband attempted counseling but he refused to stop drinking, she decided their separation needed to be permanent, and (providentially, she feels) at the same time a long time male friend of hers offered to move in with her. Having this man move in relieved her of many of the burdens of single parenthood, and her home life seemed to improve.

Interspersed with this narrative, she makes an argument that the Church ends up encouraging women to remain in abusive relationships, because the Church's teaching that those who are validly married cannot remarry while their spouses are living (even if they have legally separated for good reasons) makes women feel as if they need to remain in abusive relationships in order to have the basic support of another adult in the household. The following is the core thread of her argument, skipping most of the personal detail:

Men, and particularly Catholic men, tend to approach the question of remarriage in terms of sex. In cases where a marriage is abusive, you are of course allowed to leave – indeed, it may be morally obligatory if there is a threat to the life and well-being of the children. But in such cases a woman (statistically, it is usually a woman) is expected to live in continent singleness, devoted to the vows that she made to a man who mistreated her.

This isn’t seen as a problem because “nobody ever died from lack of sex.” Nevermind that an adequate morality cannot treat death as the only relevant negative outcome; the more pressing issue is that for a mother having a partner is not primarily about having someone to rock the bed with.

When the Church says to women “You may divorce – but you may not remarry” they are, in effect, saying that you have two choices: make it work with your abusive spouse, or commit to single parenting until your children are grown. If the woman in question has been faithful to the Church’s teaching about openness to life – or if the abuser has used repeated pregnancy as a means of keeping his spouse dependent on him – then this can create a situation that is genuinely unmanageable.
This means that women, finding themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place, end up returning to marriages that are physically or psychologically unsafe – not only for the woman herself, but also for the children. There were several times in the year that my ex and I were separated when I almost caved and brought him back home. The relentless pressures of trying to manage alone were enough that it seemed like maybe it would be a good gamble to hope that things would be different this time round.

By telling women that they can’t find a new partner, can’t build a safe and functional family life, Catholic teaching creates a situation that works in favour of abusive spouses. The institution of marriage comes to be privileged over the actual good of vulnerable women and children. The symbolism of the cross ceases to be centred on liberation from sin and death, and becomes instead an indefinite sentence to suffering where the only possible resurrection lies in the hope that the abuser will reform himself. This empowers abusive people to hold their families hostage and employ the vows of marriage as a bulwark against the necessity of repentance.

I don’t think this is what Christ intended.

It’s now a month since my new partner moved in, and in that time we’ve built a home life that is not only manageable but actually happy. My children’s mental health has improved. The house no longer looks like ground zero of some domestic disaster. I can rest when I’m sick, secure in the knowledge that there is another functional adult managing the household. Alcoholism no longer has a place in our family, or a strangle-hold on my hopes for the future.

According to the Church, this is a mortal sin. I am barred from communion, and so is the man who stepped up to help me pick up the pieces of a family fragmented by addiction and abuse. While the current Pope is trying to create space for people in situations like mine to exercise conscience, for priests to use their judgment so that victims can be protected and included, conservatives continue to fight tooth and nail to make sure that abused and neglected spouses are left without options.

This condition of slavery to another person’s sins is not, I think, what Christianity is supposed to produce. It privileges the law over the actual good human beings, and prevents God’s providence from being able to deliver us into new life.

I think there are several clear problems with the line of thinking that Selmys presents here. However, before getting into those, it's important to note that it is indeed moral (and under certain circumstances morally necessary) for a Catholic to separate from her (or his) spouse in order to escape abuse or for other grave reasons. It's also important to note that in many cases a marriage which has been rooted in abuse and deception will prove not to have been a valid marriage in the first place, and that in such cases the annulment process will give that Catholic canonical permission to marry by finding that no valid marriage was ever in force.

Turning to Selmy's arguments, perhaps the most troubling element is an implicit assumption that a woman must exchange sexual favors for help in taking care of her family, and that the Church should thus step back and let her get on with the transaction. Having a partner, she argues, is not primarily about sex. It's about having someone to help with keeping the household together. But of course, the Church does not teach that it is wrong to have someone help you clean and put the kids to bed and drive people about town. Indeed, it seems clear that it would be a work of mercy to help a frazzled single mother in these ways. What the Church says is a sin is to have sex with someone to whom you are not married. Selmys takes it as a given that no one will want to help a mother who is separated from her husband unless he is getting sex in return for the help, but instead of identifying this demand for sex as the problem, she instead blames the Church for seeing the sex as a sin.

And to the extent that she's trying to make a practical argument -- there are also very good practical arguments for not moving in with another person almost as soon as you decide that your old relationship is not salvageable. People do not tend to make their best decisions at such moments, and this kind of serial cohabitation is, statistically, where a lot of child abuse actually comes from. In a sad number of cases, mom's new boyfriend does not treat mom's kids well. So there is a practical wisdom in not encouraging people to engage in serial sexual relationships in order to get help around the house.

Another problematic aspect of her thinking here is the way that she addresses God's will. It is very hard to live as a mother whose husband has abandoned the family, she argues. Therefore, God must want her to start a sexual relationship with a new partner so that she will not undergo this hardship. Now clearly, God does want the best for us. God created us that we might be eternally happy with Him in heaven. And yet, in the world that God created and the fall corrupted, there are a great many evils that we suffer. Does God will that the widow grow old without the companionship of the husband she hoped to spend her later years with? Does God will that the orphan not see his parents? Does God will that the mother of a dead child be deprived of the chance to see her offspring grow up? God certainly allows suffering, even if suffering is a result of the world not being as God intended it to be. And in that God is all powerful, we cannot even say that the fall is truly contrary to God's will. God keeps the world we live in, with all its suffering, in existence by the active exercise of His will.  He allows the fallen world to be what it is, rather than bending toward some sort of forced happiness.

Some of these examples of suffering -- suffering that also leaves people alone and abandoned-- may seem more impersonal: people die, people become sick, people have disabilities. These sources of suffering are often not the direct result of some other person's action. From one point of view, that may seem to make them more directly God's fault. In the case of a spouse suffering from the abuse of another, the suffering is caused directly by another person. Why does't God step in and allow the victim of abuse another go? But then, why Didn't God prevent any given source of suffering: that cancer, that car crash, that miscarriage?

God allows the sufferings of this world to happen. He allows a husband to abandon his responsibilities to wife and children and devote himself instead to alcohol abuse. He allows a partent to abuse his or her child.  He allows us to wrong each other.

If we cannot imagine that God would allow suffering in this one area, how can we imagine that the rest of the world is the way it is?  I can't see that the problem of theodicy which Selmys poses is more problematic than any other.  Indeed, in that it is so clearly a result of one person hurting another rather than the hostility of the world itself, it seems less hard to explain than many.

We will not heal the suffering of this world through piling more sins on top of the sins that are already here.

From God's perspective, from the perspective of the happiness we are meant to enjoy eternally, euthanasia will not solve the suffering of sickness. Eugenics will not solve the suffering of disability. Abortion will not solve the suffering of poverty. Adultery will not solve the suffering of abandonment. Sin, in short, does not solve suffering. It may paper it over for a time, but if we are to believe God's revelation to us about how we are to live, these seeming shortcuts to happiness in fact do nothing but perpetuate suffering in different ways. 

The happiness that God offers is not a "get out of consequences free" card, but rather the chance to grow in virtue despite a unvirtuous world, and to be happy with Him one day in heaven.  That is the release from suffering towards which we should all strive.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Great American Heresy is "I'm a Good Person"

There was a story that made the rounds recently about the parents of a young man who had committed suicide and their fury about the homily which a Catholic priest had preached at their son's funeral. I'm not here to discuss the issue in depth. I think both sides could have acted better. However, the reason I bring it up is due to this very apt quote in a surprisingly good Slate piece discussing the controversy: “He basically called our son a sinner.”

I think this is an example of a very common problem that our modern society has in talking about sin. We often talk about someone as being "a good person" or "a basically good person", and by contrast we at times accuse someone of being "a bad person" or in one colorful example I saw lately "a totally trash human being". From these categories of "good person" and "bad person", people then reason backwards to categorize actions. Was this thing done by various "good people" that you know? Then it can't be a bad action.

So for example, "You say that getting an abortion because of fetal deformities is wrong, but my friend Sally had to make that tragic choice, and she's one of the most loving and caring mothers I know." or "You say that gay marriage is wrong, but Eddie and Steve are one of the most loving couples I know and they do so much for their community."

There's another (and equally mistaken) form of this reasoning that travels the same rhetorical path in the opposite direction, starting with the belief that some action is wrong and from there concluding that anyone who commits that act is clearly a "bad person". Thus: "He pretends to be a good person, but I heard about how he left his first wife. Total trash human being."

Both of these, I think, miss an important moral reality: The same person is capable of doing both good and bad things, and often individual people are highly complex mixes of virtue and vice. Just because someone is loving and kind and fun to be around does not mean that person is not capable of doing something which is in fact very wrong. And just because someone has done some very wrong things does not mean that they can't also be loving and kind in other ways. To say that someone is a "good person" often means little more than "I like that person", and it is no kind of an argument that any one thing done by that person is right or wrong.

To say that something that someone has done is wrong is not to say that that person is bad or worthless or vicious. It is simply to say that that action was wrong, a sin of which the sinner should repent and for which he should amend. We should drop the categories of "good person" and "bad person" from our moral reasoning. All they do is lead us astray. We are all good in the sense that we all are made in God's image, and that God desires us to know, love, and serve Him and be happy with Him one day in heaven. And we are none of us good, in the sense that we all commit acts that are wrong and hurt both others and ourselves.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Consumer Friendships

I've been thinking lately about the right balance between the desire to find like-minded people and the important of cultivating friendships with specific people even when they are not like-minded.

One of the fascinating things about the internet has been the way it has enabled people to form friendships of interest and intellectual friendships across long distances. Are you passionately interested in Victorian English Literature and also in social justice issues and also a deeply committed orthodox Catholic? Somewhere out there you can find the other people scattered across the globe that share your interests and would love to talk about the intersection for those three things. You may end up with close friends whom you've rarely if ever met, because they live thousands of miles away.

In one sense, this is a wonderful release from the often lonely existence from having interests and beliefs that are outside of the norm in your area. One of the things I remember growing up is our family having no like-minded friends at all in our local parish and school. We would at times drive over an hour simply to meet up with a group of Catholic families who mostly shared our beliefs and interests. That kind of isolation is very hard on people, and the ability to make these friendships long distance should not at all be discounted. Indeed, many of my own close friends are people I've met through this blog and through online interactions in general, and even many friends who were originally "real life friends" at some point in our lives are now long distance friends that we keep up with via the internet, because moves across the country have since separated us.

And yet there's an extent to which this ability to find like minded people out of the vast expanses of the internet can lead to increasing selectiveness, breaking off with people or groups because although you share one interest, you clash on another. To take an example that seemed particularly extreme to me: My mother, who collects and sews clothes for 18 inch dolls, told me at one point about how one of the doll discussion groups that she belonged to had split bitterly along political lines.

At first it seems strange that if the purpose of the group was to discuss dolls, that politics would matter in the makeup of the group. Sure, it might come up once in a while, as people discussed their reactions to historical dolls, or their desire for dolls representing particular ethnic groups or disabilities, but you would think that the interest in dolls would override.

And yet, if the internet can connect you to hundreds of other people sharing your hobby all over the world, and if some of those people are easier to get along with because they also share your politics, while others make you uncomfortable at times because of their contrary politics, you can see how a split might seem desirable.

In contrast, the smaller density of like minded people in a local group requires that one compromise on other issues. For instance, in my town there's a group for people who are learning or trying to maintain their speaking and reading ability in German. There are less than a dozen people involved in the group. And as a result, although it contains both several very progressive members and several Trump supporters, as well as others who are more reticent on politics, people mostly live with their differences and even joke about their divisions. There aren't other students of German in town to go hand out with, so people need to find a way to get along or else resign themselves to not having any communal study at all.

In this sense, the sheer variety of the internet makes it easy to treat friendships as a sort of consumer commodity, specifying exactly what we'd like out of our friends in every detail. Catholic SciFi fans set up a separate group to discuss fandom as Catholics, and then that group in turn splits as different types of Catholic SciFi fans decide they'd rather have their own group with only their own sort of fans. Woke doll collectors congregate separately from conservative ones. I definitely see the attraction. To the extent that I often use interest-based groups on the internet as a way to learn about a subject and to relax, I hardly want to have them invaded by strife with people I dislike or who loudly express their dislike for people like me.

And yet, I don't think that the tendency to pick people out like consumer goods for the maximum comfort is a particularly good one. We need, at least at times, to have ties that bind us to people who disagree with us in many ways, so that we learn to form friendships across those divides and so that people on both sides of the divides are reminded that the others are real people.

Friday, February 08, 2019


Why so silent, Darwins? I hope this surprisingly informative sketch will clear things up for you:

One child confirmed, one more definitely showing symptoms, two more with white spots on their tonsils, and one without white spots on her tonsils but man, are they grotesque. The kids took the flashlight and checked down my throat for good measure.

"I can't even see your tonsils, Mom!" said one, awed.

"Wait a minute -- Mom doesn't have tonsils!" said another.

(True enough: I had them out when I was eleven, but I'd forgotten that until I was saying "aaaah".)

Mono can only be spread through saliva, which doesn't really help us in a house where people pick up any cup off the counter to drink. It can also stay in your system for up to six months. In the meantime you can be feverish and sleepy. I'm watching carefully for signs of lethargy, but so far everyone's attitude status is salty.

Alas, I wish I could blame my own weariness on mono, but it's simply the result of having seven children spread across a range of very eventful ages, from baby who's beginning, at nineteen months, to behave like a big two-year-old, to the eight-year-old who needs special dyslexia tutoring with me, to the oldest who needs extra coaching on passing the maneuverability test. There simply is no time to do the things I want and need to do. Remember that textbook I was writing? I've been thisclose to ending a chapter since November. I need daytime writing time, and I need it away from distractions, away from diapers and sippy cups and drama and dance and dyslexia and dinner time and parking cones and SAT prep and braces and glasses and mono.

And there's no treatment for mono but waiting it out, which is too disgustingly on the nose for me to even comment on.

Allow me to close with this advice: pull the car up through the cones until your mirror is even with the second set of cones, turn the wheel 180 degrees in the direction you want to go, then when your mirror is even with the center cone, turn 360 degrees. Stop when your bumper is even with the center cone. Reverse. When your mirror is even with the center cone, turn the wheel back 360 degrees. When your mirror on the side you initially turned to shows both cones, turn the wheel 180 degrees to straighten out. Back out of the cones. No, straighten up. Straighten the other way! No, you've bumped it already. Let's pull around and try again.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

The Cool of the Evening

Fiction for your Wednesday: The Cool of the Evening, by Sally Thomas. Sally is a poet, and this story is full of beautifully resonant images, especially if you've spent any time in the South.

They went away in the old blue Plymouth, Wren and her grandparents. Her grandfather peered angrily over the dashboard as he drove. Every day they made the drive into town for the noon Mass; it was almost the only place they went any more. Mass, the grocery store, the beauty parlor. If Wren’s grandmother wanted to go somewhere, Wren’s grandfather had to carry her there in the car. Nobody in Memphis knew how to drive, Wren’s grandfather said. They didn’t tell you they were going to turn. They didn’t signal with their arm out the window. You had to look for some little blinking light, and by the time you saw it, it was almost too late. The Plymouth had manual steering, and her grandfather dragged the wheel this way and that as though he meant to wrestle the car to the ground. 
They passed the Esso filling station, the last outpost of Wren’s neighborhood, and bumped over railroad tracks. Fleetingly Wren saw the leafy corridor the track ran through, May-green, gold-lit, full of stirring shadows in the spring daylight, not a place in itself but a secret going-away to some other, more real place. Always, no matter how many times she crossed those tracks, this flash of secretness made the hair stand up on her arms. From your car at the crossing, if you looked fast enough, you glimpsed that green tunnel curving into mystery. Then you left it behind. 
Even so, Wren thought, today the secret feeling seemed to go with her. Right now, as she rode in that car, her fourth-grade class was taking their Monday spelling test. She was not taking the test. She was not wearing her blue-and-green plaid gym jumper over her Peter-Pan-collared gym shirt and black stretch shorts. She was wearing regular shorts, with yellow smiley faces printed all over them, and a matching smiley t-shirt, as if this were a vacation. She had not brushed her hair Her mother had not thought to tell her to brush it, and now it hung down her back in rough waves, with tangles underneath that would hurt to comb out. She might have dreamed school; it felt that unreal. When she was at school, all she wanted was to be not at school. But now that she was not at school, something in her longed, just a little, for the vanilla smell of the ditto sheet on which the week’s test would be printed out in purple. Meanwhile, the familiar streets of East Memphis, blinding in the early-afternoon light, were sliding by, strange to her all over again because she did not usually see them at this time on a weekday.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Susan Pevensie and the Real World's Magic

A while ago Melanie Bettinelli had a post which I've been thinking about ever since, about Susan Pevensie and her "exile" from Narnia. If there's one element more than anything else that can get a lot of modern readers riled about the Narnia books, it's what we hear about Susan's defection. The mention in The Last Battle is in fact very brief:
“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”

“Oh, Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly site too keen on being grown-up.”

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”
This is often characterized by angry readers as "Lewis punishes Susan for growing up" or more specifically "Lewis punishes Susan for being interested in sex and boys".

The idea that Susan is either punished by the author or by Aslan is a bit odd, in that the account which Eustace, Jill, and Polly give of Susan is that Susan has lost all interest in them, not that she's been somehow cut off by them or by the divine or authorial powers in Narnia. It's also kind of interesting who mentions which issues with Susan. Eustace, the youngest of the boys, says that she treats their interest in Narnia as a childish game. Jill, the youngest girl (though she and Eustace must be nearing or in their teens by now) says that Susan is obsessed with being "grown-up". And Polly, who's an adult in perhaps her sixties sees Susan as being fixated on "the silliest time of one's life".

But as Melanie points out, going to Narnia (though not interest in it) is apparently something which in the world of the books one ages out of. At the end of Prince Caspian, Aslan takes Peter and Susan aside for a conversation which Peter describes thus:
"There were things he wanted to say to Su and me because we're not coming back to Narnia."

"Never?" cried Edmund and Lucy in dismay.

"Oh, you two are," answered Peter. "At least, from what he said, I'm pretty sure he means you to get back some day. But not Su and me. He says we're getting too old."

"Oh, Peter," said Lucy. "What awful bad luck. Can you bear it?"

"Well, I think I can," said Peter. "It's all rather different from what I thought. You'll understand when it comes your last time."
Edmund and Lucy reach this same point in regards to Narnia at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
"Please, Aslan," said Lucy. "Before we go, will you tell us when we can come back to Narnia again? Please. And oh, do, do, do make it soon."

"Dearest," said Aslan very gently, "you and your brother will never come back to Narnia."

"Oh, Aslan!" said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

"You are too old, children," said Aslan, "and you must begin to come close to your own world now."

"It isn't Narnia, you know," sobbed Lucy. "It's you. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?"

"But you shall meet me, dear one," said Aslan.

"Are-- are you there too, Sir?" said Edmund.

"I am," said Aslan. "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."
I'd remembered well Aslan saying that they must get to know him in our own world. I had forgotten the line "you must begin to come close to your own world now", and as an adult, and keeping in mind the fact that although the Narnia books can certainly be read and enjoyed by adults, they were explicitly written as children's books, not as mainstream genre fantasy books, it seems like an important line. One of the themes that children's books deal with is what it means to encounter the world as a child, and how our encounter with the world must change as we begin to grow up. With its emphasis on talking animals, on evils like "always winter, but never Christmas", Narnia is something of a children's world. Written in the Britain of the 1950s, where mass bombing was a recent memory and rationing of basic food and household necessities was a present reality, children's literature was seen more so than now as a way in which children could escape the dreary reality into a more brightly lit, adventurous world. This ethic is almost the exact opposite of what seems to be a common ethic regarding children's fantasy/adventure lit now: that fantasy adventures provide sheltered child readers a chance to encounter the dark and dangerous things they have no encounter with in reality.

It seems to me that often fantasy readers' reactions to Susan and her abandonment of Narnia is filtered through both their own ideas about sexual awakening and adulthood, and also an implicit F&SF fan belief that stories about other worlds are in a sense dealing with things that are more real than our own world and stories focused on the here and now. Luminaries like Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis have made this kind of argument in reasonable ways: that through the medium of "fairy tales" (which we can take more broadly as fantastic worlds in general) we are able to see issues painted large and thus more clearly.

Realistic fiction can indeed become so mired in the specifics of experience that it loses track of their meaning. While Lord of the Rings may have a setting which is not "realistic", its characters deal with a world that has more moral realism than Ian McEwan's Atonement or Mark Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War, even though these latter two have theoretically "realistic" historical settings.

Of course, a fantastic setting does not necessarily mean a world in which big issues are handled more explicitly. Indeed, the same ability to write a sub-creation which expresses clearly the way the world works from a Christian or more broadly moral realist perspective allows someone with a different worldview to create a word that expresses their own, different beliefs.

This touches both on why I've found myself almost entirely abandoning science fiction and fantasy as I've gotten older. I still turn back to old favorites, and read books recommended by people whose judgement I trust, but given that most F&SF writers have beliefs which are at odds with my own, I often find reading the worlds which they have created (consciously or unconsciously) to reflect their beliefs tiresome. With realistic fiction, there is at least still the basic tie to how the world works, something which I think grounds an honest writer in a certain amount of reality.

It's through this filter that I find myself thinking about Susan in the Narnia books. All of the older friends of Narnia have been pushed back upon our world. They may get together to talk about Narnia, but they live here. Aslan has told them that they must "begin to come close to your own world", and it is in our own world that they must find truth, decide what is important to build their lives around, and discover our world's Aslan. There may not be swords and endless winters and evil wolves to slay in our wold, but in a very real sense the decisions we make in our everyday lives are of greater weight than these fantasy events. We treat those around us with kindness or cruelty, we struggle to earn a living, to find a spouse, to raise up the next generation. We may not be leading armies or founding dynasties or completing quests, but the stakes are in some sense higher.

As someone who writes and usually reads these kind of stories, rather than the latest other-world epic, I sometimes hear a bit of the accusation in Susan's fate. It's in the nature of fandom -- having a deep interest in things which many other people ignore or scorn -- to see outsiders as somewhat blind and clumsy creatures. When people read Harry Potter, they not only enter into the secret world of wizards the Harry encounters, but often see themselves, fans, as the wizard elect, while outsiders who don't understand these things are the hapless muggles.

Growing up around fandom back before Harry Potter came on the scene, terms like "mundanes" or "normals" were thrown around instead of "muggles". Even as the terms pointed to a basic disconnect between fans and others, there was a dismissive edge to them that could twinge the conscience. In a sort of fan self criticism, in Babylon 5 the true believers in the PsyCorps referred to non-telepathic humans as "mundanes", just as fans referred to non-fans with the same term.

Knowing all the explanations why stories of other worlds are important, walking away from the genre feels rather like Susan's betrayal.  And yet, I think there's a better way to think about this, one which points out how both stories of this world and of others are important.

According to Aslan, the reason why the Pevensie children have come to Narnia is to come to know Aslan better: and I'd argue in this sense we should take "Aslan" broadly, they have come to know goodness and nobility and sacrifice more clearly. And yet Aslan tells them that they are not to turn their backs on our world and focus on Narnia. Indeed, at a certain point they must turn from Narnia to their own. For readers, the experience is similar. We come to Narnia in order to understand more clearly Aslan and the virtues he embodies. But while we are meant always to remember Narnia, we're not meant to try to stay there. We're meant to understand our own world and how to live within it. The problem with Susan is not that she thinks about our world. The Pevensies were told by Aslan to do that. Susan's problem is both that she scorns what they learned in Narnia, brushing it off as unimportant and childish, and also that she has adopted a shallow approach to our own world rather than finding meaning in it.  She has disobeyed the command to know our world better, and instead chosen to embrace frivolities.  It's not treated as wrong that she grew up, but rather that she hasn't grown up.