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My sister and brother-in-law have a vacation home on the ocean just outside of Newport, Rhode Island. This is the kind of place where, from the moment you arrive, the outside world immediately takes a back seat. A unique hybrid somewhere between charming and enchanting.
The natural beauty is only surpassed by the genuinely warm friends and family who regularly come and go. There are lifelong friends, neighbors, their children and now their children's children. It's just wonderful to visit them. And each time I leave, there is the familiar twinge of a soft melancholy.
I can't help but think we humans always seem to be rushing to something else. Going to that vacation home seems to reframe the tyranny of life's urgency. In short, I am grateful when I'm there because it's a refreshing place just "to be."
I returned from there yesterday. On the flight back to my Florida home, I could not shake the events I just witnessed on this particular visit. You see, the event I could not get out of my mind oddly centers around a most peculiar subject. This subject was Sophie, their Russian Blue Cat.
Sophie unwittingly demonstrated, by her mere existence, the beauty of God's perfect plan for the family. Or more accurately, she was central in illustrating the perfect differences and complementary traits between men and women.
On this occasion, the cat had a very bad day, and it resulted in a furious display of feline insolence. This display, however, dramatically highlighted the unique talents and gifts men and women bring to marriage. Men and women are indeed different, despite modernity's incessant insistence that they are not.
My brother-in-law Tom and sister Joan have been married for 44 years. To put it quite simply, Tom is a great guy. He's a talented surgeon and a great husband and father. He is naturally good-humored and puts up with incessant chiding about his obsessive compulsion with a clipboard that neatly outlines everything he has to do in life.
Tom rarely stops being productive. Carrying the mortgage, college tuitions and paying for everyone requires him to be productive. But mostly, if I had to describe Tom, it would be the fact he is a guy. A guy's guy. He wrestled in his youth as well as into adulthood — with his sons in the hallway of his home (which has resulted in much destruction to banisters and furniture). He smokes a weekly cigar and has a beer. Tom is a guy you can count on, and he takes his responsibilities seriously.
My sister Joan certainly is a great wife and mom. She is intelligent, funny and reads just about everything. She is the mother of three kids — all adults now. They are all educated and successful; but best of all, they're Catholic.
Joan met Tom in the late 1970s at work when she was a nurse. After the kids moved out and married, she finished some academic work and additional credentials to embark on a new career. She wished to help the elderly. From what I hear, she is quite competent in her chosen profession. Joan, in short, has many of the characteristics of her husband but in a uniquely feminine way.
Joan and Tom are happily married, grateful, witty, very well-read and genuinely quite interesting. Both of them have traveled to the four corners of the world out of a genuine desire for knowledge. It's worth noting that both conduct their lives primarily in the service of other people. This, in my view, is a primary reason for their successful marriage. They both serve each other, their children and those around them. They have discovered the paradoxical principle that happiness is not a self-centered destination. Happiness, rather, is a byproduct of a life of meaning, prayer, work and service. Yet somehow, this time-honored principle backed by divine law has been relegated by the culture to nothing more than an anachronism.
So there I am, sitting in their nicely appointed home on the New England coast with the sound of the raw Atlantic Ocean crashing against rocks just outside the window. It was one of those rainy and chilly New England evenings. The fireplace was in use, and it was lovely. It was Friday, and I had arrived the day before. We were awaiting Tom's arrival. He worked at the surgery clinic on Friday and was expected around 7 p.m. But it wasn't until around 7:30 that Tom walked in the door, and he was not happy.
Tom walked in, avoided the normal greetings and immediately yelled, "Joan! Joan! Joan!" She appeared, and Tom started right in.
Tom: That damned cat! It took me an hour to get her in the carrier. This is why I asked you to take her. I eventually cornered her in the bathroom and got the broom to "direct" her into the crate. And she freaked out. She hissed. Her ears were back. She scratched. She clawed. I had to wrestle her. Then, she defecated [not the word chosen at that moment] all over the bath tub. I got her in the carrier; she defecated in there and hissed the entire way down in the car. That cat is eight pounds of solid fury!
Joan [after a pause]: I have discussed this a million times, and you don't listen.
Tom: Joan! I'm really angry now and please don't make me angrier. I just drove an hour and a half with a homicidal ball of fury. Yes, fury is the word! In fact, I'm not certain I want to take her out of the car.
Joan [speaking calmly]: Where is Sophie now?
Tom: I told you, in the car.
Joan resolutely moved away and disappeared. She immediately went to the car, removed the carrier with the cat and proceeded to the bathroom. She entered the bathroom with the cat in the carrier and closed the door.
She left the cat in the bathroom for five minutes alone while she retrieved body-wash wipes. She reentered the bathroom, opened the carrier gate and left the cat alone with the crate door open. She, once again, left and closed the door behind her.
Joan came back into the bathroom after ten minutes, closed the door behind her and proceeded to sit on the floor and wait for the cat to approach her. The cat was covered in feces and was in a bad mood.
But after 10 minutes, the cat finally approached her. Thirty minutes later, the cat was clean. All was right with the universe.
It hit me at that exact moment. This was God's perfection on display. The absurd proposition that claims that the essence of men and women is some sort of interchangeable social construct was shot in the head at close range right in front of me.
God created men and women to be different. Mostly, because they generally have different roles. Men and women are not equal in all ways. They are, however, equal in dignity. It is patently obvious, and it is ridiculous that there are repercussions for suggesting this obvious fact.
I don't know any man who can give birth. That's shocking for some, but it's true. And I don't know many women playing middle linebacker for the New York Giants.
Tom clumsily forcing the cat into the carrier is exactly how I would have handled it. I can almost see him at that moment; this is precisely how I would have been.
It goes something like this:
I have things to do.
Get in that crate.
Or I will force you into the crate. Why?
Because I have things to do!
Chop-chop, Kitty. Time is money.
That is the essence of men. They provide. They protect. In order to provide and protect, we must get stuff done and knock it off our to-do list. We must, most importantly, produce. Impediments will not be tolerated unless they absolutely must be.
Now, what about the essence of women? My sister Joan knew quite well that the eight pounds of fury could not care less about Tom's schedule, his to-do list or, quite literally, anything Tom wanted.
The cat, you see, is not rational. The cat requires wisdom, patience and a soft touch, a "feel," if you will, a strategy that comes to her as naturally as some men are inclined to leave their wet towels on the fabric furniture with an empty towel rack two feet away.
For women, it's a strategy that's required for one of the world's most important functions: raising and caring for others.
It was so obvious to me, yet it hit me like a 2x4. I was instantly transported back to a time when my own two-year-old daughter was quite ill with rotavirus. I slept on the floor next to her bed. You would think this act was noble, but I was merely doing my job. To me, the rotavirus was serious. In rare cases, children die from this. I woke up every hour to take her temperature and made sure the car was full of gas in case a hospital run was required. This was a serious sickness, so this was war. Dads will do what is necessary to defend their children.
Now for the embarrassing part. Since we determined it was a serious rotavirus that would require medicine, I took her to a drugstore because I wanted that medicine in her ASAP!
She refused to take it, and the rest of the story was me forcing a two-year-old to swallow this liquid in the pharmacy parking lot. This story ended up pretty much like the cat. She didn't take the medicine. She was traumatized and, like my brother-in-law, I was confused and angry: "Listen, kid, chop-chop. We have to get you better. What are you, two years old or something? We have a war to fight here!"
Thank God her mother took over as I looked on helplessly. I had handled this part of delivering medicine with complete and utter stupidity.
There is one more extremely important point to mention. My story of Sophie the angry cat illustrated the natural strengths of women and the almost comical inadequacies of men.
It is not accurate or fair to not point out that inadequacies are not relegated to the Y chromosome. The current culture seems to love putting this proposition everywhere.
My brother-in-law Tom (and indeed Joan) could easily offer a counterexample, a story where the equally maddening female tendencies are on full display! I couldn't resist telling the story, because this specific event is so representative of sexual differences in most households across most cultures.
It's right there on display for those willing to see it: God's brilliance and perfection in putting men and women together in the ultimate symbiotic dance of working together, encouraging and compensating for each other's differences.
Yes, God created Heaven and certainly the world in a very definite hierarchy. Dads carry the responsibility of looking out for and providing for those in their charge. At times, this requires making difficult calls. Some of those calls are not popular.
Moms carry a huge responsibility in preparing the next generation spiritually, morally and intellectually. Yes, both parents carry those responsibilities, but if we are being honest, men and women execute certain fundamental traits in child-rearing in a very different way.
This whole thing is a delicate dance where it is not so much a hierarchy of power as it is an exercise in subsidiarity. Dad handles certain things, and mom handles other things.
Thankfully, as illustrated above, we have compensating natures. Dad does not chastise mom's performance, and mom does not criticize dad's. They are a united front working toward the ultimate mission: getting each other into Heaven, as well as getting their children spiritually well-formed and giving them the necessary tools for their salvation and to become productive, balanced humans.
God creates logically. He sets things up naturally. It is us humans who have somehow messed it up. Instead of celebrating our unique differences and natural proclivity to compensate for them inside the family construct, we somehow forget the basic natural order of all this and replace it with a human model. The human model, in my view, is simply ignoring one that is far better, one that celebrates the unique characteristics of men and women rather than putting them in a very strained, if not unnatural, form of competition.
But what I find most tragic about this narrative of the "interchangeability" of the sexes is this: There is definite pushback from the secular culture. We are told to just agree when presented with these narratives. When this occurs, people may indeed choose to remain silent due to the personal cost.
However, very few people who were raised or are presently in a real family actually believe it. It took a really ticked-off Russian Blue Cat named Sophie to drive this point home for me.