“It’s either going to be me or the pacifier, and it can’t be me all the time,” said my dear friend, as we discussed the love-hate relationship we had with the pacifier.
On the one hand, we could get more done (and there was so much to be done, including caring for others in the family) by slipping that silicone pseudo-nipple into the baby’s mouth when she cried. On the other hand, it seemed strange and, somewhere deep down, not-quite-right that this machine-manufactured means of emotional “peace” should seem so inextricable to the baby’s true wellbeing and mom’s, too!
I mean, what percentage of humans now and throughout history have had, let alone “needed” one of these things to get through infancy and maybe beyond? And yet without the pacifier the cost seemed too great. There would be either too much crying, tension and anxiety or seemingly too much nursing and holding (beyond meeting the baby’s needs, of course), which meant getting too little done, too little sleep and too little…sanity? There were no easy solutions. I wrestled with it with each of my six precious babies, and still don’t know what to think about the whole silicone peace-ifier phenomenon. Mostly, I never wanted to have to use them, but mostly I did use them, while trying not to overuse them.
I have also wrestled incessantly with my own pseudo peace-ifiers. I think we all wrestle with the universal, natural human inclination to hush our inner tensions and anxieties with the balm of some manufactured or seemingly not-quite-right sort of relief or reprieve from life’s inevitable sufferings. Wesley’s line in the movie, “The Princess Bride,” comes to mind: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” There is no shortage of things in our midst or on the market that can serve as such a balm in this valley of tears.
The “pseudo-pacifier” may be some thing, activity or response that isn’t inherently bad, but even if it is inherently good, it can become something of a tyrannical ruler rather than a helpful servant of our true well-being. And in what does our true well-being consist? How do we achieve or arrive at a true and full experience of well-being? Isn’t that when we will truly be at peace, which is our heart’s longing?
Of course, we will disagree on the answers to those last few questions insofar as we disagree about the origin, nature and destiny of human persons. But we can probably all agree that any soothing balm that actually undermines our physical, mental or spiritual wellbeing is one from which we should be looking to “wean” or distance ourselves.
“My husband once told me of what seemed like a vision (he wasn’t sleeping): men were coming home from work and sitting in front of screens. The experience of this scene in his mind made him feel a profound sense of desolation.”
Most of us can also probably agree that each and every person’s well-being is inextricably linked, to one degree or another, to the well-being of his or her family members, neighbors, co-workers, community and fellow citizens, from local to global, even across time and generations. I remember learning about the traditional African value of ubuntu, which so beautifully expresses and serves this reality of our shared life. Pope Francis in his encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” exhorts all people of good will to be mindful and in the service of this relational, familial dimension of our humanity. The desire to make the world a better place and be a blessing to others is universal. One way I can do that is to level up my pacifiers, so as to improve my own well-being and that of those around me, especially if my attempts to relieve my own interior disquiet are harmful to myself or others.
How might we go about pursuing a better balm, a truer peace, for our troubled hearts and relationships?
If loving relationships are the foundation of justice, as I proposed in my previous article, and peace is the fruit of justice, then it doesn’t make sense to be choosing “pacifiers” that are corrosive to healthy, loving relationships. Doing justice is relating with others and with creation in a way that honors and strengthens both the individual persons, the relational, collective “we” and the ecosystem of inter-related life in which we live.
I remember my husband once told me of what seemed like a vision (he wasn’t sleeping): men were coming home from work and sitting in front of screens. The experience of this scene in his mind made him feel a profound sense of desolation, and what came to mind for him was the line from “The Lord of the Rings,” where Bilbo says to Gandalf, after feeling the ring in his pocket, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” As we spoke of it, it caused us to consider how we have “rings” in our lives that, clinging to them, cause us to experience a “thinness” of being…a diminishment of vitality, due to our becoming almost possessed by them, rather than self-possessed and free.
Later in the story, after the feeling “thin” part, when Bilbo is leaving the Shire, he intends to leave the Ring behind in Frodo’s keeping, but finds it is in his pocket despite himself. When Gandalf lovingly suggests that he not take it with him, he becomes altered and angry, possessed by his inordinate attachment to the ring. Prior to that, he had used it to make a spectacular exit from the community, and Gandalf reproached him, saying, “There are many magic rings in this world, Bilbo Baggins, and NONE of them should be used lightly.” After raging at Gandalf for attempting to deprive him, he comes to realize that it is out of love that Gandalf encourages him to leave the ring behind, as it had come to be an oppression and a path to self-absorption and ruin for him.
A little book I once read really helped me to better understand and approach a universal struggle that we all share. As human persons, it is our nature to seek fulfillment and a sense of wellbeing, adequacy and security. Yet we are frequently faced in one way or another, both internally and externally, with our unfulfilled longings, our inadequacy and our insecurity, which are part and parcel of our human existence in this broken world. As a result, we find ourselves anxious, and as we move through life, we naturally acquire certain coping mechanisms and means of attaining, restoring or protecting our sense of well-being and security in the midst of our struggles and sufferings. We fight. We take flight. We compensate. Some of us experience much worse suffering – gut wrenching, heartbreaking tragedy or abuse. And everyone around us is undergoing their own version and stage of this human struggle for wholeness, wellness, peace.
I have been one of the more fortunate ones, which is humbling, especially as I have known and loved so many who have suffered various kinds of grave material, relational or mental trauma or vulnerability. I grew up in a stable, intact and loving family. Thanks to my parents’ circumstances, care and sacrifices I was provided with a safe home and neighborhood, a good education through college and other formative opportunities that gave me a strong foundation and sense of security in life.
And yet I have struggled mightily, and still do, in my own journey of being a woman, a friend, a wife to my loving husband, a mother to my six beautiful children…a human.
In my grasping for a peace that is out of my reach, I fight as I say, “YOU are the problem, not me.”
I take flight as I pour another cup of coffee and sit down to my screen again for some good and important thing.
I compensate by trying to be “on base”, successful, or good enough in this way, at least.”
I am anxious and self-absorbed.
I am “thin” and not quite free to turn towards others and love like I desire to love.
But I’m trying to let the merciful love that has nourished, restored and grounded me in hope along the way be my path to greater, truer peace.
Even while my reliance on pseudo-pacifiers continues to hinder my progress to some degree, I’m trying to level up with them and increasingly be an instrument of peace-provoking, merciful love for others, especially those entrusted to me in my family and those in my midst who are in most need of it. I’ve learned how important it is to accept the reality of both our goodness AND poverties, and to be patient with growth, both my own and others’. I like to say to my kiddos (and remind myself with) that catchy refrain: “Good, better, best – never let it rest, till your good is better, and your better is best.” And I’ve learned how important it is to be receptive to the support and encouragement I need from others. Because really, it’s all about loving relationships, from which true justice and peace flow. As persons and as polities, we need to tend the “garden” of loving relationships in our families and communities, and support policies and laws that help folks do that. Let there be peace on earth, as the saying goes, and let it begin with me.
Valerie Niemeyer grew up in the Kansas City area and moved to Omaha, Nebraska with her parents the year she started college. Graduating from Creighton University with a degree in Spanish and Secondary Education, she chose to serve the local immigrant and refugee population in nonprofit and community health settings, while pursuing a master’s degree in Theology and falling in love with her best friend and hubby, Joe. They have six children, ages 3-16 and live on a third-of-an-acre lot in the city, where they attempt things like gardening, DIY repairs and improvements, and serving their parish and community in a variety of ways.