I’m a diehard fan of reality. My philosophical training was of the pro-reality sort (something not all philosophical schools can boast!), and being a mother of eight has kept me forcibly tethered to reality as well. If I strayed into the land of make-believe as a student, my professors would pull me up short. If I do it as a mother, my kids do me the same service.
When my daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes a couple of years ago, I realized even more inescapably that realism was our only option. Make-believe on my part, however understandable or well-intentioned, would lead to seizures, coma, and death. There was no room at all for wishful thinking, or for letting my gloomy, angry, frustrated feelings trump action.
But now I’m rethinking — well, not my realism, but maybe the way I express it.
Let me explain.
When you have type 1 diabetes, your well-being, and sometimes your life, depends on knowing your glucose number. You carry a little handheld machine, which, in exchange for a drop of your life’s blood, will tell you what that number is at any given moment.
Because it’s a number, you think of it as bottom-line reality: what could be more real, more objective, than “72” or “346”? It is what it is. It couldn’t care less how heartily you wish it different. A conscientious parent will oblige her child to find out that number, over and over, and do what it says to do. No way around it.
The trick is to do this without sending the message that your child is her number — that her number is always her fault — that she’s a good girl when it’s in a desirable range and a bad girl when it’s not.
If you send that message, you may end up with a physically healthy child, but you might also produce two people who suffer, mentally and spiritually, in ways that aren’t easy to repair.
Now, I’m groping for an analogy here, and maybe you can see it coming.
When we tell somebody the truth — when we say, accurately, “Your belief is false,” or “Your actions are against God’s law” — we’re like the glucose meter. Yes, our statement is true, and yes, it’s vitally important for the person to possess that information. His welfare — even his eternal welfare — might well depend on his hearing that truth.
But it’s just as vital to say it with mercy — accompanied by some version, implicit or explicit, of St. John Paul II’s reminder that “we are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”
Some people talk as if mercy were the equivalent of throwing away the glucose meter — as if, when the truth hurts, we ought to scrap it. I know how they feel. I’ve been that irrational mother, staring at 372 on that screen, feeling the impulse to throw the hateful gadget out the window rather than helping my child, yet again, to carefully measure out the lifesaving medicine and plunge the needle into her poor, calloused thigh.
But others talk as if the number itself were sufficient to heal someone. I’ve been there, too. I’ve wanted to just plain mechanically administer the necessary treatment with no regard for whatever is going on inside the person behind the sickness. That part is just too much trouble.
I’m still pro-reality. I’m sure you are, too. But sometimes we need to remind ourselves that reality encompasses both the number and the heart.