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Are parents selfish if they have a big family?

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Why do people think it's selfish to have lots of kids?

Recently there was a bit of a dust-up in the combox at my sister's blog, Mama Says*, in which one commenter in particular charged that only selfish parents have big families. Having lots of kids (eight, in this case) allegedly is harmful to the older children in the family.

This is a mainstream attitude in modern American culture. Big families are viewed with scorn and derision, the parents accused of being selfish because either (a) they are dividing their love and attention among too many kids, (b) they are contributing to overpopulation, (c) they are using more than their share of natural resources, or (d) all of the above.

As a cradle Catholic, I have known a lot of big families. I even grew up in one, as the oldest of a brood of eight. But I have yet to meet a big family with selfish parents who are focused on fulfilling their own desires at the expense of either their family or our larger society.

I think this attitude stems from the discomfort people feel when they see large families. They cannot imagine themselves having a baseball team's worth of children, so they feel subconsciously threatened when they see one. That statement is not intended to be judgmental; it's human nature, and everyone experiences feelings like that when confronted with behavior that falls outside of social norms.

Why it is not selfish to have a big family

Let me present a picture of a typical big family. This fictional family has two parents and a startling number of kids. They have a strong religious faith, perhaps Catholic or Mormon or Evangelical. The parents at times feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of people underfoot. They know they could easily take steps to prevent themselves from having so many children, but they don't, because they have decided to trust God. They see each kid as a gift and have faith that God will provide for the kids he gave them. This is not a decision made lightly. This is radical, and they know it.

All the members of the family make a lot of sacrifices in order to follow this path. Maybe the kids aren't in as many organized activities, sports, and lessons as most of their peers. Maybe they go to restaurants less often, take fewer vacations, and share bedrooms. Maybe the younger kids rarely see a new article of clothing, being clad instead in hand-me-downs.

But they also have a lot of privileges that their peers will never know. They are never lonely. Their house is the neighborhood social hub for the 18-and-under set. They probably have a groupie or two, lonely children with no siblings whose parents work all day. They have a precocious understanding of the important things in life, like love and sharing. The older ones help their parents and learn child-care skills. They all learn practical life skills by doing chores, such as how to do laundry. They see what it is like to really live according to one's ideals and values.

They never have to hear their parents say that children are burdens, or that they are "so glad" they're done having kids.

And above all, they never, ever feel unloved. Big families like to repeat the saying that "love doesn't divide, it multiplies." It's more than a cute saying, it's literally true: the kids all love each other. Each new baby has a live-in fan club. Each older child has a crowd of younger devotees who think he is the coolest person on the planet.

The truth is, every parent of a crowd has no choice but to give of the deepest part of themselves, every single day. They are practically forced to be unselfish.

Selfish parents could not do this job.

* (cough cough) Which I helped design, by the way (ahem) not that I'm boasting or anything, but I have mad skillz don't I? Nevermind that I didn't do most of the work.


7 Quick Takes 2: Scientist Christians, a blessed Mythbusters event, and more

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I'm mulling over a move from Blogger to my own site. I know what content-management system I'll use (and it's not Wordpress), have hosting already, and really just have to bite the bullet and start setting it up. I'd like to make this a science-and-faith site, not just a science-and-faith blog. The new site will probably have separate feeds for different topics (like science, Catholicism, health), a combined feed if you want all the posts in one place, and ... a forum! I might be looking for new writers or guest posters, too. I am open to feedback about what changes you might like to see here.

This Sunday is Pentecost, the day the terrified and confused apostles were sent out from the second-floor room where they hid after Christ ascended into heaven. The Bible records that the Holy Spirit provided "tongues of fire" that let them be understood to speakers of all languages. Kind of makes Pentecostal "speaking in tongues" (untranslatable tongues, that is) pale by comparison. Wear red to church!

Father Alberto Cutie is not cute. After being caught fooling around with a woman on a public beach, he was put on leave by Archbishop of Miami John C. Favalora. That was scarcely three weeks ago, and now he has already decided to convert to Episcopalianism so he can "be with the woman he loves." (Also, as he did not say in the statement, so he can break his vows without being chastised.) Presumably, he chose his new faith so he can still be a priest, since as a Catholic, he can be married or be a priest, but not both. What kind of priestly formation did Fr. Cutie go through, that he finds switching faiths as easy as buying a new car or repainting a house? Three weeks?

The acting director of the National Institutes of Health is Dr. Raynard Kington, but some (unfortunately not very current) rumors hint that Dr. Francis Collins is a "top contender" for the permanent spot. Dr. Collins is the former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. H/T to Rebecca Taylor of Mary Meets Dolly.

My "Animals and Catholics" series will continue. Really. It's just been a distracting month, what with National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week and everything else. Stay tuned.

Tropical depressions are forming in the Gulf of Mexico. Last year, there was a bumper crop of named storms after two lean years, though not as many as in 2005. Let us pray that this year resembles more 2006 and 2007. After all, if another storm hits southeast Texas, this blog will suffer. I had a very hard time posting last year when the power went out!

Kari Byron is pregnant. You don't know who Kari Byron is? Then you lose geek points! She's the red-headed chick on Mythbusters. The growing belly is growing obvious on the show, and she's been sitting out on the bungee jumping and skydiving. I'm just waiting for her to bust the myth that what you crave during pregnancy will tell you whether it's a boy or a girl. (I thought they had a chromosome for that.)


Dog breeds as different species, and observing evolution

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Are this Great Dane and Chihuahua mix members of different species?

Scientific American published a tongue-in-cheek piece advocating a reclassification of dog breeds into different species of dog. The author has a point: If a species is defined as a reproductively isolated population, then surely some breeds are reproductively isolated from others (the mastiff and the Chihuahua are mentioned).

Following this line of reasoning, dogs would be most accurately described as a "ring species," in which there is a continuum of gradually varying — and potentially interbreeding — forms with two "ends" incapable of interbreeding. The mastiff and the Chihuahua are at the ends. But a German shepherd and a Labrador retriever, on the other hand, could certainly populate the animal shelters with hybridized mutts. And surely that Chihuahua could have some success, so to speak, with a Yorkshire terrier.

Some dog breeds are not capable of reproducing at all, at least not without technological intervention. French bulldog females usually must be artificially inseminated because males cannot mount effectively, and the puppies often must be delivered by Caesarian section. I am not sure how such creatures would fit into the classical species definition. It was not designed for populations that can't reproduce at all!

The impetus behind the proposed dog reclassification was to demonstrate that, in fact, speciation has been observed. Biblical literalist creationists often claim that science has never observed the splitting of one species into two different species.

Alas, if you know Creationists, you know this would not work. First, speciation has been observed already, and Creationists have no problem denying it. (See the Talk Origins information on observed speciation, an Internet classic.) Second, when a Creationist talks of a "species," he does not mean a reproductively isolated population. He means a "kind," sometimes called a "baramin," a concept exclusive to literal Creationism (i.e. not found in science). The Creationist would argue that the various canine breeds, along with wolves and wild dogs, comprise the dog "kind," and that while there might be "microevolution" within the kind, no dog would ever evolve into a new"kind." (Presumably, divine intervention would prevent "microevolution" from going too far.)

The proposal to call dog breeds different species was not made seriously. But it's good to think about the species concept once in a while.

Image credit: Ellen Levy Finch, licensed under the GFDL.


Rest in peace, Faith Hope


Faith Hope, who remarkably lived 93 days with a condition (anencephaly) said to be "incompatible with life," has passed away. Requiescat in pacem. Of course she will. She was innocent of personal sin.

Her mother loved her so much. That love spoke more for Faith's humanity than all the rational arguments I could put in this space.


An argument for celibate priests

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It's not often that the secular media get anything right about the meat of Catholic theology. Father Robert Barron gives us a splendidly reasoned exception with his argument for priestly celibacy, published on the CNN website. From the essay:

This is why, as G.K. Chesterton noted, there is a tension to Christian life. In accord with its affirmation of the world, the Church loves color, pageantry, music and rich decoration (as in the liturgy and papal ceremonials), even as, in accord with its detachment from the world, it loves the poverty of St. Francis and the simplicity of Mother Teresa.
To sum up Fr. Barron's argument, priests should be celibate because in so being, they become living models of the transcendent communion with God that we will experience in heaven.

He even mentioned G.K. Chesterton. I am pleased.


Tom Hanks, clueless about Angels & Demons controversy

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Is it offensive if someone falsely accuses your family of murder?

CNN reports that actor Tom Hanks, star of the Da Vinci Code sequel Angels & Demons, has stated that there is nothing controversial about this film.

"Everybody is looking for some scandal whether a scandal exists or not," Hanks said of the film. "I think a kind of natural reaction is now that somehow because it's the second Robert Langdon mystery that there is some degree of controversy over it. And there is really not."

No cause for controversy? The movie pits the Catholic Church against the Illuminati, who we are to believe (contrary to reality) were a secret society of scientists dedicated uncovering the truths that the Church was vigorously suppressing. The incorrect portrayal of the Illuminati might be controversial to some, but it could possibly be described as artistic license.*

But still, no cause for controversy? What about Hanks' character Robert Langdon's remark that "the Catholic Church ordered a brutal massacre to silence [the Illuminati] forever"? What about this quote from the trailer, in which Langdon declares, "They were dedicated to scientific truth. And the Vatican didn't like that. So the church began to, how did you say it? Oh, hunt them down and kill them."

Making grossly libelous claims about men who are, Catholics believe, God's earthly representatives is cause for controversy. I'm not sure how Mr. Hanks missed that part.

A major religious leader has publicly denounced the film for ridiculing people's faith, spreading lies, creating confusion about the truth, and perpetuating false stereotypes about the Catholic Church. He is not a Catholic leader, nor even a Christian leader; this came from American Hindu statesman Rajan Zed.

Zed, notable for reading the first Hindu prayers in the U.S. Senate, is also a panelist on Newsweek's On Faith. Does Hanks think that thoughtlessly "looking for scandal" because of the name Robert Langdon is a vice that extends to respected, well-informed non-Christian religious leaders like Zed?

What do you think about the controversy around Andgels & Demons? Are Catholics justified in being upset?

*Perhaps before being issued an artistic license, a person should be required to pass a proficiency test in creating art. That may have saved us from films like this.


Free Videos About Depression and Anxiety

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National Anxiety and Depression week is over. This event is sponsored every year by Freedom From Fear, which has advocated for the mentally ill for 25 years.

Freedom From Fear was kind enough to send me a free kit to help me spread the word about clinical depression and anxiety disorders. The kit includes two DVDs:

"The Pain of Depression: A Journey through the Darkness"

"Stories of Hope and Courage" (about anxiety disorders)

I am giving these DVDs away FREE to my readers! I have seen "Pain of Depression" when it aired on PBS, but I haven't seen "Stories of Hope and Courage."

Here's how it works:

Leave a comment to this post. Share a story about how mental illness has affected your life or family, or just say hi. If you prefer one or the other DVD, make a note of that and I will try to accomodate you if you win. Make sure you include your e-mail address with your comment or leave a link to a page where I can find it. The deadline is Sunday, May 17th, at midnight CDT. One entry per person!

I will number the comments in the order they appear on the page, then use a random number generator to pick two winners, one for each DVD.

Good luck! I hope to hear from you.


Anxiety and depression resources

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So you think you or someone you love may suffer from an anxiety disorder or mood disorder. Now what? There is hope for you! You have many options:

  • See your primary care doctor to make sure you are physically healthy and to ask for a referral for mental health care.
  • If your employer (or spouse's employer) has an Employee Assistance Plan, call them.
  • Ask your church. They may be able to refer you to someone who can help.
  • If you have health insurance, call them or visit their website for covered behavioral health specialists.
  • If none of the above will work, try Googling for community mental health services in your area. There are many groups offering help at reduced-cost and sliding-scale fees.
  • If the person who is suffering is someone close to you, above all be there for them, and understand that their behavior is a symptom of a disease. Just as a person with muscular dystrophy has trouble walking, a person with, for example, depression has trouble doing even the simplest tasks, reaching out to others (though they may be desperately lonely), fulfilling their obligations, even getting out of bed (depression is also a sleep disorder).
Where can you turn for help in the meantime? Here are some recommended websites and books:

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Image credit: "Hope" by Martin Gommel. (CC) Some rights reserved.


Four depression myths

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Last year, I wrote a post to clear up an assortment of depression and anxiety myths. Here are more myths about depression and bipolar disorder (also called manic-depressive illness), including children's depression and postpartum depression.

Myth: I'm not sad all the time, so it can't be depression.

Fact: To be diagnosed with clinical depression, you must have either dysphoria (sad, bad, or depressed mood) or anhedonia (loss of interest in activities or inability to feel pleasure). If experience anhedonia without sadness for two weeks or more, and have other symptoms such as sleep disturbance, fatigue, appetite disturbance, or an obsession with death, you may have depression. See my post "Have you experienced depression?" for a full list of depression symptoms. Or take this free depression screening from the excellent website Psych Central.

Myth: Children don't get depressed.

Fact: Children can and do get depressed, as do adolescents. Childhood depression is a serious illness that should not be ignored. Symptoms are similar to the symptoms of depression in adults, but children are more likely to have physical symptoms (such as stomachaches and headaches). Depressed children may talk about running away from home or attempt to do so; may do poorly in school; and become socially isolated. The American Academy of Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatry has more information on depression in children.

Myth: Only new mothers get postpartum depression.

Fact: The hormone changes that occur in a woman's body after childbirth are widely assumed by the public to be the only cause of postpartum depression. But the stress of a newborn, lack of sleep, and changes in family life and roles can all contribute to postpartum depression. It should be no surprise that these factors can contribute to depression in new fathers and new adoptive parents as well as in women who have given birth.

Myth: Mania, in bipolar disorder, is a feeling of extreme happiness.

Fact: Mania is much more than that — and often much less. More, because it also includes symptoms like hypersexuality, decreased need for sleep, grandiosity, delusions, hallucinations, constant rapid speech, "flight of ideas," and more. Less, because the mood, while high-energy, is not always euphoric. It can be angry, anxious, aggressive, or a mix of all of these. It can be extreme, or it can be milder (hypomania). It can last weeks, or it can last hours for rapid cyclers. Or it can be mixed with depression — a truly terrifying experience for everyone. Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatrist and author who suffers from bipolar I disorder, describes mania as "madness."

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Image credit: "Self" by The Wandering Angel. (CC) Some rights reserved.


Four anxiety myths

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Anxiety disorders are widely misunderstood. Everybody feels anxious at times, but in an anxiety disorder, the feelings take over a person's life. Here are the facts about four common anxiety disorders.

Myth: Being worried all the time is not an actual illness. Everyone is anxious sometimes.

Fact: Everyone is worried sometimes, but it is not normal to be worried almost all the time. People who cannot shake irrational worries, who worry about things out of proportion to their importance, or who have a constant sense of "free-floating" anxiety may suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a common but very treatable anxiety disorder.

Myth: If you can't stand to step on cracks, are fussy about your things, or wash your hands a lot, you "are OCD" (have obsessive-compulsive disorder).

Fact: Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a debilitating illness that robs people of their time, often hours a day. It profoundly disrupts people's lives, activities, and relationships, and its sufferers might feel like prisoners to their obsessions (intrusive thoughts) and compulsions (actions they must do to get rid of the intrusive thoughts). Many people have quirky little compulsions like avoiding cracks or arranging their food "just so," but this should not be confused with true obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is many times more severe.

Myth: "Social anxiety disorder" is a made-up disorder. Lots of people are shy.

Fact: Shyness is not the same as social anxiety disorder. In this disorder, normal, everyday social situations cause extreme fear and self-consciousness, and sufferers often avoid these situations. The situations that are unbearable for sufferers of this disorder are things like making transactions with cashiers, eating in front of other people, talking to receptionists, and other unavoidable activities of everyday life.

Myth: Panic attacks are not a real illness, like a heart attack is.

Fact: The symptoms of a panic attack are very much like the symptoms of a heart attack and can include chest pains, choking, tingling in the extremities, difficulty breathing, and a sense of impending doom. Onset is sudden and may not have any apparent trigger.

Unlike a heart attack, a panic attack does not cause any long-term physical damage. But panic disorder, a condition in which the sufferer experiences recurrent and severe panic attacks, often does cause long-term damage, both psychological (phobias, depression) and physical (medical complications, substance abuse, suicide). People who suffer recurrent panic attacks should be encouraged to get treatment.

Read more information on panic disorder from the American Psychological Association.

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Image credit: "Hi Anxiety" by Tom Thornton. (CC) Some rights reserved.


Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week 2009

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It's that time of year again: National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week is May 3-9, 2009. Some of last year's series of depression and anxiety posts turned out to be the most popular articles on this blog. This week will feature all new posts about mood and anxiety disorders.

Are you participating in National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week? Bloggers, do you have blog posts in your archives about depression or anxiety? Leave a comment and I will give you a dofollow link.


Swine flu panic, anyone?

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No, don't. Please. Instead, read these articles. I have scoured the WHO and CDC websites and other authoritative sources, applied a generous dose of perspective, and distilled the big picture of the H1N1 swine flu epidemic down to some key essentials.

Bottom line? Wash your hands and don't freak out.

And if you crave more details about the epidemic — which is verging on becoming a pandemic but so far not a very deadly one — here are two more:

I am keeping these articles up-to-date as new information emerges. As the WHO puts it, "the situation continues to evolve." Fortunately, the evolution is trending towards becoming a big "never mind." Pray that this continues!


Jesus is an elephant

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Stephen Colbert is a parody of a right-wing talk show host. (Actually, he's more than just a parody; I think he's a complex mix of parody, sincerity, and humor for humor's sake.) Regardless of how serious the "actor" Stephen Colbert is, the "character" Stephen Colbert does a not-too-shabby job refuting Bart Ehrman, author of Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them).

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Bart Ehrman
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorGay Marriage Commercial

Hat tip to Catholic Answers Forums.

I have not read any of Ehrman's books and am unfamiliar with his arguments, but even in this short he shows apparent ignorance that makes me think his ideas are not much of a threat to the Christian faith. When, in Mark's Gospel, Jesus cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" he is not expressing simple despair, as Ehrman believes. He is quoting Psalm 22. The Jews, including Jesus and all the other Jewish witnesses, would know the whole psalm, which is a prophecy of the crucifixion. Consider verses 20-25:
But you, LORD, do not stay far off;
my strength, come quickly to help me.
Deliver me from the sword,
my forlorn life from the teeth of the dog.
Save me from the lion's mouth,
my poor life from the horns of wild bulls.
Then I will proclaim your name to the assembly;
in the community I will praise you:
"You who fear the LORD, give praise! All descendants of Jacob, give honor;
show reverence, all descendants of Israel!
For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch,
Did not turn away from me,
but heard me when I cried out.

Considering the entirety of this prophetic song, Mark's version of Jesus does not seem so different from Luke's stalwart version of Jesus, after all.