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Simcha Fisher: Staying in your lane is the easy way out

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Harrison Butker - The Catholic Weekly

For the last several days, my social media feeds have been wall-to-wall responses to Harrison Butker—maybe about 60/40 jeers and adulation, respectively. I saw such a varied response because I make a deliberate effort to stay in touch with people with all kinds of opinions. I know how easy it is to slip into a bubble, and I don’t want to do that.

If you have somehow blessedly evaded this news story, Harrison Butker is a Catholic football star who gave the commencement speech at little Benedictine College, and even though it was kind of dumb and fairly boring, we can’t seem to stop talking about it.

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To address the most odious parts of Harrison Butker’s notorious commencement speech—the blithe dismissal of women toward a life of keeping house and the antisemitic dog whistles—I would direct you to Emily Stimpson Chapman, who has written a clear-eyed and charitable response, as well as a series of essays explaining how men like Butker ended up where they are.

But I’ve been mulling over his recurring theme of “staying in your lane,” and I think he’s actually put his finger on something more apt than he realises.

I fully believe that this is a sincere man who thinks he has arrived at indisputable, bedrock principles of how to live a good, Catholic life, and he wants to share them with the audience because he thinks they need to hear encouragement to do what he does. That’s good, as far as it goes, and he’s definitely right about quite a few things.

One thing was apparently invisible to him, and to much of his approving audience, though: The incredibly thick walls of the bubble he lives in. His speech wasn’t primarily a Catholic speech. It was a bubble speech.

One example, which got probably the most press. He tells young women that his wife (who supported him while he launched his football career) ultimately chose the most fulfilling and joyful path of being a homemaker, and he makes it clear that this was her following God’s will.

Setting aside how blithely blind he seems to be to women who aren’t and will never be wives and mothers, and to women like his own mother, who managed to have both a successful professional career and a family, he doesn’t seem to realise that he’s . . . rich. And not everybody is rich! Most people are not. Which means that most women don’t have the choice between being a homemaker and being a careerist; they have the choice between working and starving.

It’s more complicated than that, of course. God gave women not only the potential to bear and nurture life, but also brains and talent and creativity and drive, which means that it’s hard to find the right balance between caring for others and doing the other things you’re good at. It’s complicated. I know it is, because I’ve struggled with this balance for 26 years.

But one of the things that makes it most complicated is money, and the lack of money. You know all about this if you don’t have plenty of money; but if you have plenty of money, you don’t even see it. Money makes you blind to how many doors your money opens. You think you’re marching steadfastly along making hard choices and doing the right thing, and you wonder why everyone doesn’t simply follow you, not realising that money props doors so wide open that you don’t even realise they’re doors. But people who struggle to pay their monthly bills see it very clearly, because they smack into walls every day.

Again, toward the end, Butker tells the graduates to consider not only cost of living, when they consider moving, but also who the bishop is and whether that place has a TLM. Does he truly not know that the average college graduate in 2024 is carrying almost $30,000 in debt, and that if the young women of Benedictine are, as he says, looking forward mostly to marriage and homemaking, that means the happy new couple will have $60,000 of debt? (Yes, this is also true of Benedictine.)

Even with two adults working, that’s a huge financial burden to carry when you’re just stepping into the job market. To counsel women to consider not working, but also not to consider cost of living in where they live is a real James 2:16 moment: ‘[if] one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?’

What good indeed? He is speaking from a place of such high privilege that he can’t even see down into the valleys, where most people actually live.

This blinding bubble isn’t just about finances. He devotes several paragraphs to complaining about priests and bishops who act too much like laymen. You can read the entire transcript here and be sure I’m not misrepresenting him; but the upshot is that priests are spiritual fathers, and should therefore always and in every way approach the world and their flock as leaders who keep themselves separate and apart—not only from other humans, but from having the needs of other humans.

He’s right that priests need to keep healthy boundaries, and remember that their state in life gives them certain obligations that laymen don’t have, and that this realisation should affect their behaviour. But he seems to believe that, because priests are spiritual fathers, they will not have emotional needs, or fall into crisis, or get lonely, or struggle with mental health, or even with physical health. Or if he does know it, he doesn’t offer a solution, but only a rebuke.

This is extreme bubble behaviour. Maybe he sees the priesthood this way because has only ever come into contact with priests who are preternaturally stable and supported. More likely, he has only ever come into contact with priests who maintain the appearance of stability and support, despite what they are struggling with personally. Or even more likely, he has come into contact with priests who are fallible, who need friendship and help and sympathy, and who make mistakes, because they are men; but he refuses to see it or help with it, because the world that contains such priests is not a world that appeals to him. It threatens his bubble.

This is what he’s really arguing for in his speech: Not living the best possible life but preserving the most attractive bubble.

It’s just a speech. It gets air because we give it air, and if we’re smart enough to realise that this is a young man who, despite his claims of “experience,” doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, then how does it hurt?

It hurts because it makes people who do have privilege ignore the needs of people who don’t. And it makes people who don’t have privilege blame themselves and each other when their life doesn’t look like the life of a football star. In short: It promotes cruelty.

So this is what’s wrong with “staying in your lane.” Sometimes, when you’re travelling, you really do have to merge, and this means other people will have to let you in, and you will have to judge whether they’re in the right position to do so.

Sometimes you will be that person, and you will have to let other people in. Sometimes you have to put on the brakes unexpectedly. Sometimes someone ahead of you will break down, and you have to swerve or else you will mow them down.

Sometimes you have to pull over, get out of your car, and help. Sometimes you have to take an unexpected detour. Anyone who’s ever been on the road long enough knows this. We’ve all met drivers who don’t know this, and who simply stay in their lane at all costs, eyes forward, pedal to the floor, because all they can think about is getting where they want to go.

When you think of it that way, it doesn’t sound very Catholic at all, does it?

He didn’t mention Jesus very much in his speech, so I will.

Jesus tells us to break out of our lanes. He tells us to be like the good Samaritan and be willing to interrupt our headlong hurtle toward our goal, and make other people’s problems our own. Bind up their wounds, pay for their care, see them not as strangers or enemies, but as our brothers.

Jesus doesn’t just tell us this; he shows us. He, one could say, busted right out of his lane as the second person of the Trinity and swerved directly into oncoming traffic when he took on human flesh. Talk about unexpected detours! But this is our model.

Butker urges men to do hard things. I call on him, and people who adored his speech, to do the same: Break out of your lane. Bust the bubble you live in. Look around you, talk to people who don’t applaud your every line, cultivate relationships with people who have very different lives from your own, and allow yourself to wonder if the world isn’t more complicated than it seems.

It’s hard! But we’re here to do hard things. Staying in your lane is the easy way out. Expect more of yourself.

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