Today marks ten days since our daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. She is ten, and is adapting to her new life with much more ease and grace than I am. Ten days in, and the injections are almost routine, but we’re still struggling with re-thinking meals. The old categories just don’t work anymore.
I used to classify food as virtuous or shameful, depending on how healthy or junky it was for my kids. Or I’d think of it as safe or dangerous, depending on how tempted I’d be to overeat; or as prudent or luxurious, depending on the price; or as cheating or character-building, depending on how busy I was.
It’s easy to confuse food with virtue. I know better, but I still do it; and it’s an even easier trap for folks who have eschewed religion or a belief in objective good and evil. Natural law gives us an innate longing for a grasp on good and evil. We want to know what the rules are, and we want to feel good about doing what we see as right. So we speak of “sinful desserts,” and we behave as if GMO foods or processed snacks or sugar are actually wicked.
But for a diabetic, these categories are senseless, and their moral freight falls away, leaving us disoriented. Since we’re beginners, we’re focusing on the most basic categorisation of food: carbs. That’s the main thing that matters for now, so we can calculate how much insulin to inject.
This makes for weird meals. The old categories, based on everything I know about nutrition, thrift, convenience, simply do not hold. She can eat all the cheese, deviled eggs, and pepperoni she likes, but we’d have to plan ahead if she fancies a bunch of grapes. But she can eat an entire bag of pork rinds and her blood sugar won’t care. One hundred percent fruit juice is now essentially medicinal; but she may have a can of Diet Coke. IT IS WEIRD.
Even weirder: Not all diabetics have the same rules. Some moms of T1D kids ban candy altogether, because it’s too easy to go overboard. Others rely heavily on sugary foods, because their kids have other issues in addition to T1D; and, while a Pop Tart isn’t optimally nutritive, it does keep the child alive when he refuses to eat anything else. And alive is good. Good parenting looks different in different families, but it starts with keeping the child alive.
I’ve been thinking lately of the categories we cling to in our lives. We are so used to thinking of certain habits as virtuous and others as vicious; certain behaviors as neutral and useless, and others as helpful and strengthening; certain choices as dutiful and necessary and others as indulgent.We have to think this way, so we know how to live. We have to have a plan, and we have to know what the rules are, so we can tell when we’re doing well and when we’re off track. And there is one constant for everyone, in what we eat and in how we live: We must nourish ourselves, so we don’t die. But beyond that, the rules are surprisingly subjective.
If good nutrition can vary widely from person to person, from circumstance to circumstance, the same is true for how we conduct our moral lives. There is one constant: We must know, love, and serve God. But the specifics are surprisingly subjective.What God wants from me, to keep my soul nourished, is not necessarily what He wants from you.
This is a familiar lesson. Maybe we’re comfortable with the idea that we are one body with many members, and that diverse vocations are a feature, not a bug. But are we aware that our own vocations may be good and useful and pleasing to God for a while — and then may abruptly change? That the thing that used to nourish me yesterday might suddenly become the last thing I need?
A reshuffling of moral categories can be profoundly disconcerting and painful. It’s happened to me, more than once. The things I thought were simply How Things Must Be For All Humans turned out to be . . . flexible. God is constant. The road to Him, though, is subject to change. More than once, I’ve had to throw out my idea of what God wants from me, what virtue looks like, what will nourish me, and what has suddenly become poison. I expect more adjustments in the future, until the day I die.
And then, after death, I expect the real adjustments to begin.
Catholics ought, by rights, to be prepared to have things turned on their heads. Christ Himself is the great breaker of categories, up-ender of comfortable rules, the disrupter of plans. Sooner or later, Christ will toss you in the air to be sifted, your wheat from your chaff, and it is terrifying.
So orient yourself in Him. Remind yourself that most of the categories by which your organise your life are not valuable in themselves. They are only a ladder by which we climb to God, and are only useful as long as they are fulfilling that function. Cling not to them, but to Him.