Striving for Balance: A Catholic Perspective

Advocates of Attachment Parenting agree on eight principles which together create the optimal environment for raising happy, healthy and holy children. These principles are the pillars which support the overarching philosophy of good parenting, which is that human beings, especially when they are children, need consistent, unconditional love and acceptance, day and night, near and far, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in poverty and in wealth, until death. Among these principles, and in my opinion the most overlooked, though perhaps the most important, is balance. In the image of the cross we find an excellent metaphor which captures the nature of true balance: the horizontal beam represents a healthy, generous, well-ordered love of one’s neighbor and oneself, uplifted and affixed to the vertical beam representing the unconditional love of God and trustful surrender to His providence. Without balance we will persist in our frantic quest to earn what can only be given freely as a gift. Balance enables us to give freely the gift of unconditional love which cannot be earned in a thousand life times. It is an impossible contradiction.

In the Hidden Power of Kindness, Fr. Lovasik begins the first chapter with these truths:

The standard for the love of God is giving all. It reaches into the very depths of the powers of your soul. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.”

The standard for the love of neighbor is love of self. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

So in order for us to give all of ourselves to God we must be in full possession of ourselves—we must know ourselves intimately. And not only must we know ourselves, we must love ourselves, for what love is there in giving God a gift we do not love? It is the gift of Cain, which was not pleasing to God. Cain’s murder of his brother was rooted in his own self-loathing.

To truly love God we must love all whom He loves. He loves all of us and therefore we must love everyone, including ourselves, whom He also loves. In order to love God completely, we must love ourselves completely. In order to love God unconditionally, we must love ourselves unconditionally.

Since the standard for the love of neighbor is also love of self, we will love our neighbor only as well as we love ourselves. And we will love God only as well as we love our neighbor. This is why the entire Christian rule is summed up in these two commandments. True charity consists in loving one’s neighbor as oneself for love of God. No one part is optional.

Fr. Gabriel writes in Divine Intimacy, #181, Mary And Fraternal Charity, “Charity is one in its essence, because of the oneness of its object: God loved in Himself, God loved in the neighbor.” I would add to that, God loved in oneself.

The Baltimore Catechism teaches that man was made to show forth God’s goodness and to be happy with Him in Heaven; and in order to do these two things, we must first know Him, in order to love Him, in order to serve Him. The same is true of our selves and our neighbor. In order to love ourselves, we must first know ourselves. And the better we know ourselves the better we are able to know our neighbor. We are both made in God’s image; God loves and dwells in both of us; knowing ourselves helps us to know God and our neighbor.

One part of knowing God is knowing what pleases and displeases Him. This is completely true of ourselves as well. To truly know ourselves we must be aware of our entire emotional life—our interior life or our spiritual life, the life of our souls. It is here that we find God’s law written in our hearts. It is here that we find His will for each of us, if we can quiet the voices of our fellow men long enough to hear His voice.

We first begin to know ourselves in our infancy through a process of feeling, needing, and acting until a state of stasis is achieved. The infant feels pain in his stomach and, out of pure instinct, cries. His mother, out of pure instinct, brings him to the breast and out of pure instinct he begins to suck. The sucking fills his belly with milk, the pain subsides and a state of stasis is achieved. From the simple process of these natural laws the child learns that he needs one greater than himself in order to be happy, satisfied and fulfilled. He also begins the process of acquiring self-knowledge and self-discipline, which amounts to nothing more than recognizing his feeling, the need indicated by that feeling, and the appropriate action to fill that need in a way that brings lasting satisfaction and growth. The infant is engaged in the act of loving himself, and needs the support and guidance of his parents to perform this action. If his parents support him, he learns that he is loveable. When, unfortunately, they do not, he begins to doubt if he is loveable, for if he cannot love himself, if his parents cannot love him enough to help him love himself, who else can love him? Over a prolonged period of time, suffering from love deprivation, the child will come to believe that he is unloveable, and fear that he cannot do the thing for which he has been created—to love his neighbor and himself for the love of a God who he does not even yet know. Nothing could ever be more terrifying to the human soul.

It is my belief that it is from this fear that all man’s inordinate passions spring. There are volumes of evidence to support this belief from the fields of attachment psychology and mystical theology, both of which seek to direct man toward unconditionally loving and accepting, trust based relationships, first with his parents and ultimately with God. In a trust based, attachment relationship, the child, knowing that all his needs, not just physical, but emotional and spiritual, too, are provided for unconditionally (exactly like the process of Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence), he is free to devote his energy to learning to love others.

When a child is forced to grow physically without the benefit of a secure attachment to his parents, he never really learns to love himself and then others, and therefore, doesn’t mature emotionally and spiritually at the same pace that he matures physically. Without this maturity he is incapable of the kind of self-sacrifice necessary for the practice of true charity. In other words, if he has never learned to know and love himself, he is not in full possession of himself and cannot give freely of himself. He is still in the process of learning to love himself in order to know how to love others. There is good reason to believe that the majority of adults in our world are in this state of paradox—physically mature but emotionally and spiritually immature.

Psychology and Theology both agree that man’s happiness consists in charity which springs form humility, or total self-knowledge. While there may be many ways for one to acquire this knowledge, one way science has discovered for an adult who has never learned to truly love himself to learn this love (which may find its religious parallel in the "general confession") is through revisiting the experiences of his life, especially his childhood, rediscovering his younger self, getting to know that child for himself and not through the eyes of others, wihtout shame, but with full recognition of his weakness; and through this knowledge, growing to love and accept himself unconditionally as a child of God made in His image and likeness, a miracle still unfolding through the power of God’s providence, worthy and in need of unconditional love and acceptance from others and capable, by the grace of God, of such a love for himself and others for the love of God. In the discovery of this truth a man’s fears and defenses are laid to rest and he achieves the balance necessary to love in the truest sense of the word.

For many the thought of revisiting one’s childhood strikes terror in their hearts. There can be a number of reasons for this fear. To begin with, childhood can be a phase in one’s life associated with many difficult feelings, like shame, inadequacy, loneliness and fear. These are unpleasant feelings for everyone and it takes a lot of courage to voluntarily experience them, even if only by memory. Additionally, due to many prevalent ideas about the meaning and obligations of the fourth commandment, there can be a real fear of dying young and spending eternity in the pits of hell for even questioning the treatment one received from one’s parents. This thought alone is wrapped up in feelings of fear, guilt, shame, etc.

But make no mistake. The objective is not to judge one’s parents, question their intentions, or to make excuses for them, for that matter, but to honor them with the truth within the privacy of our hearts—to admit to oneself with all honesty and humility how the experiences of one’s childhood effected one emotionally, physically and spiritually then as well as now, in order to acknowledge one’s true and natural feelings—one’s littleness, neediness, dependence and vulnerability, the awareness of which—called humility—is absolutely necessary to the practice of charity.

In becoming aware of our feelings and the needs to which those feelings were signaling us, we can use the wisdom of our life’s experiences to find appropriate ways to fill those needs and in the process learn what it truly means to embrace our littleness and love ourselves, our neighbors as ourselves, and God with our whole selves.

Once we have laid to rest the fear induced defenses we have been using to protect ourselves from suffering, halting our flight from vulnerability by seeking to earn what can only be given freely as a gift, inadvertently pushing love just out of our reach, like Tantalus in Hades, we can embrace the necessary and inevitable sufferings of life, ultimately finding joy in them. St. Thérèse says, “Let us not believe that we can love without suffering, and without suffering a great deal." According to Fr. Jamart Thérèse believed that, "Love and love alone, has the power to enable us to bear generously and to the end, the sacrifices and suffering of our life." On that subject she herself said, "We can bear much suffering, when we suffer it from moment to moment…I suffer only from instant to instant…from minute to minute…it is because we reflect on the past and think of the future [flight and pursuit] that we get discouraged and despair.” In so doing as parents, we become capable of loving our children beyond the fear that we cannot love them unless we change them. We are no longer driven by the fear that if we hold them as often as they like they’ll always be needy and dependent. We are no longer driven by the fear that if we don’t hold them as often as they like (when at the moment it’s just not possible) they’ll think we don’t love them and grow up resenting us. We are no longer driven by the fear that if we don’t force them to learn good habits they’ll only learn bad ones, and we are no longer driven by the fear that if we do force them to learn good habits they’ll rebel against all our best efforts. No longer feeling that we are unlovable and fearing that we cannot love, we can trust in our ability to love our children and ourselves for love of God no matter what suffering life brings.

Balance is a matter of our self-love being counterbalanced by our love for God. It is a matter of taking responsibility for getting our own needs filled in ways that provide lasting satisfaction and growth, while filling the needs of those we have taken responsibility for by bringing them into the world, until they learn from us how to take responsibility for themselves. Balance is a matter of acquiring the self-discipline to accept our natural feelings as an integral part of the image of God we are, recognizing the needs behind those feelings and getting those needs filled while we teach our children to do the same. Love, Balance and Discipline are inseparable and they begin at the breast—and even in the womb—where, in loving our children we support their efforts to learn to love themselves so that they can know how to love others in order to love God. And vice versa.

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Catholic Attachment Parenting

A philosophy of parenting modeled after the self-donative love exemplified in the relationship between Mary and Jesus.

1 Jn 4:18

"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love."

Luke 1:17

" turn the hearts of the parents toward their children..."