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Of gorillas, control, and swiping left

At the Cincinnati Zoo, a four-year-old boy snatched his hand away from his mother, spurted through the crowd, defeated four separate barriers, and then, horribly, plunged into a pit with a giant gorilla, a silverback. The gorilla picked the kid up and started to drag him away. The zoo knew that a tranquilizer would take too long to stop the 400-pound creature, and experts agree he was very likely to kill the child — so they shot the gorilla dead. The boy was rescued.

You know, or can guess, what the internet, foolish, bloodthirsty, and foul, had to say. There are already too many boys, anyway, and not enough gorillas. Darwin wins. Now let’s shoot the parents. And so on.

And then, from those who don’t openly despise children, but who still think the mother (not the father; he gets a trophy just for putting pants on) was clearly to blame:

The parents should never have brought the kid to a dangerous place like the zoo.
The only safe way is to have one adult caregiver for every child.
You should never take your eyes off your child for even one second during any activity for any reason.
She should have trained her kid better.
She should have known what he was going to do.

She should have tried harder.
She was clearly, outrageously neglectful. She was on her phone; she was overwhelmed by too many children; she loved photo ops more than her own baby.
She is clearly a horrible parent in every way. We demand that CPS investigate that home.

Angry mobs aren’t new. It’s an old, old story that fear leads to anger, especially when children are involved.

Understandably, we are all afraid — especially we parents. We love our kids so much, and the world is so fraught with peril. We want to believe that a horror like this could never happen to us. When we turn on the news, and we picture it happening to our own little, sweet ones, we always imagine what we would have done instead — conveniently forgetting that each of us, including sinless Mary and perfect Jesus, will eventually fall into improbable, dangerous situations with kids.

We would have held on tighter, we tell ourselves. We would have trained the kid better. We would have reacted sooner. We never would have been in what we would have recognized as an obviously dangerous situation in the first place, because we’re not like that. We’re good parents, and good parents have safe kids. So my kid will be safe as soon as I figure out how this mom was at fault.

We tell ourselves “I would have done better” because we want to assuage our own fear. It’s not noble, but it’s understandable.

But there is another, more sinister phenomenon playing out here . . . and I’m going to call it “the contraceptive mentality.”

Wait, come back! I know how that phrase is misused. It’s misused to mean “avoiding pregnancy without sobbing in anguish over the missed opportunity to create an immortal soul.” It’s used to mean “My sister claims she’s too poor to have a baby this year, and yet she has a working telephone.” It’s used to mean, “These folks in the pew behind us are technically obeying the Church, but I don’t like it, so I think they’re cheating, and I’m going to go ahead and call it a mortal sin.”

The phrase “contraceptive mentality” has lately been tortured into a combination of scrupulosity and nonsense. But John Paul II, when he coined the phrase, put his finger on a dreadful truth, first in Familiaris Consortio in 1981, and then in Evangelium Vitae in 1995.

If you read his words in context, you’ll see that he’s definitely not talking about NFP, and he’s not even talking only about contraception. He’s talking about an approach to human life in general. He says that the “negative values inherent in the ‘contraceptive mentality'” lead you to do terrible things. What kind of things?

Abortion, for one, when your contraception fails. The Guttmacher Institute (which is Planned Parenthood) says:

Fifty-one percent of abortion patients had used a contraceptive method in the month they got pregnant.

So if you’re already using contraception and a baby slipped through into existence anyway, chances are very good that you’ll just go ahead and shove it back, unmake it. Burn, scrape, chop, slice, crush, suck, whatever it takes — because it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. You did everything right: you used a condom, you went on the pill or the patch or got a coil or an implant or a little copper T. You were responsible. You were “safe.” You took control, so there’s no reason you should be having a baby right now. And so  . . . you don’t. Get out, baby. I have a right not to bear you, because I was in charge, and they told me I had every right not to expect you. It’s only fair.

This is what happens when we tell ourselves it’s possible to be completely in control of life. This is what we get when we wire up our relationships like an impartial power switch: on or off, and it’s up to us which way to flick it. Swipe right if you accept the existence of another human being, swipe left if you don’t. You bought the app; you’re in control.

You’re in control.

You’re in control.

This is what the world desperately wants us to believe.

And once it becomes obvious that we’re not in control — well, there are ways of dealing with that, too. Suddenly you find yourself considering the thing that once would have seemed ugly, horrendous, beneath you. Because what else can you do? Divorce. Euthanasia. Eugenics. Slavery. Ethnic cleansing. Even date rape: you believe you’re in control, and when it turns out you’re simply meeting with another human being who has other ideas, you go ahead and take what’s yours anyway, because dammit, you were supposed to be in control. It’s only fair.

You allow yourself to do these things because you told yourself you were in control of life and death, and you behaved as if you were — and then life finds a way of showing you that you are not in control. Never were.

So here you are, out of control, and suddenly your choice dwindles to only one reasonable thing: kill. Get rid of it, whatever it is, whatever you never signed up for. You choose extinction. Extermination. Do not want. Abort. Unvow. Unplug. Unmake a human being. Swipe left.

Life means risk. Life means danger. Life means hard work, and life means that you still won’t be able to anticipate everything that might happen. Weird things happen. Terrible things happen. Astonishing things happen. We fail. We betray each other, we are eaten up with disease, we fall apart. We let our little children plunge into the pit. This is what life is like. It’s not fair!

This is why it was called original sin: because the snake told us, long ago, that we could be in control, but the snake knew that we could not be in control. The snake knew that, once we realize what we have done, we will always choose to blame someone else, always choose death for someone else. It’s an inverse, a parody of the Incarnation: given the chance, having eaten the fruit, we will always refuse to carry our cross, so that others may have death eternal.

Life says, “Be it done to me.” Control says, “Do it to Julia.”

You never will be completely in control, and if you don’t make yourself accept this fact, then you are perfectly primed to snatch control anyway by unmaking another human being. And when you do it, you will not be stronger. You will not be in charge. You will just become fodder for that insatiable mouth who first told you that damnable lie — the lie that you can be in control.

***
“Adam and Eve Swipe Left” image by Natalie Coombs

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