Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Charlotte Mason: Diversion and Rest

I didn't want to move on from Charlotte Mason's chapter on Way of the Will without talking about her advice of "diversion" in training the will.

But suppose an unworthy idea present itself at the postern, supported by public opinion, by reason, for which even conscience finds pleas? The will soon wearies of opposition, and what is to be done?....When the overstrained will asks for repose, it may not relax to yielding point but may and must seek recreation, diversion,––Latin thought has afforded us beautiful and appropriate names for that which we require. A change of physical or mental occupation is very good, but if no other change is convenient, let us think of something else, no matter how trifling. ....The will does not want the support of arguments but the recreation of rest, change, diversion. In a surprisingly short time it is able to return to the charge and to choose this day the path of duty, however dull or tiresome, difficult or dangerous. This 'way of the will' is a secret of power, the secret of self-government, with which people should be furnished, not only for ease in practical right doing, or for advance in the religious life, but also for their intellectual well-being.

On a somewhat similar note, Francis de Sales says of resisting temptations:

Therefore despise all these trivial onslaughts, and do not even deign to think about them; but let them buzz about your ears as much as they please, and flit hither and thither just as you tolerate flies;—even if they sting you, and strive to light within your heart, do no more than simply remove them, not fighting with them, or arguing, but simply doing that which is precisely contrary to their suggestions, and specially making acts of the Love of God. If you will take my advice, you will not toil on obstinately in resisting them by exercising the contrary virtue, for that would become a sort of struggle with the foe;—but, after making an act of this directly contrary virtue (always supposing you have time to recognise what the definite temptation is), simply turn with your whole heart towards Jesus Christ Crucified, and lovingly kiss His Sacred Feet. .....

In short, you may be sure that if you dally with your minor, oft-recurring temptations, and examine too closely into them in detail, you will simply stupefy yourself to no purpose.
The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the method of resisting temptations this way:

Temptations are to be combated by the avoidance, where possible, of the occasions that give rise to them, by recourse to prayer, and by fostering within oneself a spirit of humble distrust of one's own powers and of unbounded confidence in God. The resistance which a Christian is bound to offer need not always be direct. Sometimes, particularly when there is question of reiterated evil interior suggestions, it may be useful to employ an indirect method, that is, to simply ignore them and quietly divert the attention into another channel.

Personally, I came across the "diversion" idea first from reading Francis de Sales, and I found it helpful. To me it seems that there are two components in this strategy -- one is the proactive side, mentioned often in Catholic catechesis, of avoiding "near occasion" and knowing yourself and your own weaknesses. So this means keeping a guard on one's heart and eyes, and staying away from situations that you know will be a trial for your good intentions.

The other component is the indirect response one. After a temptation has presented itself, it is often better to leave the subject alone rather than try to tackle it head-on or reason with it. To me it is a bit similar to the way you tackle a situation with a small child who is being difficult about something. Often it just aggravates the situation to dialogue back and forth, or escalate the emotional temperature by scolding or open disappointment, or offer punishments. That just locks and focuses the whole being on the conflict, and Francis de Sales says that even when this is temporarily successful, it does some damage to the spirit. He is talking about one's own spiritual battles here, but I've seen it apply to escalating power struggles between parents and children.

It's often seems more effective with "locked in" children to offer a simple one-liner and just move on, changing the whole situation if possible, but keeping the focus positive and not contributing with one's own negative emotion to the emotion already in the situation. Similarly, when my will is saying that something I want is not good for me, I find it helpful to just move on, not blaming myself or setting up a mighty battle where there is a personal cost for my whole self. You don't give into the temptation -- that would defeat the whole purpose, of course -- but you set yourself in a more spacious place if at all possible, so the battle doesn't get magnified out of all proportion.

I like Francis de Sales' advice to turn the thoughts and will immediately to Our Lord. After all, He was tempted and tried, too. I have also found it effective as he says, to "practice the opposite virtue"; St Ignatius recommends this too. A friend of my son's terms this as "turning weaknesses into strengths" which seems like a good way to describe the process in the long term.


Stephanie said...

This is a really interesting run of posts, Willa. I want to thank you for it.

That whole diversion thing ... it's captured my attention too. Two seemingly opposing thoughts always come in when I think about this.

First, we have a far too easily distracted culture. Everything in popular media (with the ironic exception of computer games - ha!) encourages us to pay attention until something else glittery passes by, and then follow that. We get wowed and carried away and we lose attention when we're simply tired of it.

So ... at first, I have to remember that this business of finding something else to do when genuinely exhausted or when becoming fascinated with wrong-doing ... this is not the same as flitting around and never paying attention. Heaven knows our Miss Mason was AAAALLL about the focus of attention!

But the other thing is a little hint I read once in a Montessori supply catalog - or in a book recommended? Where did I read that? It's this:

When you teach your child to obey the instruction, "no," you need to teach that this means, "do something else," and not, "I'm mad at you." The child learns that an avenue of behavior being cut off and made unavailable is the moment for finding something acceptable to do. It's not a contest of the wills between the parent and the child, but between the child and the child. (Is this making sense?)

If our kids can learn that the "cure" (if you will) for "bad" options (including the worn out power of attention) is the free and simple choice of finding something else to do, then the child has been give great powers of avoiding temptations to all kinds of things, don't you think?

Steph said...

Thank you for sharing your reactions to Charlotte Mason. I enjoyed Stephanie's thoughts, too.

Marie said...

I especially like the comparison between temptation and "the locked-in child". Very helpful!

Laura A said...

This is true and helpful, Willa. I was raised in that confrontational sort of way, and it took me a while to unlearn it. I think I started to get the picture when I realized that I had a child for whom *any* argument just fed the fire. I finally realized that it took two to argue, and learned that it wasn't such a bad thing to divert. It also works for my own temptations ;-).

I do like your distinction, Stephanie, between diversion and flitting around. I had wondered about that, too, when I first encountered Miss Mason, and soon realized she was using the word in a different way.

Willa said...

I SO appreciate the thoughtful comments.

Yes, I hadn't thought about it before, but there is a distinction between "distraction" and "diversion" .

One saint talks about the necessity of "recreation" -- which Miss Mason uses as a synonym for "diversion" in this part of the book. You've probably read it -- how the saint compared the human need for recreation to the "relaxing of a bow" -- if it was stretched all the time, it would eventually get weaker rather than stronger (it's here, scroll down)

Recreation is a sort of restoration process, not an indulgence, if it's not overdone.

So I think diversion implies a force that is merely channeled a different way, while distraction actually implies a scattering of powers in all directions, like a shower without pressure.

I think that not understanding the difference between the two was the reason I used to feel a bit ashamed of moving outside of a power struggle -- either with my children or with my own self. I thought it was sort of a distraction, almost like a retreat.

A retreat would be disengaging altogether -- simply going "whatever" or finding some equally problematic substitute for the temptation "I am giving up sweets, so I will go and drink too much coffee instead." "If you don't cry for that toy, I will give you some M&Ms." : D

But a diversion would be more a matter of rallying the forces, trying a different approach, shaking the situation up a bit.

Just trying to think it out in light of what Stephanie and Laura said. Sometimes I find it gets muddled in practice, but being aware that there IS a difference seems to help-- in the long run, if not always in every particular situation.

I think with children I usually measure effectiveness by what helps them build up their own strength in the long run. I suppose that is true of my own struggles, too... hmm..