The most interesting dilemmas are moral dilemmas. Today, a woman writes to Dear Prudence with a problem:
My husband and I moved from the liberal Northeastern town we both grew up in to a small, conservative Southern one several years ago. One of the biggest adjustments has been the way people very openly talk about religion and assume that everyone else should as well. We mostly kept quiet about the fact that we don’t practice any religion and politely explain (over and over) that we’d rather not come to their churches. Our elementary school daughter recently told us that her teacher led the class in prayer each day before lunch in her public school. All the children had to bow their heads and recite a lengthy prayer. My daughter said she didn’t know if she should do it, but thought maybe it was “being a good American.” We told her that no one should ever force you to pray against your will. My husband and I wrote the principal about this and asked our child not be mentioned by name. The principal said she’d send a general reminder about not praying in class, but the tone of her email made it clear she thought we were overreacting. Our child reported the praying stopped immediately with no explanation. My husband and I think the teacher should have told the students why she shouldn’t have led them in prayer. He wants to press this issue, while I feel as long as we let our child know what’s right and wrong, we should let this go and accept this is part of where we live. Our child will be in this school for several more years. We did tell a few acquaintances about this and they said “people like us” were ruining the community of faith. Sometimes, I feel like I’m being a coward not standing up for religious tolerance.
Let’s stipulate, as Prudence does, that it is unconstitutional to lead open prayers in public schools. Let’s also stipulate that these parents have likely also harmed their child.
Their neighbors do not see them as having stood up for religious tolerance. These parents have, in the eyes of their neighbors, suppressed a religious practice that presumably meant something for the other children. Members of their community see them as intolerant of the religious beliefs and practices of other people.
The couple in question is on the right side of the constitutional issue, but they are also making their child a pariah at school. Prudence recommends that they remain cordial with other members of the community, but that is not the problem. They have damaged their relationships and those of their child.
The question is not so much whether or not they are right on the constitutional question. The question is whether or not they think it was worth the price.
Prudence prudently closes her advice with a note to the effect that sometimes it's better to let things go.
Next, Prudence offers a letter from the wife of an executive, living in Beijing:
My husband and I have a wonderful marriage, a great sex life, and are very happy together, with the exception of one argument that we are continually having. Shortly after my husband and I married, he was offered “the opportunity of a lifetime” to help set up a new division at his company’s office in Beijing. This was supposed to last 12 to 18 months and was going to be our big adventure. It’s now six years later, we are still in Beijing, and I hate it. The first year I tutored, took Mandarin lessons, and made friends with other expats and some locals. We now have two lovely children and I have continued to be involved with the community: I volunteer at a charity teaching English to migrant workers, I write articles and reviews for a local English magazine, etc. But the pollution is horrendous, and I miss my friends, my family, my old life, and the U.S. My husband has no desire to move back. His career has advanced at a pace he couldn’t have dreamed of back home and he’s the youngest person in the company worldwide in his position. I think my husband is being extremely selfish by putting his career ahead of what’s best for his family and we’ve been fighting for two years over this. We’ve seen a therapist several times and that’s gotten us nowhere. I’m ready to pack my bags and take the kids back to the States and live with my parents and tell him to call us when he comes to his senses (though I would never actually do that). But what should I do?
Prudence recommends that the wife and children take a vacation away from the family. And she suggests that she do this unilaterally, regardless of what her husband thinks.
In her words:
So you need to stop talking and start acting. Summer is coming up and I suggest you and the kids spend it with your family. Please don’t do this in a punitive way, or make it into a trial separation. Instead, explain to your husband the break in the school year is the perfect opportunity for you and the children to spend some serious time with your family, for the kids to feel more like Americans, and to give all of your lungs a break. Tell your husband you hope he can arrange to join all you for a good chunk of vacation time.
We all know that the air pollution in Beijing is horrific. We appreciate the fact that this woman is terrified to expose young children to a daily dose of poisonous air.
It is worth asking whether there are other, less drastic solutions, like weekends outside of the city.
The husband might agree that his family spend part of the summer abroad. But, if the wife picks up her children and leaves for the summer, regardless of her husband’s wishes, she will be damaging her marriage.
Of course, the marriage might already be sufficiently damaged. We do not know whether the problem is the husband’s attitude, the wife’s manifestly bad attitude, or both of them.
Note that the woman’s letter is a litany of complaints. It’s all about her. She does not see herself as part of a couple with her husband. She does not grasp that his successes are hers and her family’s. She seems not to care that he is on the fast track to corporate stardom.
Second, neither the letter writer nor Prudence shows any real appreciation of the man’s position.
I suspect that Prudence was telling the woman what she wants to hear. In truth, I suspect that the woman would be unwilling to hear anything else. I appreciate the difficulty of offering advice to people whose minds are closed. If you don’t tell them what they want to hear they will go out and find someone who will.
Obviously, the challenge lies in not telling them what they want to hear while letting them think that you are.
Prudence seems to believe that the man has many other work options. She does not know it, and neither do I. None of us knows the intricacies of his job and his career position. It is altogether possible that his acceding to his wife’s demands will be read by his employer and future employers as an act of disloyalty, an abrogation of responsibility.
When husbands step down from jobs that hold great responsibility it can often kill their career prospects.
The wife does not seem to care about her husband’s career. She seems resentful of his success. It is fair to say, as we mentioned in a prior post, that if she manages to sabotage his career, nothing good will come of it, for him or for her.