A Mother’s Eyes: Calm in The Storm

COVID-19 is enough to give even the most easy-going among us worry. This is a big deal, life has changed on a dime. It is not my intention to diminish the importance of this time or the tragic nature of it. I hope we are all doing what we can to stem the tide of this disease. However, we mothers need to stop and ask ourselves, “Are we reacting well to this crisis?”

Why is that so important – how could our reaction have any impact on a global pandemic? It is difficult to see how our emotional reactions may ripple beyond our homes, but our primary concern as mothers is for our children.

A Mother’s Eyes

Arphrodite, William-Aldolphe Bouguereau

“Life began with waking up and loving my mother’s face.”

George Eliot

They say the eyes are the window to the soul. But a Mother’s eyes are the window through which young children first see the world. Ours are the eyes they look to for reference. In them they see either safety or danger. Many of our children’s fears and anxieties can unfortunately be sourced from their parents’ emotional reactions. Dr. Peterson explains in the clip below the psychological concept of “referencing”. When a small child sees a mouse run across the room – – they look to their mother’s eyes, or any other adult in the room, to see what it means. If the mother starts screaming, they know- Mice are scary! These early childhood experiences can set in their minds like concrete – mouse scary – world dangerous.= Phobia. If the mother instead tempers her reaction and handles the situation as calmly as she can, the child does not see a mouse as a horrific threat and feels safe in their environment.

“A mother tells you what the mouse is, and her face doesn’t say Mouse – it says, Safe or Danger.”

Jordan Peterson
Start Minute 44:06

We have a modern epidemic of anxiety.  Where is this coming from? Anxiety, at its root, is about fear- fear of the unknown and lack of confidence in our ability to handle the unknown.  If a child continually sees in their mother’s eyes the evidence of fear or uncertainty, they see the world as an unsafe place. This a recipe for an anxious child and teenager.  This does not mean that every anxious child or adult is the product of their mother’s reactions. Some people just have highly neurotic personalities; some children have life challenges that are not easily overcome – no matter how stoic their mother may be. But tempering our reactions to difficulties can only help our children.  

Outsourcing Emotional Stability

Even as adults, we tend to outsource our emotional responses to others. We simply mimic what others are doing.  A few months ago at church, the fire alarm suddenly went off. I noticed that none of the adults in the room moved;  instead they just looked at everyone else, trying to gauge what kind of action was appropriate. We were searching for the level of fear in other’s faces. Since no one got up quickly or acted frazzled, we all stayed calmly in our seats.  Eventually it was confirmed that a child had pulled the alarm (and, of course, that child was mine!).  

Here is another embarrassing confession. I inadvertently became one of those horrible panic buyers.  About a month ago, in the very early stages of COVID-19, I went to Costco for my bi-weekly trip. I was surprised to see that everyone was getting multiple packs of toilet paper. I had no idea that this was the thing to do, and to be honest, I thought they were probably silly to do it.  But I figured I had better buy some too. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. I’m not going to lie, now that all the stores are TP-less, I’m glad I did. When something unexpected happens, psychologically we don’t know how to react – so we react the way others do. This gives a lot of power to over-reactors.  If one person has an inappropriate response – perhaps built-up because of childhood trauma or anxious parents – then they can start the chain-reaction of anxious and worried reactions. (I am not saying that is the case in the COVID crisis but simply a psychological observation).

“Part of what you are doing all the time is imitating other people. It’s mass imitation, and that is really a huge part of social structure, we are constantly imitating each other.”

Jordan Peterson
The Crying Boy, Giovanni Bragolin

Preventing Trauma

It is sad to consider that in many childhood traumas, such as medical trauma, accidents, natural disasters, etc…, the reaction of the adults around the child can be more traumatic than the actual incident.  Dr. Peter Levine and Maggie Kline,  experts on childhood trauma, write,

“The importance of an adult’s calmness cannot be overemphasized.  Your calmness is essential! When a child has been hurt or frightened, it is normal for the adult to feel somewhat shocked or scared, too.  Because of your own fears and protective instincts, it is not uncommon to respond initially with anger, which can further frighten the child.  The goal is to minimize – not compound – feelings of fright, shame, embarrassment, and guilt the child is likely to experience already. The best antidote is to respond to your own reactions first.  Allow time for your own body responses to settle rather than scolding or running anxiously towards your child. Experiences with adult clients in therapy confirms that often the most frightening part of an incident experienced as a child was their parents reaction!  The younger the child, the more he or she “read” the facial expression of their caregivers as a barometer of how serious the danger or injury is.” 

Peter. A. Levine and Maggie Kline, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes

For example, let’s imagine a small child is climbing on some playground equipment and falls.   She cries but is not hurt. An over-reactive mother may scoop her up and fuss over her – ensuring she is okay and reprimanding her for doing something dangerous. She keeps her close to her side or leaves the park. This child can learn from this that the world is dangerous and she is not capable of certain things. 

Instead, the mother could calmly go to the child and assess if she is badly hurt, give her some physical comfort (immediate physical affection is important in mitigating trauma) and tell her to try again. The mother stays close until the child feels confident in the attempt.  When she is successful, the mother praises her and slowly moves farther away. Eventually the child will have mastered the task and will have forgotten the fall.  There is wisdom in the old cowboy adage to get back on that horse that bucks you off. At times our culture prioritizes safety as the ultimate virtue – but our civilization wouldn’t have gotten far if men and women had been unwilling to “get back on the horse”.

The Lookout, Frederic Remington

The Freak-Out

Mother’s must resist the impulse to “freak out”.  This is difficult for those of us with passionate temperaments.  I, for one, am quite enthusiastic and excitable. I happen to think it is wonderful to be passionate, it makes life an adventure.  “Freaking out” over good things is great. When my husband got a promotion, I was jumping up and down. When my sister told me she was having another baby, I screamed. When I stood in front of Hagia Sophia, I gasped in amazement. This is part of amplifying the good, since we know negative tends to be more potent. But when times are tough, we need to turn down our “freak-out” dial.

 A few weeks ago my seven-year old son threw a rock through the back windshield of a car sitting in a parking lot. It completely shattered – he has a strong arm.  I was angry because I had just told him not to throw rocks. However, as I looked into his eyes, I saw that he was truly sorry, but unfortunately I saw something else – fear. Fear of his mother, of the harsh scolding he might receive. I really didn’t like seeing that in my sweet son’s eyes.  I don’t want him to be afraid of his mother’s reaction. I literally bit my lip and calmly reprimanded him but did not go overboard. (I did not let him get away with disobedience. He is slowly working off his window-debt.)

The owner of the car, an older woman, was actually sitting in the car when my son threw the rock.  She was extremely upset and shocked by the incident. She came out and began crying. I apologized profusely and promised we would pay for it all.  It was fixed and paid for within 24 hours. She later called me and apologized for her emotional response. She said she didn’t know why she was so overwhelmed by it. (Perhaps she had an over-reactive mother:)   

If children have a mother that is an over-reactor, they have two choices – either to join their mother in her reaction and develop anxiety and fear as a result- or to discount their mother’s reactions and choose not to share anything with her that might “set her off”. Often, we discover our children lie to us out of fear.  We find something broken in the house and, upon interrogation, discover all our children are innocent. When they become teenagers, there are worse offenses to be hidden. One of the main motivations to lie is avoiding the reactions of the parents. Does that mean we can’t be upset when our children make bad choices? Of course we will be, and they must realize that their actions have consequences, including emotional reactions.  However, we don’t want our over-reactions to keep our children from feeling safe speaking to us about things. One example is the modern plague of pornography. Children at younger and younger ages are being exposed to porn. This can be extremely destructive to young minds. However, when a young boy sees porn for the first time, he may feel shame and hide it from his parents. If his mother, through years of over-reaction, has convinced him that she is not “safe” – if she becomes angry or disappointed in him for small offenses – he is much less likely to share the experience with her.  Then his shame and deceit will continue, for fear of what the parents will think of him. This is the road of addiction. (I hope to do a longer post on teaching and preparing kids for the dangers of pornography.)*

Discussing COVID-19 with Kids

It is important that we don’t over-react to the current crisis in front of our children. In extreme cases this could cause the development of phobias or generalized anxiety in them. We don’t need to lie to our children. However, we must consider the age and maturity of our children when discussing difficulties.  We also can’t trust that the voices they hear on the news or from friends will be stabilizing messages. Dr. Levine gives some good advice about how to talk to our kids about fearful events:

“Because the media uses graphic fear as a selling point, it is important to minimize children’s TV news exposure – particularly during dinner and before bedtime.  Of course, it is best to watch the news after they are asleep. Kids three to five years of age may ask questions about things that they have heard or seen on TV. At these ages, children are beginning to be able to put feelings into words and you can let them know that it is okay to have these feelings….(it may be helpful to tell) stories where the hero/heroine has overcome difficult situations and been made stronger by meeting and mastering an ordeal. 

For older children, six to twelve years of age, more direct discussions can be held.  It may be important to find out where they got their information and what their specific fears are.  Then you can have the family brainstorm ideas for things that they can do to help the people who have been affected…Mobilizing helpful activity, rather than being a spectator, can make a big difference.”

Peter. A. Levine and Maggie Kline, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes

It is our reaction to this crisis that will do the most towards stabilizing our children. We can look for the rays of hope on the horizon – rather than the dark predictions or negative takes. If we feel our children are mature enough to discuss some of the difficult facts of the virus, ask them how they can help make this time easier and more productive. Rather than focusing on death tolls or worries about transmission. Teach them how properly washing hands or wearing face masks can help prevent contraction and spread. Talk to them hopefully about the future – if you find yourself unable to see the hope – seek out positive voices, pray to God for peace, and rely on stress-relievers such as outdoor walks. As they see us facing the crisis with faith and problem-solving, they feel safe. The whole experience can make us all more resilient. Our children can get through this – guided by the hope in their mother’s eyes.

“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”

C.S. Lewis

-Ally

P.S. I would greatly appreciate any shares/tweets/emails of this article to those who may benefit. Thank you so much for your support and Good Luck out there – or “in” there!

Resources:

Here is a great book to start the discussion with your children about the dangers of pornography https://www.amazon.com/Good-Pictures-Bad-Porn-Proofing-Todays/dp/0997318732/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=Good+pictures+bad+pictures&qid=1585701688&sr=8-2

A great book on preventing Trauma in children

Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes by Peter. A. Levine and Maggie Kline

Mothers: Tyrants or Caretakers?

I have been working for some time on this piece – on the danger of a mother’s ‘bad moods’ and the tyranny we can wield through emotional manipulation.  It has been a difficult piece for me. I almost threw it out five times (if you can throw out a Google doc)- but it kept calling me back. Now, as this COVID crisis has progressed, I see a reason behind that calling. 

During the next few weeks, many of us will have the wonderful opportunity to slow down, to drop all the excess, and to focus on what matters most.  We will have a lot of time with our children with many opportunities for bonding, for learning together, and for laughter. But we know that with close proximity often comes conflict.  We can find ourselves drifting into bad habits of toxic interaction and foul moods. Rather than allowing relationships to fray, as often happens in times of stress, we can take this “crisis” as a challenge, an invitation to look at things differently – to be different.   

In writing this piece I had to do some soul-searching and look directly at my own demons. We all tend to avoid such confrontations with ourselves, but for our children, we must be willing to do it. I hope we will find the courage to ask ourselves how we may be harming our children through emotional means – and how we can overcome these manipulations.  

This piece is my attempt to bring awareness to well-meaning mothers of the potential familial-hell brought on by our uncontrolled negativity, sensitivity, and emotional manipulation.  

A Bad Mood

I really want to be a good mother.  This desire drives me to do many things that  I would rather not. It propels me forward to change that diaper, or cook that soup. But despite my motherly ambitions, occasionally, I am just in a bad mood. Unfortunately, my children always notice. Even if I try and hide my agitation, they feel my dark energy. My toddler will come up shyly and give me a hug. My younger son will shadow me and start moping (or even start mopping the floor to make me happy). My eldest daughter will act out emotionally. And I will feel guilty for the gloom I am bringing. I remember well from my own childhood the feeling when one of my  parents came home in a bad mood – a black cloud would hang over our house. Our home would feel a little less safe – children a little less free. The emotional energy of the parents determines the atmosphere inside a home.

Perhaps my bad mood is caused by the disappointment of an unmet expectation, the weight of worry, or, as is often the trigger for me, an internal chaos bucket overflowing – full of noise and commotion. Perhaps the cause is deeper – a misplaced sense of worth or jealousy. These negative ruminations inevitably lead to a snippy and impatient mom. 

The Building of a Child

Recently, passing near our community river-side park, I witnessed a charming attestation of maternal influence. I stopped the car as I saw five cute little ducklings waddling quickly behind their mother as she safely escorted them across the busy street. I don’t speak Duck, but I didn’t hear the mother quacking loudly at her ducklings, instructing them – she just walked and they followed. Our offspring follow us in a similar manner. Our kids are much more a product of our example than our active teaching, no matter how much quacking we feel we need to do. What is normal in the home, becomes normal for our children. As our children age, they will be drawn towards the re-creation of the “normal”  home of their childhood.

All parents know the experience of hearing our own words echoed by our children, or seeing our mannerisms or outlook on life mirrored in our offspring.  After years of chore charting, my kids seem unable to adopt tidy habits. Why? Because I live in a state of “hygienic chaos”. When I look at the state of my own bedroom – with laundry piled here, and books stacked there – I see that there is no amount of teaching that will help my children overcome my own example. My tidy friends have tidy kids – no matter how few chore charts they’ve engineered. Kids become tidy because they are accustomed to tidiness. (Sometimes this tidiness only kicks in after they have moved out of the house and are forced to re-create “normal” for themselves). Now some children will buck the trend, or build up a home that is a reaction to their parents.  Kids can learn important lessons from our bad examples as well as our good. But generally, our children will become what we are, so we need to become a model worth emulating.*

What does this realization mean?  Do we not even bother teaching our children?  Yes. Children must contribute to the family and learn responsibility – even if they fail to incorporate good habits. Teaching children is never a waste.  But since we want our children to become better than we are, our best bet is learning as we teach. We admit that we are also learning with them and ask forgiveness when we fall short.  Instead of demanding they do a chore chart, while laundry piles high on our bedroom floor, we include ourselves in that chart and train ourselves as well. As we become introspective and self-aware,  our children will see that genuineness and learn compassion and resilience. It is much better to be raised by a self-aware, yet imperfect mother, striving to improve, than a woman with a hypocritical facade who sees others faults but never her own.

“Having the attitude that you can learn throughout your life enables you to approach parenting with an open mind, as a journey of discovery.”

Daniel Siegel

Emotional Baggage

“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.”

Peggy O’Mara

Teaching and modeling skills is important, but raising emotionally healthy children is absolutely critical.  As mothers we have to accept that, because of our own limitations, we cannot be all things to them – and that is okay.   However, we must be safe. We must guard against using our negative emotions to control and manipulate. When we are in a bad mood – which is the state of letting our negative emotions run rampant –  we need to notice them, endeavor to see the cause, and redirect our thinking or behavior to work through them before we may manipulate our children or spouse. 

“Did we pretend to be angry about one thing when we knew, or could have known, that our anger had a different and much less presentable cause? Did we pretend to be “hurt” in our sensitive and tender feelings…when envy, ungratified vanity, or thwarted self-will was our real trouble? Such tactics often succeed. The other parties give in. They give in not because they don’t know what is really wrong with us but because they have long known it only too well…It needs surgery which they know we will never face. And so we win; by cheating. But the unfairness is very deeply felt. Indeed what is commonly called “sensitiveness” is the most powerful engine of domestic tyranny, sometimes a lifelong tyranny.”

C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms Compiled in A Mind Awake

The Many Manifestations of Sensitivity

What exactly is this “sensitiveness” spoken of in this blunt yet true quote?  When I initially read this quote, I breathed a sigh of relief – no one can accuse me of being sensitive, insensitive maybe, but never sensitive. I pushed out judgement to those I saw as “sensitive” – quick to tears and offense.  But the truth is “sensitivity” manifests differently in different people. “Sensitiveness”, in this context, is an inability to cope with stress or offense. 

Sensitivity can be a wonderful thing if it is channeled into spiritual gifts such as creativity and empathy. But for some people it means we must walk on egg-shells for fear of offending them. Kids learn quickly that they must pretend to love dinner, or accept unquestioningly Mom’s idea for a vacation – for fear they will hurt mom’s feelings. If they do cause offense, the result may be days of friction or the silent treatment before they allow their mother’s guilt-trip to sway them and they grovel before her.  Their mom is always just one misplaced comment away from tears or the silent treatment. But why? Why would a woman act this way? As Lewis says: envy, vanity, and unresolved worth issues are often at the root of such behavior. Without digging deep into the roots of emotional manipulation, suffice to say- many women use “sensitivity” as a means of control. They get their way because everyone is trying to please them and help them suffer less. 

But sensitivity does not always manifest as an offended mother – but also an irritable one. “How many times have I told you to take your shoes off!?” This is my method of sensitive manipulation – irritation. In times of stress, I am incredibly sensitive to disobedience and noise. I don’t dwell in self-pity as some women – I snap into snappiness. As we are currently trying to sell our house, my “sensitiveness’ has been in full force. Trying to keep the house perfectly tidy has been difficult – like living contrary to my nature.  It has been stressful and has pushed me to my ‘good mother’ limits. It is quite ironic that my current prominent source of irritation is my children’s messy nature – something they learned from me. Yes, I must teach them to be responsible for their messes, but my tone does not help.

I don’t go out seeking to manipulate them with my negative emotions, but when my yelling is rewarded with them quickly putting their shoes away, it looks like it is working.  This is a dangerous cycle – one that is destructive to our home’s atmosphere, our relationships, and to their inner voice. 

Sometimes we are blind to how much our bad moods affect our children. There is a saying that every mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child.  I would add that every child will likely only become as happy as their mother’s default mood. Our emotional well-being matters to our children’s present and future happiness.

If our children become accustomed to a home full of tension, they may recreate that home for their own children. If a mother makes her children believe they are a burden or a disappointment, they will have to overcome feelings of low worth when they get older.  The dysfunctional home that was built up around them will house them until they can hack their way out of it. Returning to our quote by C.S. Lewis,

….”Did we pretend to be angry about one thing when we knew, or could have known, that our anger had a different and much less presentable cause?”….

What is the cause?  When we have an inordinate response to a child’s action,  it is often because of built up stress or anger stemming from a different source. But then we allow our moods to get away from us and our anger, irritation, or self-pity become our state of being – like a bad habit. If we don’t watch this habit, the wonderful mother we dreamt of being may disappear into a quicksand of ire.

“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others… but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God “sending us” to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud. ”

C.S. Lewis

Echo Through the Generations

I come from a line of wonderful mothers – but we have a maternal family history of Irritation in times of stress.  I remember being a bit scared of my Grandmother because she often seemed irritated when we visited. We usually lived overseas so I rarely saw her.  I now realize that having a noisy family of nine stay in her tiny house was likely not easy – but she got annoyed at the children a lot. Once I remember her yelling at me for throwing apricot pits at her goats. She didn’t explain why, and since I assumed it was just another bad mood, I kept doing it (naughty girl that I was).  I felt horrible later when I learned her favorite goat had died, from choking on an apricot pit.

I am not blaming my vexed ancestors for my current behavior, but annoyance can become a conditioned response to stress.  We need to recognize it for what it is – a bad habit – and a voice we are anchoring in our children’s psyches. Just as our children often become as we are – we are often largely a product of our parents’ example. But as we educate ourselves and introspect; we can drop our ancestral baggage. (Just as we hope our children will be able to do). 

“Contrary to what many people believe, your early experiences do not have to determine your fate.  If you had a difficult childhood but have come to make sense of those experiences, you are not bound to re-create the same negative interactions  with your own children. Without such self-understanding, however, science has shown that history will likely repeat itself as negative patterns of family interactions are passed down through the generations.”  

Daniel J. Siegel

If we allow our bad moods to become a form of domestic tyranny, our irritation will be the off-key background music our children grow accustomed to. They will become numb to our constant irritation. Like I imagined that “grandma is just mad yet again”, they will no longer hear any significance in our words – and that is when goats die.

Arresting a Dark Day

A Mother’s Joy, William-Wdolphe Bouguereau

Last weekend I woke up on Saturday and knelt by my bed – I prayed that it would be a good day and I would be a patient mother. However, after several incidents of child-like messines, I could see myself going down the road of irritation.  I saw a bad-mood day before me; I was uncontrollably spiraling. My daughter had tracked dirt in and I started to react. Suddenly, I remembered my prayer from that morning. I stopped. I swallowed my pride and irritation, and gave my daughter a tight hug.  I said, “ I am sorry I have been so frustrated lately. Selling this house is stressing me out and it is not right to take it out on you. Please forgive me”. 

I could feel the tension release in her body. She smiled up at me and said, “It’s okay mom. You aren’t that bad. I am going to really try and be better.” The cloud that had been hovering over our home that morning – breathed out by me  – dissipated as sunlight broke though as a beam of understanding and perspective. I was able to see my daughter for the precious child she was, and the mess for its insignificance. I was able to save her, and myself from a day of dark clouds. What a difference stopping, noticing, and engaging our free will can do!

The Hope is in Recognize our Tyranny

No one is perfect, and as long as we continually admit our errors and attempt to remedy them, we are on the path upward. We have to stop and say – Am I being unfair?  Am I creating a hostile environment for my innocent children? I have found when I am honest enough to say that – the path out of the mood becomes clear. However, if we refuse to introspect and live instead in pretense – we can create “domestic tyranny”. One bad mood can run into another until our “default” is hell.

The more I learn, ponder, and write about motherhood, the more convinced I have become of one wonderful and horrible truth – Mothers shape the emotional health of their children. Who we are, what we do, how we communicate will have a ripple down effect on our children for years to come. This knowledge can be burdensome, but it is a burden we must pick up and carry.   We may want to run away into justification or denial.  We may seek out voices that tell us “we are doing the best we can.” We may retreat into self-pity.  Some days I turn to a bag of chocolate chips for solace.  

We can not let “sensitiveness” cause our loved ones to feel stifled and controlled and destroy our relationships.  We cannot leave our irritated voices as our children’s inheritance. We cannot get in the way of our children’s potential. The path to victory is not paved with avoidance, self-congratulation, or despondency, and certainly not with chocolate chips.  The path is paved with consistent effort, with humility, repentance, and thankfully with forgiveness. Sometimes our “sensitiveness” has a deep source, a trauma left unhealed, for which we may need to seek help to find solutions. Thankfully children are quick to forgive and adapt. If Mom is learning and growing, they will remember our genuine efforts to change. The path is one of hope.  Things will get better if we do better.

All the changed diapers and delicious soups are ultimately insignificant compared to the voice of a loving mother rooted in their minds. The home we build up for our children does not need to be spotless, but it must be emotionally safe, full of love and understanding and guidance. How grateful I am for the maternal love which motivates me to overcome my many weaknesses for the sake of my children, and to one day be worthy of the title “good mother.”  

-Ally

Resources:

We become our Mothers – its science https://www.scarymommy.com/study-women-become-mom-age-33/

*It is important to remember that it is not only Mothers that can emotionally manipulate. Father are also at-risk of attempting to control others emotionally. A father that is quick-to-anger, slow to forgive, or who holds back praise – can be just as destructive a force as a mother with similar qualities. I focus on mothers because that is what I am – and the perspective I write from. (A great movie depicting a emotionally manipulative father and an incredibly powerful mother is The Price Winner of Defiance Ohio.)

In Defense of A Nurturing Mother

I want to share a short podcast clip which I found both disturbing and heartening. I truly appreciated Martyn Iles’ response to some harsh, and very public criticism received by an Australian mother. It is always a shame when women tear each other down. Throughout this podcast I couldn’t help thinking back to many of my own pieces written on these subjects (will link in piece).

12 minute clip

It is a tragedy that some women believe that the love and nurture given to children and spouse is menial, yet the time and labor they give in a sterile workplace is empowering. Women need to be honest about where happiness and meaning originate and stop worrying about the perception of “the world”. Why are women letting go of the power of their feminine influence, the harnessing of our unique talents and gifts – and trading them in for a paycheck or prestige? Women can do good wherever they are! Downplaying the glory of motherhood will not amplify the meaningfulness of the workplace.

I was saddened to hear the mockery this mother received, especially considering she sounds like a truly selfless woman. It’s one thing to be judgmental of vice, but condemning someone for their virtue is truly vicious.

I am reminded of a short scene in the movie The Mission, a film depicting the history of the Catholic missions in South America and the horrific devastation of the natives. Two men, somber as they are pondering the harshness of the world, attempt to come to grips with the reality of the situation. Senor Hontar, stoically resigned to the state of the things says, “We must work in the world, your eminence. The world is thus. The other, Altamirano, refusing to find solace in resignation, says “No, Señor Hontar. Thus have we made the world… thus have I made it.”

We live in a world where acts of love and service are met with disdain. The world is thus, but will we resign ourselves to it? Will we help make it thus? I am heartened that there are many willing to stand up against the culture and defend the power and love found in motherhood. I believe truth is more powerful than facade. These voices of defense must reach for the next generation. Young women must hear the counter-argument to the materialist view of life – defenders of motherhood. They need to see women that powerfully wield their femininity to influence the world with love and compassion. Our children need mothers that love and cherish their role and turn their faces away from a culture of scorn. Thank you Martyn for standing up for this young mother!

Another great take by Andrew Klavan.

St. George and Our Kids

“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey (evil). What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of (evil). The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination.

What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

-G.K. Chesterton (The Red Angel)
St. George and The Dragon, Neuschwanstein Castle

A good book to inspire your children.

https://www.amazon.com/Saint-George-Dragon-Margaret-Hodges/dp/0316367958/ref=mp_s_a_1_3?keywords=st+george+and+the+dragon&qid=1581086441&sprefix=st+george&sr=8-3

Discovering A True New World

“If you think of this world as a place simply intended for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place for training and correction and it’s not so bad.”

-C.S. Lewis

In his book, A Brave New World, Aldous Huxley describes a new and “progressive” civilization, where all things are adapted and conditioned in citizens to allow for perpetual happiness and stability. Every physical impulse is immediately gratified so passion cannot develop, every obstacle to comfort is removed.  Even old age is eradicated. Negative emotions are dulled by “Soma” – a drug to numb the senses. The spirit is never allowed to interrupt the distractions of the body – and so God “manifests Himself as an absence” rather than a presence.  The Chief Controller of this “Brave New World” declared, “God isn’t compatible with universal happiness. You must make your choice.  Our civilization has chosen machinery, and medicine, and happiness.”

Why isn’t God, or Objective truth, compatible with universal happiness?  Isn’t that the point of a loving God?  Isn’t the truth meant to set us free? The difficulty is found in our earth-bound timeline.  We see happiness as a day to to day process – one day here, the next day gone.  But this perspective is short-sided and limited.

For most of my engagement, my future-husband and I lived in different continents.  It was a hellish experience for us.  We were both working full-time in our respective countries, trying to save enough money for school and to start our lives together.  We missed each other and were uncertain we would even be able to manage the logistics of marrying, living 10,000 miles apart.  I remember as I was living through this time I felt cheated. “I am supposed to be enjoying my life with my soulmate! Instead I am in a constant state of stress and worry.”  I would cry at night and be angry with God.  Now, five kids later, with a happy and successful marriage, I see those times as more humorous than painful.  I wouldn’t change it – those struggles proved our commitment.  But the Ally of 13 years ago only wanted ease and happiness, I am glad she didn’t get her way. I would have been settling.  

Which Ally is living in reality?  The younger stressed-out Ally simply desiring peace and happiness, or the current Ally looking back knowing how it all turned out?  If we separate ourselves from the present moment – if we hover above and beyond this time – we get a clue to God’s perspective. That is the reality we want to live in, that reality brings ultimate peace and joy.  There we are enabled to thrive amdist sufferings or uncertainty.  But I keep slipping out of that reality.  How can we dwell there when we are bounded by our material existence?  I believe the first step is to attempt to engage with our non-material lives, our “intuitive” or spiritual lives.  

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”  Albert Einstein

Why are we so driven by “happiness” or pleasure?  And why don’t I ever learn that I shouldn’t be controlled by their demands?  My husband and I are trying to sell our house right now and again I want ease and happiness!  I don’t want to have to try and keep a house spotless with five messy children.  Is it even possible to not allow this to stress me out?  I admit I have not quite figured out how to have a long-term view when stress and worry are screaming so loudly.  But I do find that when I stop and engage my spiritual mind (usually in my quiet closet) – and seek out the peace and faith found through the spirit –  the proper perspective can return. At least until the puppy has an accident on the carpet.  

One reason we keep slipping out of “reality” may be that our bodies have a loud and persistent voice.  We want that piece of cake, we yearn to be in the arms of our love, we don’t want stress and negative emotions.  These desires are not bad – but they are also not the only good.  Particularly in youth, in our naivety and lack of responsibility, our bodily impulses demand satisfaction. We cannot hear the calls of conscience or morality if we allow our impulses’ screams to drown out their soft promptings. 

There is no balancing the intuitive (spiritual) mind and rational (material) mind in A Brave New World.  There was no counter-point to the demands of the body.  The only respite from stress and meaninglessness that a physical life inevitably produces is instant gratification and the drug Soma.  Rather than seeking peace through prayer in a closet, Huxley’s citizens become numb to all suffering and all purpose. The citizens become servants to their own desires – they lose all ability to see beyond the material, beyond the immediate.  They are easily controlled, listless puppets to a great Evil.  

But we can discover a True New World and leave behind the Brave New World of meaningless pleasure.  Huxley explains that the natural process of age can facilitate this discovering of a True New World.  However, even in youth, the adoption of responsibility and practice of self-control can lead us to this world.  

“They say that it is the fear of death and of what comes after death that makes men turn to religion as they advance in years. But my own experience has given me the conviction that, quite apart from any such terrors or imaginings, the religious sentiment tends to develop as we grow older; to develop because, as the passions grow calm, as the fancy and sensibilities are less excited and less excitable, our reason becomes less troubled in its working, less obscured by the images, desires and distractions, in which it used to be absorbed; whereupon God emerges as from behind a cloud; our soul feels, sees, turns towards the source of all light; turns naturally and inevitably; for now that all that gave to the world of sensations its life and charms has begun to leak away from us, now that phenomenal existence is no more bolstered up by impressions from within or from without, we feel the need to lean on something that abides, something that will never play us false–a reality, an absolute and everlasting truth. Yes, we inevitably turn to God; for this religious sentiment is of its nature so pure, so delightful to the soul that experiences it, that it makes up to us for all our other losses.”

-Aldous Huxley, A Brave New World

As we see our world follow the precedent set in A Brave New World, and happiness and stability are exalted to the place of Supreme Good, we must seek out a True New World.  To discover the true reality of our existence we must “not walk according to the flesh but according the the Spirit,” Romans 8:4. We have to choose to see the Reality of truth and progress as more important than momentary self-satisfaction. If we accept the difficulties of life, rather than only seek to prevent them, our eyes become open to the Ultimate source of joy and fulfillment. This choice will lead to a life less stable and contented than that of the citizens of Huxley’s civilization, but one with access to truth, beauty, and progress not found in satisfied ease.  The reality we discover may reveal that the very “act of striving for truth and beauty is where happiness resides.” C.S. Lewis

-Ally

Related image

*Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis died the same day, November 22, 1963.  Despite their prominence as great thinkers and authors, their passing was relatively unnoticed, as this was also the date of JFK’s assassination.   

Be Here Now

Hugues Merle, Maternal Affection

“Remember then, there is only one time that is important – Now! It is the only time when we have any power.” 

Leo Tolstoy

As the lyric goes, life is what happens to you when you are making other plans. Life does not begin once we get our student loans paid off, or when our children get over the flu, or lose 15 pounds. Or after we scroll through Instagram. Life is instantaneous. It is there in the unmet expectations, in the sufferings and joys. The only moment we can grasp is now.

“The meeting of two eternities – the past and future…is precisely the present moment.”

Henry David Thoreau

The parental cliche is that the days are long but the years are short. Thank goodness for long days. The meaningful work of parenting gets done therein. Bonds are formed and resilience built up, moment after moment.

As we raise our children, we must stop wishing for more, or regret doing less – but simply reach down and pull our sweet child into our arms, right now. Be there with them in this moment, because it will never return.

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this.”

Henry David Thoreau

-Ally

Seems applicable

Our Highest Identity

Is our culture moving backwards? 

In the last hundred years we have seen a tremendous change in society. In the West, rights and privileges have expanded and there is relative peace and prosperity. Until recently, it looked as if Martin Luther King’s dream for his children, “not to be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” was a real possibility.

But today group identity is increasing in importance. Rather than seeking to look beyond race, today at the University of Minnesota it is deemed a ‘microaggression’ to say “There is only one race, the human race”, because it denies the individual as a racial being.* Little girls’ clothing bears girl-power logos like, “the Future is Female.” Many say these efforts are to correct imbalance and educate children about bigotry and their own “implicit bias” (depending on their race), but to me it seems incredibly divisive. Academia in Social Sciences focus much of their research on the differences between groups and how one group victimizes others. Rather than seeking reconciliation and understanding, politically-motivated professors seem determined to increase tension. Douglas Murray, in his recent book, The Madness of Crowds, told of a recent speech given by a professor at Boston University, who she said, “I’d like to be less white, which means a little less oppressive, oblivious, defensive, ignorant, and arrogant.” Murray writes, “To her audience in Boston she also explained how white people who see people as individuals rather than by their skin colour are in fact ‘dangerous’. Meaning that it took only half a century for Martin Luther King’s vision to be exactly inverted.”

Every human being is intended to have a character of his own; to be what no others are, and to do what no other can do.

William Henry Channing

Supremacy of Group or Self?

The current era of “identity politics” is worrying me. I hate to step into “political” realms in my writing, but as parents I think it is critical that we see these new trends for what they are – an undermining of individual freedom.  I think perhaps, in part, I am particularly concerned because I am raising bi-racial kids in an race-obsessed society. I am not as worried about the prejudice or racism my children will face, as the rising supremacy of groupthink. I have seen what being a member of a group often requires – a sacrificing of self and conscience to preserve the identity of the group.  I have seen the backlash received by those who are judged unworthy by other members of the group.  

I remember in high school that I loved watching  skateboarders do their tricks and was incredibly impressed by their abilities. I wondered why they all ended up dressing and speaking the same way – baggy pants and long hair.  Why did they all do pot behind the school? They all seemed to be rebelling against the world’s expectations – but they were all rebelling in the exact same way, only creating a smaller world of expectations.  In our teenage years, we lack confidence; we are seeking for our place in the world. Often, we end up attempting to find identity in a group. We outsource the work of discovering ourselves and instead become a cookie cutter image of the next skateboarder.  But what if one of those kids had decided – I love skateboarding but I will remain a unique person of character and not identify myself merely as a skateboarder?  Then he could freely choose to not smoke pot and wear whatever pants he wanted.  It would be tough to break off, but then he could be free of their limitations. He would gain the power, as an individual of choice, to show a higher way to his skateboarding friends. Skateboarding would be something he enjoys, not a confining group with stifling definitions. I hope the increasing focus on group identity is a stage our society and teenagers can grow out of. 

Parliamentary Recruiting Committee Poster, London

“The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.”

Albert Einstein

My kids favorite football player is Russell Wilson.  He was once asked to respond to statements made by some other football players complaining that he wasn’t “black enough”. I found his response interesting.  

“In terms of me, ‘not black enough’ thing, I don’t even know what that means. I believe that I am an educated young male that is not perfect, that tries to do things right – ,that just tries to lead and tries to help others and tries to win games for this football team, for this franchise. And that’s all I focus on. … I think, for us, there are no distractions at all. I think it was people trying to find ways to knock us down.”

He seemed confused and uncomfortable by the line of questioning. It is obvious that in his own personal “hierarchy of identity,” Wilson saw himself as – Russell the individual – on the top, or near the top of his self-identity ladder. Who knows where his other identities were positioned?  Maybe he put quarterback above African American; maybe he put Christian even above Russell (he is devout). But it occurs to me that where we place our various identities on this ladder is also where we place our value, our responsibility, our actions and our worth. 

“Achievement has no color”

Abraham Lincoln
Russell Wilson, Quarterback Seattle Seahawks

Group Identity: Glory and Blame

The other day I was listening to the classical radio station and the male DJ said, “This was conducted by the first female conductor from Hungary. What a step for women everywhere and a sign of a progressing society!”

I found this statement very patronizing. Perhaps I was projecting, but I assumed this woman had the same personal hierarchy ladder I did – putting her individual self on top. If I were this conductor and heard women and society given the glory, and my own name mentioned as an afterthought – I would have felt cheated. She likely did have to overcome a lot because she was a woman, but she is the one who overcame. Instead of honoring her personal accomplishment, the credit went to her gender and society.

The downside of placing the individual on the top of the identity ladder is that the person has to take the responsibility and the blame. Many of us opt to stand on the group identity rung because responsibility can be swallowed up by the group. It’s like fighting in a crowd – you become a nameless and faceless actor. But more importantly, you can be a victim of an entire group’s circumstances – whether or not it is an honest reality for you. I personally am only too willing to step down the ladder a few rungs and say it was not me that was at fault, but the repression brought upon me by one of my identities. I can step down to my mother rung and complain, “Our society is not family-friendly anymore; it’s so hard to raise competent kids with all these electronics,” despite the fact that I have the capability of preventing access to electronics. But when my children succeed, I don’t give glory to mother-kind for overcoming, or praise society for supporting me. No, when my children achieve, I get to boast on my personal Facebook page.

Country Girl Leaning Against Ladder, Silvestro Lega

Confusion of Shifting identities

Rather than giving ourselves strict identities we usually end up moving up and down the ladder whenever it suits us, taking credit individually and then abdicating it to a sub-identity when things get tough.  This is not to say that some of our identities do not cause hardships – they do. However, I believe that if we place ourselves on top – unique person of character- and the buck stops with us, then we will be properly oriented toward the world. But we have to stay there, in good times and bad. This is where we gain the strength to face the hardships lower down. This is where choice happens, where progress is made. We accept that the identities below us will influence us for good or bad – but they are secondary to us – as an individual of free will.  

When society starts placing group identity higher than individual identity, it creates a world that doesn’t know where to hand out blame or glory. Rather than Russell Wilson being a unique person of character, he was given a new identity by his interviewer: black man of character. Well that seems fine, there is certainly nothing wrong with being black – but what if the first part of this new identity (black man) is questioned by other members of that group? Is he really black enough? If that identity is given precedence, then failing there is more important than failing at character. Being honest and hardworking matters little now, only not being good at being black.

We all want to see the end of racism, sexism and bigotry.  But how do we do that? Bigotry is one thing only – refusing to see the individual. Let’s not go back to labels. Let’s not assume a person’s views or judge them for not holding to the expectations of a group.  Let them show themselves to us.  

“Once you label me you negate me.”

Søren Kierkegaard

The Rung of Character

Mt. Elbrus, Nikolaj Alexandrowitsch Jaroschenko

The rung we stand on is where we get value.  When we stand as an individual, we expect to be treated as an individual. We know we will get the blame but we also  know we will get the credit. We know that the choices we make are made by us and that we are not victims of the choices of other members of a group. We do not have to fall in line with the expectations of a group or make the mistakes groups often make. We will certainly experience difficulty because of identities below us on the ladder.  Racism, sexism, bigotry are real things. But if we stand as an individual of character, we find the strength to face the battles below us on the ladder, and we gain the confidence to let struggles below us not define us.

“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

Rudyard Kipling

As parents, we must teach our children to stand on the rung individual character. If we start to see our child conforming to a group by dressing, speaking, or acting in line with the expectations of friends or online discussion groups, we must remind them where confidence is built. We must teach them that when they give up their individuality, they give up freedom. We must be examples of free will, unswayed by others expectations, unashamed to live life independently and obeying our own conscience. This will require more sacrifice and responsibility, than those that opt to define themselves by group. But our children’s self-worth will grow as they see that their choices can improve their lives, and that they can live one rung above the childish fray of cliques and “in-groups”.

Transcendent Identity

“To see God is to stand at the highest point of created being.”

George MacDonald
Ladder of Divine Ascent, 12th Century Icon

The limitation of group-identity is you get worth and judgment from the group. But despite its preference, the rung individual of character also has a weakness. If we seek validation from the individuals of this world, we will only be valuable according to earth-bound measurements – beauty, intelligence, wealth, performance. These terrestrial measurements are shaky; they don’t take our internal world into account – our soul – this is a world only God can know.

“Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God…we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”

1 John 3

As a Christian I would say there is rung above individual of character, and that is the rung of a Child of God. A Child of God does not get his/her worth from individual accomplishment, or group accomplishments – but from God Himself. This rung is safe and stable in its height, it has a strong Hand steadying it. The worth and value gained from this identity does not change with worldly praise or disdain. God looks at us as his children who are forever learning, having successes and failures, but secure in his love. Faith and sacrifice are required to stay on this rung but the peace and joy we gain surpasss any glories the world can provide.

“Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither.”

C.S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian

I think this song, by Lauren Diagle, should be a soundtrack playing in every young and grown woman’s heart. I listen to it when I need to be reminded to move up to the Child of God rung, to accept the value given me by God, not the condemnation often given by the world. “In You I find my worth, in You I find my identity”…

-Ally

—If you enjoyed this piece please share it. Thank you so much for reading and your support.

Relevant Resources:

Interview with Douglas Murray on the modern epidemic of Identity Politics

1917 and Remembering Who We Are, Bishop Robert Barron (A great piece on how following the wrong identity can lead to horrific tragedies – such as WWI) https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/1917-and-remembering-who-we-are/26302/

*Microaggressions at University of Minnesota https://sph.umn.edu/site/docs/hewg/microaggressions.pdf

Goodbye to the Beautiful Sir Roger Scruton

“Through the pursuit of beauty we shape the world as a home, and in doing so we both amplify our joys and find consolation for our sorrows.”

Sir Roger Scruton

Since encountering this video of Dr. Peterson and Sir Roger Scruton I became an ardent follower of Scruton’s work. He struck me as a very good man, and the more I listened to him and read his work the more good he became. He seemed to me as Nathaniel, “one in whom there was no guile.” He stood for the truth in the most noble way possible. He did not tear down opposing philosophies but built up the truth. He did not seek for his own glory but instead pointed people towards the beautiful. Thank you Sir Roger Scruton for dedicating your life to truth and beauty, but most of all – for living out those qualities and becoming a light yourself. I believe you are now encountering incalculable beauty.

“Beauty is an ultimate value—something that we pursue for its own sake, and for the pursuit of which no further reason need be given. Beauty should therefore be compared to truth and goodness, one member of a trio of ultimate values which justify our rational inclinations.

Sir Roger Scruton

“By living in a spirit of forgiveness we not only uphold the core value of citizenship but also find the path to social membership that we need. Happiness does not come from the pursuit of pleasure, nor is it guaranteed by freedom, it comes from sacrifice. That is the message of the Christian religion and it is the message that is conveyed by all the memorable works of our culture. It is the message that has been lost in the noise of repudiation, but which it seems to me can be heard once again if we devote our energies to retrieving it. And in the Christian tradition the primary act of sacrifice is forgiveness. The one who forgives sacrifices vengeance and renounces thereby a part of himself for the sake of another.”

Sir Roger Scruton

– Ally

Why Beauty Matters. Sir Roger Scruton

Hope on the New Year Quest

I have always struggled with consistency. Yet, ironically, every year I do consistently fail at keeping my New Year’s resolutions. Despite my predictable failures, at this time each year I make new goals. Perhaps my failure to is the result of the highly-addicted state I find myself in every January, after weeks of holiday-induced sugar consumption and late nights; not exactly conducive to resolute self-denial. I have found that if I start a new goal in March, it has a much higher chance of success. Nonetheless, if only for the example of determination I show my children, I plan on attempting new goals in the New Year. I hope that by applying some insights gained this year, I may succeed where I have previously failed.

Dr. Peterson gives some enlightening, and somewhat blunt, advice for those of us that cannot seem to achieve our goals, or even be motivated to make them.

Excellent practical advice I highly recommend Length 10:55

We need to “negotiate with ourselves” by deciding who we want to become and setting achievable goals. We have to be realistic and  adaptable. It takes a certain humility to work within our limitations, but only in working within them, can we then expand them.  

“Aim small. You don’t want to shoulder too much to begin with, given your limited talents, tendency to deceive, burden of resentment, and ability to shirk responsibility. Thus, you set the following goal: by the end of the day, I want things in my life to be a tiny bit better than they were this morning.”

Dr. Jordan Peterson

Adapting Failures

One year I decided I was going to wake up at 5 every morning and exercise. Some of my friends do this and I have always admired their tenacity. I really tried, I did it for many weeks. I was miserable and grumpy. From childhood, I have always been a sleeper. As a mom, I wake up a lot earlier than I want, but 5 a.m. pushed me way beyond my capacity. I tried. I failed. This goal required too much of a transformation for me. Now some would say, This is why you should never compare yourself to other people! This will only discourage you and make you feel bad about yourself. To me this viewpoint assumes the path of envy, but we can take a higher road. We can choose to admire the goodness in others and attempt to emulate those qualities that we would like to adopt. However, we need to have the maturity to adapt their successes to our own capacities as well as the realism to see that success is often accompanied by set-backs, for them and for us. When I failed to maintain my 5 a.m. workouts, I made a new goal. Now I work out during my youngest child’s nap. That works for me.

No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep on picking ourselves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes are in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up.”

C.S. Lewis

Once I develop my working-out-everyday muscle perhaps I can make inroads on my need for sleep. Perhaps not. Maybe I must come to terms with my weakness and accept frailty in certain things. If we attempt too much at once we overwork our growing willpower muscle. The important thing is that we start the trek, however small or halting our steps may be.

“It’s the job that’s never started that takes the longest to finish.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

We don’t need to beat ourselves with a stick of our own creation.  When we become our own tyrant, we rebel against our own repression. We need to have patience and realistic expectations for ourselves if we are going to achieve. We need to examine our failures and look for clues. Was this goal unrealistic? Was I unmotivated? Do I need to get rid of some bad habits blocking my path? Making and keeping goals is the path to progression. 

Hope Found on the Quest

Pilgrim’s Progress, English School

What is the point?  Why attempt new goals when the chances are we will fail?  Why would this time be any different?  I admit to having these thoughts after my numerous failures, usually around February 1st.  But the moment we give in to whatever “sorry state” in which we find ourselves, that is the moment hope departs. Without hope there can be no happiness.

“Happiness does not lie in happiness, but in the achievement of it.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

We all want to achieve more from life. This is as it should be, as a previous post said, we should “be easy to please, yet hard to satisfy.” Striving to improve gives us hope that things can get better; and acknowledgment of our current blessings gives us hope that our fortunes will continue.   

“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year. Finish every day and be done with it. … You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. To-morrow is a new day; … begin it well and serenely … It is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on the rotten yesterdays.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Our own imperfections make our path, and that of others, more difficult than it needs to be. We can change. We have the gift of free will; we can choose to overcome habits and practiced reactions. However, change can be difficult. We must be mindful and intentional if we are going to reach our goals. We must have our eyes on the goal, undeterred by the failures of the past, the distractions of today, or worry for the future.

In the book Pilgrim’s Progress, Pilgrim seeks a better life, away from the darkness and hopelessness of his hometown, The City of Destruction. He is warned that his quest will be difficult. Pilgrim must keep his eyes on the Celestial City and follow the path upward. However, when his path becomes too difficult, or he gets distracted from his goal, he leaves the path. The result is always disastrous. Fortunately, as he remains determined and hopeful, he repeatedly returns to the road. Pilgrim is beaten-up from his unnecessary misadventures, but he has learned to appreciate all the more the safety of that arduous path to his goal.

“It is always hard to see the purpose in wilderness wanderings until after they are over.”

John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress)

As parents, if our children see our quest for progression and our ability to remain constant in effort, despite setbacks and failures, they too will set their course for progression.

“This hill, though high, I covet to ascend;

The difficulty will not me offend.

For I perceive the way to life lies here.

Come, pluck up, heart; let’s neither faint nor fear.

Better, though difficult, the right way to go,

Than wrong, though easy, where the end is woe.”

John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress)

Good luck this New Year in your valiant efforts up the hill.

-Ally

Mary’s Shepherds

Let’s try and imagine the thoughts of Mary, the Mother of Christ, on the night of His birth. She lay uncomfortable and in pain, in dirty and unfamiliar surroundings, remembering the events which brought her to such low conditions. Nine months previously she had been visited by an angel and was told she would miraculously conceive the Savior of the world. She had the faith and humility to accept her role in this glorious event and humbly keep the truth to herself. God blessed her with confidants in her cousin Elizabeth, and her kind husband Joseph, but otherwise she was alone in her knowledge of the awesome Truth. When she and Joseph made the trip to Bethlehem, did she wonder why they were asked to embark on this journey at such a time? She surely had faith that God would do all He could to protect the precious cargo she carried. After a long and uncomfortable journey, they had arrived in Bethlehem. Any woman who has carried a child pities Mary riding a donkey in her trimester. Did she turn her eyes upward and ask why God would allow this? When she gave birth in a stable filled with dirty animals did she question all her previous revelations? Is this really your plan Lord?

Mary was a remarkable woman. Perhaps she did not doubt, but I would have. I would have expected a God who protected Mary from the harsh elements; a God who did not allow others to gossip and criticize the virtue of the Mother of God. I would have expected a God that made the path clear and bright. But God’s love does not show itself in freedom from hardship. Suffering and difficulty do not show God’s disfavor; they show we live in a fallen world. Yet God was there, His love could be found on the burdensome path and in the dirty stable. But His kindness was not exhibited in the way I would have imagined – a nice warm bed with sanitary sheets.

As she held her beloved newborn baby, in circumstances which could not have been less friendly, there arrived a miracle: poor shepherds, coming to glory the newborn King.  

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.  16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.  17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

Luke 2
Rubens, Peter Paul; Adoration of the Shepherds; Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford

What feelings of relief and comfort the arrival of these poor shepherds must have brought to Mary!  There could be no doubt that God was aware of her, her son truly was the newborn King! These strangers bore the first testimony of the Savior of the World. Mary and Joseph were no longer alone in their secret. Their faith and purpose were confirmed, their sacrifice had been accepted, and God’s son had truly arrived. The poverty of their circumstances surely fell to no importance as the love and glory of God filled that humble abode.  

Verse 19 tells us about Mary’s reaction to these events: 

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

Mary cherished the sacred and miraculous appearance of the shepherds. She kept this miracle in her heart always, and she would need it there. She would need to rely on it in the days that followed, when her young son faced death at the hands of Herod and their family was forced to flee to Egypt. She would need it when Jesus was a child lost in Jerusalem, when He was hung on the cross. She would need “these things” to comfort her, and to remind her of God’s love and mercy.

Likewise, when we see God’s hand in our lives, when we feel his love, we need to notice and retain these miracles. God’s profound visitations or revelations to us can seem infrequent, but they are powerful, and if we “keep” them and examine them again and again we can feel the same love and comfort we felt when they were given. 

As I think of mother of the Savior giving birth in these horrid circumstances, I take comfort in the knowledge that God did visit His chosen daughter.  He was with her along her difficult path and at its culmination. But he also provided her a miracle. He sent angels to the shepherds and these strangers sought out their Messiah. The shepherds arrival was a glorious and reassuring gift for Mary in a strange and inglorious place.  

“Love makes all safe.”

George MacDonald

God has sent me shepherds in times of discouragement and suffering. These instances may seem insignificant to the outsider but when I examine them, I feel God’s love for me. I remember walking to college one cold winter day. I was feeling discouraged and alone, doubting God and unsure of my own path. A car pulled up beside me, it was a young woman I had never seen. She asked if I wanted a ride up to campus. Tears welled in my eyes as I got in the car. I think of this experience, and many others like it, often. God had inspired this girl with His love, that love healed my doubting soul. She was also certainly strengthened in love as she followed His gentle promptings to help a spiritual sister.

“The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of your soul.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

God’s love is the miracle.  A miracle we can all share with each other.  This Christmas season I want to hear Gods’ voice and follow it.  I want to be his instrument in relieving the burdens of others, as Mary’s was by poor shepherds.

“Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”

C.S. Lewis

Merry Christmas!

  • Ally

*The three wise men did not arrive at the time of Christ’s birth. They came when He was about two years old.