I am an military brat, traveler, reader of Russian literature and non-fiction, and most importantly a mom of five young children. I believe mothers need to take our place as the builders of nations and stop apologizing away our significance. Thinking deeply about great ideas and current societal issues can help us develop the proper Philosophy of Motherhoood.
Allyson Flake Matsoso
“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.”
“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.”
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
*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.
“Remember then, there is only one time that is important – Now! It is the only time when we have any power.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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”
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.
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
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.”
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”.
“To see God is to stand at the highest point of created being.”
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”…
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“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.”
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
*The three wise men did not arrive at the time of Christ’s birth. They came when He was about two years old.
“This Helper who will, in the long run, be satisfied with nothing less than absolute perfection, will also be delighted with the first feeble, stumbling effort you make tomorrow to do the simplest duty. Every father is pleased at the baby’s first attempt to walk: no father would be satisfied with anything less than a firm, free, manly walk in a grown-up son. In the same way, ‘God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.”
C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity)
The relationship between God and his children is a model for the ideal relationship between parents and children – easy to please, yet hard to satisfy. I love the analogy of a baby learning to walk. As parents, we want our children to walk. We know we can’t do it for them; they have to figure it out themselves. But we still have a powerful role to play, a Helper as they stumble uphill towards greatness.
How we react to our children’s first steps and the role we play in their striving will frame their experience in life. Sometimes we may want to discourage our nine-month old who is already trying to walk. She is still a baby, she will hurt herself! I am not ready for her to grow up. While an understandable reaction, this is Stifling Motherhood – low expectations and ultimately selfish. Other times, as was the case with my overly-contented babies, we are frustrated by our chubby 14-month old who is still satisfied with his crawling. Is there something wrong with this kid? Why can’t he just walk! This is Disappointed Motherhood. Because our expectations are too high, we miss being present with our current child- the glorious crawler. We have already forgotten our joy at his mastery of that long-awaited skill.
As a previous post explained, we need to have proper expectations for our children. These should be high, but adapted to each child’s capabilities, personality, and talents. We can have high hopes for our child but we must also glory in every feeble step they take- no matter how imperfect or delayed. Expectations become a burden when children feel incapable of achieving them, or when parents never seem content with their efforts.
The Answer of Patience – Joy
So what is this God-like attribute described in the quotation above? How do we maintain our hard-to-satisfy expectations while glorying in our children’s journey? The answer – Patience. God looks upon our feeble and halting steps here on earth as a Loving Father towards his learning toddlers. Just as we would never shame our two-year-old who tearfully admits to knocking over the lamp, He does not chasen us when we trip and fall short of perfection. He freely forgives, if spiritual toddlers even need forgiveness. God may well laugh at our distraught anxiety at our imperfections – just as I chuckle at my three-year-old’s frustration that she can’t ride the hoverboard like her big brother. He knows the timeline, he is in no rush, but the expectation remains the same. Our immaturities do not demand condemnation. They simply require patience and perseverance. Perfectionism is the thief of joy.*
A few years ago, I began praying for patience every night – having 5 kids under 7 can do that to a woman. One night after a day full of my own impatience, I had the thought, Maybe I am doing this wrong. Do I even really know what I am requesting? I would pray, “Please give me patience with these kids’ disobedience! Give me patience with my cold and moldy basement apartment! And please give it to me now!” I don’t think I actually wanted patience. I wanted my wishes granted. I wanted submissive kids and to get out of that basement.
So what is the patience we seek? It can’t simply be learning to wait because necessity requires that. It also isn’t an ability to stop wanting things. We need our desire so we feel compelled to crawl, walk, and run. Good desires should not be abandoned on the altar of “patience”, and waiting without action is no virtue. What we need is to develop God’s patience. Patience is finding joy while we wait. We don’t wait to have joy when our kids are perfectly compliant or our house is above-ground but we find pleasure in the here and now, while we wait. Rather than begrudging that my chunky baby wasn’t walking, I could glory in his crawling. Instead of complaining about living in dilapidated student-housing, I could buy heavy curtains and rejoice in my space-heaters.
“The principle part of faith is patience.”
When our children start to walk, but continue to fall; or when they get discouraged and refuse to attempt the journey into our welcoming arms, we show them God’s Patience. We also accept that our Helper’s patience is there for us as well, in our stumbling steps as a mother. We strive to be better, and delight in each and every small stride. We bless our children with a joyful mother, modeled after our joyful Father, glorying in their small steps toward greatness.
*I hope to do a future post on dropping the load of worldly “perfectionism”.
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“Gratitude is a currency that we can mint for ourselves, and spend without fear of bankruptcy.”
Fred De Witt Van Amburgh
An expression of gratitude is a gift to both receiver and giver. Receiving thanks reminds us that our efforts are not in vain, that we are valuable to others. Giving thanks opens the windows of heaven; it allows us to see what we may have otherwise been blind to.
One of the more difficult aspects of motherhood is that our efforts are often unappreciated. Not only is its significance increasingly disregarded by society but even our own families often don’t acknowledge our sacrifices. Little children rarely think to thank you for making them a sandwich, or going through the hell of potty training. Husbands simply can’t comprehend the misery of the third trimester. This is a reality best accepted rather than resented.*
“Gratitude is a duty which ought to be paid, but which none have a right to expect.” –
Despite the ingratitude of others, we can live in thanksgiving as we adopt our own attitude of gratitude. Even without receiving it, we can spend grateful-currency on others, which makes us richer in the spending.
A few days ago I noticed my son, age ten, allowing his three-year-old sister to drag him around by the shirt as he pretended to be her puppy. This went on for quite a while and I could tell he was not loving this game. He moaned a bit as she pulled him up the stairs, but he generously allowed his persistent little sister to dominate him. She never expressed her gratitude to her older brother, but she was having the time of her life. After they finished playing I sat down next to my son and said, “Thank you so much for playing with her like that. I know you would rather have done something else but she had so much fun with you. You are a very kind big-brother.” It was obvious that this statement of appreciation meant a lot to him. We had a wonderful bonding moment together. He felt loved and I felt blessed to have raised him. It is sad to consider how many similar selfless acts I have ignored. It seems it is not just mothers that are unappreciated.
Thankfulness is only found when we step out of the humdrum nature of life and notice the miraculous around us. As mothers, we have before us perfect miniature-models of this capacity – small children. Children haven’t forgotten to look – they glory in observing their world. They discover new joys everyday as we become increasingly blind to them. When I first moved to the Hill Country of Texas, I remember being enthralled by the majestic Live Oak trees. Now I can go weeks without actually seeing one – despite their ubiquity. I took a walk with my toddler the other day. She inspected the cracks in the sidewalk and screamed excitedly as she discovered a string of fire ants. She lovingly gave me five dandelions to put in my hair. She chased an ill-tempered stray cat. Rather than the annoyance or disregard I typically give to all of the above, she, in actually seeing them, experienced their magic and joy.
But it is not enough to open our eyes, we must open our mouths. Children live in a spirit of gratitude, as adults we must learn to express it.
“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”
William Arthur Ward
Now we can call up our mom and thank her for potty training us. We can thank our daughter for not complaining about her chores. We can thank our husbands for taking out the trash. With every acknowledgement of appreciation life looks brighter. In recognizing others good deeds, we see that our own have paid off. My son must have listened to my lessons on kindness, my daughter must be maturing out of her obstinacy, my husband notices the needs of his family.
It is an unfortunate truth that we are all tilted towards the negative, we tend to focus on the wilted rose in our beautiful bouquet.
“Man only likes to count his troubles; he doesn’t calculate his happiness.”
However, if we consciously decide to notice the joy in life, and acknowledge it – we unlock the joy that was hidden.
“No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”
If we open our eyes as a child we see the glory of life. As we receive these riches we will live in a state of thankfulness, and become rich. If we spend our self-minted money of gratitude generously toward the oft-unappreciated efforts of others, joy increases. The world can become a truly glorious and miraculous place.
“Don’t worry about being happy. Just try to be grateful, and happiness just comes.”
-We are always grateful and appreciative of your shares, recommendations, and comments.
*There are things we can do to teach appreciation to our children, I hope to write a future post on how we can help our children learn the art of gratitude.
“The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.”
William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair)
When I was a freshman at university, I worked in the college Ice Cream Shop. I went through a vigorous fifteen-minute training, done by the creamery supervisor, a sage 19 year-old Sophmore. He demonstrated how to dip the ice cream scoop in water, sink it into the favored barrel, and put it on a cone. After one practice scoop, I had it mastered. He didn’t elaborate on the proper size of the scoop or how to interact with the customers – he didn’t seem concerned with such trivialities. The workplace can be quite relaxed when the management consists of disinterested college students. However, as I worked there I noticed that not everyone interacted the same way with ice cream, or customers for that matter. I discovered some truths about human nature, which have been repeatedly confirmed throughout my life. I realized that there are only two kinds of people in this world – big-scoopers and small-scoopers. Some of my coworkers would dish out wimpy scoops to a child or student, unaware or unphased by their disappointed faces. Others would push the boundaries of a “single scoop” and deliver a very generous scoop to a delighted customer. I was more the latter; in fact, customers began requesting me. After seeing the portions handed out by a tight-fisted employee, they would ask, “Is Ally working tonight?” Now, some would say that the stingy employees were more honest – and if the corporate policy was clear, I might agree. However, it was obvious that no one minded how much we put in a scoop of ice cream.
“For it is in giving that we receive.”
St. Francis of Assisi
I often wondered why someone, given the freedom to dish out a large scoop or a small one, would continually dish out small ones – especially after witnessing the celebrity status of the big-scoop employees. I noticed that those employees who handed out meager scoops, tended to exhibit other attributes. Rather than enjoying their job working at an ice cream shop, (literally every child’s dream), they came to work grumpy. Rather than interacting joyfully with customers, they acted bored or even rude. They discovered a multitude of reasons to complain about their work conditions or shift schedule. Why interact with the world this way? It certainly seemed this pessimistic view of life was making them miserable and building up their own personal hell.
“We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.”
Have we Become Miss Trunchbull?
I recently watched the movie “Matilda” with my children. The headmaster of the school, Miss Trunchbull, is a characterture of an angry and vindictive woman – someone that hates life and takes it out on innocents. Miss Truchbulls are all too common in our children’s lives. In school, children are chastised, “No talking during lunch!” “Don’t climb trees!” In Kindergarten my daughter was even reprimanded for hugging her friend, “No hugs allowed in school!” Adults become the oppressors of childhood joy. By focusing on the negative with children, we may be stifling their generous and happy nature and inadvertently creating a new generation of small scoopers.
We have all met real-life Miss Trunchbulls: a snippy store clerk, that curt librarian, or the lady you pray doesn’t call your number at the DMV. Negative women, and men, are easy to spot and we generally try and avoid them. However, for some reason, it is much harder to recognize ourselves as one of them. We may, in fact, be blissfully unaware that we have become a Miss Trunchbull in children’s eyes, or that we are now ungenerous scoopers. We are so consumed by our own suffering, our own injustices, our own stresses, that we don’t see the hell that follows us. We don’t see that our outlook on life is draining the joy of others around us, that our perspective is teaching our kids that the world is an ungenerous place, a place where ice cream needs to be preserved, not shared.
Why Debbie Downer and not Fezziwig?
“Life begins as a quest of the child for the man, and ends as a journey by the man to rediscover the child.”
There are many reasons we may have allowed ourselves to become ungenerous or negative. Perhaps we have lived a difficult life or have a disagreeable personality type. Perhaps we feel unloved or unappreciated. Maybe we have developed a scarce view of the world, believing in zero-sum happiness. Regardless of the source of our negativity, we must realize that we can never expect good things from life if we refuse to interact with it graciously.
If instead, we decide to take the opposite course, the cheerful-road less traveled, we will find influence that even the most miserly among us can appreciate and cherish. Ebeneezer Scrooge was asked by the Ghost of Christmas Present why he respected his old employer Fezziwig, who spent his money on frivolous amusements. Scrooge said, “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” (Charles Dickens, The Christmas Carol)
So how do we start rendering others happy, rather than unhappy? What can we do to change our negative habits, personality, or outlook?
1. Become a Spectator
“The best way to keep a prisoner from escaping is to make sure he never knows he’s in prison.”
Are we unaware of the prison of negativity and hostility in which we are residing? We need to become conscious to the way we are interacting with the world. We need to look at ourselves as an impartial observer. This should be done without judgement. If we become a spectator to our own behavior, we may see things we would never expect. Are we giving out wimpy scoops? Are we yelling at innocent children? Rather than feeling condemned by the imperfections we notice in ourselves, we should see hope – hope of progress. We have likely noticed we are unhappy – here might be a good place to start to rectify that. If we seek to improve our interactions with others, their reactions to us will also certainly improve.
Despite my previous notoriety as a Big Scooper, I regret to admit I have many moments of stingy behavior. It is interesting how I can become a witness to my own destructive behaviors, but seem unable to stop them. This is when I let my impulses overtake my free will. I observe a witchy woman – fully engulfed in emotionality, which I seem powerless to stop. I see myself displaying negative habits and reacting instinctively rather than with thoughtfulness and kindness. I see myself yelling at joyfully laughing children in the backseat. I notice myself unloading emotional baggage on my husband as he walks in the door from a long-day at work, without concern for him. These moments all seem to occur above a common denominator, stress. When we attempt to remove our own bias and see ourselves clearly, we can choose to react differently – more positively. Being self-observant has helped me identify my stress-triggers and prevent them.
2. Decide who you want to be
I used to have a distaste for the phrase, “Fake it till you make it” because I dislike insincerity, I always strive to be genuine and respect others I feel are authentic. However, I have found in marriage and mothering that sometimes if I am in a bad mood – I simply need to fake happiness, for the sake of myself and my family. I want my children to remember their mom as happy and nurturing. I want my husband to feel welcomed by a generous and loving wife.
An interesting and well-known study, now known simply as the Pencil Study, showed that people’s moods can be elevated simply by placing a pencil in their mouths – forcing them to use their smile muscles. It seems “faking it” can trick our brains into producing endorphins and serotonin. Doing charitable acts can make us more charitable. Directing our thoughts to others can decrease our selfishness. We sometimes need to force ourselves out of our negative cycles – improve our posture, take a walk, pray, be grateful. But most of all we must decide who we want to be and work to become that person. We must strive to be the hero of our story and shun the enemy we could become.
3. Integrate who you want to be with how you live
We can decide that we are not going to be a slave to a pessimistic view of life. We can freely choose to prevent such reactions and to interact with the world differently. But it takes using our attention and focus, especially if we are in the habit of reacting negatively.
We must prepare and prevent. We know when our own Miss Trunchbull is likely to emerge. For me it is 5:30 at night as I prepare dinner. My noise bucket is now full and my will-power muscle is worn out, so I start to get snippy with my children. If I do not change the conditions, the outcome will always be the same, so I play relaxing classical music or send the kids outside to play. If it has been a stressful day, I consciously decide to not complain to my husband until he has been home fifteen minutes, even if I have to tell Alexa to remind me. I usually find when 15 minutes are up, I have forgotten my complaints.
If we are going to successfully defeat our mean nature, we need to “negotiate with ourselves”, as Dr. Jordan Peterson says. First we need to become a spectator and witness the negative consequences of our pessimism and unpleasantness. Then we need to decide if we really are willing to become a more positive person. Finally we need to integrate that positivity into our lives. This might require a changing of routines, shifting our outlook, and even some moments of “pretending”. But there is hope that we can become a big-scooper again. As we see the benefit of positivity, our efforts will be a reward unto themselves.
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek, find. Those who knock, it is opened.”
C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce)
Bring Heaven Down
When I look back at my days at the Creamery, I remember it as pure joy. I gloried in that ice cream and the happiness it brought. I want that “Ally” back for good. Some days she is here and other days Miss Trunchbull makes her appearance. I have hope that I can live the heavenly days of college again, and why not? I am now surrounded by my children and husband, whom I love dearly. Now should be the time I am most capable of building up my own heaven. I remain convinced of the truth I learned in college: there are only two types of people in this world, big-scoopers and small-scoopers. But now I know that the choice is before me day after day, moment after moment, who will I be? Will I make a heaven or a hell?
“At the end of things, The Blessed will say, “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven.” And the lost will say, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.”
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