“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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Recently I was visiting my mother, who lives in another state. She makes the best sourdough bread on earth, resulting in an average 5 lbs weight-gain per visit. As I demolished a warm slice, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “Mom, you make the absolute best bread!” Rather than accepting my compliment, she seemed a bit annoyed and said sarcastically, “Oh yeah, I’m really changing the world, one piece of bread at a time!” I chuckled and moved on. However, I thought about this reaction for awhile. My mother has many and varied talents and accomplishments, but for some reason she almost seemed ashamed of this particular skill- baking bread. This task seemed to her so menial that its mention was almost a reproach.
The Shame of the Kitchen It struck me how common this sentiment is. The go-to response from women seeking independence or influence is, “I am not going to be just be a mom stuck in some kitchen!” “I can do more than bake bread!” Hillary Clinton said, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but I decided to fulfill my profession.” Miley Cyrus declared, “I don’t fit into the stereotypical wife role, I don’t even like that word…do people really think I’m at home in an apron cooking dinner?!”
Why rip on the kitchen? Why shame bread? Why the constant degrading of food preparation? We Americans are fat after all. Considering our obsession with food, you would think we would view the cooks as next to the gods. When memes pop up in our culture, it is often illuminating to examine them and seek their origins.
Back to the Dark Ages If we look back in time, visiting the Middle Age of human history, we see men and women playing vastly different roles. Women, tied down by children and menstruation, stayed near the home. They tended the chickens, cleaned the house, and prepared the food. Their empathetic and nurturing natures aided them in raising young children. Women were Nourishers – body and soul. The men went out into the world, unburdened by breastfeeding or physical limitation. Their strength and less emotional natures enabled them to do the harsh and dangerous work of hunting. They brought this food home to to be prepared by women.
We see that in ancient times a man’s role as “provider” was not any more prestigious than a woman’s role as “nourisher”. They both made sacrifices and worked hard to survive in a harsh world. Many men died in the hunt or in war. Many women died in childbirth. Roles kept the family stable. It meant everyone had a place. It meant boys and girls knew their future path.
Today, however, we don’t see “provider” and “nourisher” as equal. No, as my mother’s shame for bread-making suggests, the pre-industrial woman’s place in the kitchen is disgraceful to modern-feminism and, progressively, society at large. However the historic male equivalent – a male hunter providing for his family, doesn’t affect disgust.
Why? Both are acts driven by biology to protect and nourish the family. Both are self-sacrificing. The man wasn’t excited about potentially being eaten by wolves and the woman wasn’t eager to work over a hot fire. But what has now made the woman’s role seem inferior? I believe it is the symbol of the hunter we now crave – access to the outside world, to the freedom and prestige it provides. What mis-colors our view of the past? What do we now have that would influence our new perspective: Money. As the Bible says, “For the love of money is the root of all evil.”
Money as Motivation The industrial revolution changed things dramatically. Men began to have opportunities that were not there before. There were new ways to provide for the family. Men transformed the hunting act into tradable labor, and money. This money could exceed the amount needed for simple survival. Money was not made by Nourishers, but by Providers. Women began to feel restrained by their home kitchen. Women were kept from this advantage – held back by their bodies, children, and social mores.
As men began to accumulate excess wealth and power, they gained freedoms women lacked. Survival and family stability were no longer their sole motivators. Women, as Nourishers of the family, decreased in influence as the family’s importance decreased, crowded out by commerce. Local bakers could now supply our bread. The spiritual center, the home, had to compete with a material culture, capable of satisfying needs the home once met, and of creating new needs as well.
The Bread of Life
Somewhere along the way, women, in seeing their lack, forgot their abundance. What’s interesting about my mom’s embarrassment at her bread-making is that she was blind to the true influence she has. When I ask my children what they miss most about Grandpa and Grandma they always mention her baking. The smell of Grandma’s freshly baked bread brings warmth and comfort.
But bread is more than a physical nourishment. Bread has spiritual power. Christ called himself, The Bread of Life.
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
He did not use hunting analogies in describing his role. Many were disappointed by His chosen title as they had hoped for a Warrior Messiah, a man to overthrow Roman rule. But He made clear he had not come as a material provider. His mission was to the soul. He used bread – the domain of the feminine – to define His influence. “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Mothers can live out this symbolism in our own homes. Our love and sacrifice brings abundance to others. A mother’s influence exceeds any power that originates in a boardroom or on a battlefield. If we honestly look back on our lives and ask who has been the most influential, we think of our mother. This influence may be for good or evil. Olympic gold-medalists praise their mothers while otherssit on psychologists couches expounding their mommy issues. The difference is in the bread. We all yearn for bread baked in love and kindness. We feel unsatisfied and neglected with Wonderbread. (Warning: this is symbolic, my own children often eat Wonderbread – but only because my mother lives a thousand miles away).
Modern Times: The Reason Shifts With the invention of birth control, women gained some choice. They no longer had to be “stuck” in the kitchen. They could limit the number of children they had. They had personal hygiene products to allow them to work outside the home. The kitchen became a symbol of the past. Independent-minded women did not have to be slaves to food prep – they could make money and gain power like men. Many women would have rather stayed in the kitchen, but shifting economies and weakening extended family structure forced many women into the workplace. What initially began as an economic necessity, became the norm.
With new monetary opportunities came new sacrifices. The ultimate sacrifice was that of the feminine purpose. Rather than focusing on the spiritual benefits of a present-mother and warm kitchen, many, out of necessity or preference, prioritized material gain. Women had a new and paradigm-shifting question to answer, Are children a blessing or a burden?
“I love these little people; and it is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us.”
If a woman wanted to be successful materially, she would need to give up a large family. If she was truly ambitious, she could decide against children altogether. Children, before seen as motivation for the sacrifice and work, now became, for many, an impediment to material and personal success. A woman’s kitchen, absent of her children, is a inglourious place indeed, with no nourishment or encouragement to be given and no bonds to be formed. Single young women with no dreams of marriage or family have every reason to shun bread-baking. Who would it be for?
The materialistic and independent world taught to our young daughters leaves no place for the nourishing feminine traits of the kitchen. The modern hunting-ground of commerce requires neither nurture or compassion. Women drop their feminine strengths and trade them in for a cold heart and a modern bow and arrow.
What Happened in the Kitchen But what did we leave behind? Perhaps the things left behind, through choice or necessity, are the same ones that prevented the now skyrocketing mental health issues, promiscuity, addiction, and general unhappiness and meaninglessness. If we actually consider it – the neglected kitchen may be vastly more influential in the success of a society than any gains women have made in employment.
So what really happened in that stifling kitchen? Well, some stifling. As I stated previously, I do not personally enjoy cooking. I can see myself frustrated, wanting to go out and explore the world but restrained by my place and expectations. I have compassion for the generations of women that did not have a choice. Women’s lot was certainly hard. But in the modern interpretation of history, the reason given is shallow and simplistic – men subjugated women. The fact is that life was horrific for both sexes – and often horrific in different ways. Men and women had to collaborate to survive. The little joy that was found in this life of hardship was often found in the family kitchen and in the bonds formed therein.
“Family not only need to consist of merely those whom we share blood, but also for those whom we’d give blood.”
The Soul of the Home
Considering that there is “nothing new under the sun”, we can assume that the same dynamics we see in our modern world, occured in the past. What happens in our own kitchens, happened in theirs, minus the electricity and basic hygiene. A mother is feeding her baby her first bite of mush. Children are playing with dough on the kitchen table. A teen-age daughter is crying over her first breakup. A father is expounding the meaning in a passage of scripture. The kitchen is where life happens, where love is given, where ideas are discussed, where bonds are formed. Kitchens are factories of childhood resilience. If we scorn the kitchen – if we ridicule the mother baking bread – we shame the soul out of families. Families without strong bonds, without a spiritual center, will fail. If our society loses the foundation of loving families, we are doomed to a purely material fate. The lack that is felt from a cold kitchen is shown in the psychology and self-worth of the populace.
The mother has the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose only – and that is to support the ultimate career.
Do I Need to Bake?
Does this mean that we can’t work outside the home, that we must handcuff ourselves to the kitchen counter and revert back to all the traditions of the past? Do I need to figure out how to bake bread to be a good Mom? Absolutely not. It means that we respect the kitchen, we glory in the symbol and the meaning of bread – familial engagement and nurture. We harness the nourishing power of this bread where we can provide it. A working mother can give encouragement to her children on the car ride to school. The bread of empathy can be given after our son’s hard day at school. It can be found in the warmth of embrace to our returning husband.
The next time you hear a woman denigrate the “kitchen” or unsung work such as “baking bread”, remember that generations of women poured their love and sacrifice into that bread. That bread was a masterpiece of love and creation; it still can be. Our modern world could do with more bread-makers, more women who glory in their feminine strengths. As we go off to work, let’s refuse to pick up a bow and arrow and instead bring bread. We need women who, before pursuing material gain or social prestige, seek ways to bring love and comfort to others. We have the power to bring the comfort of the kitchen to a dreary workplace, or to a sick neighbor. As women increase in responsibility and influence, let’s not shut the door on the kitchen.
The Glory of the Kitchen
My own mother, despite her own belittling, did have a place in her kitchen. Her glory was not found in the praise of men, but the love of her family. Her kitchen was a spiritual and emotional refuge from the material cares of the world. As a child, my own insecurities and anxiety were always left behind as I smeared butter on my warm, freshly-cut slice. In the end, education, financial gains, and the “glory of men” are insignificant contributors to my current health, perspective, and contentment. My happiness was baked in my childhood, in my mother’s bread.
“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!”
As a weary mother, holding a crying infant in the early morning hours, we may find solace in these words – “and this, too, shall pass away.” We will not have this exhausting baby for long. We shall not long have this privilege. We are grateful for the acute nature of many of our trials, we would never mourn their passing. But parenthood is a burden of a different type. Rare is the parent that, in gazing on their growing child, does not feel a tinge of longing for the fussy newborn they once were. When we see our child growing into adulthood we wish it had not passed so quickly. We reach back into the past and see those early morning feedings in a new light, we see love where before there was weariness. Let’s allow this mantra to find a place in our hearts, “this, too, shall pass away.” If we value each moment all the more for its fleeting nature, we may at least look upon our grown-newborn without regret for the part we played in this fated passing.