“A century ago, men were following, with bated breath, the march of Napoleon, and waiting with feverish impatience for the latest news of the wars. And all the while, in their own homes, babies were being born. But who could think about babies? Everybody was thinking about battles.
“In one year, lying midway between Trafalgar and Waterloo, there stole into the world a host of heroes! During that one year, 1809, Gladstone was born at Liverpool; Alfred Tennyson was born at the Somersby rectory, and Oliver Wendell Holmes made his first appearance at Massachusetts. On the very self-same day of that self same year Charles Darwin made his debut at Shrewsbury, and Abraham Lincoln drew his first breath at Old Kentucky. Music was enriched by the advent of Frederic Chopin at Warsaw, and of Felix Mendelssohn at Hamburg, Samuel Morley, Edwin Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Francis Kemple. But nobody thought of babies. Everybody was thinking of battles. Yet viewing that age in the truer perspective which the distance of a hundred years enables us to command, we may well ask ourselves, ‘Which of the battles of 1809 mattered more than the babies of 1809?’
“We fancy that God can only manage His world by big battalions abroad, when all the while He is doing it by beautiful babies. When a wrong wants righting, or a work wants doing, or a truth wants preaching, or a continent wants opening, God sends a baby into the world to do it. That is why, long, long ago, a babe was born at Bethlehem.”
Many years ago, there lived a woman named Sally. She was a widow with three children. Life had been hard and she would have welcomed a change for the better if it came. She thought she saw it come when a man, who was a widower from her past, returned with a proposal of marriage, in his nice suit of clothes, with talk of a prosperous farm. The thoughts of a better life were inviting and she heard him mention servants and that he was a man of substance. She accepted and crossed the river with him to view her new possessions: What she found was a farm, overgrown with wild blackberry vines and sumac, a floorless, windowless hut. The only servants were two thinly clad barefoot children. Their father had borrowed the suit and the boots to go a-courting in. Her first thought was the obvious one: go back home! But she looked at the motherless children, especially the younger, a boy whose melancholy gaze met hers. For a moment she paused, then, rolling up her sleeves, she quietly spoke these words: “I’ll stay for the sake of this boy.” Oh, Sally Bush, what a treasure stood before your eyes that day. She didn’t know when she looked at that melancholy face of ten years, that her stepson would save this nation, and become the immortal Abraham Lincoln. He was speaking of her, when he later said, “All that I am, and all that I ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”
Every Mother’s Day my father would read this story. For me, it has come to symbolize the Heroic Mother and the influence she can have on the world. (It still makes me cry every time I hear it.)
In our modern age motherhood is often seen as demeaning and unrewarding work. Common expressions include, “Why do women have to be the ones to stay home with babies?” “I can be much more than just a mom.” These sentiments don’t offend me, they sadden me. The meaning and power of motherhood is increasingly being lost in younger generations. Mothers shape culture. The love and nurture children receive from their mothers can echo down the generations and throughout the world. Yes, women can do many important things outside motherhood, but no other work will be as meaningful as mothering a child in love and truth.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers, and those who act as mothers, who, with their love and sacrifice, can transform the world.
C.S. Lewis said, “There are two odd things about the human race. First, that they are haunted by a sort of behavior they ought to practice, what you might call fair play or decency or morality. Second, that they do not in fact act that way”. As the previous post examined, we all seem to have an innate sense of right and wrong, and the soul attempts to guide us in following these promptings of conscience. But there is still so much evil in the world, and in our own hearts. Why?
Almost weekly we see a viral video of teenagers ganging up on a defenseless victim while bystanders laugh, or refuse to intervene. It is a sad commentary on the state of our society. Where is morality? What has gone wrong in the inner lives of those capable of such behavior? How can we prevent this moral disintegration in our own children?
Sacrifice and Morality
Sacrifice is not a sexy thing to talk about; it also doesn’t sound very fun. But sacrifice is what makes societies flourish. Moral choices are decisions of sacrifice. Jordan Peterson explains it as, “giving up something in the present so you can improve the future.” When you have two competing impulses and your conscience tells you to choose the weaker of the two – you are sacrificing the realization of your stronger impulse, with the hope that your choice may eventually benefit you, or the world at large. As the previous post explained, returning Nutella required the sacrifice of my lazy nature, but it benefited society, my on-looking children, and my own sense of integrity. In order to get a handle on how to preserve Morality, when modern-times have enlarged the importance of Self, Jordan Peterson helps us understand that sacrifice is really for our own benefit.
Parental Duty: A parents’ example of sacrificing the “demands of flesh” for goodness, are influential in helping our children maintain their morality. The other day my sweet little toddler pointed out the window at a car and said, “Look at that Idiot!” I was shocked and said, “Sweety, Idiot is a mean word – we don’t say words like that in this family.” My older daughter said, “Mom, you say that all the time when you are driving.” Oops! We parents need to learn to temper our own emotionality and be examples of self-control. “You pass by a child, spiteful, with ugly words, with wrathful heart; you may not have noticed the child, but he has seen you, and your image – unseemly and ignoble – may remain in his defenseless heart. You don’t know it, but you may have sown an evil seed in him and it may grow, and all because you were not careful before the child, because you did not foster in yourself a careful, actively benevolent love,” Fyoder Dostoyevsky.
What is Good Anyway?
Not only is sacrifice of immorality increasingly rare, but the very concept of good and evil is questioned in an increasingly relativist world. Ben Shapiro pointed out that a cultural shift has been occurring over the last several decades, “Where children had once learned from Pinocchio to ‘always let your conscience be your guide,’ now they are taught by Frozen, ‘no right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free, Let it go!” Children are told from a young age that they should do whatever makes them happy. Often that statement is not qualified with restrictions or exceptions. The end justifies the means. This leaves children guideless and at the whim of instinct. When their moral voice warns them against an action – which may in fact make them happy – they become confused. ‘Free choice requires a real distinction between good and evil, without that you don’t have free choice,” Jordan Peterson. A generation of youth have been inundated with amoral messages such as the motto of Assassin’s Creed, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”.
As Scientific Materialism is elevated to a new religion, goodness itself is questioned and the Self becomes god. With the view that we are simply a product of evolutionary impulses with no eternal significance, we can justify the conscious disregard of conscience. The words of Hamlet seem more applicable today than ever, “There is no good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” With this mindset there is no alternative but the supremacy of the natural Self’s desires. As C.S. Lewis explains in his prophetic prediction of the destruction of the Moral Law, The Abolition of Man, “When all that says, ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.” From our modern culture children can only expect justification for selfishness, moral guidance must come from us parents.
When We Age-out of Morality
When he was teaching a group of disciples Christ placed a small child before them in said, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven? Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” Children have an innate humility and ability to recognize the promptings of conscience. My son scolds me quite often for my “small” lapses in morality. “Mom, that light was red!” “Mom, why did you say I missed school because I was sick; we went to the zoo!” His righteousness can get old at times, but since my conscience has apparently been dulled by neglect, he is a good stand-in.
However, the ability to consistently recognize the moral choice often fades with age. As time passes, the Self begins to dominate the Soul. When children become more socially aware, they seek the approval of friends, even if it means ignoring their internal morality. If parents emphasise the importance of friends, children feel pressure to conduct themselves in any way they must, to gain acceptance. Knowing this threat, every morning when my sister’s boys march out the door for school, she yells after them, “Be a Leader, not a Follower!”
When puberty hits, nature’s instincts become more powerful – the body can behave like a tyrant. Raging hormones combined with parents and peers chipping away at our natural morality, can lead to disaster. Parents counterproductive push of happiness-seeking rather than sacrifice, and peer pressure, are often at odds with “righteousness.” The loud demands of the natural Self can easily drown out the softer calls of a soul’s conscience. The soul may well lose this war. But there are steps parents can take to help our children fight back against the often selfish and immoral calls of the body. As part 1 mentioned, emphasising the reality of the soul and “Moral Law”, as well as providing a strong example of living in harmony with conscience, will give children the proper perspective to fight back. But how do we prevent the Self from becoming too powerful?
Arming for the Battle of the Body
Often it can feel like there is a battle between our souls and our bodies; a battle between what is right and what is desired. Dr. Jordan Peterson has an entire chapter of his book, 12 Rules forLife, examining the idea of choice – and choosing the righteous call of conscience (meaning) over the selfish demands of the natural self (expedience). “Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient”. Each decision which leads us towards corruption, at the expense of conscience, is one step towards individual and societal decay. Unfortunately the body and soul are often at odds, “Walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would.” Galatians 5:15
The body is often driven by the desire to survive – our instincts. As a moral soul, we would correct Hamlet and say that these desires are “neither good or evil – it is in the doing that makes them so.” In the moment of choice morality is found. If we become a slave to our instincts, it is because we are following the call of “the flesh” at the expense of our moral self. The calls of pleasure, of popularity, and self-preservation are all driven by our natural and selfish desires.
Parental Duty: Here lies another responsibility of parents. We must be as my mother’s voice was (see Part 1) – a feeling of guilt accompanying an immoral choice. When the flash of conscience is not enough, values instilled by parents could well tip the scales. The knowledge of these values can stay with our children throughout their lives. Our children may not follow the path we desire, but the principles we teach will remain as the echo of truth. Proverbs 22:6 “Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Role Play and the Development of Morality
Studies indicate that role-playing, or acting out moral dilemmas, help children develop empathy and integrity. If we use our children’s own body in the development of values, morality can be built into their very muscle memory. When examining the horrors of history, such as the Holocaust, Dr. Peterson speaks about the importance of imagining yourself not just as a victim, but as a perpetrator. Children do this all the time as they play, there has to be a bad guy. As they pretend, children learn the motivations of the bad guy and the attributes of a good hero. As we attempt to pass values onto our children, it is helpful to use the imagination and physicality of children to aid us. In our family we like to act out scriptures stories after reading them. A few nights ago we learned about the Good Samaritan. The kids all picked their characters and proceeded to play out the story. It is fascinating to watch as children are able to pick up on motivations and intent not conveyed in text. My four-year-old daughter played the first traveler to pass the poor beaten man. As she passed by my son, disheveled and laying in a heap, she looked down in disgust and said, Eww!
Teaching values means speaking honestly with your children about impulses, threats, and temptations they may face and helping them work out solutions in advance. When I was in high school, kids often offered me pot or cigarettes. They knew I was a “good girl” and so went out of their way to try and pressure me. I never felt tempted in the slightest, I had made my decisions years in advance that I would never do drugs or smoke. I knew, morally, that succumbing to such temptation was wrong; but I also knew drugs and cigarettes would negatively affect the plan I had for my life. When children decide in advance what they want out of life, they can go out with courage into real life and resist temptation. Having a clear vision of your future makes sacrifice of popularity, impulses, and happiness doable. As Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
A reader recently asked how I face awkward conversations with my children on difficult subjects such as sex, drugs, and suicide. I believe if we speak to our children from the very beginning (in an age appropriate way) about the realities of life, there is no need to fear any topic. The earlier children are introduced to life’s difficulties the more likely their innate and unsullied morality will guide them in the formation of their future decisions. An eight-year-old has no problem saying he will never do drugs, especially when he sees the realities of life for the addict we often pass on the way to school. This is not to shame or degrade the addict; on the contrary, it is to enable the child to see him as a child of God, who has been brought low by poor choices and circumstance. As we teach about the realities of drug addiction, we can also teach important lessons of respect and compassion for those who suffer. “One can tell a child everything, anything. I have often been struck by the fact that parents know their children so little. They should not conceal so much from them. How well even little children understand that their parents conceal things from them, because they consider them too young to understand! Children are capable of giving advice and the most important matters.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky
When examining our own poor choices we cannot simply blame our upbringing, our culture, or generation; we must look to ourselves. We must likewise teach our children that their choices have consequences. By refusing to shield children from the reality of life’s consequences in others lives and their own, they will see the power of choice. A moment of choice is a moment of truth. It’s the testing point of our character and competence,” Stephen Covey. Those moments – where conscience tells us which way to act, and our body demands another course – shape our destiny.
Losing Free Will: The Death of Morality in a Mob
When I examine the behavior of teenagers beating up on a defenseless victim, I see no point of choice; I see no pause to consult morality. This is when the determinist view that there is, in fact, no free will, starts to seem more reasonable. These angry teenagers seem to have no control over their actions. Are we all just a product of our instincts after all? I believe in these instances the “moment of choice” has been compromised. Perhaps parents did not show a good example of sacrifice and proper behavior. Maybe these youth did not learn the principles of choice and consequence. Perhaps happiness was over emphasised. Peer Pressure and tribal instincts were allowed to grow out of control, stifling promptings of conscience or any feelings of guilt. JBP clip on Free Will
Guilt is an emotion we would well be rid of, right? Guilt is judgmental. As C.S. Lewis said, “All men alike stand condemned, not by alien codes of ethics, but by their own, and all men therefore are conscious of guilt.” Rather than allow guilt to point us to our areas of corruption, we often would rather just drown it out. We give the Self the power to tyrannize the Soul. The causes of such nihilistic behavior are varied and complex, but having no “truth” and no “why” give ample reason.
When guilt and temptation cause us to “give up”, we begin to allow our body’s impulses to supersede the calls of conscience. We look cynically on morality and take the easier road to self-satisfaction. This adaptation, or desensitization to “sin”*, has been measured by scientists. “A robust finding in neuroscience over the past 20 years is that negative emotional responses to situations do not remain at the same intensity level if they are repeated. Instead they become less distressing over time, a biological process known as adaptation.”* This process is followed by all of us at some level or another, but for some children who are not raised with knowledge of the soul, or examples of sacrifice of Self for morality, desensitization can start early and dramatically. Despite our innate Moral Sense, the more often “sinful” behavior, (behavior which ignores the promptings of conscience), the weaker those promptings will become. The resultant cascade of bad choices often ends in addiction.
Our culture craves addiction. Video game advertising coaxes us with claims of being “the most addictive video game ever.” Opioid addiction, alcoholism, gambling, and many other forms of addiction are rising dramatically.* As parents we need to resist this culture of addiction. We need to protect our children from habits which compromise their freedom of choice. We want our children’s souls and bodies free of the chains of addiction, free to choose, and to feel guilt when they err.
Perhaps these teenagers have had so little direction and example that they have lost their morality. Perhaps they have been so desensitized that they no longer have fully functioning free will. Maybe they felt justified in some way and rationalize their behavior. But we know what happens when bystanders lack courage or conviction to stand up for morality. We know what happens when good and evil become indistinguishable. Mob mentality is allowed to rule. The question is what comes first, the mob or the mentality? In a mob we outsource our morality to the group, and are therefore no longer responsible for our actions. “In a mob there is distribution of responsibility because everyone is faceless. A lot of what keeps people sane is being held immediately responsible for their actions. One-on-one interactions remain peaceful but you can remain faceless in a mob…you have the opportunity to let the worst parts of yourself manifest themselves without fear of being called for your actions.”
Parental Duty: When my oldest son was two-and-a-half, we realized he was addicted to his pacifier. He couldn’t sleep without it and asked for it constantly; he begged for naps so he could use it again. We decided it was time to break him of his dependence. We told him that Santa needed his pacifiers so he could use them to make a fire truck for Christmas. Our son really loved firetrucks and loved Santa. He gathered up all his pacifiers and we put them on the front porch to be collected by an elf. He whined the first couple nights but within days his addiction was gone forever. Parents of young children have a unique power – they can take away sources of addiction. You can throw out the video game console – you can never buy Oreos again. The fault was ours, we never should have let our son’s need for the pacifier grow to that point. It was lazy and selfish parenting on our part, but raising little kids is tough and no parent is perfect. The ideal is to be aware enough to notice desensitization and not allow an addiction to form. However, parents may need to take drastic measures to stop bad habits and addictions while we still can. Our children may be angry with us, but our most important job is to raise moral, strong, and independent children.
Despite the prevalence of disturbing viral videos, as I have researched and pondered morality, I have found hope. Hope in the knowledge that my children do not get their sense of morality from me alone. In fact examining their behavior can help me regain my own moral compass. There is hope knowing they have the power to make correct choices.
However along with the hope is a knowledge of the great responsibility parents hold as guardians of morality. We must be examples of sacrificing our own “happiness”, selfish desires, and acceptance by others, for what is right. We must consistently pass values onto our children and prepare them for moral temptations they will face. We must be aware of areas where our children may be deadening to the calls of conscience and free them of sources of desensitization and addiction.
Because of our children’s unique personalities and individual strengths and weaknesses, the tension between body and soul will present itself differently in each child. It is difficult to predict or prevent the struggles our children will face. However, I hope that by applying some of the parental responsibilities presented in the last two posts, we will be able to keep our children’s souls light shining, and prevent the tyranny of an untamed Self.
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*In using the word “sin” I referring to those moments of choice where we disregard conscience and choose instead to satisfy Self. “Righteousness” would be the ability to choose morality, even at great personal sacrifice.
To Tell a Tale: The Use of Moral Dilemmas to Increase Empathy in the Elementary School Children
In the last few weeks thirty-three parents, including a childhood idol, Lori Loughlin of Full House, have been accused of paying up to $500,000 to illegally get their child into prestigious universities. Many are horrified by the deep dishonesty required to perpetrate such a crime. But Americans can’t be surprised. The generalized view, on either side of the political aisle, is that America’s morality is slipping. A recent Gallup poll revealed that 81 percent view American morality as fair or poor and 77 percent said morals are getting worse.* If we look at honesty as an indicator of morality, the reality of current levels of dishonesty is staggering, “While about 20% of college students admitted to cheating in high school during the 1940’s, today between 75 and 98% of college students report having cheated in high school.”* There are many theories about why dishonesty and other immoralities are now commonplace, but I would like to examine the place of parents in this crisis. Am I, like my fellow mother Lori Loughlin, to blame for the degeneration of morality?
Whenever we go camping each of my five kids wants their own headlamp. I head to Walmart and get them each a $1 headlamp (Thank-you capitalism). The first few hours the kids play around in the dark with their bright lights, but then as the night goes on the light slowly dims. In the space of about four hours the light is too weak to be useful. Is this the same trend we see in modern day morality? In today’s age of political maneuverings and justification, honesty and ethics are a rare commodity. Ronald Reagan famously said that “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream.” The morality of previous generations is fading; we are now straining to see by its light. Are we witnessing an extinction of morality? And if so, does the blame lie with parents who didn’t change the batteries?
The Morality of Nutella
A few years ago, I went with four of my kids to the store – not my favorite pastime. After receiving several of the standard “you have your hands full” comments, I succeeded in wheeling my groceries and kids out to the car. As I finished loading up the trunk and reached to unload my fussing baby, I noticed a stray jar of Nutella in the cart next to her (don’t judge me, Nutella is the nectar of the gods). “Darn it!” I said as my kids looked on, “I can’t believe I didn’t see this!” I looked back at the store; it looked 100 miles away. I did not want to pack up all the kids and take the jar back inside. As I held the Nutella in my hand I had a flash of realization, “It is important that I return this”. This was followed quickly by my well-developed practice of rationalization. “They overcharged me last week. Walmart makes billions of dollars a year, what is one jar of Nutella? The kids are tired, I will pay for it next time I am here.” I buckled my baby and drove away. On the drive home my eight-year-old, who is extremely observant, said “Mom, you didn’t pay for that jar!” He was quite upset. I explained to him that it was too hard to go back; I would pay for it next time. He didn’t seem quite satisfied but I changed the subject. As I drove, guilt weighed upon me. I heard my disappointed mother’s voice telling me to turn around.
My mother is a very spiritual and moral woman. I have absolutely no doubt she would have paid for the Nutella. She would have packed up all seven of us kids and made a lesson out of it. She would have said, “I’m not going to hell for a jar of Nutella!” Her sense of morality was much larger than her selfish and “natural” desire to stay in the car. I realized that if I kept driving, my children would never remember my excuses; they would only remember that I stole the jar of Nutella. What would that do to them? Perhaps, in twenty years, when they were with their kids and found an unpaid-for jar, they would skip the rationalization and take it without further thought. Why? Because the woman who taught them morality was herself a Nutella-stealer. I put my own selfish nature above morality. And as for my grandkids, witnessing the thieving of their forebears, they will just go ahead and rob the Nutella factory. I turned around.
I do think there was some truth in my excessive imaginings. If morality is not nurtured in children, then the voice of their conscience weakens, drowned out by the noise of their own desires. When there is no voice of conscience in a generation of children, great shall be the fall of our civilization, brought down by a storm of self-interest. Inculcating morality in our children is a big ask for parents. But what really is our duty? Are we the ones responsible for instilling morality in our children and keeping the voice of their conscience loud enough? If we look at science and theology, the answer is no and yes.
Conscience from Birth
When I held that jar of Nutella, my initial thought was that it was important to be honest. The thought was not my own voice, or even my mother’s (my mother’s voice came later in the guilt-stage). No, the initial thought was my conscience (or the Spirit). Although, “thought” doesn’t seem to be the right word. When we hear our conscience it often doesn’t come as a thought but more like a light or truth opened to us. But where does that come from? Is it my job as a mom to provide truth-revealing headlamps for each kid? That seems daunting. But I don’t want my kids to be psychopaths.
We have a light inside each of us. It goes by different names – our conscience, or the spirit, C.S. Lewis calls it the moral sense; I will use the term conscience. Science and theology teach us that children are born with an innate moral compass. They are able to recognize good from bad from the earliest months. Morality is not simply a generational issue, morality is found, and can be lost, inside each us.
In the article, “As Babies We Knew Morality”, it says, “It turns out that babies, who are too young to have learned about morality, have an innate moral sense. On top of that, they show a basic disposition to goodness.” They show as evidence such things as toddlers opening the door for a stranger they view as scary, or comforting someone who is hurt. I have certainly seen evidence of this “goodness” in my own children. Just yesterday my four-year old put down the tennis racket she was wielding long enough to comfort her bleeding brother.
C.S. Lewis does a brilliant job of explaining the reality of the Moral Law, or Conscience. He explains the fact that the Moral Law goes beyond the scientific belief that our conduct is simply a result of impulses. Rather morality, is found in the force (conscience) that guides us in our choices between impulses. I find it somewhat strange for a materialist scientist to claim that a toddler is “good” because she helps a stranger open a door. His ideology would argue she is merely obeying an environmental impulse for sociality. Impulses cannot be judged good or bad. It is not the act itself that demonstrates her morality (that could be explained away as an evolutionary instinct) – but her choice to follow the Moral Law. “Strictly speaking, there are no such things as good and bad impulses. Think…of a piano. It has not got two kinds of notes on it, the ‘right’ notes and the ‘wrong’ ones. Every single note is right at one time and wrong at another. The Moral Law is not any one instinct or set of instincts: it is something which makes a kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the instincts.”
For the purposes of this post, I recently did an experiment on my two-year-old daughter, Juliet. She is always famished after her afternoon nap, whining for a snack. Rather than feed her, I decided to make her wait. I wanted to get her so hungry that her “self-preservation” instinct was in full force. Great mom, right? Finally, I gave in to her demands and presented her with a bowl of ice cream. (Told you I was a good mom.) She sat down excitedly; I sat next to her and handed her the spoon. Before she had a chance to take her first bite I pleaded, “Juliet, I am so hungry!” and I really was, tormenting a child can make you hungry, “Can I have some please?” In that moment I saw it happen, I saw that brief moment of choice flash in her eyes; her conscience at work. She choose to give me a bite.
C.S. further explains, “Men find themselves under a moral law, which they did not make, and cannot quite forget even when they try, and which they know they ought to obey.” Juliet’s inner light told her that sharing with her hungry mother should take precedence, even over her grumbling stomach. This is the miracle of human nature.
Thus far, we mothers seem to be off the hook. It seems our babies are preloaded with morality software. No need to buy the headlamp; they have a light shining within them. But for all of us who have encountered a child, or an adult for that matter, we have discovered they can also be little devils. So why is that? It is important to understand the nature of our body’s demands (impulses) vs. our soul’s directions (conscience) to see where our job as parents truly lies.
The Reality of the Soul
We now live in a time where our childhood quintessential ideal of a “good woman”, Lori Loughlin, cheated her daughter into USC and up to 98% of youth have admitted to cheating in high school. Despite the powers of conscience, our collective selfish natures seem to be winning. How do we teach our kids to live directed by their moral soul in such a society?
The great British theologian George McDonald said, “Never tell a child, ‘you have a soul.’ Teach him, you are a soul; you have a body. The body is but the temporary clothing of the soul.” Our moral self, I will call it soul, while separate from our natural self, is not itself the “conscience” or morality. Our soul speaks and listens to the language of morality – the tune spoken of by C.S. Lewis. When asked about the “soul”, Dr. Peterson explained, “A soul is that aspect of human being that is akin to Divinity, that is made in the image of God. That is a very important concept, I don’t think a society can survive, I don’t think you can have a relationship with yourself…or another person, and I don’t think society can organize itself in a productive and sustainable and peaceful manner, without that idea as the core idea. The core idea is that there is something of irreducible value that characterizes each human being, and it is of the highest value…that is the soul.”
What is so wonderful about our soul is that it has unique spiritual capabilities that are unrestrained by the physical laws our body must obey, such as time and space. The truth urging me to return the Nutella was not heard by my physical ears, but by my soul. The body can simply see, but our soul can discern. When I was a child driving with my father, he had a sense he should change lanes, which he did. Immediately the semi-truck we had been following lost its load of concrete barriers, crashing down on the now-empty roadway.
Parental Duty: One of our roles as parents, hoping to create a moral generation, is to recognize our own conscience and follow it. We also must teach our children that they are a soul, and that the conscience can instruct their soul to do things, which their instincts and body may not and cannot. Christ explained to his disciples that physical abilities and spiritual abilities are not always in sync. “Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.” If our children only learn and understand through their physical self, they are not learning or understanding all they can. Theodore Roosevelt said, “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”
We need to help our children recognize the difference between the emotional and urgent call of impulse and the “still small voice” of the spirit. We need to focus on what we can do to help our children recognize the voice of conscience, and when the time comes, make the right choice. Relating to our children our own experiences hearing and following our conscience can help them begin to label their own similar experiences. Jordan Peterson discusses the conscience’s potential influence in our lives if we simply live to obey it.
My son, Calvin, told me one day that during recess he was chosen to pick his team for basketball. He said he really wanted to win, but felt he should pick a certain short unathletic kid first. He said the kid seemed so happy to be chosen. Despite a loss, Calvin said he was glad he chose him. My son’s physical eyes examined the size and shape of the boys, but his spiritual eyes discerned who he should pick. John 16:13 “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all truth…”
Parental Duty: We need to teach our children to be rebels against our culture of degeneracy and to have the courage to choose the moral voice over the selfish voice. When I turned the car around to return the Nutella, I explained to my children my moral lapse and the remorse I was feeling. I explained the peace I felt in correcting my mistake. As we point out how the conscience feels compared to how selfishness feels, children are more likely to choose the good.
The Path to Lasting Morality
So how can we help our children choose the better of two voices? We have to choose the path of conscience ourselves. We also have to allow them to take the wrong path, and feel the sorrow of yielding to selfishness.
During Holy Week, we remember the story of the ultimate example of a life lived in perfect morality and truth, Jesus Christ. We also have the example of Peter, who, despite having deep faith in the Savior, ignored the promptings of conscience and instead yielded to the fears of his nature. Christ knew of Peter’s faith, but also knew of his selfish nature, saying, “The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” Christ warned Peter, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou has denied me thrice.” When Peter was faced with the impulse of self-preservation, despite his knowledge of the soul and moral truth, he fulfilled Christ’s prophecy and denied Him three times. As the rooster crowed, “Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him…And he went outside and wept bitterly.”
Just as the voice of my mother revealed to me the unrighteousness of my Nutella-thieving, the rooster came as morality’s final attempt at rescuing Peter from the weakness of the flesh. Peter had the perfect example before him, Christ, the creator of the world. Christ accepted degradation and death rather than yield to temptation. Christ knew Peter would betray his conscience, but he also gave him the opportunity to redeem himself. See John 21:15-17 Peter never again strayed from the truth, and with the courage of his convictions, was martyred for it.
As parents, we are not responsible for implanting morality into our children, but for nourishing it. We are charged with helping our children recognize that they are a soul, and that they should obey the voice of conscience over the demands of the flesh. However, as Lori Loughlin and myself demonstrate, the calls of the natural self are hard to ignore and they can overpower the soul’s best efforts. As parents we need to be prepared for the opposition to morality and the increasing demands of selfishness in today’s world.
Part 2 next week will be: “Morality: When Nature Fights Back”
Postscript: The primary purpose of this blog is to get deep about the philosophical issues facing society, and mothers particularly. My greatest frustration in attempting to produce a valuable piece, is the inevitable discovery of more depth and tangents on the chosen issue than I can include in a reader-friendly post. There are many aspects to the topic of Morality which I did not include (free will, evolutionary theory, culture). I will hope to write more at a future date.
I typically attempt to write in a way that is useful to Atheist and Religious alike. I have come to a better understanding of how morality works in the lives of an atheist. However, I became frustrated in my attempts to make this applicable to those who don’t believe in the reality of a soul. I could not come up with the proper formula for teaching children morality, while at the same time, denying the reality of any kind of order or truth beyond that of our instincts and biology.
Helen Keller said, “Happiness does not come from without, it comes from within.” We all know the woman living a life of ease and stability who remains unhappy. We also may know a woman living in poverty and hardship, who radiates joy and contentment. The difference can’t be just about circumstances; instead it must be what’s going on in their minds. Our mental outlook determines much of our happiness. Marcus Aurelius said, “Very little is needed to make a happy life. It is all within yourself in your way of thinking” (easy for a Roman Emperor to say). So next we must ask how these two women’s thinking differ, and how we can adopt the second woman’s perspective. But also, we may ask an even deeper question: is the second woman missing something the first understands? In the next few posts, we hope to answer these question. We’ll start with the burden of improper expectations.
Starting in childhood and continuing throughout our lives, we build an ‘ideal picture” of what we want from life, using what we observe or are told to expect. We want a marriage like our parents, or exactly the opposite. We imagine a rewarding and lucrative career, a handsome and successful husband, and obedient and intelligent children, who magically take care of themselves. William Glasser described this ideal picture, “It is the ‘world’ that I want right now – it could even be called my ‘ideal world.’ but it is more than ideal; it is the world I believe I must have, or my needs will not be satisfied.” But eventually, the storms of life’s reality arrive, and the idealized world of our imagining comes crashing down like the foolish man’s house built upon sand, “And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.” Matt 7:27 When expectations don’t come to fruition we are left envying the imaginary.
A Tale of Two Sons
My husband and I have been blessed with two sons. Our first son, Calvin, now 10, has honestly exceeded our wildest imaginings. My husband wanted a son who liked sports; Calvin has been passionately obsessed with sports since he could crawl. I wanted an intelligent and confident son; he excels academically, is respectful, and is serious-minded. If this is parenthood, then what is everyone complaining about? I found out with our second son, Cameron. I had high expectations for him because, why wouldn’t I? They had been met before. He was our easiest baby by a long shot. Cameron was extremely fat, docile, and observant. We realize now that he was simply using his immobility as a planning stage for destruction. Once he started walking, we awoke from our dream. If there was a garbage can, he would dump it out. If there was an unflushed toilet, he would play in it. If there was a permanent marker, he would draw on the walls. His demands were endless: watch another show, have a sucker, go to the zoo. He was always either at my knees whining or quietly causing property damage. Going out in public was worse. He would cry, or run away, or create some nightmarish scene. It doesn’t help that he has the build of an NFL lineman so lugging him around was no easy task. And all his bad deeds were done in the least malicious way possible, leaving me feeling perpetually guilty for my disappointment and anger. I wish I could say this was a short phase, he is now six, and although easier, is still our toughest kid. I went through a time of mourning – grieving for my perfect imaginary child who would never be. Mourning for the stress-free mother I could have been. At night I couldn’t sleep, distraught at the state of my life and worrying about the future of this unruly child. All my expectations had come crashing down. So let’s examine expectations, and their contribution to happiness or misery.
The Highs of Expectations and the Lows of Happiness
When expectations are high, buy stock in unhappiness. Disappointment is inevitable. It seems to logically follow that the lower our expectations, the greater our potential for happiness. With no dreams, we have no hopes dashed. As Alexander Pope said “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed”. Our children, and spouse might appreciate the lowered expectations. There will be much less pressure on them to perform. (23 sec clip)
Life looks so much brighter if you wake up expecting hell. I generally find this tactic helpful in feeling content with life. Instead of predicting the mechanic will say “it was a simple fix, no charge ma’am”, I convince myself it will cost $2,000 and the part will take 4 weeks to arrive. When reality lies somewhere in between, I am ecstatic! It isn’t hard to convince ourselves bad news is coming because it is so often the case. “Life is suffering”, remember? If I set my expectations low enough, I see myself as blessed when I am proved wrong. My dad was a master teacher of this. In the 65 years he has been watching his favorite college football team, he has never predicted a win. About half the time he is pleasantly surprised; the other half he simply gets what he expected.
The foundation of Buddhist doctrine are the Four Noble Truths.
Suffering, pain, and misery exist in life
Suffering arises from attachment to desire
Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
Freedom from Suffering is possible by practicing the Path
When we release our desires, and the “ideal picture” we create in our head, we begin to see the world in a different light. Jeremy Sherman, wrote an interesting piece in Psychology Today about how lowering our expectations also increases our compassion for others. If we are convinced that others’ troubles are simply a result of their own incapacity, we are driven to compassion for their helplessness. (As we build our case for low expectations, let’s put aside the obvious problem with such compassion; the ‘devouring mother’ who makes victims of the potentially competent.)
In summary, our case for low expectations is strong. In lowering our expectations, not only do we avoid disappointment, but we immediately become more compassionate for all the victims of circumstance and ability that we see around us.
Unmet expectations produce anxiety
“Expectations are the root of all heartache.” Shakespeare.
It’s interesting to consider that improper expectations could be a contributor to the anxiety crisis in our society. Are we giving ourselves anxiety by expecting too much from life? Perhaps, in part. In the following clip, Dr. Peterson explains that the psychological effect of unmet expectation is anxiety. When our predictions do not bear out, suddenly the irrelevant becomes relevant. Life isn’t what we thought it would be. Dr. Peterson said, “The violation of an expectation produces anxiety, You don’t just get anxious if something goes wrong, you get anxious, you get angry, you get curious, you get frustrated, you get depressed – it’s a bursting forward of emotional states.” When your imagined reality turns out to be false, you have to question all your assumptions, as I did. I had been lulled into a false state of security with my first son. I believed my idealized life was coming to fruition. I felt secure in my perceptions. My second son forced me into a state of anxiety as I re-imagined my life. Is motherhood just work and stress after all? Is there something seriously wrong with my son? What have I done to make him this way? (Understanding Anxiety Clip 5:10)
So it seems we have an open and shut case: happiness is to be found in low expectations….finally a short post. But, wait….I can hear those Existentialists mocking us, “Those fools think they’ve cracked it. When will they learn? These vain attempts to make life happy are futile; that’s not what life’s for! Living in a world of no disappointment, no expectation, and no apprehension is not only not possible, it misses the point of mortality.” We need to strive, we need to push beyond comfort, to the life of meaning and purpose.
The Picture in our Head
Oftentimes, our imaginings of what a good son, or good life, or marriage looks like is built from the perception of the ‘normal’ and ‘appropriate’. What can ‘normal’ three-year-olds do? Can other kids sit still? We become anxious when our child doesn’t fit into the ‘normal’ box. My son is many things, but ‘normal’ is not one of them.
I had a powerful experience one night which woke me up to the damage the ‘ideal picture’ was doing to my relationship with my son. I prayed in frustration about my ‘naughty son’ and the difficulty of my life. I laid awake, self-pity surrounding me like a cloud, hoping to receive a feeling of comfort and understanding from above. Instead I was surprised by an undeniable feeling of rebuke. I suddenly became aware of the selfish and uncaring way I was treating my son. I was reminded of his value as a son of God, and that I had been entrusted with his care and nurture. That night, and over the next weeks and months, I began to let go of my imagined son. I started to appreciate my actual son. I realized all the joy I had been missing. I had missed out on glorying in who he was, opting for the envy of the imagined. I had been so worried he would never talk, or catch a football, or sit still, I had forgotten to laugh at his cute lisp, or glory in his large personality and determination. My expectations were about me, not about my son. As my previous post stated, I needed to allow him to grow into his unique self, supported by my respect and love.
How Low Is Too Low?
Once I realized my son should not be compared to some imagined dream-child, I had to determine what to expect, and how to act. I no longer cared that he wasn’t ‘normal’, I wanted him to become the best version of himself. So what next? Should I just set expectations to zero? The problem with setting expectations too low is we don’t get enough out of life to justify its difficulty. Our lives may be devoid of disappointment and responsibility but there is no hope of progress because there is no attempt to strive upward. If we have no confidence in our children’s ability to achieve, they notice, and act accordingly. They stop believing in themselves. We will also use our ‘compassion’ to further inhibit their progression. I remember well the allure of lowering the bar to avoid pain; “I’m not even gonna try potty training that kid till he’s four”, “Lets just never go to a restaurant again and avoid the embarrassment”- laying the foundations for a life of dependency. Children who are not pushed beyond their comfort zones are left with nothing to strive for, and no respect. The lows of expectations result in the highs of mediocrity.
We want our children, and ourselves, to rise to a challenge. Studies suggest children do better academically and athletically if they are driven by parents expectations* They are motivated by dreams and goals. As parents, one of our primary purposes is assisting our children to find purpose and reach their potential (link to article). For Cameron, I wanted to make sure he could read once he started school, and I believed he was capable. It took a full year, every day, sitting down with an often-unwilling child, practicing reading. It was not fun, but it worked. Now he can read, and read well! He even enjoys it and glories in his hard-fought skill. The joy I feel in my son’s accomplishment is only exceeded by his unbounding confidence. Dr. Peterson has said,“Why have a goal? That’s easy, no goal, no positive emotion. You experience positive emotion by noticing you are moving toward a goal.” (Understanding Emotions Clip 7:27)
We often have high expectations of the life we will lead, but low expectations of the amount of work it will take to achieve success. If we really want that ‘dream’ child, it won’t come easy, and pushing to achieve it may in fact harm your ‘real’ child’s well-being. As parents, we need to ensure that the ‘ideal picture’ of our children’s potential is truly what is best for them. We also need to accept the struggle and effort required to help our children achieve that potential. Fortunately there is happiness to be found in the proper perspective, and great fulfillment as parents in assisting our children to achieve their goals.
The Performance Lie
A few years ago I read the book, Nurture Shock. It describes how improper expectations can cause us to praise children in destructive ways. If we praise only for good performance, they will begin to fear failure. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable they can control, they see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence (or ability) takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to failure,” said Dr. Carol Dweck. An emphasis on performance will cause children to place their of worth on their outward characteristics, rather than on their character or intrinsic worth. Instead we must focus on praising the things that we most want our children to value. Dr. Chris Thurman said in his book, The Lies we Believe, “Somehow we’ve gotten character and integrity mixed up with externals. While this attitude may be an inescapable part of our competitive living, it has created a feeling in many that we are only as good as our last ‘performance’.”
When our sense of worth and value are tied up with performance, we are subject to crisis when existential reality hits and tragedy befalls us. (If we women place our worth on our beauty, age will inevitably produce a crisis.) My son, Calvin’s, expectation is that he will play college basketball. If he blows out his knee, there will be a long, hard fall. Despite our best attempts to focus praise on effort, he increasingly seems to connect his “worth” to outcomes. We see an increase in anxiety in him as he strives for perfection. Being labeled ‘talented’ or ‘athletic’ by coaches and friends may seem positive, but such labels can make children afraid of failure. He doesn’t want to let anyone down. Our younger son achievements often come as a surprise, so Cameron takes risks without fear. Calvin has always excelled, so now he fears falling short, so he is less likely to try new things. However, if we can help Calvin base his sense of worth on the character he has built through hard work and sacrifice, rather than output and labels imposed on him, I am hopeful his anxiety will lessen.
Redefining our Expectations
Going back to the beginning of our post – the unhappy woman with a stable life may need to lower her expectations. The happy woman living in poverty may need to strive for more. But the truly fulfilled mother lives in the moment, and finds joy in the journey. She attempts to reshape expectations to match the potential of each unique child, push them towards it, and glory in their efforts.
Although it may seem difficult to determine the “proper expectations” it is actually quite simple. On the Sermon on the Mount the Lord tells us, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Living moment to moment unburdened by ‘toil’ and disappointment is possible. The truly profound clip of Jordan Peterson below, points to the Lord’s answer a few verses later, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” In seeking the greater good, we can let go of expectation. JBP says, “If you can figure your life so what you are genuinely doing is aiming at the highest possible good, then the things you need will deliver themselves to you.” (clip 7:30)
I have found this to be accurate. As I honestly seek the good for each of my sons, unburdened by my own “ideal picture”, I am guided moment to moment. I know when to push Cameron to try harder and when to encourage Calvin to lighten up. Aiming at their good allows me reduce my own anxiety in letting go of my imaginings; while also striving towards the highest possible good.
As I look at my two sons today, I see how weak and uninspired my ‘ideal picture’ was. I am so grateful I have been able to appreciate the gift they are. Their contrasting natures have brought depth and variety into our home that has made for a more satisfying and refining life. The reality of my love and admiration for my sons exceeds every expectation.
Thank you so much for reading and your support. We are so grateful for Dr. Jordan Peterson’s support in sharing our blog. Please share on Facebook/Twitter with anyone you feel would benefit. If we can get JBP to see our posts it is very helpful to the effort. Also follow us on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/philosophyofmotherhood/
There are a lot of conflicting reports on parenthood and happiness. As I researched this topic, I found studies showing differing correlation, but the data is too complex to show causation. However, it seems the trendy view is that parents are less happy than their childless counterparts. The Young Turks, a left-leaning outlet geared towards young adults, has a video entitled “Proof Parenthood Destroys Your Happiness”. This bold claim is based on short-term evidence from a single study in a first-world nation. However, despite the limitations of the study, one of the commentators said the results were enough to convince her to never have children! So is parenthood really that detrimental to happiness? For the sake of this article lets take the prevailing view and assume it is, at least in the short-term. Does it necessarily follow that the best choice is then to forgo having children? Perhaps we shouldn’t throw out our potential babies with the unhappy bath-water, at least before giving it some careful consideration.
Jordan Peterson gave some great insight on this subject that summarizes the short-sightedness of the “Unhappy Parent” perspective (4:36).
At church on Sunday I noticed a young man standing in the back bouncing his newborn baby girl. He was in his 20s, good-looking, and well-dressed in a white sweater (color choice was a dead giveaway to his rookie status). His new daughter was fussy and he seemed stressed as he tried to calm her down. I had to chuckle as I noticed that his baby had spit-up on his sweater. What a shame. A previously confident young man with his whole life ahead of him – forced to frantically try and calm an inconsolable child. He could be relaxing at home playing Madden Football. With our modern aspirations for a life free of stress and worry, this scene can certainly be seen as a tragedy.
Maturing from Fun to Happiness to Suffering
Kids have their finger on the pulse of happiness – or as they like to call it “fun”. “What are we doing fun today?” “This isn’t fun!” As adults we don’t ask about fun anymore – that is childish. Instead we focus on happiness. “I am just not happy.” “Just do whatever makes you happy.” Are these really that different? Have we really matured beyond our six-year-old self’s demands? The truth is that the constant expectation of happiness, perhaps exasperated by a fun-filled childhood, can create a feeling of discontent.
The transition the young father will go through in the next few years will likely not be the “happiest” time of his life. There is pain as we change from a me-focused mindset to an other-focused perspective. This is called maturing. This is the shift from a life driven by happiness to a life driven by meaning. “Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs.* This young man’s fatherhood is forcing him to find a new path to joy, a less selfish path, and a path sure to include distress. Calming an upset infant is not easy! “God creates us free, free to be selfish, but He adds a mechanism that will penetrate our selfishness and wake us up to the presence of others in this world, and that mechanism is called suffering.” William Nicholson.
Happiness is Selfish
Happiness is simply an emotion; it is dependent on what happens to us, and how satisfied we feel in the moment. “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” researchers on happiness write.*
There is a place for selfishness, and I hope there is a big place for happiness – but orienting our lives to maximize the realization of our selfish desires is a recipe for destruction. As the Stoics understood thousands of years ago, Viktor Frankl exclaimed, “It is the very pursuit of happiness, that thwarts happiness.” Because of the selfish nature of happiness, its pursuit often negatively affects relationships. Ask the new mother whose husband plays video games until 3 am. Or the kids whose mom ran off with the “love of her life” fitness trainer. (Fascinating clip hyperlinked here by C.S. Lewis on the supremacy of Sexual Happiness). Striving for happiness is our natural inclination, but put in a place of prominence it can become pathological. It can obscure your long-term concerns for yourself and any concern for the feelings of others (mania and psychopathy). In the clip below Jordan Peterson explains how positive emotions must be balanced with necessary negative emotions.
Selfishness and a focus on personal-satisfaction can certainly be a motivation to choose a childless life. Kids severely limit your options; they are a constant source of work and stress. However, as Erin explained so well in her post last week – the limiting of our options may in fact open us up for more depth and potential.** I am not saying all childless couples are selfish. People have various, and often justified, reasons for not having children. However, if their justification is solely based on the prospect of unhappiness, I would urge them to reconsider. Opening yourself up to the world of “others” and self-sacrifice can bring profundity and meaning to your life. “If you’re constantly in a state of satisfaction and happiness then nothing is going to affect you deeply enough so that you will become deep, and life without depth is, by definition, shallow and meaningless.” Jordan Peterson.
Happiness is Judgemental
There is a new show on Netflix called Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Marie helps people order their lives by throwing out most of their belongings. A few years ago I read her book and threw out ten garbage bags of stuff. It was awesome. One of her recommendations is that you hold everything in front of you and ask “Does this spark joy?.” I asked myself that question 300 times or more as I went through my house. I can certainly see the utility in that. However, I can also see some pathological perfectionism in that statement. It is sterilizing life. When you look in the background after Marie Kondo has done her tydinging magic, the room can look fake and unsettling. Maybe it is the slob in me talking, but is a house swept of imperfection cozy or charming? Does it have character? We can judge our possessions selfishly – our shoes won’t be offended if we dump them at Goodwill. However, do we sometimes have a similar mindset when examining the people and experiences we have in life? Do we sometimes wish we could discard other things/people impeding our joy? Should we “Kondo” our family? How about our duties? Is sparking joy the ultimate measurement of worth?
When I was a 27-year-old mother with 2 little kids, I had a tough time in the transition to maturity. I acted like a spoiled brat sometimes when my husband got home. “I clean the house up and the kids just mess it up. I am a prisoner at home; I can’t do anything between naps and nursing!” I complained because I believed that happiness should be the default of existence therefore something was wrong if I wasn’t happy. I judged whether each moment was in-line with my expectations. Constantly observing my unhappiness only added to it.
The problem with evaluating your life based on “joy-sparking” is it’s not a fair judgement, it is only taking into account one thing – happiness. It doesn’t ask if it is the right thing to do, or the necessary thing to do. If I used this method I would never do laundry again! When people forgo parenthood because they don’t think having children would “spark joy,” they are using happiness as the judge, and who made “happiness” the best judge of life? “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace” Ecclesiastes 3:1-3. Life must be seen for all its complexity and should not be reduced to happy or unhappy.
Happiness is Not the Standard
Underneath our judgments of life is an underlying belief that life is “supposed to be happy”. A school of philosophers called Existentialists reject this view of the world. Instead they remind us of the intrinsic difficulty of life. Jordan Peterson is an existentialist – like Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky before him. Growing up in the military, I traveled the world and saw that poverty and hardship were commonplace. Life seemed so arbitrary and unfair. When I was a teenager I read The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky portrays suffering as intrinsic to the story of human experience. However, he shows that as we accept the fragility of life we can live life more fully. We can take upon ourselves the responsibility of relieving the hardships we see around us. We can accept that pain and disappointment are part of the package, along with joy and happiness. We can be more grateful for happiness when it comes because we know it can be fleeting and must be worked for, rather than expected. Dostoyevsky’s work shaped my worldview. There is much joy and meaning to be found when you let go of expectation of constant happiness. As Mike Rowe once put it, “Happiness is a terrific symptom, it is a terrible goal, because it’s a sucker’s bet.”
The ultimate reality is death. Accepting life as temporary can help us prioritize our lives. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn so eloquently said, “If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be the unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.” By choosing to accept the tenuousness of happiness and the harsh realities of life, we lose our naive desires and seek a higher purpose.
Life is For Meaning
Researchers studying the effect of meaning in a person’s life, found that the things that makes life meaningful do not necessarily make us happy.* The study showed, “People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment.” When my husband and I decided to have a large family we imagined a future full of loving relationships, adventure, and lots of potential grandchildren. We didn’t really think about how much work or stress five kids would be. I am glad we didn’t. If I had focused on the difficulty of raising a large family I might not have done it (I am pretty selfish). The joy we experience and inexpressible love we have for our children far outweighs the daily difficulty of raising them.
Living a meaningful life is necessary for the kind of happiness I would call joy – a happiness that does not fade. Not the “sparking joy” kind we experience when we wear our favorite shirt – but deep joy stemming from a life well-lived. Meaning comes from making a difference in someone’s life. This is what Dostoyevsky was referring to when he said, “Men are made for happiness, and he who is completely happy has the right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’” This may be why studies show that parents who feel they are doing a good-job have much higher levels of happiness than those who don’t.***
Parenthood as Purpose Throughout Human History
Human life has continued because people have children – because that is just what people do. That is what life is, it is what makes life and continues life. Until recently, children were considered a precious gift. Cultures and society were set up largely for their benefit. The Psalms says, “Children are an heritage to the Lord, Happy is the man who hath his quiver full of them.” So why are so many millenials choosing to remain childless? Is it partly due to our over-emphasis on the “happy life”?
Even today, most people worldwide (especially in developing countries) take having a family as obvious and unquestioned. When I was 18, I went on a University “Field Study” with my Geography Department. Another girl and I were dropped off in a remote village near Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania for four months. Many children in the village had never seen a white person; very few spoke English; there was no running water or electricity. My friend and I stayed in the one brick building in the village – the small home of a Catholic priest (who had many children by the way). With our limited Swahili we quickly became friends with the locals. These friendship have helped define my life. The women in this village were tough. They worked hard all day for their husbands and children. They cooked their meals over a kerosene stove or a fire. They walked to the nearest well for water. If I had asked one of these women, “Did becoming a mom make you more or less happy?”, they would have started at me in bewilderment. What does happy have to do with anything? They did not have the luxury of such emotional questioning. My Tanzanian friends laughed, they cried, they had misfortunes, and they had blessings – as all of us do. They did not stop in front of every scenario and ask if it was sparking joy. They lived life unimpeded by selfishness and judgement of every situation.
Some might say that just because having children has been the norm does not mean it is the best path forward. Why not pave a new normal? There are a lot of problems with that idea – but the one that strikes me most is rejection of humanity and life itself. Is life not worth preserving? Do we not have something to pass on? Is there no value to the role of children in society? Dostoevsky said, “Through children the soul is healed…”
“Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is,” Viktor Frankl. As we build strong relationships with our children and help them grow into healthy adults, we get to experience not only our own life filled with happiness, pain, and all that life is – but also our children’s’ happiness and pain – that is living life, and living it more abundantly. If we give up on children because it may momentarily impede our pursuit of happiness, we may be denying ourselves the prospect of a life filled with meaning and love.
Joy is Found in Love
“Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our natural lives.” C.S. Lewis
We often sacrifice relationships on the selfish altar of happiness. Children bear the brunt of the selfish choices of their parents. Psychologists’ offices are full of people traumatized in childhood by self-centered adults. These adults put their own happiness above maintaining a loving relationship with their families. Perhaps if our culture shifted and we stopped saying, “Do whatever makes you happy”, fewer children would be traumatized and more people would find meaning.
Harvard recently did an 80-year study detailing the factors influencing the formation of a happy and healthy life.**** The results surprised the researchers, “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships. Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives.” Family is where these strong relationships are most easily found, the blood and experience that tie us to our family is not easily replicable. We don’t get to choose our children’s temperament, adapting ourselves to preserve meaningful relationships with them develops our character and resilience. (I do believe people can and have built lives full of meaning and love without children as they focus on others).
A New Perspective on Happiness
When that handsome young man in the spit-up covered sweater was bouncing his precious child, he was at the beginning of a long journey with his daughter. This journey will have “seasons” filled with diverse emotions and experiences. It will be an adventure. He may have to throw out his white sweater. He won’t be as handsome at the end of it. Parenthood might even temporarily lessen his happiness, but if he keeps his mind focused on developing meaning and love, he will be glad he made the choice.
Let’s let go of a naive and selfish view of life as simply the pursuit of happiness. As we embrace the challenges and pain necessary to build a life of meaning and love, we can find the strength to risk unhappiness for lasting joy. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
Postscript: Happiness Comes in the Letting-go of It
Dostoyevsky said that “with love one can live even without happiness.” But I don’t want to give up on happiness just yet. We don’t actually have to throw out the unhappy bath-water, we may be able to cleanse it. In order to obtain more happiness we need the foundation of the existential idea that things haven’t necessarily “gone wrong” when it is absent. I plan to write a series of posts in the next few months highlighting the ways we can more happily live in meaningful marriage and family.
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This story is for independent women out there: the ones who think travel and new adventures are the height of fulfillment, that wanderlust is a deep-seated craving that must be fulfilled. You may not picture yourselves in a traditional role, ever—it would be too constrained, too much of a sacrifice, too much boredom and compromise. You are too unique to be confined by such a small, conventional model.
That was exactly my mindset…. and why shouldn’t it have been? The picture of a traditional feminine role is nowhere glorified. Try it yourself—do a Google image search for ‘drudgery’. Even without prompting from other keywords, the most commonly recurring image is a worn out woman, surrounded by housework.
I am from a liberal, progressive-values family and a liberal, progressive-values city. My family was, however, somewhat traditional; parents never divorced, bills got paid, the kids played sports, we all ate dinner together. That was about it for family culture, though. We had no organized religion (that was for people who couldn’t think for themselves), no larger community involvement, no large family tree. We were, well, nuclear.
Both my parents worked full time. To me, this was perfectly normal—but I point it out to mention that I did not have a mother who stayed at home with children. My mother did everything well, or tried damn hard. She had a career, a beautiful home. She was, and is, a creative. Everything she makes—food, art, clothing, floral arrangements–puts Instagram to shame. She was the epitome of the Martha Stewart feminine, where women can and should do everything and do it well. She used to iron the sheets….…yet I also remember that she didn’t want to play. She was tired. Most of the time her craft space was filled with stuff that needed sorting, laundry, bags of junk. She was on hold, while she raised us, worked full time, and made everything appear lovely.
At 17, I left for college and hardly ever returned. I wanted nothing to do with the security of ‘home sweet home’. I exploded into freedom and adventure after adventure. I wanted to try everything and go everywhere, read everything, and never be held back. I worked outdoors for the US Forest Service in the summers, traveled in fall and winter, then enrolled in school just long enough to qualify as a student for rehire the next summer. I backpacked alone, road-tripped to Central America, jumped out of planes, ran a marathon, met a goal and then picked another and tried to reach it.
I was concerned with ideas too—traveling showed me a very different world than I had been raised in and I became interested in inequality, environmental problems, governmental corruption, and global politics. I was busy having fun, but I wasn’t a hedonist. I wanted the world to be better and I was willing to work at it.
However, I really struggled to curb my enthusiasm for all things and pick one. I was worried that I would have to leave things I loved behind and that I would lose out on new or better opportunities. Jordan Peterson has a brief clip on what that feels like—the process of moving from pure potential into a being that is disciplined. He equates it with moving from childhood to adulthood, where, after a period of ‘narrowing’, the sky opens again and your transformed being can accomplish much more than it could as an unformed entity. You become ‘somebody’ rather than potentially ‘anybody’.
When I was 21 I was married for the first time—rather impulsively. I fell in love, and believed that was the key to a successful relationship. I dropped out of school and moved to follow my husband’s career. I was isolated though, and quickly unhappy—we lived on the far edge of an island in the middle of the Pacific. He worked sometimes 16-hour days and had our car all day. I paced the apartment, then the bit of beach nearby and the tiny strip mall. I had no job, no friends, no purpose.
I found out I was pregnant and when I told my husband, he just said—no, we can’t. Years later I still don’t quite know how to understand that, but I relented and scheduled the procedure. (It may sound I am glossing over the fact that I had an abortion- it’s a point in my life I have tried very hard to forget, or maybe to not see, so I apologize if I sound distanced. It is not because I don’t care, it’s that I haven’t wanted to let myself for so long.
That marriage ended rather quickly in divorce. I was treated more as a roommate and not as a wife. There was no priority it seemed to make a life together, only to have fun. He did not want children yet, and so I returned to college. I realized that my intellectual needs were not met, and that it was already as good as it was going to get. There was not room for growth. I thought I could do better, and at 24 I certainly had time to look around. And it seemed to me that before I was married, before I tried to rely on someone, I had done more, had been more of a real person. I felt invisible after a few years of marriage
I initiated the divorce by having an affair with a close friend of his. Because I was a rather modern lady, and relativistic in my thinking, I thought that breaking social conventions wasn’t that big of a deal. I was very wrong. I can’t begin to tell you the amount of suffering I caused, not only to others but to myself. Peterson has been ripped in the press for discussing an idea called ‘enforced monogamy’ and he takes pains to clarify that he means ‘socially enforced monogamy’, not legally enforced monogamy. It is the idea that we reinforce the social codes through our reactions to others when they break them. I can tell you firsthand that this is a real thing, and if you break social conventions, at least one of the big ones (think Ten Commandments), you are going to pay.
It was the first time I saw that the code of social norms was a real thing, that I couldn’t simply make up the rules and ignore the ones I didn’t like. Once you’ve transgressed in a big way—you can’t just shrug it off. You inhabit a different mental space than other people, and your encounters with the social world are colored by that transgression as well—you are handled differently, even by those who love you. There were only two people who treated me the same despite my behavior, and knowing that someone thought I was redeemable absolutely carried me through that time. It was the first time I ever considered the notion of redemption, or that I might need to be forgiven to be able to clear my own head and heart and move forward.
Not only did I feel myself separate from the social fabric, I had somehow also proven to myself that the conventions I had followed weren’t useful– love doesn’t conquer all, marriage is a trap where your soul dies, and if you try to escape and manage it badly, you will suffer all the more. I couldn’t see a way to move back into anything like a traditional lifestyle–it didn’t make sense to try and make something work that just, didn’t work. I would try to live outside the norms instead.
I reasoned that I would be better off if I stayed unattached romantically. I spent the next five years being ‘free’: traveling, moving, seeking, studying, saving nothing, planning never farther ahead than the next few months, and living in a sort of amoral wilderness of my own making. Marriage had proven unreliable, so maybe ALL the conventions of dating and loving another person were up for examination, Maybe they could be discarded. I dated serially but never wanted to commit to anyone. It just didn’t seem safe. I might lose myself again.
I moved around a lot, to different apartments, different towns. I drove up and down the coast and studied at different libraries just to escape. I finished another degree. I studied literature, but what I recall most were heaping doses of critical theory, postmodernism, deconstructionist thinkers, etc. I mention the imposed philosophical leanings of my time at university because I believe they entrenched my sense of being lost even further. I was steeped in the idea that no version of a text, or a life, was better or more valid than another–and that truth claims were just patriarchal voices drowning out those they had colonized.
It was an elaborate study in nihilism and the unraveling of western culture’s belief in itself. For someone already existing on shaky ground, this was not a good footing. Literature had seemed a place to find an historical exploration of big ideas, of truth. But then, under postmodernism’s gaze, nothing was objectively true. I couldn’t claim that I found anything true or good at all: my job was to dismantle the text, to criticize the writers for their withered attempts and point out the obvious class divisions, the sexism, racism, etc. After I finished my master’s I walked away. I didn’t read another novel for six years.
I lived in different states and two different countries, traveled here and there, and just could not find a way to rest my head or be found. I loved cities, I loved the country, I loved people, I had a great time. But I was lost. I was using the serial shift in spaces and in relationships to cover the fact that I was not okay. Yet I don’t think that I ever gave the impression of being unhappy in a deep way. I appeared to others as a free-spirited wanderer, a lifestyle highly prized by modern cultural standards. I don’t think anyone looked at me, ever, with pity. Most of my oldest friends would comment that I had all the fun, while they worked, stayed in one place, lived more conventional lives.
My ‘last hurrah’’ was still rather interesting– I was living in New York City, in the middle of endless options for fun. I was working multiple part-time jobs, having crazy adventures, and I even had a plan. I had taken the LSAT and applied to law school. My application essay was on my goal to be an immigration lawyer and offer clinics and services in the US and Southern Mexico, so that families who had loved ones trapped in the legal system in the US could make sense of what their options were and how to navigate the immigration process. I had many close friends from Mexico who struggled with immigration issues and was truly passionate about my plan.
I was offered an interview for a chance at a full ride scholarship and I got it. And when I received the offer letter, I was thrilled. But then something just felt wrong. I did a quick bit of mental math that had honestly never occurred to me before. I was 29. If I started law school in the fall I would be finished at age 32. I would need to prove myself at a firm or establish my own, find capital for my project, dedicate myself to it for at least 3-5 years just to get going. That put me at 35-38. I realized I would probably never have a family. Was that what I wanted? If I became a successful lawyer, would it matter to me that I never had a family? I sent a thank you email and declined the offer.
In this short clip, Peterson discusses the shifting priorities of women who DO find success as lawyers and professionals. Once they become mothers, they focus on parenting rather than climbing a ladder. Even highly competitive, career-minded women who choose to become mothers prioritize that role.
A few months later I packed up a rental car, quit everything and moved home to my parent’s basement. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I just wanted to start from a sense of the known. I still was having trouble ending my wandering patterns and didn’t have a way of orienting myself. Often I felt like a worldly, educated failure.
I went online and wrote a dating post and kept it simple and honest. I am looking for a partner- not just fun, not serial dating. I want children, I want goats, I want acreage. That was about it. The first person I went on a date with was my husband of now going on 7 years. We have three children, 60 acres, goats, sheep, and projects from here to eternity.
I have to say, I wonder at the absolute miracle of finding the kind of partner I did from a single dating post. I was looking for a man who was not only responsible enough to have children, but successful enough to be able to support them and me, educated enough to keep me interested, serious about rural living AND capable at it, conscientious yet also open to new things, empathic but also masculine enough to attract me…. and who was ready to have kids RIGHT NOW. Not everyone on a dating site would fit that list. When I met my husband for the first time I liked him, but the impression I most remember is: ‘this is an adult’. I wasn’t even one by my own standards— but that was coming.
Here is a clip of Peterson describing what women at 29 who want families are up against:
Switching over to being a wife and a mother was very difficult for me, because of my own attitudes toward those roles. I was still highly suspicious of conventional life– for years. I refused to get married until our second child was on the way. I was adamant that I would keep my independence, so when I had our first and second child I didn’t quit my job, in fact I ‘leaned in’. I wanted to feel competent and to keep up with my husband’s schedule. I saw the measurement scale of worthiness as one of productivity. I never valued the work I was doing in our home.
The real failure of the model of ‘strong women can be anything a man can be’ is that it reduces the true value of what women as caregivers bring to the table, to zero. Women then internalize that model. People often try to ask if you do something besides parent, or are you ‘just a mom’? I’m not offended by this–I just think it’s time to move on from this standard of measure.
It’s ridiculous to assume that since there is no monetary value there is no actual value to home and child-focused labor. Is there any greater spiritual task than supporting lives with your own? Seriously– no yoga teacher, no trip to Bali or India, will get you to the level of self-awareness that having children can. There is no way not to see yourself clearly- all your faults and limitations- when your child reflects it back to you, or pushes you to your limits, day after day.
My notions of independence crumbled when I left my job to stay home with our kids—once there were three of them. I had been clinging to my identity as a ‘modern female’ through work outside the home. I did not really relate to moms who loved being home all day with their children. It didn’t ‘fit’ me. I liked my kids, I loved them. But I did not love monotonous days of food prep, clean up, poop, bathing, laundry, etc. It felt, often, like I was suffocating, like I was dying a bit today, and a bit the next, and that every day was going to be like that.
I felt powerless and started to act strangely—lashing out and starting fights with my husband for seemingly minor issues. He would bring home groceries on his way home from work to help me out and I would loudly criticize the brand of lunch meat he’d purchased (So sorry honey). To him it was just ham, to me I had lost control over every part of my life. All of a sudden the food I put into my body became a war for the last thing I had any control over.
It sounds Cray-zy. I know. I did seek counseling soon after. Then we went to counseling together, and then we worked out a basic schedule that went like this: Tuesday night was date night, Wednesday was mom’s night out, Thursday was dad’s night out. We both started to get some freedom back, and our kids still had a set schedule they could rely on.
I know now that the dying a little every day was true. It was the formation of someone else coming into being. I was narrowed, limited, feeling that old self losing out to someone who was more patient, less willing to run from difficulty. I could stand to do something day after day for a longer term payoff, for another person’s well being. My former self just couldn’t exist side by side with the person I needed to become. I hear other moms talk about ‘getting their groove back’ and I’m happy for them. But that’s not how I feel. That lady died. And now I’m here. I don’t miss her life, and she never would have been able to handle mine.
I discovered Peterson’s lectures in 2015, after hearing his first Joe Rogan podcast. When I listened to them, I felt like I had already lived through so many of the psychological realms he explores. Archetypal stories often sound archaic to the modern sensibility–do they even function?? But anyone who has lived through a day with toddlers knows that ‘beating back the chaos’ is very real. Anyone who has watched themselves lose their temper with a tiny person who can’t possibly defend themselves can understand the need to integrate the shadow, and learn to manage their own inner monster.
There was a lot I already sensed, the magnitude of the shift for example, yet he could articulate it in a way I hadn’t been able to. I found the lectures on suffering, the lectures on mythology. The Maps of Meaning series totally changed how I see the function of religion. It helped me move from a period of intense re-formation to a point where I could begin to see a bigger arc in my own life, and to talk about it.
A few years ago we sold our farm and moved across the country to live nearer to my husband’s family. We found a small church we love. We reorganized our priorities. The sense of life as drudgery has lifted as the kids have become a bit older and I can see the enormous potential of what we can make of our lives, and the self respect that comes from shouldering a heavy load.
We bought another farm and are now shepherds, homeschoolers, and run a small plant nursery. We have taken on the animals and the nursery because that fits in with our goals of supporting our community through sustainable farming, and for me of being a (mostly) full-time mom to our children. The nursery is open two months of the year and that two months is electric for me. I get enough adult interaction to counteract that lingering sense of being ‘just a mom’.
I am a creative type and a homemaker like my mother, but it takes last priority after family, farm, and exploring faith. I still struggle with limiting myself to a few tasks, and I often have to re-calibrate and push some things off the table. Long trips, long books, backpacking and brunch still don’t get on the schedule very often. I try not to get so overbooked that I can’t do the first things well.
At the same time we were leaving our other farm, my family went through a particularly difficult time. We lost my nephew just before he was born, and my sister in law was very ill. The gift my nephew gave me was a realization that I was able to carry others through hardship. I found that I was a lot stronger because of the work I had done- the caring for others, the limiting of my own impulsivity and personal desires for a longer term plan. It was incredibly helpful to have heard Peterson’s lectures on the nature of suffering. There is a point, maybe the most important one from that time, where he says something like this: that who you might want to aim to be is the most together person at a funeral. Here is a bit of that lecture:
That time completely changed the landscape and the way I view myself in regards to others. I saw that I could simply do more now, that I had come through fire, that I was tougher. I am no longer outside the social fabric- I create it and uphold it when others need it. Becoming a mom did that–not having a classroom, or a job outside the home. I already had confidence from my earlier life experiences. I had sought my own capabilities but I never found their limits elsewhere. I have never felt more fully capable, or less limited, which is testament to that strange paradox of the narrowing of your potential selves into an actual future self.
Peterson has said that we are at a point where the feminine archetype needs to be re-articulated, where the woman who is not ‘simply a caregiver’, so to speak, must be accounted for. I also think he is sensing it should come from women speaking about it themselves, and has hesitated to attempt it himself. I appreciate having that space to move into. Many women end their thoughts on the feminine at the idea that it has been historically oppressed and requires reclaiming, but then they reclaim it in reactionary ways– hating masculinity, disrespecting women who embrace traditional roles, or justifying their own hedonism in the name of a grand cause; aka chocolate, wine, and shopping as an identity.
There is something else, something deeper than consumerism and a ‘you deserve to have it all’ lifestyle. I’ve offered here a look at what that original transformative process of the feminine might still hold for modern, independent women. It is still valuable to let yourself be narrowed and re-formed, even if you end up at your wit’s end arguing over lunch meat. It is still a valid pathway for women to find challenge, meaning and purpose, and a career is not necessarily an equal substitute. (And how on earth could it be?)
A second look at motherhood, as invaluable for the mother, is necessary before we can modify that archetype. Modern feminism is not helping, proposing models that undermine the traditionally feminine and women who make life choices on that spectrum. It does very little to ‘revivify’ the culture, as Peterson often says, and more often tears at the social fabric in ways I find unsettling.
Thank you so much for reading. I want to thank Ally for inviting me to share some of myself here. After some correspondence we found that, although we agreed on many things, we were coming from two very different backgrounds— I was not planning a traditional family or marriage and ended up with both. I could not have arrived at where I am without the love, trials, and inner searching that was becoming a mother and a wife, even with–and perhaps especially because of– the drudgery of staying at home when I pictured myself as ‘so much more’.