“All that matters is that you are having fun.” The mantra that began the dissolution of a civilization.
How often do our children hear a variety of this phrase? “Just have fun!,” says the coach to a group of dejected players losing during halftime, or the art teacher as she examines the sub-par work of a student. Rather than speak difficult truths regarding mediocre performance, we go to the safer instruction, “Have fun!” It has become so ingrained in our psyche that the words are automatic, like a rote prayer. “Did you have fun at school?” “Mom, what are we doing fun today?” This constant striving for fun – will not serve our children well in the short or long-term.
“Are you having fun?” The problem is, the answer to the question is so often no. Simply instructing children to “have fun” does not make it so. Children cannot have fun on command. A kid losing at soccer is unlikely to find the experience fun – unless he doesn’t care about soccer anyway. The child who realizes, through direct comparison, that his artwork is mediocre, is too aware of his own inadequacy to have fun. Does the lack of fun now make the pursuit of soccer and art pointless? Perhaps we should point them to a higher goal. Considering we want our children to be capable of doing difficult things, and difficult things are rarely fun – we need to give them a measurement capable of satisfaction.
Since parents are frequently calling their children’s attention to the supreme value of “having fun”, we cannot be surprised when they have an insatiable desire for it. Recently after a long day at an amusement park, my daughter walked in from the car, plopped herself on the sofa and said, “Mom, I’m bored!” Fun becomes a drug, children require more and more exhilarating experiences to feel satisfied. Because we fear our children’s unhappiness, our kids are not allowed to become bored long enough to create their own “fun”; the burden then falls to parents, teachers, and society to provide the sufficient amount of enjoyment.
This trend of “fun-seeking”, instilled in children, continues into adulthood. The pursuit of self-fulfillment has overtaken all other values in the lives of young people. A recent poll by theWall Street Journal* shows that values have shifted dramatically in younger generations. Patriotism, religion, and having children, previously seen by the majority as core values, are seen as unimportant pursuits by the majority of young people. The value of self-fulfillment, however, has sharply increased compared to older generations. The sad reality is that, as Vikor Frankl said, “It is the very pursuit of happiness, that thwarts happiness.” This truth is unfortunately confirmed in our modern “fun-seeking”generations. Mental health issues, loneliness, and drug addiction are increasing concurrently with the decreasing influence of self-moderating values. **
Are we inadvertently creating young adults dissatisfied with life by giving them a standard no one can achieve? A fun-filled life is not only rare, it is unsustainable and ultimately meaningless. As parents we are prioritizing the pursuit of something that is not only impossible, but destructive and shallow.
In the end it comes back to the age old question – What is the purpose of life? Increasingly the purpose is seen as the pursuit of “self-fulfillment.” This mentality is at the root of almost every social problem we see facing us today. If our goal in life is our own momentary happiness then all other values become insignificant. People and responsibilities are prioritized according to the enjoyment to be gained from them. Children are seen as a financial loss or hamper on freedom, marriage as a barrier to sexual fulfillment, religious morality is simply a means of bringing guilt and duty into an otherwise carefree life. But a world filled with independent selfish entities does not fill our innate need for connection and meaning. According to a recent survey, nine out of ten young Brits believe their life lacks purpose.
If we believe the purpose of life is instead personal and societal progression, then we need to change the way we speak to our children. If we want the next generation to seek meaning, then we need to actively question our children’s progress rather than their enjoyment. Rather than ask, “Did you have fun?”, perhaps we should ask, “Did you learn anything?” “What did you contribute?” “What did you create?”. We should teach our children to use “progress” as the judge an activity’s worthiness. If knowledge or experience was gained or shared then it was a worthy endeavor. As our children begin to see the world not as a place they can get enjoyment from, but a place they can add value to, they will see purpose where before there was none. With this shift in our children’s perception, we may be surprised by how often fun will be the by-product.
“Isn’t it absolutely essential to keep a fierce Left and fierce Right, both on their toes and each terrified of the other? That’s how we get things done.” ― C.S. Lewis, [That Hideous Strength]
Disagreement is uncomfortable, we yearn for peace and unity. But is there a purpose in conflict? Modern political divisions often seem unreasonable and unproductive; however, knowing that division is inevitable, perhaps with the proper perspective, differences could prove useful in building a better world. If each side is able to agree on a common goal, one which transcends the importance of their own “way”, then there is hope that each perspective can serve a purpose in achieving that goal.
In a recent interview Dr. Peterson explained, “You need liberals because, now and then, the right thing to do is to do something new. You need conservatives because, now and then, the right thing to do is to do what everybody has always done. And the reason you need political dialogue is so that the liberals and conservatives can continue to argue about which of those solutions is appropriate right now.” (Clip on need for liberals and conservatives minute 40)
In our personal relationships we can apply the same perspective. If we are sufficiently humble, we need not fear conflict, but instead allow disagreements to progress our common goal, the relationship. Dr. Jordan Peterson explained, “Part of the reason you want the relationship isn’t so you are happy right now, it’s so that you can live a high-quality life across multiple decades, and so you are looking for someone that you have to contend with, who is going to push you beyond what you already are.” There is a time and a place for disagreement in a life of progression.
A great video on conflict resolution and relationships.
My family recently returned from a trip out West, visiting my parents in a small rural town. It was a wonderful adventure for my children to be able to ride Grandpa’s horses, climb mountains, and enjoy the soft green grass – a luxury compared with the bristly variety of Southern Texas. One afternoon, my kids and I drove into town to get ice cream. When we were finished, my eldest son, Calvin, 10, asked if he could walk back to Grandpa’s house. It was only about a half mile and with Dr. Peterson’s voice ringing in my head warning me against over-protection, I said he could. (clip on overprotection)
My little daughter, 5, with a similar independent streak also wanted to go but I decided against it. Off went my son, seeking sovereignty from his mother, while I gathered things up and loaded the kids in the car. A few minutes later, as I drove towards home, I noticed that my son was running full speed. I thought he must have decided to race us home. Suddenly, I saw that three ferocious dogs were chasing him and jumping up onto his legs and back. He is a fast kid but could not out-run them. Frantic, I sped up to him. As I approached him he ran across to my side of the road and the dogs backed off. He saw the van and jumped in. He was gasping for air and obviously very traumatized. He was holding his rear and he told me the biggest dog had bit him. My immediate reaction was extreme anger. I got out of the car and started storming towards the house the dogs were now gathered at. I was ready to kick the dogs and pound on the owner’s door. However, as they started barking at me, I realized that they would only attack me as well. I got in the car and went home. My son showed me the bite which was not serious. He was physically okay but he was obviously very emotionally shaken – despite being a very tough boy. I myself was shocked and disturbed having just seen my precious son attacked by dangerous dogs. I thought, What if I had agreed to send my five year old, she may well be dead! I was experiencing first hand the consequences of sending your children out into the dangerous world.
I called the police and the sheriff arrived quickly. He promised to speak to the owner, although without an animal ordinance in the town he said his hands were somewhat tied. I told him to do all he could because it was extremely unsafe for children. I was assured the dogs would be quarantined long enough to ensure there was no risk of rabies.
When I told my son I had to call the police, he said he didn’t want to speak with him, he was still very upset. However, when the sheriff arrived my son regained his composure almost instantly. The sheriff was very respectful and my son gave a thorough description of the event and dogs. I was amazed he could pull it together like that.
After I had done all I could to ensure my son was physically safe and to mitigate the risk these dogs were to others, my worries turned to his mental health. As the daughter of a therapist specializing in childhood trauma, I knew that if distressing experiences are not dealt with properly, they could show up later. I did not want my son to begin feeling anxious or powerless because of this experience. I did not want him to develop a fear of dogs or stop taking risks. I wanted to talk it out with him and make sure he was processed it all. However, my mother also reminded me that the more traumatized the parent seems, the bigger chance the child will be also. She said, “Sometimes the child can be more traumatized by the parents’ reactions than by the actual trauma.” I didn’t want to turn this unfortunate incident into something that would plague my son because of my own over-reaction to it. As the day went on, I discovered that although my motherly instincts were correct, I also needed a masculine perspective in order to successfully help my son overcome this traumatic event.
A Feminine Reaction
Because of the anger I was still feeling, and my angst at knowing how much worse it could have been, I discussed the incident with my family quite a bit that day. I tried to minimize it in front of my son but he overheard me exclaiming, “I just can’t stop thinking what would have happened if Laynie had been there!” My son said, “Mom can we please stop talking about this?” I could tell he was serious so agreed that I would lay it to rest. But internally I was still anxious. I thought, He didn’t do enough to work through it, he is repressing.
I called my husband who unfortunately was still in Texas working. He was upset by the situation but remained calm. He spoke briefly to our son to make sure he was okay. Calvin said his rear was sore but that he would be fine. We distracted ourselves the rest of the day and life went on as usual.
In the evening, my son was brushing his teeth with his siblings and I walked into the bathroom. Suddenly he burst into tears and hugged me. I took him into the bedroom because he could not contain his emotions. This was not like my son at all. He is a very tough boy. He is the strong and silent type. I was very surprised to see him reacting in this way. I held him for awhile and then he began saying, “If I had just stayed in the car! Why didn’t I just ride with you? Why did I have to walk?!” All the stress and regret was pouring out of him. I felt like I needed to help him see his success, he had taken control of the situation on his own, “Do you realize you were handling it before I got there? You were running so fast that only one managed to bite you. You knew you had to cross the street. As I arrived they had given up on you.” He needed reassurance that the next time he would succeed, he would overcome those dogs without assistance. He was still quite upset so I asked if he wanted to speak to his dad. I told him that his father had been bit by many dogs when he was a boy in South Africa so maybe he could help him feel better. He nodded his head yes. I dialed my husband and told him Calvin wanted to talk to him.
A Masculine Reaction
I went into the hall with the phone and told my husband that Calvin was very upset and suggested he could tell him about his own experiences with aggressive dogs and help him feel better. I handed the phone to Calvin, expecting his father to take a similar role in attempting to comfort Calvin. However, as soon as I handed the phone to Calvin he immediately stopped crying and composed himself, just as he had with the sheriff. His father must have said hello and asked about his day. My son listed through all the various happenings of the day – going to the lake, playing with his cousins, feeding the horses, but no mention of the dogs. My husband talked to him about sports and other everyday topics. In my head I was thinking “Come on, why isn’t he trying to help him through this.” After awhile they said goodbye and got off the phone. I asked Calvin if he was okay and he went down to bed, calm and collected.
That was the last time Calvin ever got upset about the dogs. The next day his Grandfather wanted to take him and me on a horse ride in the mountains. I resisted, saying he was injured and it was probably better for him to rest – but Calvin insisted that he wanted to go. My father said it would be good for him. As he galloped his horse up the trail, I saw that he was right. Calvin had a look of strength and control as he governed his horse. Calvin had overcome those dogs like a man.
A Stereotype of Roles
Preventing trauma in children requires two important steps from two contrary perspectives. First, children need to feel safe again. Then, children need to regain the courage to face a dangerous world, having learned to persevere. Typically the mother will fulfill the first need, and the father the second, but not always. Different personalities and situations may result or necessitate a shifting of roles.
Dr. Peterson explains the need for two perspectives when raising children. He explains that witnessing a helpless child,
“…should invoke a desire mostly on the part of males to encourage and mostly on the part of females to nurture. But males and females are quite cross-wired among human beings so there is encouragement from the women and there is also nurture from the men. And of course those curves overlap so there are more nurturing males and more encouraging females but the opposite is roughly the archetype (typification).”
For the purpose of this article we will stereotype feminine as comforter and masculine as strengthener. However, who plays the role is not as crucial as ensuring both roles are played out and in the correct way for the prevention of psychological distress. Each parent must be humble enough to realize their own limitations and the strengths of a contrasting perspective.
Feminism and Masculine: Contrary and Complementing
As I observed the interactions my son had with the men around him that difficult day, the sheriff, my father, and his own dad – I realized the necessity of the masculine influence as Calvin overcame this small, yet potentially significant, tribulation.
“Masculinity is bestowed. A boy learns who he is and what he’s got from a man, or the company of men. He cannot learn it any other place. He cannot learn it from other boys, and he cannot learn it from the world of women.”
John Eldredge, Wild at Heart
I would have had a different conversation on the phone, I would have forced the issue and given advice. My husband is not lacking compassion or empathy – but he was exhibiting these traits in a masculine way. As women, sometimes we see the tough and silent way men interact with each other as repressive and unfeeling, when in fact it may be strength and understanding.
“A woman means by Unselfishness chiefly taking trouble for others; a man means not giving trouble to others…thus, while the woman thinks of doing good offices (kindness) and the man of respecting other people’s rights, each sex, without any obvious unreason, can and does regard the other as radically selfish.”
C.S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters)
When attempting to examine the actions of the opposite sex, we are naturally drawn to pass judgment on differences. Many of these judgments are uninformed and shallow. However, as we seek to understand the strengths of each perspective, and the advantages of differing approaches to common difficulties, there can be unity and cooperation rather than division. Parents must join forces and utilize their unique gifts towards the common goal of parenting emotionally healthy children.
Because feminine and masculine perspectives are needed, children raised with both parents tend to thrive. Due to the often conflicting nature of the roles “Nurturer” and “Strengthen-er”, it is difficult for one parent to play both roles. However single parents who are cognizant of their own proclivity to either over-nurture, or overexpose – and take the steps necessary to ensure their child has the proper balance, can be successful in raising emotionally healthy and confident children. The Strengthening role may also be filled by grandfathers and other males in the boy’s life.
However, if we honestly look at the outcomes of children raised in single-parent households, particularly the fatherless, the statistics are bleak. Aggression, anxiety, depression, risky behaviors – all skyrocket in single-mother homes.* The mother may do her best and use the tools she has, but without the supporting, and when necessary, counter-acting actions of a father – many children are not able to successfully overcome the trauma common to youth.
The Role of Nurturer
Mothers tend to be nurturers. We are able to empathize and comfort our children. We express our feelings of approval and admiration for their areas of strength and express our faith in their ability to overcome their trials. Strength is found in a mother’s touch.**
“A mother’s arms are more comforting that anyone else’s.”
An important aspect of nurturing is allowing the child to freely and openly discuss the trauma. Women are great communicators. We talk through the offending scenario to find solutions for next time, and amplify the positive choices they made. We problem-solve and dig deep to find any underlying misconceptions or distress.
These are gifts and they have great power. I was grateful to be able to share this gift with my son. I am grateful that when the stress began to bubble over that night, he could seek my comfort.
However, as women we need to place limits on our gifts. A mother’s comforting role comes first, but does not last forever. After initial trauma, comfort and safety must be there. Nonjudgmental empathy are crucial for a child to feel safe and valued. However, extending these sympathies for too long can lead to weakness and victimhood. Rumination on negative experiences does not help us overcome them, but rather enables us to use them as an excuse. When we continuously revisit old sufferings or injustices we justify extending emotional states beyond their usefulness.
We may need the nudge of our husbands, someone to tell us it’s time to let go. With my son, I could have continued discussing the shock and potential outcomes with everyone I met. I could have attempted to get sympathy or outrage from others. I think, if I’m honest, I did do a bit of that. In the absence of my husband, my own son had to step in and say, “Mom can we stop talking about this.” Moving on and moving forward is encouragement, it enables the child to use the experience to become a stronger self.
The Role of EnCourager
Men tend to be Doers. Men are able to push aside problems and worries to achieve. Fathers are able to distract and laugh with their children despite hardship. Rather than brood over struggles, fathers seek out opportunities for children to toughen-up and face their fears. They wrestle with their kids so they understand their strength and how to hold back aggression in interactions with others. (Surprising importance of rough-and-tumble play.)
Fathers tend to show, rather than verbally communicate to their children how to interact with the world. Fathers are the model for children, especially boys, of behavior and socialization.
“My father didn’t tell me how to live. He lived and let me watch him do it.”
Clarence Budington Kelland
Fathers take their ready-children out of the arms of their mothers and push them into the adventure of life. Fathers enCourage their children.
But father’s must also avoid the masculine propensity to chasten their children for their emotions or perceived weakness. After an upsetting experience, the mother must be allowed to do her comforting work without judgment. Sweeping things under the rug will never work. Pushing children too early and too hard can cause either aggression or detachment.
Parents who shame their children for their pain and apprehension will become “unsafe” actors in their children’s lives. Parents who coddle and pity their children will become restrictors of their freedom and potential. The roles of Nurture and Encourager must be played out in the proper balance. It is easy to detect when the that balance has been struck, our children thrive.
The Strength in Scars
The pain and tribulations of life are a necessary part of turning boys into men, our children into strong adults. The nurture of mothers and strengthening from fathers can protect them from the dark side of pain, and instead help them turn their distress into triumph. (Post on utility of suffering).
“Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”
C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
“The world is a brutal place and much wisdom comes out of catastrophe.”
Dr. Jordan Peterson
As I look back on the incident with the dogs I remember the fear, the anger, and the anxiety. I remember doubting my parenting method. Am I being too laid-back? Am I giving my kids too much independence? But as a few weeks have passed and I have seen my son bravely seek out the adventures of life like never before, I realize that his dog-attack this summer was just one more adventure, one more notch on the belt of manhood. Rather than regret that I did not prevent this painful experience, I am grateful for strength and perspective he has gained. A few days ago I asked Calvin if I could write about this story and asked, “Do you ever think of that day and those dogs?” He laughed and said, “Mom, at least I have a cool scar! Too bad it’s on my rear so I can’t show it off.”
Postscript: I hope to do a follow-up post on overcoming Childhood Trauma for those of us who may retain painful memories.
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The sacrifices we make today equal peace and happiness in the future. For parents this means: resisting the impulse to anger and instead patiently working out a conflict with our disobedient child, putting down the phone and cuddling with our toddler, encouraging our sensitive child to face a fear – these small acts will lead to a brighter relationship and stronger child. Similarly small, yet conscious acts of parenting, done day after day, will lead to a life of victories for us and our children.
“The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of.”
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (quote posted by JBP)
“Pride is one of the seven deadly sins; but it cannot be the pride of a mother in her children, for that is a compound of two cardinal virtues – faith and hope.” Charles Dickens
“The Positive Mother gives birth to the Hero,” says Dr. Jordan Peterson. This is the “hope” in Dicken’s quote – hope that we can produce a heroic child. Dr. Peterson explains the faith we must have in our role as mother, and in the relationships we can build. The mother/child “relationship is the only relationship you will ever have in your life where you have a chance of creating something close to perfect. When your child is delivered to you, in some sense, they are perfect, and your job is to maintain that perfection if you can…it can easily be the best relationship you ever have in your life…it’s a real gift.”
The Modern Shame of Motherhood
In today’s culture we rarely encounter this attitude of hopeful and proud motherhood. Instead we see depictions of tired mothers, bratty children, and dysfunctional families. In the past, shows like Leave it to Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show portrayed happy families with respectful children. These depictions now seem naive and erroneously idealistic. Instead modern women are discouraged from any of the self-sacrificing aspects of motherhood. Helen Gurley Brown, the Editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, women’s current source of enlightenment, wrote, “Hard work and sex will set you free (as long as you don’t have children)”, and if you do have children… “Never waste time feeling guilt, never agonize too much, and have a lot of paid help at home, and never, ever, let them interfere with the long climb to the top.” Rather than the “faith and hope” of Dickens pride – modern mothers are told to be ashamed of the years wasted at home and to assume their children will become disrespectful and rebellious. But the modern interpretation of womanhood is only successful in producing unhappy women and dissatisfied mothers, as well as children unworthy of a mother’s pride*. Mothers who dismiss the hope of motherhood and faith in its purpose, and instead focus on their own sacrifice, will lose their ability to raise strong and respectful children. These women are unlikely to find pride in their calling.**
Power of Positive Motherhood
If we find we may have swallowed some of these lies about the insignificance of motherhood, how do we begin to regain our faith and hope? There is some truth in the modern-woman’s interpretation of motherhood; it is full of sacrifice and little appreciation. But what are they leaving out?
The reality of work and hardship in motherhood need not prevent us from experiencing the incomparable joy and love to be found in our role. However, we should be aware that negative emotions and experiences are more powerful in altering our perceptions than positive. The concept of “negativity bias” explains that in order to feel content and happy we need at least three times as many positive emotions as negative emotions.*** Therefore we must amplify the positive aspects of Motherhood in our minds and conversation. We must make a conscious effort to notice the highs of motherhood -a child saying “I love you”, our nervous son bravely climbing a tree, our daughter comforting a crying sibling – these every-day experiences should give us pause for gratitude. We must recognize the spiritual and emotional advantages to be found in a life of sacrifice and service, advantages oft-forgotten by the childless or self-obsessed. If our eyes are open to the rewards of motherhood, we look with pride upon our children and we will begin to see our lives in a different light.
Pride as a Mother
Women that glory in their children, and their role as mother, can be content and fulfilled. But are we communicating this joy to our children and other women? Are we perpetuating the stereotype of the unfulfilled mother because we consciously avoid discussing our pride? We are ambivalent in sharing our successes and happiness, fearing we may inadvertently “mom-shame” or seem arrogant. We don’t want to make others feel insecure in their own parenting, or offend those without children, so we undermine the value of our position. We relate to other mothers through our common hardships rather than our common joys. As we grumble we begin to listen to our own complaints, we begin to form a mentality of mothering which emphasizes the sacrifice while trivializing the meaning.
It is not easy to successfully communicate the love we have for our children, or the fulfillment we feel when we see them progress, but we need to try. We need not boast or use our children’s successes as measurements of our own worth, but speaking positively about our children can make a big difference in our own perceptions of motherhood. If our children overhear us praising them rather than complaining, they will feel confident in their mother’s love and feel they are worth the sacrifice. If we begin to take pride in the unselfish title of Mother, pride in the unique opportunity placed upon women to influence the future, pride in the hope brought by our precious children, pride in our natural proclivity to love and nurture – perhaps society will begin to discover Motherhood’s righteous-pride as well.
The proverb says, “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” Every new mother and father is handed a person of untold potential. The burden of responsibility we feel can be oppressive. However, if we rise to the challenge, for the love of the child, we will unlock that potential. The first few years of a child’s life requires a parent’s greatest attention and the most work. Those early years are tough, little kids are demanding. Thankfully they come cute or we would not be so quick to forgive their monstrous behavior. During those early years the child develops his sense of self, he learns to deal with emotions and face his fears, he develops empathy, and is socialized. Or, on the contrary, he fails to gain self-worth or personality, he represses or lashes out emotionally, he develops anxiety as he faces the unknown, he becomes apathetic to others, and is unsure how to interact appropriately. Young children are largely at the mercy of their parents.
As we begin our journey with each child we need to allow our innate parental love to drive us to sacrifice all other “goods” for the greatest good – raising a strong child. This is when we must put in the time and energy in devising the best parenting practices for each unique child. A sensitive child will need a softer touch than a determined child. A serious-minded child will need more respect and independence than a fun-loving child. As we strive, first and foremost, for the good of each child, rather than creating the child we desire, we will be guided in our parenting tactics and we will find joy in seeing our children thrive. “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.” Frederick Douglas
“They say that it is the fear of death and of what comes after death that makes men turn to religion as they advance in years. But my own experience has given me the conviction that, quite apart from any such terrors or imaginings, the religious sentiment tends to develop as we grow older; to develop because, as the passions grow calm, as the fancy and sensibilities are less excited and less excitable, our reason becomes less troubled in its working, less obscured by the images, desires and distractions, in which it used to be absorbed; whereupon God emerges as from behind a cloud; our soul feels, sees, turns towards the source of all light; turns naturally and inevitably; for now that all that gave to the world of sensations its life and charms has begun to leak away from us, now that phenomenal existence is no more bolstered up by impressions from within or from without, we feel the need to lean on something that abides, something that will never play us false–a reality, an absolute and everlasting truth. Yes, we inevitably turn to God; for this religious sentiment is of its nature so pure, so delightful to the soul that experiences it, that it makes up to us for all our other losses.”
-A Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
In his book, A Brave New World, Huxley describes a new civilization where all things are adapted and conditioned in citizens to allow for perpetual happiness and stability. Every physical impulse is immediately gratified so passion cannot develop, every obstacle to comfort is removed, even old age is eradicated. Negative emotions are dulled by “Soma” – a drug to numb the senses. The spirit is never allowed to interrupt the distractions of the body – and so God “manifests Himself as an absence” rather than a presence. The Chief Controller of this “Brave New World” declared, “God isn’t compatible with universal happiness. You must make your choice. Our civilization has chosen machinery, and medicine, and happiness.”
In modern society we increasingly see happiness and stability as exalted to the place of supreme Good. Our physical impulses, emotions, and desires must be satisfied, and these physical distractions often impede our ability to contemplate our purpose. However, to discover the true reality of our existence, even in youth, we must “not walk according to the flesh but according the the Spirit,” Romans 8:4. We have to choose to see truth and beauty as more important than self-satisfaction. If we resist the temptation to seek momentary happiness no matter the cost, if we accept the responsibilities of progression and sacrifice, our eyes become open to the Ultimate source of joy and fulfillment. This choice will lead to a life less stable and contented that that of the citizens of Huxley’s civilization, but one with access to truth, beauty, and progress not found in satisfied ease. The reality we discover may reveal that the very “act of striving for truth and beauty is where happiness resides.”
“Speak the truth…Start listening to what you say, and feeling what you say. Pay attention to whether what you’re saying makes you feel stronger or weaker. If it makes you feel weaker than you should stop saying it right away. See if you can reformulate your words so that when you restate them that feeling of integration and integrity reappears.” Dr. Peterson
Speaking the truth brings strength, stability, and alignment. As we attempt to be completely honest with ourselves and others, suffering diminishes and we see our purpose more clearly. There is no scrambling to remember white lies we may have spoke or false impressions we may have given. There is no guilt at misleading others with a disingenuous facade. If we practice speaking the truth and recognizing the truth, we will forgo much of the stress, confusion, and guilt in our lives.
Helen Keller said, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”
Tragedy befalls us all. Suffering is one promise life always keeps. There are times when we don’t see how the sun could possibly shine again. I would like to share the story of two very different women, whose experiences give us insight into how to move toward a brighter future even in the most desperate circumstances. Their lives give us hope that we can find happiness and purpose despite, and sometimes even because of, our adversity. Light can be found in the midst darkness.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”*
Sacrifice of Comfort and Well-Earned Self-Pity
As a young girl, Anne Sullivan was already well-acquainted with grief. At age five she contracted a painful eye infection which took most of her sight. Her mother died leaving her with her abusive father. Her father soon abandoned her and her brother to an overcrowded and filthy almshouse where her younger brother soon died. She said her experience at Tewksbury Almshouse left her seeing life as “primarily cruel and bitter.” She became prone to violent outbursts and terrors. Through stubborn persistence she gained admittance to school but became a defiant student and was nicknamed Miss Spitfire. Despite her hardships and temper, she graduated from the Perkins School for the Blind as class valedictorian. She was soon recommended as the teacher to an exceptionally difficult six-year-old girl in Alabama, Helen Keller.
Helen had been just 18 months old when she contracted an illness which left her blind and deaf. She faced a lifetime of darkness, silence, and isolation. Despite a loving family and remarkable intelligence, Helen became extremely frustrated and violent due to her inability to make sense of her surroundings. She behaved “like a wild animal” and her parents were at a loss of how to handle her. Anne Sullivan was to be her savior, but not without great sacrifice.
In this clip from The Miracle Worker, you will see the stubbornness of both teacher and student brilliantly portrayed. Anne was no pushover; she knew what had to be done – she had to get Helen to understand the concept of language. She knew Helen would live life wandering aimlessly in the dark until she came to that realization. Anne was willing to do whatever it took so Helen could gain that understanding. (Clip 2:30)
Anne’s efforts to tame this wild child were met with opposition from Helen’s indulgent parents and physical violence from Helen. Because of Anne’s own stubborn and aggressive nature she understood Helen and she had the temperament to do what it took. It was not a pleasant experience at the beginning. Helen “hit, pinched and kicked her teacher and knocked out one of her teeth. [Anne] finally gained control by moving with [Helen] into a small cottage on the Kellers’ property.” Anne’s daily efforts to teach Helen were met with anger and misunderstanding from an unruly and ungrateful child. Anne likely ended her days feeling unrewarded and unappreciated, yet she persevered. Anne later said, “People seldom see the halting and painful steps by which the most insignificant success is achieved. ” Anne was willing to sacrifice her comfort, she was willing to be mistreated and unloved, because of the potential she saw in Helen.
But the young Helen also had to sacrifice. She had a very well-earned victim card. She had an inexhaustible list of justified excuses, bitterness, and anger. No one would have blamed her for achieving very little. She could have continued roaming the rooms, grunting and eating off strangers plates – that was the easier and understandable path. But eventually Helen choose instead to see hope and purpose in the darkness and silence of her life. “I have made my limitations tools of learning and true joy.”
These women did not ask what was fair or what they were owed; instead they began to climb out of darkness. How could Anne find trust and love when her life had only been suffering and neglect? How could Helen make sense of the world when all she experienced was unintelligible? They saw a purpose greater than their own momentary desires and they ultimately found happiness and peace in that pursuit. “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” For both women, the alternative to their sacrifices only led to more misery and suffering. Their path of sacrifice was difficult and required a transformation of their weaknesses into strengths. Their shared stubborn, aggressive, and disagreeable natures – developed in their suffering – had to be purposefully harnessed and refined to achieve true greatness.
Proper Love Exemplified
“When Queen Victoria of England pinned one of England’s highest awards on Helen Keller, she asked [her], ‘How do you account for your remarkable accomplishment in life? How do you explain the fact that even though you were both blind and deaf, you were able to accomplish so much?’ Without a moment’s hesitation, Helen Keller said, “If it had not been for Anne Sullivan, the name of Helen Keller would have remained unknown.’” (Vital Speeches of the Day, p. 42).
Anne Sullivan, “Miss Spitfire”, with her definite and contrary nature, was able to reveal the true Helen Keller; she helped her transcend the willful and uncooperative child and become the inspiration of millions. Anne did not pity Helen; she did not accept her weaknesses because of her hardships. She “willed the good” of Helen more than her own, or Helen’s, momentary comfort. This scene of Anne attempting to train Helen to use good table manners shows her determination and dedication to getting the “good” out of Helen. (Clip 6:12)
What is love? Love is compassion and acceptance. But love is much more than just this. Thomas Aquinas defined love as “willing the good of the other”. Love is the ability to look inside a tormented soul and see the possibilities to be found there – the potential for goodness, and happiness, and strength. Today’s mantras are “You are perfect just the way you are”, “Don’t change for anyone”, “Happiness is the goal”. There is some truth in these words, but there is much greater truth to be found outside of them. If we are willing to leave the world self-esteem and enjoyment and push into the darkness and uncertainty of our own discomfort, we may find a love and strength much more powerful than mere acceptance. “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
Anne Sullivan didn’t accept Helen Keller as-is. She saw her aggression, her disobedience, her willfulness, as impediments to achieving a brilliant potential. Dr. Jordan Peterson recently shared the perspective he took as a psychotherapist, and one we may take towards those we “love”, “(Famous psychologist Carl) Rogers said you have to have unconditional love for your client…and I say, No! I have unconditional positive regard for the part of my client that is striving toward the light and I am an enemy against the part that is trying to drag that person down.”
Anne was not concerned for Helen’s comfort – comfort was keeping her from progression. Anne had to make Helen uncomfortable enough that she was forced to find a new path forward. As the clip above shows, this was a painful and harsh experience – it didn’t look a lot like the “love” of compassion and acceptance, it looked like punishment, it looked like suffering. But Anne had faith, she knew that if Helen could simply grasp language, then she could see her ultimate potential, a potential full of hope, understanding, and influence.
In this incredibly emotional scene, Helen’s eyes are opened to language. The pieces finally fit together in her mind and she understands. As she discovers the staggering reality of the gift Anne has given her she is filled with Love for her teacher. She later recounted this moment, “‘Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten … and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! … Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house, every object … I touched seemed to quiver with life.” (Clip 6:12)
Not only did Anne’s love produce a miracle in Helen’s life, but Helen’s love for Anne transformed her teacher. Anne was able to find peace and appreciation in her friendship with Helen that she had never experienced. Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan became inseparable and were companions for 49 years. “The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me.”
Sacrifice + Love = Hope
Throughout her long life Helen Keller faced each situation in physical darkness and silence. She could have remained insular and protective. Instead she was the first blind/deaf person to graduate from university, she wrote several books, became an influential activist, public speaker, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was named one of the most influential people of the 20th century. She was determined to find joy and meaning despite her physical limitations. “Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I am in, therein to be content.”
Perhaps the memory of her pathetic state before that remarkable moment at the water pump kept her always conscious of her need for gratitude. “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.” Progressing onward, towards a great purpose – sacrificing our selfish desires and excuses for the love of someone or something – will always create a sense of optimism and hope. Self-pity and bitterness are left behind and we are hopeful for what lies ahead. We have gained confidence in our ability to overcome because we have done it before, and we know what it takes.
We all can feel blind and powerless – like six-year-old Helen Keller. We may be groping in the dark for happiness and fulfillment, completely oblivious to the plans or purposes of our Teacher. We can choose to dwell on our limitations, or be content in our inadequacies – but our Teacher sees our potential. Sometimes the lessons He gives are incomprehensible to us; they may frustrate us and cause us to question His wisdom and love. Despite our lack of appreciation, He will keep working with us until we finally come to that great Understanding- when we realize what it all means and what we could be. Then our sacrifice of self will be insignificant to the majesty of our newfound life of hope and purpose.
“Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” 1 Corintians 2:9
*Quotes by Helen Keller unless otherwise indicated.
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Despite the lack of respect many fathers receive from our modern culture, Fathers are, in some ways, more important to the development of a strong and resilient generation than mothers (link here). They also bear the incredible responsibility of modeling a child’s view of another Father, our Father in Heaven. If our father is kind and patient, we know that our Heavenly Father must be as well. If our father is harsh and unforgiving, we may begin to believe God is also thus. If our father is absent, we may doubt the existence of any loving Father to protect us. George MacDonald said, “Words have an awesome impact. The impression made by a father’s voice can set in motion an entire trend of life.” The words of a father, the way he conducts his life, the way treats their mother, will frame his children’s lives, and through him the future of the world. Thank you to all the fathers who often unnoticed and unappreciated, sacrifice themselves for their families.
“Father!—To God Himself we cannot give a holier name.” –William Wordsworth