COVID-19 Jubilee: Shame, Debt, and Mercy

By: Kevin Martin

Responses to Covid-19 vary within nations, states, counties, towns, families, and individuals. The new tension within these groups, created by our responses to Covid-19, has created collateral damage in our relationships, financial lives, civic lives, and governance. While, in general, it is easy to criticize strong responses, my interest in this article is not to critique our responses to the crisis, but how to recover from the damage they have caused to our personal relationships. Our relationship lives have been affected by both social distancing and our deeper immersion in the polarized public response to political action. Once the threat and fear of the virus has subsided, we must assume that collateral damages to our relationships will remain. Now what?

CRISIS RESPONSE: THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY

As is typical in the fog of crisis, it’s hard to see the silver lining.  Many families are facing financial ruin due to government-mandated cessation of their revenue.  While that subject deserves loud discussion, this article does not intend to focus on that component of the Covid-19 tragedy.  Here, I intend to look at some nuanced changes in our social relationships and their implications.  It’s not as if there are no positive social outcomes from our response to this pandemic.  No doubt, in houses across the USA that have not been visited by medical despair brought on by Covid-19, families have been expressing some positive sentiment about baking more bread at home, reducing expenditures, creating more reliable family rhythms, and increased time spent with nuclear family members.  Also, I suspect there is serious upside potential in re-thinking how we educate our children.  We are learning a lot about the means of education while schools are closed.   And regarding friendships, many families are doubtlessly pleased to find that some friendships are being prioritized while others are fading.  This is kind of a study in the Darwinian fitness of our friendships.  Only the strong [friendships] will survive while the weaker ones will fade into oblivion.  This will allow more decidedly “important” priorities to arise within families.  That’s great.  But, seeing the upside in the shake-down of our friendships will require us to deal with some negative feelings as well. 

Let’s look at how shame fits into this scene. Shame can be either self-imposed or foisted on us by others.

SHAME ON YOU

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the tension in our already-tense public discourse.  Being immersed in strong opinions about political action is not new to us.  However, this dynamic has really ramped up and been accentuated with some additional features.  Rather than merely each waking moment being an opportunity to shout our opinions about Federal competence, we now have added opportunities to squabble about varying expert medical opinions, failed infection rate models, fiscal and monetary action, the role of scientists in a cohesive advisory body, the costs and benefits of planned economic slowdown, whether or not human safety can be discussed in terms of monetary cost, the effectiveness of our local government’s response in comparison to that of other cities and counties, etc.  As if we didn’t have enough to disagree about, Covid-19 is providing ample opportunity for us to further upset each other with differing opinions.  Add the risk of lethal infection and observe heightened levels of emotion.

Being worked up about any or all of the changes resulting from our reaction to Covid-19 needs no justification.  Change can be hard to accept.  Add to that any mistrust or cynicism toward decision makers or community members and it is natural to get frustrated.  However, how about when someone close to you starts talking in a way that really irks you?  How about when a friend or family member starts talking ignorant nonsense?  We are familiar with the admonishment of a person when they say something stupid, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”  Maybe they should be.  Or maybe you aren’t listening well enough.  Thus, the emotional walls can be erected and catapults loaded with burning tar.

When the dust settles after any social display of anger or fear there is always at least one party who is left feeling less than good.  Someone is left sweeping up the pieces (maybe under a rug!) and reconciling what just happened.  Part of the fallout when someone recognizes that they over-reacted is the feeling of shame. 

We often feel ashamed or humiliated from our own public displays of weakness or vulnerability.  This is as true for uncontrolled crying in public as it is when we look physically incompetent by stumbling on the sidewalk.   We can feel shame when we display any type of incompetence that is seen by strangers.  Losing a job can feel shameful if we think the loss makes us appear inadequate.  A girlfriend or boyfriend breaking up with us after we admitted love to them makes us feel ashamed.  Losing a house to fire can make us vulnerable and ashamed when our projection of competence is interwoven with our possessions. I had a friend who felt deep shame after their home was plundered by burglars.  Even on social media, unhinged outbursts and emotional recriminations toward our neighbors fit this description.  Losing control is rarely seen as virtuous and many think it is shame-worthy.  

The cloak of privacy that shields our identities on social media doesn’t help matters.  I like the analogy of a Mardi-Gras mask and social media. When people don a flamboyant mask (I’m not talking about an N-90 face mask) at Mardi-Gras they might feel more apt to do something out of their ordinary because they feel anonymous.  However, committing what you might think is a slimy act while being unrecognized doesn’t change the fact that you observed yourself making that particular decision.  Will you feel ashamed at having done so?  Maybe.  The experience of unfettered freedom does not guarantee the feeling of pride in what you choose to do with it.  The same goes for our behavior on social media.  Regardless of how the person in question feels, we often think a person’s lack of emotional control is deserving of shame.

The Ridotto in Venice, Pietro Longhi

Emotional control is certainly virtuous for civilized adults, but hardly something to force in a young toddler. As a first-time parent of a toddler, I had to learn this lesson begrudgingly. If emotional control is required for my children to participate in society, why couldn’t they just learn it early! Since realizing that children can only learn to regulate their emotions from adults who model it, I have (far too often!) found myself in a horribly strange house of mirrors where my frustrations are simultaneously cause and result of difficult moments with my children and wife. Some of these emotionally-complicated moments just feel like a small slice of Hell and shame is not helpful for anyone.

This isn’t to say that shame is never helpful. Even for children, an interior feeling of shame can be both a helpful indicator that they behaved incorrectly, as well as a motivator to not repeat the incorrect action. Self-imposed shame can be felt in big doses and small doses, and can likewise be useful or toxic. As with many things, the “poison is the dose.” It might be that the interior perception of our own shame is useful only in proportion to our capacity for self-reflection and ability to articulate a way forward.

When shame is cast by one upon another, the scenario gets even muddier. Why would someone cast shame on others? Sometimes they deserve it. Casting shame can function as an accountability mechanism in a community of adults who share common interests. To the extent that the interior experience of shame motivates us to avoid shame-worthy behavior, others can signal it in our direction when they think we are toeing the line of inappropriate behavior that jeopardizes our common interests. Beyond this, people can cast shame for all sorts of dark reasons. Maybe they see something in another that they hate about themselves and fight it with casting shame outward. When we shame others, we had better either get it right or apologize quickly.

Shame is often cast on others very hypocritically. In our responses to Covid-19, we have created a lot of opportunity to cast shame on strangers. A good buddy of mine was tide-pooling at a beach with his daughter the other day. There wasn’t a person in sight. Soon, a duo of cyclists cruised by. One of them shouted, scornfully, at my friend, “Social distancing!!” To what benefit? I’m not sure, but the attempt at shame-casting was shame-worthy.

In an environment of heightened emotions, we might think other people are acting shamefully with more regularity than usual.  Or maybe, with a little reflection, even our own actions deserve a little shame.

SHAME ON ME

In social distancing, we have agreed to not see people that we would normally spend time around.  Some of these people we miss dearly.  Others, we are pleased to avoid.  Some other social situations we had previously not considered avoiding, but now enjoy their absence.  How does this affect us?  Usually, when we get enjoyment from an act we “should not” enjoy, (like eating too much cake or avoiding a friend or family member) we feel at least a little bit of shame or guilt.  There’s a reason we call it a “guilty pleasure.”

Humor me while I indulge in a hypothetical shaky moment between uncertain friends.  Let’s say that you have a monthly dinner date with a friend but the requirements of social distancing prevent you two from meeting this month.  Also suppose that you were getting a little tired of this monthly dinner date.  The whole idea of monthly meetings was an experiment.  He wasn’t really that great of a friend, and you suspect that he benefited more than you did from the monthly meeting.  After all, all he did was complain about mutual acquaintances and you found it annoying.  While you thought he was a bit broken, you could see that he needed a friend.  You were happy to be that friend when it was convenient, but now seems like a great opportunity to duck out of the arrangement.  “Thank you, social distancing.”  Next month, maybe you’ll feel different.

You’re probably thinking that this relationship was destined to dissolve (and maybe they should try different meds) but that isn’t necessarily true.  Government-mandated restrictions on gatherings create a layer of fog between some friends.  The veil of ignorance covering the reason for friends not seeing each other (“Have they not visited because of government mandate, or just because they don’t like me?”) creates a prisoner’s dilemma where we can do more harm than good.

The psyche is a bizarre thing.  What happens when we observe ourselves wronging a person with whom we have an unsigned contract of friendship?  Shame begets mistrust.  When we feel a little ashamed about avoiding our friend, our psyche, in a tantrum of projection and blame avoidance, can easily generate mistrust toward the person we wronged.  Once we wrong that person (by neglecting our relationship) we assume his willingness to neglect, or betray, the relationship too.  Thus, we can begin to mistrust another person when we grow suspicious of their capacity for betrayal.  What tipped us off to the idea that they might betray our friendship? Our own betrayal of the relationship… no matter how small it might have been at the time.  We assume our friend is unaware of the pleasure we gained from avoiding him.  However, this pleasure is not without consequence.  In fact, we might begin to mistrust him precisely when we understand that he might get the same guilty pleasure by neglecting our friendship in like fashion.  I don’t need to point out the obvious immaturity here.  In this example, the root cause of our mistrust toward our friend’s commitment is actually our own shame in choosing to avoid him.  

Changes in our psyche are rarely made under our full control.  One emotion morphs into another when we see our reflection (no matter how distorted) in another person.  In this example, we are obviously not talking about a super high-quality friendship that has weathered many ups and downs.  Many friendships can benefit from the endurance of stress.  Others whither and disappear, and not without emotional fireworks.  While some personalities are far more neurotic and insecure than others, everyone must maintain positive relationships for overall health. Government-mandated social distancing has fertilized the soil for negative feelings between friends.  And this can make us ashamed of ourselves.

Cringe-worthy behavior not befitting of our pre-Covid-19 social interactions can yield self-righteous indignation, pity, resentment, belittlement, or self-centered anger.  We mustn’t forget that we will see our friends and family again.  Even a single moment of resentment or pity toward a community member or family member will silently change the dynamic. 

Cain, by Henri Vidal, Jardin des Tuileries, Paris

TALLYING LOSSES

Covid-19 has, indeed, presented additional complications to an already-complex world. One of many results is an increase in potential for shame in our social lives. This additional amount of shame has resulted in damage to our social fabric that is difficult to quantify. How do we mend the fabric, and who is responsible for righting the wrongs?

As an analogy, let’s look at how we recuperate financial losses before looking at social losses.  To the extent that we as individuals have taken financial losses due to societal responses to Covid-19, our solution sounds easy; “Give me my money back.”  If money is lost, and debt accrued, because of a mandated response, then an appropriate post-crisis recovery includes an attempt to recuperate those financial losses and resolve the debts.  Because we can chalk up these losses to either an act of God or to government restrictions on income, choosing the methods by which we are made financially whole is obviously problematic.  We have many options, such as renewed personal commitments to save instead of borrow, work extra hours, business ventures that profit from the post-Covid-19 landscape, insistence that governments intervene on our behalf with the redistribution of other’s resources, etc.  The possibilities are endless.  Nonetheless, quantifying the loss is not impossible, and most of us agree on our desires to recuperate financial losses and pay down personal debts.

SHAME AS DEBT

To the extent that love and careful attention are a relationship’s currencies of transaction, shameful social action puts us in debt to those with whom we share friendship.  Acting shamefully towards our community members is to over-spend our relationship currency, no matter if the act is passionately unwitting or deliberately malicious.  Shameful social action is deficit spending; an emotional debt payable to those in our community.

How can we ever pay this back?  How can we encourage others to move on and forget our shameful actions?  The shameful debtor is in a helpless position.  How can we work it off?  For the answer, we must put ourselves in the shoes of the person to whom the relationship debt is owed. 

Debtors Prison, William Hogarth

COVID-19 JUBILEE

The ancient Israelites had a way of dealing with debt that can be useful in this discussion. Every forty-ninth year was a “Year of Jubilee” wherein all debts were forgiven, slaves freed, and prisoners released. This effectively placed a ceiling on how big a debt could grow. Applied to this discussion about emotional debt and the release from shame, we can see how a moment of Jubilee would effectively limit the size of any grudge. (I suggest not waiting forty-nine years.) How does Jubilee translate to personal shame amidst our responses to Covid-19? Show a little mercy.

We must have mercy on those whose actions we think deserve humiliation.  I think marriage and parenthood have equipped us with some useful tools here.  Routinely in family life, there is somebody over-reacting, freaking out, lashing out, blowing up, or breaking down.  Whether the cause is missing an afternoon nap or anger toward political theater is irrelevant.  In a family where emotional closeness is requisite for proper function, the forgiveness of ridiculous acts is eventually required.  Sometimes, following a shameful act of irrational frustration, a peaceful understanding is reached through explanation and discussion.  Other times, blood-sugar is low, sleep deprivation has set in, and work is stressful.  In these situations, we constantly say and do ridiculous things that we would never plan on doing after a full night’s rest, hearty breakfast in our belly, and gleeful work environment.  When our spouses act in such irrational ways, and we think we understand why, what do we do?  Show some mercy.  They deserve it.

In stressful times, people freak out.  Shall we hold it over their heads?  Shall we ransom them with ridicule and reminders?  Shall we be the type of debt collector that brutalizes his debtor?  Of course, strangers on social media are not the same as family members in our household.  Also, some behavior absolutely requires legal response.  What I’m talking about is the irrationality that can drive wedges into our social lives due to stressful and extraordinary times.   Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.  Show some mercy.  A lot of us need it right now.

Seven Acts of Mercy, Michiel Sweerts

Thank You Mr. Essential

Lunch Atop A Skyscraper, Rockefeller Center

“Deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

The last few weeks have brought varying trials for all of us. I feel blessed that my tribulations have been small compared to many. However, as we attempt to sell our house and close on another house, and older home in the country, I have found myself under a lot of stress. The biggest stress occurred last week when a rather severe foundation issue was discovered in the home we are buying. We had a matter of days to figure out the cause and extent of the damage. I was worried that during this “shutdown” I would have difficulty getting any workers out to the house. Thankfully, I discovered these manual laborers are considered “essential”. I have been interacting with more plumbers, foundations experts, and septic guys than I ever thought possible – and each one is more heroic than the last. In a week of difficulty – my burden has been lifted by these men. Essential seems the perfect description.

They come – despite the pandemic looming large; they don’t give excuses, even when justified. For me, their arrival is akin to a knight in shining armour – arriving to slay the dragon Slab Leak. They have all kept their distance, waving instead of shaking my hand, considerate of the time and circumstance. But they get to work quickly and don’t complain that they have to be “out” while everyone else is “in”. I have been so impressed by the respectful and compassionate way they have all treated me – a frantic woman often with her children in tow. They always sufficiently dumb-down the diagnosis while ensuring that I understand the issues at hand.

During COVID-19 we have seen the “essential” rise to the top. Motherhood and Fatherhood has nowhere to hide with our children ever-present. There are Doctors, Nurses, Hospital Staff, Grocery Store Workers, and Farmers, to name a few. Most of these professions are not considered “prestigious”, their contributions rarely praised. However, my recent experiences, particularly with the often male-dominated fields of manual labor, have illuminated the incalculable importance of these men. Plumbers, for example, rarely get much credit. But Jordan Peterson reminded us, “Plumbers have saved more lives than Doctors , through hygiene.” The “essential men” I have interacted with have been quick to help, knowledagle, competent, and hard-working – the very best of men. They don’t demand praise; they do their jobs with pride – realizing its importance and not caring that the rest of us don’t. I think mothers can learn a lot from the quiet confidence they have in their calling.

As we ponder the many lessons we can learn from this pandemic, I hope we can give this one lesson special consideration – increasing our respect for the unassuming and largely disregarded blue collar workers. They keep our society functioning; they are on the frontlines of civilization. In a time when it often seems there is little to be thankful for, stuck inside our homes, let’s discover those things we take for granted. Next time we flush a toilet, or turn on a light, or stay warm and dry despite the rain, or eat fresh produce – let’s mentally thank those that make these not-so-simple conveniences possible, and that humbly save us when they may fail. I am so glad that during this time, we can give them the title they deserve – “Essential”.

Let’s find a way to thank someone “essential” today.

“The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” John W. Gardner

-Ally

Being and Becoming: Philosophical Parenting

Guest Post: By Kevin Martin

I am forty years old man with a wife, a 4-year old son, and a 2-year old daughter. We live in the Pacific Northwest. We want our children to become good spouses, parents, reliable employees/employers, and responsible citizens one day. Parenting strategies often permeate conversations that my wife and I have. Like most parents, we are perpetually discussing ways in which we can rear our children properly. We read about discipline, emotional expression, resilience, healthy attachment, and so on.

I suspect there is such a thing as being so deliberate that the “soul” of parenting is eclipsed by external advice. I sometimes wonder about the downside risk for children when their parents over-prioritize their own rationality in the parenting process. But, having said that, what have we learned from “studying” parenting in our household? Certainly, we’ve learned that there is no single “method” which is comprehensively correct.

RATIONAL DELUSIONS

I remember when our son was very young, I would frequently (and cynically) think this about parenting books:  Each person has their own unique combination of neuroses and coping strategies.  When two people pair up and create a couple, their neuroses and coping methods mesh (and clash!) to create yet another unique emotional landscape.  Now introduce the particular eccentricities of a new-born child’s neuroses and peculiarities into the scene and watch them create what we’ll now call a “family dynamic.”  If everyone’s neuroses and coping strategies blend into a perfectly cohesive (including codependent!) flow of emotional ubiquity, one of the parents will write a parenting book about what they did, how they felt about it, and why everyone else should follow suit!  For the rest of us, we deal with a perilous emotional landscape of briars and roses, mountains and valleys.

A bit cynical?  Sure.  Sleep-deprived parents are sometimes prone to cynicism.  I don’t mean to say that everyone who writes about parenting has a disturbingly codependent home life. However, it is true, that a cohesive emotional landscape does not have to be a pretty one.  A family dynamic can be uniformly terrible.  This is to say that a parent doesn’t have to read a ton of parenting books before recognizing conflicting ideas and competing motivations between many books, and the dominance of sometimes narrow perspectives from which any book can be written.  The point of being deliberate in our parenting (if we can include studying as deliberation) is not to eventually stumble onto a golden goose that will deliver perfect wisdom to every scenario, but to simply gain perspective, increasing our capacity for wise decisions. 

Adding to the ambiguity is a dubious consensus among many Westerners that we are experiencing some broad cultural problems at the moment.  If this is the case, and we are acting, learning, and endeavoring in the context of a troubled culture, then why should we put stock in the system?  How do we know when we are ingesting others’ psychoses as palliatives?  And how do we ensure we don’t disperse our own psychoses to those in distress in the guise of compassionate advice?

Because it is important to take parenting “strategies” and advice with a grain of salt we have to somehow put this recent genre of literature in the context of something much bigger.  When saturated with conflicting ideas about parenting, all claiming efficacy, we must pursue more fundamental dynamics.  When things become unclear, we must step back and ask what has generated our ideas, and with what intention?

TOWARD FUNDAMENTAL DYNAMICS

One such dynamic that might generate fruitful contemplation is the ancient tension between Being and Becoming.  Philosophies and religions have dealt thoroughly with these matters, and with diverse orientations.  Most religion and philosophies generally emphasize either Being or Becoming more than the other. 

“Being” is a broad philosophical concept referring to objective and subjective essences of both material and immaterial reality.  Fixed, absolute, realities. 

“Becoming” is a different, just as broad, philosophical concept that asserts everything is impermanent.  “No man ever steps in the same river twice.  For it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”[1]

Who was right?  Parmenides, when he said “what is-is.”  Or Ephesus, when he said nothing in this world is constant, except change and becoming?  One can easily get wrapped in pretzels around these questions, but these fundamental questions do, indeed, have effects that influence our daily lives and awareness.

Consider the difference between Zen’s emphasis of meditation on Emptiness (a way to conceptualize/embody/unify with absolute Being) versus an evangelical Christian’s emphasis on being “born again” (a way to conceptualize Becoming as paramount).  These are very different approaches to the inner awareness that orients us within an unseen reality.  Our immersion in these questions (via methods of inquiring about nature, our religious organizations, social discourse, etc.) does influence how we think about the world, our family, and ourselves.

From the time of Jesus through the end of the fourth century A.D., what was developing into “the Christian tradition,” a rare conceptual and experiential harmony was in place between Being and Becoming.[2]  The basic worldview was held between many writers from this time period (and into the following few centuries) that there is indeed mostly ungraspable transcendent Being, and within it, as incomplete expressions of infinite Being, humans Become.[3]  Humans can’t fully embody Being, the best we can do is honor it while Becoming.  We cannot fully embody an absolute essence, but absolute essences are the context for our inevitable becoming.

A simplified understanding of the early Judeo-Christian deity is that its name is a somewhat ambiguous conjugation of “to be.”  Speaking with the deity, Moses flat-out asks the deity to describe its own name, and the reply was “Eyeh-asher-Eyeh.”[4] This is often translated in English as “I AM”.[5]  The Israelites translated their bible from Hebrew into Greek around 250 BC and the same passage got translated as “ego eimi o on,” or, “I am the One Being”[6].  In the ancient world, neighboring tribes deified and made appeals to principalities like rain, war, and lust, each being embodied by a personage, animal, or emblem of some other variety.  However, the Israelites humbled themselves under a yet-higher reality, Existence itself.  Or, maybe even more poetically, the Israelites formed a relationship with the very possibility of existence.  After all, there’s no reason to assume that existence is inevitable.  Yet, existence seems “to be” and there is serious utility in humbling ourselves before such a fact.  This was a brilliant innovation in how we can orient ourselves in the cosmos. “Being” is real, and we are entirely subject to it.  The Israelites often referred to their god as “LORD.”  (Christian bibles have maintained the same title.)  In the ancient world, where human slavery and servitude were commonplace, referring to the ultimate Cause as LORD reflected the universal inevitability of Humanity’s submission to the forces of nature.

An elaboration of this understanding came when the example of Jesus became understood as the embodiment of the Logos.[7]  This heralded a new age and orientation within Reality.  Theologically, “Logos” is an expression from the utmost transcendent, an expression from Being itself.[8]  Logos is the embodiment of Purpose.  This understanding of the finite (human) component of Jesus as the expression of the infinite and unreachable “One Being” closed the circuit in an open debate in Hellenic philosophic circles regarding Being and Becoming.[9]  Namely, that personal experiences of “One Being” are largely restricted to peak experiences not common in our daily reality[10] and only described via metaphysical language[11].  The only way for a finite entity to orient itself within an infinite structure of Being is to become.  What we are left to do is fully become that which we are; incomplete expressions of the Transcendent.   Logos is the momentum of life, fully realized, and it is accessible.

Therefore, it isn’t that Being and Becoming are antagonistic toward one another, but that they are different categories that must be related to with each their due and proper respect.  There is a hierarchy of Being within which we exist, and our proper behavior is to Become.  Being is a noun that we cannot fully experience. Becoming is an eternal action, a river upon which we drift between two unreachable banks.  Life, Growth, Becoming are synonymous. 

STRUCTURAL FRACTURE

Modern (and quite pervasive) philosophies, like Deconstruction, have effectively flattened our understanding of the Hierarchy of Being.[12]  Deconstruction, in part, informs us that Truth is only relative within an individual and pursuits of truths that transcend an individual’s interpretation are problematic, even dangerous to the “greater good.”  Fair enough.  We live in a culture confused about how to orient ourselves in a complex universe.[13]  Our ancestors worked out that we must orient ourselves as finite creatures destined to Become (for the good or the bad) within a transcendent tapestry of Being.  We have no choice but to figure out how to best play the hand we were given.  In Modernity, this is now old-fashioned and anathema.  The idea is viewed as particularly backwards if a person goes so far as to develop a relationship with that ungraspable existence of Reality, with God.  We have lost our orientation within reality and our befuddlement bleeds onto every realm in Modernity.

TO BECOME A PARENT

Let’s explore this disorientation through the lens of the parent/child relationship.  If recognition of Being is recognition of that which is, then let’s look at particular ways that we as parents relate to it in our children.  We can recognize that which is in our child and react many ways.  It is indeed rare that we merely observe our child.  When we observe our child, emotional information immediately floods our consciousness.  We can like what we observe or dislike it, we can affirm it or reject it.  It can cause us to cringe, and it can cause us to want the child to somehow change or continue along the same path.   Observing our children can even give us feelings about ourselves.  For better or for worse, a child’s being is tangled in their parents’ emotional worlds.  Let’s look at two specific parental instincts that are hot topics right now, and I think they correlate with Being and Becoming.  Affirmation and confrontation.

WHAT MOTIVATES OUR OUTLOOK?

All “parenting strategies” are complicit with a particular view of Humanity and human nature.  Do we primarily see ourselves (and our children) as diversely rich entities requiring recognition and expression (Being)?[14] Or do we primarily see ourselves (and our children) as imperfect creatures who must properly develop within a sometimes-hostile world (Becoming)?  If humans develop, what shall they develop towards?  What is Humanity?  Is Humanity a mere collection of hairless apes in an accidental multiverse?  Or is there a transcendent component to Being, within which we must actively orient ourselves?  Are Humans just miscellaneous meatballs acting out pre-programmed actions in a deterministic universe, the result of one long chemical reaction and stoichiometric equation?  Is parenting a divinely-appointed responsibility?  Our actions towards our children reflect our views on these matters.

A person who believes that their child’s personality traits are baked in from day one will parent their children differently from someone who believes children must learn to become civilized.  A parent who believes there is no “purpose” to life might look to secular humanism for ethical answers while a person who believes parenting is a divine responsibility might look to spiritual resources for ethical answers.  Ethical answers from different sources can conflict.  These conflicts are displayed, in part, in the differences between our “parenting strategies.”

What is the most fundamental task of a parent?  Is our primary role to affirm our children’s emotions and psychological states?  To affirm the emotional Being of a child, just as they are?  Or is our role to encourage them to a place beyond where they are currently?  To confront them with their own Becoming towards our best understanding of the Human ideal?  Of course, like Being and Becoming, the parent’s affirmation of a child and the parent’s encouragement of the child toward confrontation of challenge are two different categories, and therefore require each their own due in fundamentally different realms.  But do we ever confuse these two reactions and make the wrong move?  Do we ever tell the kid when they know they’ve screwed up, “It’s okay, Sweetheart, you are perfect just the way you are,” when we should have said, “I understand that you’re embarrassed because you handled that poorly, but tell me how you will do that differently next time.”  Yes, of course we do.  Do we ever get angry at our child because they are not the person we want them to be?  Sure.  We can fail our children by wanting their essential traits to be different.  Likewise, we can fail our children by wanting their passing phases to be frozen in time.

Just as transcendent Being and human Becoming both exist, but at different levels, both affirmation and encouragement to confront change are required of us as parents, but toward different levels of our children’s realities.  We must orient ourselves toward these two levels of reality.  What, exactly, about our child is permanent?  And are those qualities physical, intangible, metaphysical, spiritual, emotional?  What about our child is developmental?  And are those qualities physical, intangible, metaphysical, spiritual, emotional?

Our stereotypical mother/father roles have largely worked this out on their own.  Mothers are very affirming to an infant’s needs.  This is necessary and creates a secure and healthy emotional attachment, the foundation upon which the child will build all future relationships.[15]  Seen traditionally, fathers generally push their children’s comfort zones to build resilience in a world of uncertainty and risk.[16]  There is a time and a place for each.

MANIFESTING DARKNESS, MANIFESTING LIGHT

When the roles of affirmation and confrontation are improperly channeled, unnecessary conflict will result in the household.  Here, family dynamics exists in all their nuanced and glorious opaqueness, and things get dicey. 

Can a mother’s negativity display itself in smothering the child’s potential through what might appear to be acts of affirmative charity?  Sure, we call this woman the “devouring mother.”  Think of the witch in Hansel and Gretel and her methods of gaining the trust of children that she consumes.  In the fairy tale, we don’t know what dynamics generated her bitterness toward children.  However, we do know that she affirms the desires of manipulated children to sustain her bitter existence.  Maybe she sacrificed her career to have children only to discover that sometimes it is horribly challenging and miserably frustrating.  She gains the trust of naïve children with an endless supply of dopamine and oxytocin.  Just as her momentum as a successful career woman was foiled by these little buggers, she gains the children’s trust before her shadow emerges and devours their potential in an outburst of negativity.  The more the children look to her for comfort and security, the more gratifying their confusion and pain will be to her when she ambushes them with her dinner plans.  It’s her children’s fault that she is now suffering instead of presenting at board meetings, and they will not go unpunished.

Can a father’s projection of his own inner-turmoil and weakness justify his own cruelty toward his son?  Yes.  Can the father justify his actions as a necessary hurdle that will build strength in the child?  You bet!  We call this man the “tyrannical father.”  He acts out the idea that even accidental cruelty toward his son will serve as a helpful aid when his son enters a hostile world beyond the front door.  For generation after generation fathers can justify their own bad tempers and dark tendencies as that which build character in their sons.  This justification is generally performed in post-blowup moments of shame-turned-excuse and is a convenient mechanism for deferring our own development.  Of course, in maintaining willingness to keep this inner-darkness in our unconscious we are perpetrators of future bad deeds toward our children and spouses.  To paraphrase Jung, the origin of the child’s neurosis is the unconscious of the parent.[17]  Our behavior effects our child’s understanding of the world and their mechanisms for engaging with it; their becoming.

These exact perversions occur in households daily and they perpetuate personality and behavioral challenges that echo for generations.  They result from misorientations toward Being and Becoming.  In these narrow examples, we over-esteem a very low form of our own Being and project the need to Become on those around us.  However, once confronted with knowledge of our own dark proclivities to violence, rage, malice, resentment, and general miscreance, it is our responsibility to integrate these traits in ways that no longer subjects others to suffering.[18]  This is difficult work, and is merely one more category lumped into the phenomena known as “becoming an adult.”[19]  To become an adult in the Modern West is to do so in the context of ideologically-possessed public discourse and eviscerated religious structures.  Dicey, for sure. 

PROPERLY AFFIRM, PROPERLY CONFRONT

An element that is relevant to both parenting and self-care is the way which we orient ourselves toward Being (which transcends our own individuality) and Becoming (individual, family, community development).  Recognize the spark of Being in all people, and positively participate in their inevitable tendency to Become.  Said non-metaphysically:  Affirm human dignity and encourage proper human development.  Do not merely affirm weakness and confusion when encouragement will improve the situation.  Growth is Life.  Life is Growth.  When children are confused or in trouble, they need an adult to help them with the tyranny of painful immaturity.[20]  This help often comes in the form of a broader perspective or a re-statement in your belief the child’s ability to survive the situation and maybe even improve it.  After all, to encourage someone means to instill courage in that person, to conjure their inner-strength out into the world.

A spectacular example of a parent’s proper alignment with Being and Becoming is the story of Mary with her son Jesus at the wedding of Cana.[21] I will paraphrase.  They are at a wedding party.  Jesus had not yet unleashed his potential as Logos and was apparently a little uncertain about the matter.  Mary, who was aware of his potential and his latent capabilities, felt the urge to prompt her son out of his comfort zone.  Meanwhile, the party runs out of wine.  Mary tells her son, “Hey, son, they ran out of wine.”  Her son, perhaps feeling a little self-conscious about his mother’s expectations of him, says, “I’m not ready yet.  It isn’t my time.”  Because Mary knows her son so well, and knows what type of pushing, and how much, will end poorly, she doesn’t push him directly any more.  She has provided a space of possibility for him.  She has informed her son that she knows the seed that is growing within him needs water and sunshine.  She provided some.  She tells the servants at the party, “do whatever my son asks you to do.”  She might as well have told her son, “I have known you since before you could talk and I know who you are.  You might be uneasy with yourself, but I am not.  You are great, and this is a chance to show yourself to the world.  Be the Logos that can transform the mundane to the spiritual.  Son, turn water into wine.”  The rest is history.  Mary honored his Being while prompting his Becoming.  She affirmed his dignity while encouraging his growth.  Nearby were six stone jars used to hold liquids for Jewish rites of purification.  Jesus told the servants, “Fill them with water!”  After they did so, Jesus told them to pour some out and give it to the chief steward.  After tasting it, the chief steward declared that this water for traditional Jewish purification has been transformed to a “spirit,” wine.  At his mother’s prompting, Jesus revealed the transformative power of Logos.  Atta girl, Mary.  A serious parenting “win.”

We sometimes talk of the “character” we instill in our children.  The Greek root of character is “kharássō,” or, “I scratch, engrave.”  As a noun, “kharaktḗr,” is an engraving instrument, a person who engraves, or a stamp.[22]  To have “good character” or “bad character” is to have been “well-etched” or “poorly etched” during your life.  Good character is not instilled via passive affirmation.  If we can agree that instilling “good character” is desirable then we must investigate what generates good character.  Is it merely affirming our children’s qualities as sufficient?  No!  It does no good to delude them with the impression that their current manifestation as fragile and larval selves is sufficient to engage with a hostile and thorny world.  They must obtain the necessary tools and garments[23] with which to face the world beyond our front doors.  Yes, affirmation is critical for a child.  We must affirm their potential.  We must affirm their sacred and fragile spark of Humanity while carefully fanning it.  We must affirm the Being within them while encouraging their Becoming.  For their own well-being, we must simultaneously honor their innocence while conjuring their potential.  Confrontation with the world, affirmation of fragility, Being and Becoming are not mutually exclusive but must be artfully employed and honored in the right dimensions.  Only a parent has the amount of love and dedication required to work out such intricacies. 

Suppose every individual has a particular capacity, unique to them, for resilience and strength of character.  (There is room for debate over that idea, but bear with me.)  Resilience and strength of character are not merely generated by will.  They are tapped, conjured, called upon, only in the personal confrontation with challenge, difficulty, and complication.  If strength of character and resilience are manifest only through confrontation and engagement, and every individual has a unique capacity for resilience, then there must be, for every individual, a given volume of duress required for the child to manifest their latent potential.  Let me rephrase that.  To maximize a person’s resilience is to optimize their exposure to challenge.  Notice I didn’t say “maximize their exposure to challenge.”  Optimize.  One of our primary parental duties is to know our children so well that we know what kind of challenges and how much of those challenges will foster their optimal development.  We can only gain such knowledge after we first affirm their individual sovereignty.  After we honor the Being within them, we get insight into how to best help them Become.  The parents’ broader world view will invariably affect the process.

An important consideration, that we often apply unconsciously, is that when we interact with a child, we are not simply interacting with them at their current age and role.  When we interact with our child, we are interacting with multiple people simultaneously.  When we offer guidance, for example, we are actually becoming involved with the future child.  At all moments, we are dealing with the present child, future student and her study habits, the future girlfriend and her emotional fortitude, the future spouse (and her ideal husband!), the future employee and her reliability, et cetera.  To get really spacey, we are actually even dealing, maybe too much sometimes, with a child from the past who lives only in our imagination and hopes.  The point here is that the desired outcome of parenting is not merely a pleasant child, but a competent adult.

COMFORTABLE DECAY VS.  UNCOMFORTABLE GROWTH

In a culture of immediate gratification, resilience is under attack.  The attack is not coming from individuals as much as it is from conditions of material well-being and ease.[24]  I don’t know anyone who would debate that in the face of flamboyant material wealth we are experiencing a problematic volume of psychological dis-ease.  In such a world, might a customized austerity be the best gift we can give our children?  In an absurdly cruel irony, material and physical well-being might just be the source of our unhappiness.  Now, perhaps more than ever, we must grapple with our responsibilities towards our children’s needs to Become.  Paradoxically, this modern era of material fecundity is confronting adults with the inner, immaterial, realm as the location where we are to confront our most productive challenges.  If meaning can be generated by physical deprivation[25] what generates meaning in physical opulence?  The Modern landscape for making meaning and Becoming must lay largely inside ourselves.

PRIORITIES

There is indeed, largely ungraspable, transcendent Being, and within it, as incomplete expressions of the infinite, humans Become.  But become what, exactly?  Exploring that question is our parental task.  If parenting a child is a window into a reality bigger than ourselves, then the only proper response is our own personal transformation toward the highest ideal. 

Am I suggesting that we abandon our pursuit of practical parenting tips for meditation upon ancient abstractions?  Of course not.  But while we might busily read books and worry often about our children, we must not confuse motion with progress.  Let us remain tuned to the more fundamental frequencies that govern our lives and listen through the static of the culture’s conflicting manifestations of noise.  Let us, from time to time, deliberate upon our understanding of Humanity and what our fundamental parental responsibilities are.  Let us, from time to time, deliberate upon our personal orientations with Being and Becoming.  If we live in an expanding universe, then a part of ourselves is expanding as part of it.  We can’t help but Become.  Let’s do it properly.


[1] This is how Plato summarized Heraclitus’ position in his dialogue, Cratylus.

[2] Evelyn Underhill’s magnificent treatise on the subject, The Mystic Way (J. M. Dent and Sons, 1913), focuses squarely on the time period of Christ through the end of the fourth century A.D., while the theology of what was to become The New Testament was being hotly debated and ironed out.  She carefully puts the psychology and spiritual practice of the early Christian mystic in the context of the then-current spiritual, ritual, and philosophical trends and leanings.

[3] This is evident in the Johannine biblical writings, many biblical Pauline passages, and writings of Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Plotinus, and Proclus, to name a few.

[4] Exodus 3:14. See discussion in Jewish Publication Society’s Torah Commentary: Exodus.

[5] Exodus 3:14. King James Bible, New Revised Standard Bible.

[6] Exodus 3:14. This exact translation is used in the Apostolic Bible Polyglot, Second Edition, 2013.  

[7] See especially, preface to gospel of John where the metaphysics of relations between Logos and ultimate Reality are elaborated.  For more on Logos, read Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BC).  There is ongoing debate regarding whether or not the Johannine gospel grew out of ancient Greek questions or ancient Hebrew wisdom literature.  That is beyond the scope of this article.

[8] See an appendix in David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament for a thorough treatment on the prologue to the gospel of John and a look at Logos.

[9] See Pauliina Remes, Plotinus on Self: The Philosophy of the ‘We’, Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007, where in the first chapter, the author explores Plotinus’ ontology of eternal existence and the fluidity of temporal becoming within the human composite.

[10] Moses’ encounter with I AM in a cloud.  Also, the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor and Christ’s Ascension.

[11] For example, Jesus’ seven “I Am” statements in John, and Paul’s description of physical versus metaphysical existence (I Corinthians, chap. 15).

[12] For a comprehensive discussion regarding both the dignity of Modernity (differentiation of art, morality, science) and disaster of Modernity (dissociation of art, morality, science) see Ken Wilber’s books, especially The Marriage of Sense and Soul.

[13] Much is made about the absurdities in the denial of anything transcendent so I will not belabor the point here.

[14] Consider that Rousseau’s interpretation of “blank slate” as it relates to the un-cultured mind of a child as effectively worshipping the child’s Being.  His ideas of the uncorrupted “noble savage” also apply to the uncivilized child.  Here, instead of looking above the child for ultimate value, he either flattens the hierarchy of Being, or deifies the child’s innocence (both moves are effectively the same.)

[15] Mona Delahooke, Beyond Behavior.

[16] Warren Farrell, The Boy Crisis.

[17] “There can be no doubt that that it is of the utmost value for parents to view their children’s symptoms in light of their own problems and conflicts.  It is their duty as parents to do so.  Their responsibility in this respect carries with it the obligation to do everything in their power not to lead a life that could harm the children… Parents should always be conscious of the fact that they themselves are the principle cause of neurosis in their children.”  C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 17, par 84.

“What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents… have not lived.  This statement would be rather too perfunctory and superficial if we did not add by way of qualification:  that part of their lives which might have been lived had not certain somewhat threadbare excuses prevented the parents from doing so.  To put it bluntly, it is that part of life which they have always shirked, probably by means of a pious lie, that sows the most virulent germs.”  Ibid, par 87

“Parental influence only becomes a moral problem in face of conditions which might have been changed by the parents, but were not, either from gross negligence, slothfulness, neurotic anxiety, or soulless conventionality.  In this matter a grave responsibility often rests with the parents.  And nature has no use for the plea that one ‘did not know.’” Ibid, par 91

[18] “Every individual needs revolution, inner division, overthrow of the existing order, and renewal, but not by forcing these things upon his neighbors under the hypocritical cloak of Christian love or the sense of social responsibility or any of the other beautiful euphemisms for unconscious urges to personal power. Individual self-reflection, return of the individual to the ground of human nature, to his own deepest being with its individual and social destiny here is the beginning of a cure for that blindness which reigns at the present hour.”  C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 7, p. 5

“Every advance in culture is, psychologically, an extension of consciousness, a coming to consciousness that can take place only through discrimination. Therefore, an advance always begins with individuation, that is to say with the individual, conscious of his isolation, cutting a new path through hitherto untrodden territory. To do this he must first return to the fundamental facts of his own being, irrespective of all authority and tradition, and allow himself to become conscious of his distinctiveness. If he succeeds in giving collective validity to his widened consciousness, he creates a tension of opposites that provides the stimulation which culture needs for its further progress.”  C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 8, p. 111

“We do not sufficiently distinguish between Individualism and individuation. Individualism means deliberately stressing and giving prominence to some supposed peculiarity, rather than to collective considerations and obligations. But individuation means precisely the better and more complete fulfilment of the collective qualities of the human being, since adequate consideration of the peculiarity of the individual is more conducive to better social achievement than when the peculiarity is neglected or suppressed.” Collected Works, Vol 7, p. 267

[19]  “It is not possible to live too long amid infantile surroundings, or in the bosom of the family, without endangering one’s psychic health. Life calls us forth to independence, and anyone who does not heed this call because of childish laziness or timidity is threatened with neurosis. And once this has broken out, it becomes an increasingly valid reason for running away from life and remaining forever in the morally poisonous atmosphere of infancy.” C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 461

[20] A modern dilemma is the treatment of young people’s ideas about sexual preferences and gender identity.  We know positively that parental abuse can affect psycho-sexual development in children.  In public discourse, it seems we know more about how to identify certain types of abuse and how it affects our children’s psycho-sexual development than we know about proper adult handling of the child’s confusion and uncertainty on such matters.  What is the opposite of abuse when our child surprises us with questions or statements about their own identity?  When does guidance become hurtful (and is that hurt harmful)?  When does affirmation become abusive?

[21] John 2:1-11

[22] Wikionary.org here and here

[23] Jonathan Pageau’s analyses of “garments of skin” (Genesis 3:21) and symbolism of hair are fantastically worthwhile.

[24] “Psychological insecurity, however, increases in proportion to social security, unconsciously at first, causing neuroses, then consciously, bringing with it separations, discord, divorces, and other marital disorders.”  C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol 17, par. 343

[25] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Warning to the West, Gulag Archipelago.

A Mother’s Eyes: Calm in The Storm

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

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

A Mother’s Eyes

Arphrodite, William-Aldolphe Bouguereau

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

George Eliot

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

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

Jordan Peterson
Start Minute 44:06

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

Outsourcing Emotional Stability

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

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

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

Jordan Peterson
The Crying Boy, Giovanni Bragolin

Preventing Trauma

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

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

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

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

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

The Lookout, Frederic Remington

The Freak-Out

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

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

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

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

Discussing COVID-19 with Kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.S. Lewis

-Ally

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

Resources:

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

A great book on preventing Trauma in children

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

Mothers: Tyrants or Caretakers?

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

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

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

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

A Bad Mood

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

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

The Building of a Child

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

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

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

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

Daniel Siegel

Emotional Baggage

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

Peggy O’Mara

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

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

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

The Many Manifestations of Sensitivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.S. Lewis

Echo Through the Generations

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

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

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

Daniel J. Siegel

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

Arresting a Dark Day

A Mother’s Joy, William-Wdolphe Bouguereau

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

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

The Hope is in Recognize our Tyranny

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

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

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

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

-Ally

Resources:

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

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

In Defense of A Nurturing Mother

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

12 minute clip

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

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

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

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

Another great take by Andrew Klavan.

A Call to Beauty: How to Win the Culture War against Satan

By: Tripp Bond

“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”

Philipians 4:8

“Beauty reminds us that we are more than mere matter and that we long for meaning from outside ourselves. And that is why modernity hates it.”

Dean Abbot

“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise, you are not making their destiny brighter but darker.”

C.S. Lewis

“Beauty is vanishing from our world because we live as though it did not matter.” “Through Beauty, art cleanses the world of our self-obsession.”

Roger Scruton

“Truth, Beauty, Devotion, and Tradition are the best inoculations against the poisons of modernity.”

Anonymous

In recent times, it has become rather clear that the World has rejected its Lord and His Servants once more. In the place of Christ and His Beloved, there sits the New, the Modern, and the Fashionable. Servants of the so-called “Enlightenment.” For, as the World will tell you, “There is no God, and Marx is his prophet!” These prophets of the new cults and religions of Ideology have amassed quite a following; a following that threatens the remnant of Christendom and of what remains of Western Civilization. Whether you know it or not, these devotees have declared war on Christ and His Bride, and it’s high time we stepped up to the fight. It’s not a war of might and strength, though. So, what type of war is it then?

For too long we Christians have assumed that the war must be fought with pure logic and reason alone. We’ve believed that if we simply confront lies with facts, then The Enemy will promptly scamper off, with his tail between his legs. Or, worse yet, we’ve believed that if we hole ourselves up in the warm embrace of Lady Truth and patiently wait out the storm, The Enemy will tucker himself out and soon enough all will be right as rain again. If we believe that, then we are very much mistaken.

Does debate seem to be working? The answer is, of course, no. Anyone who has ever debated an atheist/marxist knows that they will not listen to Lady Reason alone. We live in a World where Truth Itself is considered subjective. The Enemy claims that Truth is personalized, using phrases like, “That’s my Truth!” or, “You can’t blame her, she’s just living out her Truth!” Even more recently, it has been said, “We would rather be morally correct than factually so,” as if “moral nonfacts” were a thing. You see, we’re far behind The Enemy. We’re fighting an uphill battle, believing we can win with debate and logic alone against hordes who don’t recognize that the Emperor wears no clothes. Not only are we fighting uphill, but we are fighting on the wrong battlefield.

G.K. Chesterton, a Christian Apologist, once upon a time wrote a short book called The Everlasting Man. This book, C.S. Lewis claimed, is one of the primary reasons he converted to Christianity. In the book, Chesterton weaves a Beautiful story of the History of Mankind. It’s one where God sets forth a decree, then The Enemy tries to subvert that decree, so God sets up a counter-decree to show up The Enemy’s shallowness. This is what has happened now.

We are at an era where The Enemy cannot be beaten by cold facts, for he has not seduced the masses by reason and cunning. Instead, he has moved the battleground to Story and Emotion. If we want to win, if we want to bring the Lost Sheep back into the Flock, then the weapon with which we fight must be Beauty. For Beauty is not, as many have attested, in the eye of the beholder. God Is Beauty, and therefore Beauty has a Name. Beauty is something Real and Good and True and Logical. If everything were Beautiful, then nothing would be. Beauty cannot be subjective and still exist; and still be a thing.

The Enemy has tricked the world with stories of false beauty. Take for example, the story of sexual promiscuity. It goes something like this: “Once upon today, there is a you. And you are beautiful, and your body is beautiful, and you have beautiful urges in your body. Would it not be the most beautiful thing in the world to give full reign to these urges? Your sexuality is beautiful. Let it blossom! Explore, play around, have sex with whoever you want! It’s a beautiful thing! No matter how ‘perverse’ people say it is, it’s beautiful. Because beauty is up to you! Everything is beautiful!”

Notice how The Enemy cleverly sneaks Truth into the lie. He goes about it by first stating that yes, our sexual urges are Beautiful. But notice where he ends up. He ends up at sin. How, then, are we to counter such stories? We must tell a Story of Greater Beauty than The Enemy knows. We must weave a more compelling Tale than that silver-tongued serpent of Eden can weave. And, we must yell it louder and more often than The Enemy can tell his.

The answer to this story, is, of course, the Story of the Sacrificial Man. There once was a man who Loved his Beautiful Wife with the Truest and deepest and most Beautiful of Loves. He Loved her thus even before he met her. And so, he gave the ultimate sacrifice he could give for her apart from his life. He remained chaste, eagerly waiting to give away his most precious and Beautiful gift, the one which can only be given away once, to her. His Beautiful Love had no concern for his own needs or desires; instead he sacrificed himself and his reputation for her.

Take heart! We are in Good Graces, Brothers and Sisters. Our General foresaw these terrible times and sent to us a Hobbit, and a Wardrobe of Old and Deep Magic, to teach us how to fight. Yes, look at those who got it right not less than a century ago. Tolkien, Lewis, and all of the other Christian allegorical writers like Chesterton and MacDonald; they’ve paved the road for us. Our job is but a simple one compared to theirs. We need only to stand on their shoulders and shout that the sun is rising!

But how do we go about getting the ball rolling? We must, each of us, make our Churches into Shires; our homes into magical and hospitable havens; our Brides into Queens and our Husbands into Kings; and our children, most importantly, must become inheritors of that royal and inexhaustible storehouse wealthy with far-flung hopes and dreams and ideals called The Future. We must make Christianity Beautiful again. And, it must be done quickly if we are to say we fought at all. We must alight on angelic wings and make all haste. Like Paul Revere, we must ride about with urgency telling our Story: “The King is Coming! The King is Coming!” And, most of all, we must make The Enemy reveal his true form. We must undo his spells of illusion. We must provoke him into shewing his scales, his fiery breath, and the corpses at his feet. We must make him into a Dragon again!

The Story we tell, however, must not be with words alone. Indeed we have, many of us, forgotten that aesthetic is Good and Godly. And aesthetic does not just belong to the arts, but rather to the whole life lived. Beauty must become “lived theology.” We must, each of us, become like Hobbits. For it is often in staying in that the best Evangelism may be done. For those of you who have read or seen the great masterpieces that are The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, you know of that which I speak. Hobbits are a simple, conventional folk who do not do many great things by man’s standards. And yet, everyone wants to live in the idyllic Shire with them, as them. And why? Because they live counter-culturally. They live lives mired in Beauty, but the Beauty they have is not all found in great works of art (though they undoubtedly have those). No, the Beauty they have is found in their lives. The Hobbits live in deep, honest, reciprocal community where the Family and the Neighbor are authentically at the center of day to day life. They live simply and slowly, in the moment, enjoying the company of others, of good and filling food, of hard toil, of laughter and occasionally one too many drinks (though they don’t make a habit of drunkenness). And, they are at home with their Creator and Creation.

Merely by these little folk staying in and jealously guarding the Hobbittish ways of Beauty, the average reader or watcher longs to go and join them. That, Brothers and Sisters, is the secret we’ve lost. Offering a counter-culture of deep, True, authentic Beauty; a life of liturgy (both personal in our daily routines, and corporately at Church) and of having one’s deepest desires and needs met by Him, the One whom all hearts long for, and by one another through their Beloved Jesus, is attractive to anyone looking on. For, as Tolkien said, “It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life.”

Yet another thing we must recover in our liturgical lives is the Beauty of awe and wonder. For you see, we’ve lost the magic of it. We’ve allowed symbols and actions to become stale; we merely move through the motions of the Great Dance without realizing the meaning behind our steps or even the Presence of the One Who Dances With Us. When we wake up, when we step out of our very ordinary front doors, when we walk in a completely standard forest, or through the doors of a properly normal Church, we must remember that we’re really crossing through that Magical Wardrobe to meet with Our King the Roaring Lion. When we cross a threshold, we are entering a new world full of the divine and supernatural; full of spiritual realities. One where angels and monsters really do exist and influence the world; one where trees and waters and the laughter of children have spiritual significance. Indeed, if you listen closely, though we live not in Narnia, even the animals will whisper wisdom of deeper mysteries into your ear. We must do away with the lie of Modernist Materialism, the belief that all which exists perceptibly is the physical world, and allow God to re-enchant, to re-mystify and re-mythologize, the world around us. And, in doing so, we will revive the greatest Apologetic tool: Beautiful experience.

“Well that’s all well and good, but how do we go about doing any of that?” you may ask. The answer is easy. We must first pray, and when we pray we must think in terms of Relationship. Experience God, don’t just talk at Him or think lofty doctrines about Him. He Is a Person after all, and not just some high and lofty philosophy. Secondly, we must consume great works of art; we must watch Beautiful movies and plays, read Beautiful Stories and Poems, listen to Beautiful music, and have Beautiful conversations and Relationships. Beauty is not found in convenience or mass commercialism as today’s “artists” would have you believe. Nor is it found in crass experimentation; it is found in mastery alone. It is found in intentionality alone. Thirdly, we must tell Beautiful Stories to ourselves. Run narratives of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty over and over in your mind, and soon you’ll find that not only has the world somehow been magically transformed, but you have been changed alongside it. As Scripture says, “For as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” And then, watch and see as the Lost World changes around you. For every story that The Enemy concocts, consult The Artist and ask for Him to tell you a more Beautiful Story yet that counters it. Beauty must always be present; for Beauty is objective. For this, this is how we win the Great Battle of our time. Every act of Beauty is a revolt against the modern world. The World would have you believe they have rung the death toll of Beauty and Christendom…let’s show them how Beautifully wrong they are…

St. George and Our Kids

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

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

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

A good book to inspire your children.

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

Discovering A True New World

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

-C.S. Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Aldous Huxley, A Brave New World

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

-Ally

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