“Children need to sit alone in their boredom for the world to become quiet enough so that they can hear themselves.”
Dr. Vanessa la Pointe
Boredom breeds creativity, it frees up the mind to see the beauty we are usually blind to: the majesty of a tree, the sound of a cricket, the cute mannerisms of a toddler, the insights and revelations of own mind. Our children, and we, are too often distracted by phones, video games, or the urgency of life to discover the reality that surrounds us. As parents, we know those forts don’t get built while Fortnite is on, that spontaneous obstacle course in the front lawn would not have happened if they were huddled around a screen. As we face the long-days of summer, it is useful to see boredom as an opportunity for our children – and something we should try and produce in our homes.
“Certainly work (and play) is not always required of a man. There is such a thing as a sacred idleness, the cultivation of which is now fearfully neglected.”
The article linked explains the utility and blessing of boredom.
If you want a simple way to start enjoying parenthood and your children more – start involving your child in your joys and interests. Yes, your kitchen will be messier if they help you bake. Your fishing trip will be less serene with a questioning toddler at your side. But you will be sharing with a beloved protégé , and building a relationship of common enjoyments. The experience and perspective your child gains is more valuable than a clean kitchen or solitude.
A mother took a piece of clay And idly fashioned it one day, And as her fingers pressed it, still It moved and yielded to her will.
She came again when days were past, The bit of clay was hard at last. The form she gave it, still it bore, And she could change that form no more.
She took a piece of living clay And gently pressed it day by day, And molded with her power and art A young child’s soft and yielding heart.
She came again when years were gone; It was a man she looked upon. He still that early impress bore, And she could fashion it no more.
The influence our mothers have had on the shape and quality of our lives cannot be overstated. As the great George Washington expressed for all of us, “All I am I owe to my mother.” Thank you to all the loving mothers who sacrifice self and comfort to mold their children.
“Mother is the name for God in the mouths of little children”.
William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair
In Vanity Fair, Thackeray describes the lives, sorrows, and triumphs of two women: Amelia and Becky. Anyone reading this book immediately sees Amelia as the good-natured, kind, and spiritual woman. Becky, on the other hand, is clearly selfish, manipulative, and hard-hearted. As the novel progresses, they both become mothers. Becky has no natural affection for her child and her son is left “worshiping a stone”. She is cold and heartless towards the child. Amelia, on the other hand, is the picture of the “perfect mother”. Her husband dies and she is left in a state of perpetual mourning. She devotes herself completely to her son.
Thackeray shows a deep understanding of human nature. Rather than portray Amelia in the way typical of many Victorian authors – as the delicate and angelic woman who is the model for all women – he shows that Amelia’s dependence and softness are not her virtues. Her weakness and over-nurturing lead to as much turmoil as that caused by Becky’s detachment and pride. Amelia is helpless without the love and support of family and friends. While Becky’s son worships a stone, Amelia’s son worships a puppy. Their sons’ personalities and world-views develop around these mother-imposed perceptions. Becky’s son resents the coldness of his mother and he becomes detached. Amelia’s son becomes spoiled and is disrespectful of others.
The power of literature lies in its ability to allow us to see ourselves in both heroes and villains, to realize that we are all a bit of both, and to change our own course as we see the consequences unfold in their lives. We can pull-out the virtues found in both Amelia and Becky, and avoid their lower natures.
On the other side of every weakness is a strength. While a nurturing and attentive mother is crucial in raising a strong child, so is a strong and independent woman. Amelia’s humility and kind-heartedness help her gain the love and admiration of those around her. Becky’s strength of will and independence allow her to succeed where others fail.. A sensitive mother, like Amelia, can dwell in self-pity or emotionality, or she can be conscious of the joys and potentials which are oblivious to the less-sensitive. A woman, such as Becky, who is independent and strong-willed, can narcissistically disregard the needs or desires of others, or she can be an example of confidence and resilience to her children.
What is worth having?
Vanity Fair was “a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.”
Amelia and Becky, despite their seemingly opposite natures, were doomed by the same vice – Vanity. In modern English, the word vanity most often refers to pride or a focus on appearance. However, vanity has a second meaning, and Thackeray’s book was an ode to this form of vanity: futile effort. Amelia’s life became a vain attempt to feel secure and happy through the love and protection of others. Becky’s life was a vain attempt to feel secure and happy in money and prestige.
As mothers we must recognize what it worth having, and the best way to get it. It sounds complicated, but it isn’t. Rather than depending on others, or using others for our own ends, we actively seek out the good of others. As mothers, (recognizing that a “mother is the name of God in the mouths of little children”), it is crucial that we give them a proper view of God. We are not dependent on others, and we do not manipulate others. We love, we serve, but we are strong and capable. As we examine ourselves, we discover we are not perfect – we most likely have aspects of Amelia and Becky in ourselves. It is vital to recognize these weaknesses. That is where healing begins and hope emerges. Only when Amelia saw the damage she had done by her dependence and over-nurturing, could she change course. As mothers progress, so can their children. We have never ruined our chances with our children. The most powerful thing children can witness is their mother recognizing her weaknesses and determining to change; such attempts will not be done in vain.
“In this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth, even though it be covertly, and by snatches.” Herman Melville
We must continually seek out these glimpses of Truth – wherever there is art, beauty, goodness – we will find truth reflected. It is easy, in our modern materialistic and concrete environment, to stop believing Truth even exists. Our culture is degrading into subjectivism and nihilism – modern art and architecture are often either narcissistic or coldly utilitarian. If we take the time to read a novel by Dostoyevsky, listen to a Sonata by Beethoven, read Fairy Tales with our children, travel to and discover a unique culture – we will “snatch” some of these glimpses. Seeking and finding this “scared doe” can bring faith and hope to our perspective.
“For they (art and music) are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
“We need to understand the role of art, and stop thinking about it as an option, or a luxury, or worse, an affection. Art is the bedrock of culture itself. It is the foundation of the process by which we unite ourselves psychologically, and come to establish productive peace with others. As it is said, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4). That is exactly right. We live by beauty. We live by literature. We live by art. We cannot live without some connection to the divine — and beauty is divine — because in its absence life is too short, too dismal, and too tragic. And we must be sharp and awake and prepared so that we can survive properly, and orient the world properly, and not destroy things, including ourselves — and beauty can help us appreciate the wonder of Being and motivate us to seek gratitude when we might otherwise be prone to destructive resentment.”
We recently taught our son to ride a bike. The first day was rough. He would weave this way and that, quickly taking a sharp turn into the sidewalk. Memories from my own first bike-rides came flooding back. I remember being as unbalanced as my son. My dad yelled the solution, “Stop looking at your feet! Look at where you want to go!” As soon as I, and my son, stopped looking down – fearing a fall, we balanced ourselves and magically began riding in a straight line.
Too often we walk our ‘path of life’ looking at our feet. This creates a chaotic and haphazard pattern – a path not constructed with forward-looking goals in mind or informed by logic, morality, or truth, but laid down in the same way my son’s was. These paths can be created by attempts to avoid imminent pain, or by following the winding of our own fleeting pleasure-seeking. This insightful poem represents this idea well.
By Sam Foss
One day through the primeval wood A calf walked home as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew, A crooked trail as all calves do.
Since then three hundred years have fled, And I infer the calf is dead.
But still he left behind his trail, And thereby hangs my moral tale.
The trail was taken up next day, By a lone dog that passed that way;
And then a wise bell-wether sheep Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,
And drew the flock behind him, too, As good bell-wethers always do.
And from that day, o’er hill and glade. Through those old woods a path was made.
And many men wound in and out, And dodged, and turned, and bent about,
And uttered words of righteous wrath, Because ’twas such a crooked path;
But still they followed—do not laugh— The first migrations of that calf,
And through this winding wood-way stalked Because he wobbled when he walked.
This forest path became a lane, that bent and turned and turned again;
This crooked lane became a road, Where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun, And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half They trod the footsteps of that calf.
The years passed on in swiftness fleet, The road became a village street;
And this, before men were aware, A city’s crowded thoroughfare.
And soon the central street was this Of a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half, Trod in the footsteps of that calf.
Each day a hundred thousand rout Followed the zigzag calf about
And o’er his crooked journey went The traffic of a continent.
A Hundred thousand men were led, By one calf near three centuries dead.
They followed still his crooked way, And lost one hundred years a day;
For thus such reverence is lent, To well established precedent.
A moral lesson this might teach Were I ordained and called to preach;
For men are prone to go it blind Along the calf-paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun, To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track, And out and in, and forth and back,
And still their devious course pursue, To keep the path that others do.
They keep the path a sacred groove, Along which all their lives they move.
But how the wise old wood gods laugh, Who saw the first primeval calf.
Ah, many things this tale might teach— But I am not ordained to preach.
The calf will wander this way for shade, or that way to nibble on yummy grass, or may take a turn to avoid low-lying branches. The calf lays out a path without foresight or ultimate purpose. Generations after him many unquestionably follow his careless trail.
However, we must look towards our desired destination and turn away our attention from distracting temptations or obstacles. We, as parents, do not have to walk on careless tracks. We can lay down better ones.
When we become parents, we envision the relationship we want to have with our children – now and in years to come. We want mutual respect. We want to trust each other. We want to pass on our values and morality. We want our son or daughter to be capable of greatness, to be a positive influence on the world and their future family. So we intentionally walk a path toward this ideal, and encourage our children to join us. They may choose to wander from time to time, but a road laid in love can entice them back – especially after experiencing paths of chaos. If other parents abdicate their responsibility and leave their children to roam on trails laid by a degenerate culture or by ill-informed philosophy – that is their choice. Our choice is to intentionally raise our children, laying out a road with a destination fit for a King or Queen, not a cow.
“I do not think that the road to contentment lies in despising what we have not got. Let us acknowledge all good, all delight that the world holds, and be content without it.”
George MacDonald, Lilith
Often we are driven to envy or false disdain for that which we don’t, or cannot, have. “What a Dandy that man is, always fiddling with his hair!”, says the bald man. Beauty and achievement can be gloried in – even if we may not be the direct beneficiaries. The bald man can still admire a good head-of-hair. I can praise a well-decorated house, despite my own lack of style. One of the most difficult things to learn is how to be happy for someone when good things happen to them; to glory in another’s success. But first, we must recognize when we hold-back from celebrating with another’s good-fortune, or when we despise what we cannot have. In our honest introspection, we can begin to open the doorway to a more joyful interaction with others’ success.
If we can master this vicarious joy, we will always find a path to happiness- for beauty and good fortune abound. If we acknowledge all the delights of the world, one man’s gain can also be ours.
In the marvelous story, The Princess and Curdie*, by George MacDonald, we follow a lowly young miner, named Curdie. He comes to love and admire a wise and righteous old woman, a Princess – known as the “dear old Grandmother”. He promises to serve her, and she tells him that he must go and help the King. She does not say how he must help him, or where he must go, or what he must do – but she says he must go. And so, obedient servant that he is, he departs on his quest.
After many misadventures, he finds himself at the king’s doorway, on the run from the King’s own guard. He stops for a moment unsure if he should go in – as it would be impertinent of a lowly miner to enter the King’s chamber.
“He felt sure this must be the King’s Chamber, and it was here he was wanted. Or, if it was not the place he was bound for, something would beat him and turn him aside. For he had come to think that so long as a man wants to do right, he may go where he can. When he can go no farther, then it is not the way. Only…he must really want to do right, and not merely fancy he does. He must want it with his heart and will, and not with his rag of a tongue.”
So often we question our place; we doubt our path or we don’t understand how or why something will be accomplished. We also doubt our own motivations – “Am I truly trying to do good, or am I just seeking praise or acting out of self-righteousness?” Here Curdie is confident, however, because he really wants to do right – with his heart and his will. He isn’t seeking glory, or riches – he doesn’t care how many likes he gets on Instagram or if the other miners will be impressed by his courage. He just wants to do right. He wants to obey the truth he has found.
So he moves forward, into the unknown. As we all must. And when he hits a wall where he can go no further, he turns and finds another way. In the story, we see him reach many of these “dead ends”. Yet he does good on the path that leads there – so perhaps they aren’t so “dead” after all. Curdie, in one way, has found the answer to the complexity of life. Rather than needing to know the why, how, or where of life – he only knows that he “really wants to do right” and rely on the faith he has in his righteous Princess. He knows she is good, he knows she sent him on this quest and there is a plan and a purpose. With his heart set on doing right, his path is always the right one.
But how do we know our heart is right, and not just our “rag of a tongue”? I think in this story Curdie gives us a big clue – he is mocked and harassed by many along his path, yet he remains undaunted. He is thought to be a thief, a devil, a traitor, yet he is not seeking the good opinion of others – he seeks to do what is right. Oftentimes we question our course when we are mocked or judged by others – we start to look to others for affirmation of our “rightness”. We imagine that if we are not valued or praised we must be off-course. But the opinions of “men” are often muddied by envy, resentment, anger, or just ignorance. It is better to keep looking at our “Dear old Grandmother” and her good opinion – to keep attempting to align our steps with the will of God, or goodness, or conscience.
The scripture says, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” So when we think we have made a mistake, or question which choice we should make – let’s first make sure our heart is where it should be, and then all else will unfold for good.
*I highly recommend the books The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel The Princess and Curdie. A truly magical and profoundly-deep set of books for adults and children.
But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.
G. K. Chesterton, one of the most influential Christian writers of the 20th century, said that MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin , which had been read to him in the nursery, was a book that “made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start.”
“How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure…. You would begin to be interested in them…. You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, and in a street full of splendid strangers.” — G.K. Chesterton
As a mother we are given a gift – and one we may fail to appreciate and too often see as a curse – the gift of compulsory self-denial. Our baby must be fed. The diaper must be changed. The toddler has to be potty-trained. These duties are not easily neglected. And so we do it and in the doing, we forget ourselves. We focus entirely on our very own “splendid strangers.” We look on in awe and remembrance as the wonderous world is opened to our marvelous child.
Friends come and go, coworkers leave at 5pm, even the bond between spouses may sadly break, but we will always be our child’s mother. We will always have at least one relationship that has benefited, from the very first moments, from the shrinking of our Self, where we gazed on the other with pleasure and curiosity. We have the chance to start from scratch with our child – to act out our role with selflessness and intention. This is a grand opportunity. And because of this, we have a larger life – we have given much, so we receive much. We will know all the better how to live “under a freer sky in the streets of splendid strangers”, because we are mothers.