Being a mother is a battle. Being a wife is a battle. Some days not eating the entire pack or Oreos is a battle. Anything difficult, or worthwhile, will be a battle. But the battles in our mind must be won first. First we must notice the battle – the choice before us. Should I get snippy at my toddler for dumping water in the kitchen floor, or should I stop and teach? Should I let-go of this minor aggravation that is driving a wedge between me and my husband or continue my tactic of silent resentment?
It was Joan of Arc who spoke of this battle in the mind. A peasant girl of no influence, no pathway to heroism – who nonetheless went on to lead armies and inspire millions. She won her internal battles of self-doubt. She followed the voice that said she could overcome. She didn’t retreat to instinct or an unchangeable nature. There are many who claim we cannot change. We are determined, free will is an illusion. I have a bad temper and always will. I am sensitive so will always be easily-offended. What a hopeless doctrine of misery! And it’s rubbish. We can change, we do change. That willful change happens in our own mind.
“We are what we repeatedly do…excellence, therefore, isn’t an act, but a habit and life isn’t a series of events, but an ongoing process of self-definition.”
We may think we are incapable of feat rivaling Joan of Arc. Our insignificant “battles of the mind” will have little impact, ultimately. And yet, it was in small battles of the mind that Joan of Arc became capable of the confidence, faith, and determination required to lead armies. If, through our “battles of the mind”, we could rule ourselves – overcoming impatience and petulance by repeatedly, through numerous such incidents, teaching our child rather than yelling, communicating with our husband rather than resenting – what could stop us from becoming a Joan of Arc in our own right?
When I was 19 I traveled to a remote village at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. My fellow student and I lived in a small Catholic mission with no running water, no electricity, a hole for a toilet, and a bucket for a shower. For 4 months we did research, getting by on our very rough Swahili and interpreters, speaking with farmers, mothers, community leaders, and school children. These few months enabled me to experience, in a small way, the reality of life for millions of people. When I returned home from that first summer in Africa, nothing looked the same.
“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
After returning to college, I remember walking into my kitchen to get an apple – something I had missed in my travels. I got a peeler out of the drawer – a utensil I had never been mindful of before – never really seen. But now, I saw it – the incredible blessing of a peeler! In Tanzania, Eliza, a young woman of about 20, did all the cooking. She only had a simple knife to do all the food preparation. She sat on the dirt floor and peeled and cut potatoes, tomatoes, and onions – all into her lap. She would prepare the stew and cook it on a small fire for hours. Despite her life of toil, she was a joyful woman. She didn’t complain; she was generous to all.
I remember watching Eliza work. It was a frustrating experience for me. How could she prepare all these meals without a table?!Surely there has to be a faster method to make meals! As soon as she finished lunch, she had to start on dinner! But most of all, I kept wishing I had left clothes and books at home and instead brought 100 peelers to hand out to the women. Eliza seemed oblivious to all the peeling, but to me it was a problem with a simple solution, and a symbol of the unfairness of life.
And yet, I lived happily among these humble villagers who were generous, resilient, and joyful. My African friends smiled, laughed, sang, danced, and generally seemed to enjoy life more than many of us “rich” Westerners. They were living abundantly with the little they had. This is not to downplay the true suffering accompanying a life without proper medical care, nutrition, or education – these things matter. Yet somehow the poverty was not as stifling as I had imagined.
“Experience is the teacher of all things.”
The Complexity of Life
After returning to my life of ease, my new eyes saw much more than just never-ending reasons for gratitude. They also saw many reasons for guilt; they saw my own and others’ selfishness, materialism, and shallowness. Why did I have so much and others so little? How could I complain about not having a car when so many souls had never even been in one?Why are we, the affluent, so stingy while they are so generous? These are questions I still grapple with.
I am sure if someone gave Eliza a peeler, she would be grateful. She was not ignorant of her poverty – she certainly would have appreciated more material blessings. However, she didn’t waste her days in envy or resentment. She had work to do.
My experiences replaced the stereotypical caricature of “Africa” and “Africans” into something real. In order to develop a real picture of the group, I had to connect with “the one”. It was Eliza that helped me see. The complexity, majesty and humanity of that one woman enabled me to empathize in a much more genuine way than I had when I was “concerned with the plight of the poor”. I saw that it is no longer a simple matter of “us helping them”. But perhaps I could help her, and she me. We practiced her English and I did what I could to help with her many duties. She taught me Swahili and introduced me to the villagers. She was my mentor and eye-opener.
“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Living in a world so drastically different from my own shifted my perspective and brought me some depth of compassion and understanding, which I desperately needed. Seeing the harsh realities of everyday life in a poor African village had ignited empathy, which my selfish nature was incapable of conjuring on its own. Eliza showed me that happiness is not a consequence of what we have – but who we are and how we view the world. My discussions with farmers, school children, and community leaders revealed cultural advantages as well as deficiencies – and the similarity of all human hearts.
Harming Through Saving
Before I left for my trip I remember saying I “want to save the world”. After my return, I just wanted to mail Eliza a peeler.
In a nearby village there was an old water pump, installed by a Scandinavian NGO years before. They had spent a week installing it for this “poor” village and the villagers were very grateful. They left, without leaving tools or teaching any locals how to repair it. It broke after a few months and has never been used again. I am sure the NGO was very proud and probably used this “good deed” as evidence of their positive influence – but they had done little good. Perhaps if they had connected with a villager like Jose, or Bahati, or Muhammad and trained them how to repair the pump, they would have provided a long-term solution to their problems rather than short-term satisfaction. The empathy that comes with friendship would have made them more concerned with their long-term good than short-term righteousness.
For the world to become “real” to us, we must encounter it. Young people are full of hope, idealism, and a desire to make the world a better place. How wonderful are these instincts! Yet, often these instincts are ill used. Without accompanying experience, knowledge, and empathy, an idealistic young person can damage more than repair.
For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.
H. L. Mencken
While we might appear compassionate when we say we “want world peace”, blanket compassion and tolerance for groups of people rarely turns out well. It must be made real by living it out, by focusing on the individual. The world is not the flat, one-dimensional place, composed of victims and oppressors, rich and poor, educated and uneducated – the world portrayed in our Sociology textbooks. Throwing money at a problem will not solve it. Applying the same methods in a small village in Tanzania as those used in Texas will not work. The intricacies of life only reveal themselves when we encounter the world in its specificity and complexity.
“There can be no such thing as a “global village.” No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality.”
I have to admit it is endlessly frustrating for me to see people (often young and naive as I was), in their arrogance and ignorance, who claim to care about a particular “community” – yet when asked for solutions they point out “systematic problems”, not real-world solutions. Do they really care about the beautiful little boy in the inner city that is statistically likely to be neglected and lead a life of crime? His problems are urgent. They can’t wait for a reshaping of the world. If they cared they would want to actually help that boy – they would want to encourage him, rather than discourage the world. But they don’t know him – they think they do – but they have never met him. And because they don’t know him, they don’t look forward to his long-term good. Their ‘help” is likely to harm. They make the world seem unsafe, rather than making the boy strong.
We are Insignificant
Perhaps the important result that first exploration in Africa had on me was a sudden realization of my own insignificance. I dropped the naive idea that I was going to “save the world” and realized that was far beyond my grasp. That was an important truth for me to learn. As parents, we want our children to know they are loved and capable of great things. This is important and right. Yet, we must not forget to help our children see the realities of the world. While they are unique and significant, so are billions of others. Ours, and their influence can be significant – but not typically by grand gestures, but the small and steady actions of a life well-lived. Eliza helped me see that.
“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” –
Henry David Thoreau
Upon my return to America I found myself longing to go back, away from the negativity and materialism which was so common in my own culture and my own heart. (I did return and spent nearly 3 years in various parts of Africa and China during my college years). By the end of my travels I had gained a new perspective. I remember after my first trip, I was annoyed by my “rich American” roommates that cried over a breakup. How could they complain when there were so many children living on the streets? By my last trip to Africa, I had realized that pain is pain and we all need compassion. We need to get beyond our habitual, ordinary life, and seek to discover the reality of other’s lives – our annoying roommate, and a child on the streets of Dar es Salaam. If we seek the adventure of “walking around in someone else’s skin”, we will gain new eyes, only then can they open to true compassion. Only then will we see the best way we can serve our fellowman.
Exploring with our Children
We, as parents, are tasked with preparing our children for life. We must supply the knowledge and experience they will need. They are here to make the world a better place – in small ways or large. But, if they have never seen poverty up close, if they have never honestly examined the positive and negative effects of differing cultures and traditions, if they have not experienced the complexity of human interactions – they are ill-equipped to join a crusade. Their knowledge and view are still shallow. As parents, it is worthwhile to use our resources and time to take our children to foreign lands, watch documentaries, and/or volunteer in poor or unstable areas. Through experience and exploration, we, and our children, will begin to see the realities of life and be properly oriented to our place in this world.
As a mother, in my often less-than-adventurous life, I often find my peeler in my hands. It consistently brings up memories born years ago in a small village. I am grateful for my peeler. I know that many do not have such a luxury. But I also know that it is not my peeler, or any material advantage, which brings meaning and joy to life. When I forget, and return to a shallow perception, which I often do, I need to close my eyes and return to that small kitchen where my dear friend Eliza sat preparing food, with a knife. I need to see things again, for the first time.
“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
We live in a self-obsessed world. We have to find ourselves, figure-out ourselves, express ourselves, empower ourselves, perfect ourselves, be true to ourselves – what does it all mean really? It means we think about ourselves constantly. What do I want? What am I feeling? How are others treating me? Do I deserve more? Our modern mindset prioritizes such questions above any other.
But are we happier as a result? The endless therapy sessions, numerous reinventions, putting ourselves first – doesn’t seem to get us any closer to contentment. But why? Surely to solve our personal unhappiness we we must concentrate on ourselves?
Corrie Ten Boom has a quote that comes to mind several times a week; usually when I notice myself clutching at injustices or dashed hopes.
Hold everything in your hands lightly, otherwise it hurts when God pries your fingers open.
We are holding too tightly to ourselves. God does not pry our hands open because He is vindictive – but because it is the firm grasp of the thing that keeps us from receiving it. And a clenched fist does not allow us to give. Our mind and will are tools to build a life of joy – that is only achieved by focusing our talents and thoughts outward. We are made to sow greater fields than the tiny patch of dirt under our feet.
As parents we must show our children what humility looks like – they will not find it in the world, it is a dying virtue. Below are quotes on humility and self-denial from wise, and humble thinkers. I hope they prove helpful in developing a proper humility – and bringing us closer to the joy which self-obsession may be blocking us from enjoying.
“One cannot be humble and aware of oneself at the same time.”
Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet
“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.
Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him
If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
“The door to happiness opens outwards.”
“Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.”
G K Chesterton, “The Hammer of God”
He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.
“It has been often said, very truly, that religion is the thing that makes the ordinary man feel extraordinary; it is an equally important truth that religion is the thing that makes the extraordinary man feel ordinary.”
“Jesus tells us we must leave the self altogether-yield it, deny it, refuse it, lose it. Thus only shall we save it… The self is given us that we may sacrifice it. It is ours in order that we, like Christ, may have something to offer- not that we should torment it, but that we should deny it; not that we should cross it, but that we should abandon it utterly.”
“The love of our neighbor is the only door out of the dungeon of self, where we mope and mow, striking sparks, and rubbing phosphorescents out of the walls, and blowing our own breath in our own nostrils, instead of issuing to the fair sunlight of God, the sweet winds of the universe.”
“Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One “settles down” into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness… Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do… For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.”
G.K. Chesteron, Orthodoxy
“A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
“[God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The enemy wants him in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.”
C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters
“No sooner do we believe that God loves us than there is an impulse to believe that He does so, not because He is Love, but because we are intrinsically lovable….It is easy to acknowledge, but almost impossible to realise for long, that we are mirrors whose brightness, if we are bright, is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us. Surely we must have a little – however little – native luminosity? Surely we can’t be quite creatures?”
If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud.”
“At some thoughts one stands perplexed – especially at the sight of men’s sin – and wonders whether one should use force or humble love. Always decide to use humble love. If you resolve on that, once and for all, you may subdue the whole world. Loving humility is marvelously strong, the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.”
It is by loving, and not by being loved, that one can come nearest the soul of another.
George MacDonald, Phantastes
“A great man is always willing to be little.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet it is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”
“Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.”
St. Vincent de Paul
“Humility is throwing oneself away in complete concentration on something or someone else.”
“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”
“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”
This witticism has seeped into the consciousness of many young women since its first utterance in 1970. It may seem harmless, and even helpful in developing confidence in young women. However, this belief has, in fact, had a devastating effect on children. An independent young woman may feel she is getting along fine without a man – but if she has a child – she needs him, and so does the child. Single Mothers are capable of miraculous feats – but very few, in their honesty, would claim they wouldn’t welcome help from a loving and competent father of their child. Now, oftentimes that loving man isn’t a reality, and that is the fault of the man. However, it is important for young women to see that their future children do need their father and they should adjust their “fish and bicycle” view of the world. Men and women need each other, and what a beautiful thing that is, for we all crave connection and love.
This article from The Art of Manliness shows the harsh reality many fatherless-children face.
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same; If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss; If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
A scene in the TV series “The Last Kingdom” has stayed with me since I saw it. The series follows King Alfred, a medieval king of Wessex and a devout Christian who sought to convert his subjects to Christianity. He was forced into exile due to the advancement of the brutal pagan Danes. He was protected by the warrior Uhtred. King Alfred is standing alone in a flat featureless marsh where the protective Uhtred finds him and asks:
“Were you worried that I would lose my way?” asks the King.
Uhtred says, “One path looks like another.”
Alfred asks, “What do you notice about this place?”
Alfred says, “There are no horizons. No sense of something beyond. My priests have visited here once or twice to preach. The people are oblivious to God.”
I pondered that a bit – A simple yet profound exchange. Why would a horizonless landscape produce such a faithless mentality in its people?
An open and featureless plain does not give our eyes a place to rest; it provides no quest or goal to yearn for.
Featureless horizons do not direct our attention, or call us to a destination, or produce a beckoning. Our soul looks for beauty; it longs for the hope found on a path leading towards a beautiful destination. The more worthy the destination, the more joy we can hope for in its attainment. Boundless potential and subjectivism produce oblivion. If we are capable of anything and everything, and all roads are of equal worth, we are easily lost in the marshes of life.
For all of human history a woman’s purpose has been tied up in her biological capacity to have children. Now, she has more choices – limitless potential paths.
As King Alfred learned – with no sense of a horizon, it is easy to become lost – and not even know we are lost. Today women are lost. Women are less happy than their grandmothers, despite our freedom and opportunity.*
So how do we follow a path that leads towards something worthwhile when our culture is increasingly unwilling to point us towards such a purpose, and instead actively discourages us from looking to our female progenitors for guidance? Ironically it seems that our path is often found more easily in what we reject than what we choose.
“Creation means rejection…for a man cannot make statues without rejecting stone.” **
“For in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being.”
We all strive to create a beautiful life. And yet, we must understand that in every creation, we are rejecting another potential creation. I remember the difficulty of deciding whether I should attend a prestigious graduate program or work to help my husband finish his undergraduate degree. When I made my decision, mostly out of financial necessity, I pictured my future potential-self, a graduate of Cambridge, blowing away in the wind, like a victim of Thanos.
The act of creation through rejection is evident in many aspects of a woman’s life, and it is a painful process. It is never easy to forgo a passion or to prioritize one thing over another. It is difficult to turn our backs on potential; we are often unsure if the path we have chosen will bear good fruit.
The archetypal feminine is often depicted as Mother Nature. She has the power to destroy and create. The death of plants in Winter will eventually give rise to Spring. Lighting strikes and burns down an old decaying forest – a new one grows in its place. There is suffering in those destructions, and hope.
Women create – often through mysterious and chaotic ways. We create new life; we renew humanity; we produce beauty in the world around us – this is a terrible and beautiful thing.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
What Is Beauty?
“Beauty matters. It is not just a subjective thing but a universal need of human beings. If we ignore this need we find ourselves in a spiritual desert.”
Sir Roger Scruton
We know beauty when we see it. Encountering a sculpture such as Michalangelo’s David is a truly spiritual experience. Beautiful art is truth revealed to an artist, and each artist produces unique work. We don’t judge Monet for not painting like Van Gogh – both their works are masterpieces.
As we look to our own horizon, we must decide what to discard to create our beautiful life. Some things that might be beautiful must be cut out to reveal what is more beautiful. Smaller truths must be overcome by ultimate truth. Worthy desires must be forgone for greater purposes. As the artist we are the ones with the chisel; we discard these lesser beauties to unveil our creation.
Some would say that art is simply in the eye of the beholder, there is no real beauty or true art. They say that any choice can lead to a beautiful life because all is subjective. These opinions come from those living in the featureless plains spoken of by King Alfred. Those who subscribe to this view of life will find it hard to find a horizon to fix their gaze upon. They will turn this way and that with the ever-changing winds of passion and emotion.
As C.S. Lewis explains in The Abolition of Man, there is objective beauty and truth and we know it when we see it (assuming this perception has not been brainwashed out of us). No one standing before the sublimity of a waterfall can question its awe-inspiring beauty.* No one walking under the dome of St. Peter’s can say it is equal to the local community center. No one seeing a devoted mother hold her precious newborn baby can doubt the goodness in their embrace. So there must be some creations more worthy than others.
A Rejection of Motherhood
Recently an actress was awarded a Golden Globe. She was emotional as she spoke of her gratitude at being able to make the choices necessary to receive such an award. She was referring to her choice to have an abortion. She felt having a child would have blocked her path to this “great” achievement. This is obviously a creative and talented woman. However, she allowed her drive to create and her ambition and desire for recognition to limit her potential. In her desire to be the author of her life, she aimed too low – she settled for less. She made many choices and those choices led to what seemed to her a necessity – if she were to have the life she wanted. She chose to reject the creation of a life and instead to receive a lifeless golden substitute.
The actress wanted to, “Recognize my handwriting all over my life…A life I have carved with my own hands.” She declared, “we should make the world look more like (women) who are…seeking their own self-interest.”
She created and rejected what she desired so her life became what she wanted. This is the mantra of modern life, I want what I want in life, all else be damned. But is the art this produces beautiful? It seems unlikely when its creation is based on wandering desires and self-interest. Beauty comes from truth and virtue – not desires. Many now regret the choices they once yearned to make.
“The idea of beauty is the fundamental idea of everything. In the world we see only distortions of the fundamental idea, but art, by imagination, may lift itself to the height of this idea. Art is therefore akin to creation.”
A great artist attempts to create beauty that can lead to many and varied creations – but they will leave many lesser creations unmade. This actress left a greater beauty unborn.
Every statue Michelangelo chiseled meant another statue was never born. But what if instead of a beautiful statue, he could make a man? What if he could build up a real David, capable of conquering armies and raising a nation? Would that not be more glorious than the man made-substitute we must now be content with? But only Nitzevet, King David’s mother, had the power of bringing David into the world. When comparing the beauty of a statue versus the beauty of a human being, do we want to live in a world that would choose the former?
So when we embark on this journey to create a masterpiece – the carving of our own beautiful life – we should not carve out a statute as imperfect as our own desires, as weak as our own failings, as ugly as our own selfishness. Rather we should be true artists, seeking out beauty and truth to guide our sculpting. Otherwise, we produce narcissistic and disjointed art that is not a reflection of truth but an idol of self-worship.
“Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.”
We are often told, as women, that we can have it all, and in the next moment we are shown we must choose between a child and success – and that the latter choice is the more worthy one. A beautiful life requires no victims to achieve, only the discarding of our own pride and weakness.
I want to make this clear – Not every woman can, wants to, or will have children – and they are no less of a woman and no less capable of creation than a mother of seven. Mother Teresa, John of Arc, Julian of Norwich- these and millions more women never had children and created lives worthy of admiration. They gave up their own “self-interest” and progressed toward a greater hope – one we can all look to. When I write of motherhood this is not limited to the act of raising biological children- all women become mothers-of-humanity as they create beauty in the world.
“It is an ancient view that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot, in the end, conflict.”
Sir Roger Scruton
True femininity is not limiting but expansive. Yes we must reject much, but we gain much. Women can’t do it all at the same time, we must put first things first, but life is long. We don’t have to drop passions- we can integrate them into what is most important. What version should we accept – the one that tells us we must end a life to live the one we want? Or the one that tells us that bringing life, bringing love, and sacrificing self for others supersedes any man-made glories?
Michelangelo carved an even greater statue than his David. This other masterpiece is his most acclaimed and admired. This statue has drawn millions of pilgrims to stand before its awesome beauty. It is not like the David; it is not of a man that defeated giants or conquered nations. It has a much more remarkable subject – a mother and her child – a humble and poor woman, deemed inconsequential by most in her time. It is of a woman gloried not for her accomplishments but for her sacrifice – for her rejections: the rejection of her reputation as she carried her child; the rejection of comfort as she journeyed to Bethlehem; the rejection of a safe and simple life as she accepted her role as the Mother of God; the rejection of good for better, of pride for humility, of wickedness for righteousness. It represents the rejection of a “life of self-interest”, to make way for a creation that makes all rejections trivial – the Savior of Mankind. The beauty and majesty produced by these rejections is clear to any standing before this masterpiece – this horizon of stone.
**“Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense, every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else… Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses… Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel from the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called “The Loves of the Triangles”; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing.”
I highly recommend reading the linked piece by Michael Matheson Miller. He examines the ideas of great thinkers on happiness and virtue.
We all just want to be happy, but paradoxically our most ardent attempts to be happy seem doomed to failure. Yet, when we simply go about our day – without rumination on the presence or lack of joy- we play with our baby, we enjoy a meal with loved ones, and happiness is there.
As Frankl said, “…happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue…It is the very pursuit of happiness, that thwarts happiness.”
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.”
About a year ago we got chickens. We bought them as little chicks and miraculously, they all survived to adulthood. Our two little girls adored them. They would rush to the coop every morning to see their chickens. We soon realized that one of our little chickens was a rooster. Once the hens started laying, the girls loved gathering the eggs in their basket. However, a few months ago our rooster started lunging at the girls and pecking at their feet. They became too scared to visit the coop. I wasn’t to sad too see their visits cease, I was scared of the rooster myself. However, my oldest daughter, tough girl that she is, invented an ingenious solution – she showed her younger sisters how to swing a stick at the rooster, forcing him to run off. Her younger sisters became experts in “Rooster Baseball”. They started eagerly tending to their chickens again.
A few days ago we had a little friend come over to play with the girls. They were excited to show her their chickens. However, they were quickly disappointed to discover their little friend was afraid of chickens and didn’t want to go in the coop. My youngest ran up to me and said in amazement, “Mom, she was scared of the chickens!” How quickly she had forgotten her own fears. I explained to her, “She isn’t used to chickens.”
My girls aren’t any more brave than their friend, they have just learned through experience the skills needed to raise chickens. They now feel a sense of control and power, developed through consistent exposure and by overcoming difficulty when chicken-raising got tough. Their sister, and a stick, helped them gain that confidence – and now their fear is a fading memory.
“The way that you make people resilient is by voluntarily exposing them to things that make them uncomfortable.”
When we raise our children, we build for them a life full of experiences and these experiences become their reality. If we are intentional, we can develop a environment full of resilience-building habits, consistently encouraging our children to push beyond their comfort zones.
“The habits we form from childhood make no small difference, but rather they make all the difference.”
As Seneca points out, there must be “daring” at some point. As parents we must dare – dare to point our children toward adventure and not mourn where difficulty arises. But rather see it as a chance to build resilience and perspective. With every new experience comes new dangers – new worries for a protective mother. However over-protection can leave our child fearful and weak. Dare to risk a peck or two at your children’s feet.
Adversity and worry are a part of life. But we can raise a child that is capable of facing these fears. We can “dare” them to do the difficult and unfamiliar and encourage them in appropriate risk-taking. And give them the space to invent Rooster-baseball.
“During the first period of a man’s life, the greatest danger is not to take the risk.”
“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.