“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.
All we need is love. I honestly believe this – simple and hippy, as it may sound. But what is love? The word is thrown around a lot without a clear definition. This can lead to societal and personal problems. If we understand “love”, as it has been defined for centuries, we can be attuned to the many false claims about love, and see how a changing definition can confuse our good intentions.
Thomas Aquinas defined love as, “to will the good of the other”, or to make a way for goodness to happen to another. C.S. Lewis said, “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.”
So love, here defined, is more than just a feeling, but it requires some concern, or care, for the long-term welfare of the beloved.
But this is different from the love we hear shouted from the rooftops today “I love you; I just want you to be happy!” The declaration “I want you to be happy” requires no will – no action or investment. You get to be kind, but aren’t tied to any responsibility or consequences. These two “loves” – the willful love and affirmation love – are in great conflict with each other. One says – “I want you on a good path;” the other says, “Choose whatever path you want.” In the friction between these loves, we see the origin of many of our modern battles.
The war is subjectivism vs objectivism. Modern philosophy tends toward postmodern ideas such as, all truth is relative, virtue is socially-constructed, and logic and reason are suspect. Objective truth says that goodness, truth, and beauty are real and the pursuit of these may lead us down different paths, but they all ascend upwards to ultimate truth. Therefore modern philosophy would lead us towards approval of whatever choices we see – because “good choices” are an illusion and consequences random. Objective truth says that we should desire those we love to walk a path of virtue and towards good ends.
Often those that hold firm to objective truth are accused of being “unloving” – but is it loving to sway from truth?
So when we analyze statements about love, or our own “love” for others, let’s ask:
Is this “love” willful encouragement, or blanket affirmation? This introspection can lead us to the underlying philosophy informing the love.
There is certainly a place for happiness-wishing and affirmation. As well as for willful love. Which sentiment we should enact depends entirely on what we are affirming, and what role we play in the life of the beloved.
Willful Love and Affirmation
For example, I care about my daughter. I care about her health. I want to start her out with healthy eating habits, because these will help her down the road. I try and ensure she has nutritious food and understands proper portion size. I do this because I care about her future; I love her and I know the pitfalls of unhealthy eating.
On the other hand, if I use the affirming definition of love, “I want her to be happy” – then I would let her eat whatever she wants. She has made it perfectly clear that candy, not vegetables, makes her happy.
Now, most parents would say that, of course, the willful love is the love that drives their parenting. They want to ensure their children are on the road to a stable and fulfilling future. But it isn’t an easy love, as any mother attempting to get her toddler into a car seat knows – it requires discipline and action and is often in opposition to what the child wants. But they are our children, and it is our role to care for them and seek their long term good.
But there is also a place for saying ‘I want you to be happy”. For example, if I had my daughter’s friend over for dinner and she didn’t want to eat her vegetables but did want to eat her candy, I certainly wouldn’t force the issue. Her immediate happiness is more important to me than her long-term happiness and I don’t have to be around for the sugar-crash. I don’t want to “mother” her; it is not my job. I simply want to be kind, and for her to have a fun time. But I shouldn’t deceive myself into thinking that I am “loving” her by allowing her to eat candy.
Stay in our Lane: When Not to Will
Today our culture is free and loose with the “be happy” kind of love and not so much with the “will your good” kind. If we ever stop short of total acceptance of any behavior, no matter how self-defeating it may be in the long-term, then we are seen as lacking love and compassion.
“Societies are far gone in depravity when toleration is seen as a good in itself, without regard to the thing being tolerated.”
We see much concern for the group – less for the individual. The desire to see others live ‘the life they want’ is often made in broad terms -without much concern for the consequences which may descend upon the individual in said group. This apathy towards the one will lead to an unstable and disjointed society.
“The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular.”
While many shout the evils of intolerance, we see a heightened judgmentalness in daily interactions. We share our every action on Social Media, seeking approval or praise. Then when we see others acting “inappropriately” or “unwoke” – we quickly condemn them. I think a lot of this conflict could be alleviated by going back to the good old days of “minding our own business” – and unplugging from the twisted reality online.
It is none of my business if the guy in front of me at the gas station buys cigarettes, but I am not going to encourage my children to. Often it is best to keep our concern geared towards those we have willful love for. I have no right to judge the cigarette smoker ahead of me- I don’t know anything about him. Let’s live and let live. If we find ourselves overly bothered by strangers actions, we are likely ignoring our own. It’s tough enough acting virtuously ourselves; who has the energy to try and get random people to do it.
When dealing with people outside our “charge”, kindness should kick in, through polite thoughtfulness or withholding judgment.
Validating the Wrong: When Not to Affirm
If we do hold responsibility over a person, and we love them, we should not allow affirmation to block them on their path to joy. We should not support that which we feel is wrong or will lead to sorrow. Perhaps it is not our place to say anything – but let’s not lean into the default of “whatever makes you happy”. Kindness does not always equal validation.
“If I am forced into a position where I have to validate your identity… What if your identity is wrong? What if it’s pathological? What if it doesn’t serve you well?…and if I start validating you, do you think I am your friend? I am not your friend at all, I am a mirror for your narcissism.”
I remember in high school my friend “fell in love” with a guy a year older than her. She was obsessed with him. I hate to be blunt, but he was a loser. He did drugs; he was a jerk to her; he was heading down a dark road. Despite these well-known facts, some of my friends decided to just be happy for her. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to ruin my friendship because I could see she adored him but I knew she was being naive. I decided to subtly express my doubts about his character and hope that would be enough for her to start doubting him. After his true colors were shown, it was me she clung to, not her ‘supportive” friends’.
There may be times when we may need to let go of our will and lean into “live and let live”, even with members of our family, or close friends. We need to have the humility to realize we may not know the best way to show love, or what the proper path for another may be.
We should accept that people’s choices are their own and we cannot control someone into choosing virtue. Yet, when it becomes apparent that our striving is not helpful or desired, we need not retreat to affirmation of behavior we know to be unwise or unvirtuous. We can disagree with someone’s choices and still love them. We maintain our love and hand the situation over to God. He will never stop striving with His child.
The Love Dilemma
I am currently reading the Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis and he skillfully unravels this conflict between affirmation and willful love. He uses the analogy of the “progressive” Grandfather-God and a traditional Father-God. His statement is worth pondering:
“By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. But by Love, most of us mean kindness (affirmation) – the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’.
“…Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering. As Scripture points out, it is bastards* who are spoiled: the legitimate sons, who are to carry on the family tradition, are punished. (Hebrews 12:8) It is for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms: with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes.”
The Father-God does not shrug off wasted potential, for He sees all possibilities.
A society that has adopted a warped love will produce “bastard children*” (children we aren’t too concerned about “turning out”). This form of love is quite dangerous for it encourages behaviors, not based on their virtue or merit, but on the emotions they produce – happiness. But if we know one thing about ourselves, it is that we don’t have any idea what will really make us happy. We just go from pleasure to pleasure – seeking one that will stick.
“Remember our words, then, and whatever is your aim let virtue be the condition of the attainment of your aim, and know that without this all possessions and pursuits are dishonorable and evil.”
We Have No Clue About Happiness
In Leo Tolstoy’s tragic novel, Anna Karenina, Anna left her husband and went after passion – a passion which faded and left her in a state of misery and torment – ending in her suicide. Would Anna Karanina’s friends have been right had they affirmed her desire to “seek happiness” and leave her husband and follow her passion? No, she didn’t know the first thing about her own happiness. But she did know, down to her soul, the difference between deceit and honesty. She knew selfishness was evil and loyalty righteous – and these truths and consequences came back to haunt her long after her “happiness” faded.
“He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires gave him only one grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. This fulfillment showed him the eternal error men make in imagining that their happiness depends on the realization of their desires.”
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina- speaking of Vronsky, Anna’s lover
The Danger of Loving Without Caring
When we throw around affirmation to any and all we meet, we may be doing a lot more damage than good. We suffer no consequences for such “loving” – but the “loved” one may be validated to continue down paths that lead to misery.
We may honestly desire to ease the burden of the drug-addicted young man, or the unfaithful woman. Yet too often, we go about it in the wrong way. Our modern solution is not changing behavior- but changing society’s perception of that behavior. Affirming their path. If we could only take the shame away from all actions, then all would be free to be happy. But Anna and her lover’s happiness faded when their passion did and society’s endorsement of adultery would not have prevented it. Emotions are fleeting; right and wrong endures. There are bad paths. There are also many good paths. Not everyone’s path must be the same, for we all have unique gifts and purposes. But stepping into unknown lives without understanding and attempting to make their paths easy, can lead to great suffering.
This piece focuses largely on love’s counterfeits, or what love is not. However, there is a whole world of love open to us, and it will change the world. God wants us to love our neighbor, and the methods we may utilize are varied, and often unexpected. I hope to do another piece soon on what great thinkers have said about accessing Agape, or unconquerable benevolence. This love has no limits – it is for the man in front of us in line, our friend, and our enemy.
*I mean no offense by this term – I use it as it was meant in the scriptures where the connotation was different that it is today. In this situation it means: children whose future we don’t fret about.
“Perhaps the highest moral height which a man can reach, and at the same time the most difficult of attainment, is the willingness to be nothing relatively. It is nothing to a man to be greater or less than another- to be esteemed or otherwise by the public or private world in which he moves. The truth satisfies him. He lives in absoluteness. God makes the glow-worm as well as the star; the light in both is divine. If mine be an earth-star to gladden the wayside, I must cultivate humbly and rejoicingly its green earth-glow, and not seek to blanch it to the whiteness of the stars and lie in the fields of blue. For to deny God in my own being is to cease to behold Him in any. God and man can meet only by the man’s becoming that which God meant him to be. Then he enters into the house of life, which is greater than the house of fame.”
George MacDonald, Adela Cathcart
Many thinkers, including Dr. Jordan Peterson, speak of the inevitability, and function, of social hierarchies. They point to the benefits of seeking to strive upwards in a hierarchy of competence, so we feel valuable and have purpose. One may strive accomplishment in artistic endeavors, another in plumbing. This progress brings meaning into our lives. In seeking our hierarchies-of-purpose, we should be aware of our strengths and interests, and seek to discover God’s will for our lives.
It is important to contemplate why we seek progression, and from Whom we seek approvable. The relative prestige of the heirarchy should not matter to us: glow-worm or a star. We should not look to the side to see where others are on their hierarchal-ladder, we should look upward for guidance.
In our desire to progress, we should not be overly concerned with the opinion of others. Christianity calls us to a higher sphere for recognition. A Higher Name than Society to measure our value. Rather than depending on the respect and admiration of others, we seek God’s approval. This enables us to be content with, and even see the advantages of, a life of little public influence.
When a society loses its collective belief in a Transcendent Being – that is pleased with our humble efforts – is it any wonder that motherhood and fatherhood are viewed as thankless, and often cast aside?
But we care not. Because we, as mothers and fathers, know that we are fulfilling a great work. We know that even the relative nothingness of parenthood in this world, is of the greatest worth to God.
Please forgive me for dipping into fear again, butlast week’s fear-quoteshave been swirling in my head all week, so perhaps it warrants another post.
At times it feels our entire world is holding its collective breath, bracing for the next disaster, awaiting inevitable misery and unhappiness. We assume the worst intention behind every action and self-interest behind every decision. We feel justified because so often the cynical view is confirmed. But what other view is there?
The Hopeful View
“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst of all are our own fears.”
Fear is a self-fulling prophecy; it is a disease. Once we start seeing the world as a scary and uncertain place – it is difficult to dislodge that belief. The world, and its inhabitants, become hostile and unfamiliar. Fear lies – it only tells us a sliver of what might be, and leaves out all else that could be.
A fearful outlook of the world can be passed down through the generations. Perhaps our own mother saw the world as a dark place – and her mother, and her mother’s mother. Fearful mothers produce fearful children. In order to stop the chain, we need to get a handle on our fear.*
“Through every generation of the human race there has been a constant war, a war with fear. Those who have the courage to conquer it are made free and those who are conquered by it are made to suffer until they have the courage to defeat it, or death takes them.”
Alexander the Great
We would be naïve if we did not see the reality of pain and imperfection – but hope is not naïve, it is courageous. Mothers know well that our love and self-sacrifice are real, so life is more than vying for power or self-interest. We also know that many of our past worries never materialized, so fear and suspicion are often wrong. Considering the truth “We reap what we sow,” surely it is better to face life with hope and love rather than fear and distrust.*
Water and Hope
We were one of the millions of families impacted by the recent severe winter storm in Texas. We recently moved onto some land and into an older home. I confess that I worried our old pipes would freeze and our well pump would go out. Then my mind settled on the “facts” that all the plumbing supplies would surely be bought up…all the plumbers would be booked out for weeks… they might not find all the cracks… Every woman knows the never-ending pit of worry. I was letting these fears take up long-term residence in my head. I was losing sight of all else.
However, the words of G.K. Chesterton kept coming to mind, “An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.” (See why I love quotes? Others’ wisdom saves me from my own weakness). So I changed course and I took to calling it an “adventure” instead of a hardship. And so it became one. When the power went out, we read “The Lord of the Rings” in front of the fire. The boys chipped away at our pool to get water for flushing toilets; the little girls searched out the best make-shift sleds; and my oldest daughter helped organize emergency supplies. My son’s birthday came and went without electricity or water. He didn’t mind. He said, “This is a birthday I will never forget.” Worries did pop up now and then, but, I diverted my energy to preventing further hardships and appreciating the advantages of our situation. I didn’t miss the joy of adventure in expectation of the difficulty. Pipes can be repaired, unrealized-joy found in moments will pass and be lost forever.
Hope When Fear Speaks Truth
But my fear was justified, at least in part, because the pipes did burst. To be honest, I had actually underestimated the damage and financial hardship the storm would cause. We still don’t have heat. Our AC system was damaged beyond repair due to the frequent power outages. Our barn flooded, my husband sliced his hand open trying to fix pipes, and our pool now has a serious leak. So perhaps our fears aren’t liars. Perhaps my other fears will come to pass? The country will split apart. The political and economic situation are just going to keep getting worse. So is hope futile after all? Yes. If we place our hope in the wrong things.
Think of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings- when he sets off to destroy the ring, he has no clue how scared he should be. He can’t imagine just how bad things will get. If he did know, he would likely stay in his cozy hobbit hole. As he experiences the pain and suffering which accompanies any great quest, he fears what other evils may lie before him – but in stillness there is also something else that propels him forward. Love – for his homeland, for Samwise, for goodness. Faith that there is a plan. And Hope. So he pushes on in hope. Not hope that the Orcs will see the error of their ways, or that some treaty between Mordor and Gondor can be struck. He hopes that good will triumph, and that he can be used toward that end.
In the Bible we hear a description of the “last days” and the fear that enters men’s hearts when they place hope on the things of the world.
And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity...Men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken….And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. Luke 21
Hope should not be placed in pipes, not in government, not in an easy life. Hope will triumph if we place it in that which doesn’t fail. Hope in truth, hope in life, and the life to come. Hope that goodness comes to the good, if not now – then eventually – that as Cicero said, virtue is its own reward. Hope cannot be that things will turn out well, but that we can turn out well. Ultimately, our hope is in God.
“Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.”
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Over 2000 years ago there was a woman, like me, who thought of water. She walked to a well to gather her water, like millions of women around the world still must do. She was confident in her well for it had been a reliable source of water since the time of Jacob. But she met a man there who didn’t strengthen her confidence in the water she drew, in fact he made her doubt it.
John 4: Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Physical needs and distresses are real, like thirst, and often we do not have the power to satisfy them. While these needs are important, there is a thirst that transcends physical thirst. A thirst, which if satisfied, can aid us in putting all other thirsts in proper perspective.
I always want to write for a general audience, atheist and theist alike. However, I find (I believe Plato had this same problem) often when I try to “wrap-up” my arguments, they don’t really make sense if you don’t believe in immortality. In Plato’s Phaedo and Apology, the only good reason Socrates could give for feeling hopeful when facing certain death was his belief in immortality. The only way we can face irreconcilable evil, or the unfairness of life, or the fact that much worse than broken pipes is sure to come – is to have faith that we have a soul and that our soul will continue to a place where wrongs will be made right and our goodness will be rewarded with goodness.
“Those who practice philosophy in the right way are in training for dying, and they fear death least of all men.”
Socrates (Plato’s Phaedo)
The world is a dark and ugly place without this belief. I believe we have been given ample evidence of God, of immorality, of beauty, of goodness – but we will always need faith and hope to fill in the gaps. The only hope outside of Hope in God is Hope in The World – and hope in the world will only lead to disappointment.**
“If you were to destroy the belief in immortality in mankind, not only love but every living force on which the continuation of all life in the world depended, would dry up at once.”
A woman who is seeking living water is not easily confounded by a dry well, or a broken pipe. I am grateful for those little drops of living water that sustained me through our adventure: the memory of a phrase by Chesterton, my daughter discovering the perfect sled in our large metal bowl, the screams of happiness every time the lights suddenly turned on, the love of my family and my God. So yes, a lot of things haven’t gone “well” for me the last few weeks, since the cold descended on Southern Texas. Inconveniences, financial stresses, discomfort, and even stitches – but I retain a greater hope, because my hope was rewarded.
**Let me be clear, I absolutely believe that Atheists can be, and many are, good and moral – and may be more so than some theists. However, the philosophy, or non-philosophy, of Atheism gives us little reason for a hope such as the one Christ describes- a Living hope – one that transcends the disappointments of our immediate physical surroundings.
Note from Author
I am going to step back from sharing my work on various social media groups/sites and focus on study, research, and writing. I am finding it increasingly difficult to focus on producing worthy content and taking the time to market/gain more readers. I feel fortunate that the website has grown in readership and enthusiastic followers. I hope I can depend on those readers to help share with Facebook groups, friends, Twitter, or any other avenues that you feel would benefit. I will continue to post on this website so please subscribe if you have not (lower right corner), and also on the Philosophy of Motherhood Facebook site, as well as our Instagram account. Thanks for your support.
I found these two videos insightful – their contrast of the limitations of the Adversary with the Abundance of God.
Great song, Fear is A Liar by Zach Williams.
Jordan Peterson on Trust and walking forward in courage
As mothers, arriving with our first child, come new and troubling fears. With great love comes great fear. Fear that what we have been given, we may lose. Fear that who we love, may suffer. Fear that we are not worthy of this freely-given love. Yet, we must be aware of these new fears, and the dark roads they may take us – and the worthy roads they may keep us from traveling.
We need not be ashamed of our fear, much of it is beyond our control – but also not allow it to rule our better nature. We must recognize it for what it is, when it inevitably descends on us. Our natural maternal instincts drives us to protect and encourage our precious children. We should. Our feminine spiritual nature desires unity and comfort, building a home of love and sacrifice. A most worthy endeavor. Fear can keep us from reaching these feminine potentials. Rather than encouraging our children to face an often disappointing world, we may let our fear of suffering stifle us – making our children “safe” rather than capable. Fear can twist our desire for comfort into a controlling quest for perfection. Fear, unchecked, infects our beautiful nature and distorts it. The quotes below can help us look at our fear and help us refuse Fear as our Master.
“There is no harm in being afraid. The only harm is in doing what Fear tells you. Fear is not your master! Laugh in his face and he will run away.”
George MacDonald, Lilith
“Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.”
C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
“Don’t be overwise; fling yourself straight into life, without deliberation; don’t be afraid – the flood will bear you to the bank and set you safe on your feet again.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears.”
“To fear death is nothing other than to think oneself wise when one is not; for it is to think one knows what one does not know. No man knows whether death may not even turn out to be the greatest blessing for a human being; and yet people fear it as if they knew for certain that is is the greatest of evil.”
Socrates, Plato’s The Apology
“Fear is pain arising from the anticipation of evil.”
“Let fear once get possession of the soul, and it does not readily yield its place to another sentiment.”
Leo Tolstoy, Sebastopol Sketches
“Fear is Faithlessness.”
“The unhappy person is never present to themselves because they always live in the past or the future.”
Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or
“I fear you will never arrive at an understanding of God so long as you cannot bring yourself to see the good that often comes as a result of pain.”
“Don’t be afraid that your life will end, be afraid that it will never begin!”
Henry David Thoreau
“Face the demands of life voluntarily. Respond to a challenge, instead of bracing for catastrophe.”
“I do so dearly believe that no half-heartedness and no worldly fear must turn us aside from following the light unflinchingly.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter to Edith
“A man that flies from his fear may find that he has only taken a short cut to meet it.”
A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
My dad would often quote Mark Twain to us kids when we complained about doing something out of our comfort zone – “Do something everyday that you don’t want to do”. As a kid we traveled a lot. As we traveled, I remember thinking that my parents must hate speaking to strangers – they always made me do it. “Go ask that guy the way to the metro” “Go buy tickets” “See how long the line is”. I see now they were teaching me to be comfortable speaking with people and handling new situations. Now, in adulthood, when others may find meeting new people and traveling in foreign countries intimidating, I enjoy it. I am certainly nothing but ordinary – but I was pushed into uncomfortable realms that have helped me in this area of life. Put me on a ski slope, and my cowardice will quickly present itself.
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; ‘these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions’; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Will Durant summarizing Aristotle
When we teach our kids to read – we push them to a more difficult book than the one last week – they may whine that it is “too hard” – but we know that progress is made in the extra, not the ease.
Teaching our children to be capable of “heroics” actually comes naturally to parents – we want our children to become strong adults. However, this can be stifled by an excessive desire to make life easy or “happy”.
Sometimes we don’t want to hear the whining. Sometimes we let our anxiety of the unknown, (perhaps because we have not pushed ourselves enough out of our own comfort-zones) keep us from encouraging our children into those “extra five minutes”. We take the safe and flat road, forgetting that strong legs and healthy lungs only develop on steep inclines. If parents are there for anything, it is to encourage our children to climb, and to climb with them.
It may be true that the brave man is simply ordinary, but has become capable in those extra minutes – he likely has been there before. If we want to raise heroes we must encourage our children to step into those “five minutes”, in as many arenas and as many times as we can, so when the time for heroics arrives – they know what to do.
“The good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life… for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.'”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics,Book 2, ch. 4; Book 1, ch. 7.
A few weeks ago as two of my children were rummaging through my pantry, they discovered a rogue candy cane left over from Christmas. This discovery was met with great jubilation – until seconds later when the battle of ownership commenced. My daughter, age 6, claimed it as her own, for she had moved the cereal box and discovered it. My son, age 8, yelled that he had grabbed it first – and speed should count for something. Luckily, good mother that I am, I came to the rescue – with an unparalleled conflict-resolution device – one which is much under-utilized in our society: You cut, I pick. How many wars could have been diverted with this tactic? One party divides the booty, the other gets to pick.
But there was an unforeseen snag. In our previous usage of the You cut, I pick remedy, soft foods were being contested, such as cookies and brownies – so division was simple. The “cutter” would, with the precision of a surgeon, make a cut directly down the middle. Candy canes, on the other hand, are a different animal. I quickly came to understand the applicability of the common cliché – “Them’s the Breaks”.
My naive son opted for cutting – being skilled with a pocket knife. My daughter liked the idea of picking. He examined the cane and attempted to cut it right down the middle (taking into account the bend of the cane of course). But it didn’t break anywhere near his desired location. It snapped off right below the bend of the cane and so left one long piece and one small turn-of- a-piece. My daughter made the obvious choice of the long straight piece and my son was left with the cry, “THAT ISN’T FAIR!”
It’s true. It wasn’t fair. Life isn’t fair. This phrase has a familiar ring to me. As the youngest of seven children, this was one of my mother’s mantras. Attempting to divide up resources and favors equally between seven kids was not easy. Even with her attempts to accommodate all our individual demands for fairness, the nature of life is such that it simply isn’t always possible.
But Life Should Be Fair, Right?
Why do we demand fairness? And we all do. For some reason we come into this world thinking it should be just despite the fact that from the very beginning, we can see it isn’t. “ I am too small to play – this isn’t fair!” “My younger brother is taller than me – that isn’t fair!” “My sister has better hair than I do. That isn’t fair.” “My friends get cell phones and I don’t. This isn’t fair!”
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates examines justice. He even builds a city that operates according to perfect justice. When played out in a city, we see that justice must be the motivator for every actor in that city. Justice cannot live in the world unless it lives in each individual in the world.
“Justice in life and conduct of the state is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens.”
Plato, The Republic
Much of our injustice, therefore, is our own fault – meaning the fault of mankind. But Plato also recognizes the injustice of life in general. The “gods’ don’t always dish out favors equally or based on merit and need. Life seems arbitrary sometimes. A devoted mother gets cancer; a jerk wins the lottery. These aren’t small things that we can just toss aside with a laugh. However, they are the nature of existence and wishing it weren’t so, doesn’t help.
Examining Fairness/Justice: Is this really unfair?
First, it might help to examine the particular injustice done to us and see if perhaps we may be misrepresenting it. My ten-year-old daughter, for example, gets upset if we ever let her older brother stay up and watch a football game while she has to go to sleep. Yet, if she were open to the truth, (as I have tried to explain it many times) the reality is not as unfair as she believes. Unfortunately, kids don’t remember the years before they were born – those two years he had to go to sleep early while she got to stay up all night in heaven. He also starts school one hour later than she does, so he can sleep in. He has a great passion for football, and she could care less about it. So as a parent, I try to give “good gifts to my children”. I am attempting to be fair to each, but it looks like unfairness to her. For her own part, she would rather that no one stays up than suffer this injustice. But demanding that he goes to sleep when she does, is unjust to him.
“For it is not because they fear doing unjust deeds, but because they fear suffering them, that those who blame injustice do so.”
Plato, The Republic
I have seen women who get a similar mindset towards men. They see that historically women did not hold many positions of power, that women did not go explore new lands, they didn’t get to study under the Masters in Florence – and they see this as evidence of oppression by men. Wicked men were oppressing women for their own advantage. I am sure there was some of that – but is that the whole story? Many Gender Studies professors suffer from the same disadvantage as my daughter – they don’t remember the way things were and don’t seem overly concerned with understanding intricacies. Not having birth control or menstrual products had a big influence on what women could do. Our technological advances and education have brought freedom for women that was impossible in previous generations. Women’s relative physical weakness has become less important in these comparatively safe times, allowing women more freedom of movement. As the value of children decreases, women make different life choices. So perhaps, with a more complex and open-minded investigation, we may understand that the inequality we see historically between the sexes was not entirely due to the free choice of evil men, but more a function of the nature of reality – and even sometimes out of a desire to protect women.
So would it be fair to kick men out of well-earned jobs to fill a quota? Or have endless education initiatives for young girls and leave behind young boys?* We don’t have to do injustice to some to bring about justice for others.
If it is unfair, then why?
When we examine injustices in our life we seek meaning – we seek a reason and a cause. Sometimes those examinations end in disappointment as we realize “them’s the breaks”. For example, recently I found the book The Gruffalo on my bookcase – a book I had read at least 100 times to my oldest son when he was a toddler. He would ask me to read it to him again and again. I got so sick of reading that book! But I did it because it brought him so much joy. After finding it, I showed it to him so we could reminisce about those days. My son, now 12, could not remember the book at all! At all! Upon this realization, It seemed like all those hours of self-sacrifice dissipated into thin air. So much of mothers’ hardest work: dirty diapers, early morning feedings, potty training trauma – they are all forgotten and unappreciated. Our child loses memory of our hard work and they never look back to ask how they know to use the toilet, or why they have the habit of brushing their teeth. I tried to recount to my son all the hours we had spent reading that book – seeking some kind of appreciation but I could see it fell on deaf ears. My credit was gone with his memory. I felt the harsh unfairness of it all. No wonder mothers have such a low standing in society – none of these people even remember their own mothers greatest sacrifices! I don’t know why we don’t retain these memories of our loving mothers. In the next life perhaps I will discover a good reason. Maybe being a mother is meant to be selfless – perhaps meaning would be lost if we received admiration or glory. I do trust that those hours were not wasted and that he is the good boy he is, in part, because of TheGruffalo.
“To love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise.”
We perceive justice and fairness with such limited vision. The world cannot be divided down the middle. We develop different strengths, unique experiences, and perspectives precisely because of the unfairness of the world. Do we really want to make everything equal? No, and we can’t anyway. My shorter son has developed ball handling skills that my taller son doesn’t bother with. My daughter’s friends get cellphones but she has more time to develop her talents, and less drama. “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.”
So we see that fairness is not easily discerned by us – my daughter still can’t comprehend it after many attempts to explain. That is because we don’t have the big picture. We can’t see the end from the beginning. We don’t see what we really need or how unfairness now, may one day be for our benefit. But we can trust that our Transcendent God does know how to dish out justice – now and in eternity. What we are asked to do is simple: “Do unto others as we would have them do to us”. That is how we act in fairness and justice.
Matthew 7:11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
If dealt with unjustly, act justly
Although life can’t be fair and we are often treated unjustly – we can deal justly. We can treat people the way we want to be treated, and teach our children to do the same.
“If it were necessary either to do wrong or to suffer it, I should choose to suffer rather than do it.”
If we believe in the eternal nature of our soul, we see that it really doesn’t matter, ultimately, how unjustly others may treat us – only what we do to them. We have faith that virtue will win and that happiness comes from living virtuously.
“It is a small thing to a man whether or not his neighbor be merciful to him; it is life or death to him whether or not he be merciful to his neighbor.”
When I look back at the last 12 years of motherhood, the episodes I most regret usually involve failed attempts to make things fair. In attempting to make everybody happy – more often than not we end up with everyone unhappy. With different ages, personalities, and preference, we simply can’t please everyone. So we end up disappointing one child and then to make them happier, we disappoint another child. We cannot let our desire to make peace allow us to give bad gifts to our children.
When we discover unfairness – such as the candy cane breaking unevenly – we want to swoop in and try and make things fair. And that is just what I did. I chiseled away at that candy cane to try and make it perfectly even until it was mostly shards and a pile of sugar dust and both children were crying at the unfairness of life.
There are times when we should try and make life fair for our children, but this was not one of them, for it meant doing another injustice. This one perpetrated by my own will.
If I could do it again, I would have told my son – after some comforting: “Them’s the breaks. You chose to cut – and that is how it broke. This is unfortunately how life works out. Sometimes we don’t have as much control as we think. I will not do further injustice to your sister by breaking the code of “You cut, I pick”. It is sad, but at least, now you don’t have to ingest as much sugar which is actually to your benefit.
But instead my poor daughter wept, her trust in You cut, I pick may be gone forever – for I had been unjust and broken the rules of the game. We cannot correct the unfairness of life by perpetrating more unfairness. We cannot bring justice to women by being unjust to men. We cannot make life better for a sorrowful child by taking the joy from a happy child.
A ridiculous topic?
So why discuss justice and fairness? After all, this is a topic that has confused the world for at least 3000 years. Because it is important to recognize what we don’t always understand, for acting without understanding can do great damage to the world. As this clip shows, using the tragic history of Ukrainian Kulak’s as our example, schemes to cure inequity can swiftly result in resentment-fueled injustice for the labeled “oppressor” and dire consequences for society.
Human beings are born with different capacities. If they are free, they are not equal. And if they are equal, they are not free.
Life is complicated. We don’t have the memory, knowledge, and perspective to be perfect arbiters of justice. When discussing fairness we, and our children, can easily be taken up by feelings of envy or resentment which cloud our judgement.
“The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the man who calls himself a fool at least once a month.”
So as we seek meaning for the unfairness we encounter, such as hours of unremembered sacrifice for a demanding toddler, we must seek solace in faith. Faith that goodness wins, that justice is rewarded, and that God knows what gifts are good.
“You will never come to any harm in the practice of virtue, if you are a really good and true man (or woman).”
As mothers, we should seek justice and fairness within our homes. I believe that we have a God-given ability to discern what is best for our children – if we clear our own minds of an inordinate need for to make everyone happy, we can discover the best path forward in times of conflict or confusion.
My own mother tried to make life as fair as she could for her children. She prayed and pondered the best ways to accomplish it – but sometimes she had to tell us that “life isn’t fair”. This was a perspective we needed, even if it stung a bit. It’s a perspective I still need. As my pile of sugar dust and crying children demonstrate.
The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men, Christina Hoff Sommers
InTolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Frodo contemplates the ruinous world he faces. He tells his wise and patient teacher,
“I wish it need not have happened in my time.”
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
I often find myself wishing, as Frodo did, that “it need not have happened in my time.” That I could raise my children in a more stable age.
Sometimes we may exaggerate the difficulty and divisiveness of our modern life – especially when compared with the horrific conditions of most of human history. Perspective is often helpful in calming our fears. Yet, as a mother, it is evident that in many ways the world is becoming increasingly divisive, immoral, and selfish. We seem to be headed down well-trodden paths of conflict – roads laid down generations ago and marked with blood and destruction. We are willfully repeating lessons we should have learned long ago. Concerned parents look on in dread as our society descends into tribalism and self interest. We see greed and envy driving public policy; leaders usurping power; distrust and suspicion increasing; cultural unity and patriotism dissipating; faith and humility abandoned…Darkness looms…but Tolkien reminds us, “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”
As mothers, we must not be naïve – we must face the darkness. We must strengthen ourselves for the journey. Wishing things were different will not accomplish anything. We must act. But how? Our world is starving for virtue. We must accept our role as the Teacher-of-Virtue.
Absent moral and virtuous individuals, societies inevitably degrade. Who can shape the morality of a populace if not its mothers? The world may deny our influence, but the power of a strong mother endures.
“What a mother sings to the cradle goes all the way down to the coffin.”
Henry Ward Beecher
The solution to our anxieties and to the world’s division, lies in strengthening our families.
“The family is the basis of society. As the family is, so is the society.”
Today, I felt discouraged about the future, about the world my children are inheriting. To cope, I distracted myself from the news and social media, and instead reflected on the love of my husband and children. As I hugged my daughter and read with my son, the day seemed brighter – we made it brighter. Fear will return when my thoughts inevitably rest on harsh realities, but I know what I can do to calm my fears – be a mother that puts her will and energy into raising resilient, educated, and virtuous children.
“Men are what their mothers made them.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
As Frodo expresses his fears to Gandalf – as a child would to a parent – he gazes into the flames and wishes them away. Gandalf acknowledges and empathizes with those fears, but he knows the solution will not be found in staring into the fire. Instead, he pushes Frodo towards the only firm hope he has – his own action. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” The world may burn, but we will not do the burning, we will do the building.
“Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.”
As mothers, we must have faith in our influence. We can wisely use the time given us. The future is unsure – there will always be anxiety when facing the unknown. But our world will improve when we mothers decide – decide to replace that fear with faith and action, and intentionally teach our children to do the same.
“Pick up the cross of your tragedy and betrayal. Accept its terrible weight….We are all fallen creatures—and we all know it. We are all separated from what should be and thrown into the world of death and despair. We are all brutally crucified on the cross that is the reality of life itself….And the Christian command? To act out the proposition that courage and truth and love are more powerful than death and despair.”
I believe that a society built around Honor and Virtue are crucial if we want to shift our current trajectory. We must be willing to applaud goodness and condemn wickedness. We simply cannot say that all beliefs, actions, and choices are of equal worth and virtue, and still have a society where good can triumph.
I enjoyed the podcast episode below from Young Heretics. It brings a good perspective on the utility of Honor and Virtue, using Roman society as a case-study.
“It’s like the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad has happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer. I know now folks in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something. That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.” Samwise Gamgee, Lord of the Rings
“Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” C.S. Lewis