“The function of ignoring, of inattention, is as vital a factor in mental progress as the function of attention itself.”
As mothers and wives, we are called to notice, discern and introspect. However, with every act of noticing, we must leave something unnoticed. And that’s okay; in fact, it may be beneficial. As William James points out, inattention can be a powerful tool in improving our mental health.
Perhaps we are guilty of noticing too much – of noticing what is best unnoticed. Are we overwhelmed by our own judgmentalness and sensitivity? So many offenses weigh us down – could we have let them fly by? Are we too quick to affix labels on others? Could we instead let them develop without the burden of our judgment? As we become aware of the benefit of inattention, of letting go of the ultimately unimportant, we may see an increase in our mental wellness and a strengthening of our relationships.
What we focus on becomes our reality. Technically that is true. Look at the view out your window. Now, look at any smudges you may have on the window. When you looked at the view, you didn’t really see the smudges. When you looked at the smudges, you couldn’t really see the view. You were in control of what you looked at. If today you went around and looked at smudges all day, you could get some cleaning done. But as you focus on the smudges – you won’t see the view. Reality is based on perception. So when things don’t seem to be going so well – one strategy is to shift our focus away from what we have been focusing on and attend to something else.
“Reality is created by the mind, we can change our reality by changing our mind.”
We hear a lot about the danger of “repression” – the bottling up of feelings or impulses. Repressed trauma, for example, may manifest in subconscious and distressing ways. But we mustn’t confuse repression with self-control. I have heard many claim that stifling a sexual impulse is repression. Not confronting that woman at the bank that cut you in line, that’s repression. It is not repression to make a conscious decision to let some emotions, grudges, thoughts, and desires pass away – that’s self-restraint. Not every thought requires rumination and not every impulse should be acted upon.
Moments Chosen for Joy
“Our life comes to us moment by moment. One moment disappears before the next comes along: and there is room for very little in each.”
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Let’s not hold onto things that are of no use to us – there is little room in our finite moments. Often we attend to trifles, misunderstandings, and offenses when we could be putting our attention on more important matters. It is certainly true that some details do matter and that continually sweeping things under the rug can lead to resentment. However, the alternative view seems to be neglected in our modern times – sometimes it’s okay to just let go of an offense, a grievance, and a judgment. This is particularly true in raising children – if we held onto every misdeed perpetrated by our children, there would be few moments left for joy.
Psychologist Philip Osborne writes of the benefits of having “No problem areas” with our children. “No problem areas ” are times when we can enjoy our child where there is no threat of “seeing the smudges”, and no problems are discussed.* Instituting these “no problem areas” with my children has helped me build relationships that are light-hearted and understanding. I get to take life less seriously, and they get to have a mom who will sometimes take a break from the difficult but necessary corrective duties of motherhood. We don’t want our children to think motherhood is all difficulty and no enjoyment, all judgment and no acceptance, all unselfishness and no love.
My eldest son is a wonderful kid who is generally low-maintenance but he likes nice shoes. I have been somewhat bothered by this emphasis on fashion. In my upbringing, we didn’t get brand-name shoes and so I tend to see such extravagances as excessive. He kept asking for Crocs, which you may have noticed is a new fad among the 12-16 year old demographic. I pushed him off for months. He only had enough to pay for half but was eager to get them. Every bone in my very-frugal body told me, “This is a rip-off and I don’t want him to follow fads!” Yet, I felt my spirit tell me something different, “He doesn’t ask for much, help him get the Crocs.” So one day I surprised him and we went out and got some- and I bit my tongue when I saw the price tag. He was so excited! Now every day at school when I pick him up, he tells me in excitement what gibbets (Croc accessories) he has traded, how valuable the basketball gibbet is, and his plans for future trades. It has become a point of bonding for us as I show genuine interest in this childhood adventure. As parents, we want to teach our children important lessons – lessons like not following fads, but we also need to sometimes ask, “Is this important enough to my child that perhaps I should seek joy rather than judgment?”
It feels nice to just enjoy the view and build some bonds with our child or spouse. To take a break from strife. When we return from our vacation from judgment, we may see that some of those smudges add character to the window. At the risk of taking this metaphor too far – too clean a window is a hazard for passing birds.
A Focus on Trash
Growing up, my father had one clear-cut household duty – taking out the garbage. I got married and in my mind, garbage was a man’s job. Within weeks of our marriage, we had what I feel is an important conversation for every new couple to have – the division of duties. My husband agreed to trash duty. But for years, he would chronically forget. When cleaning up the kitchen, I would often find an overflowing trash can. I started to see this as a sign of his lack of respect and consideration, and resentment started to grow. He will only do things when I ask. He isn’t keeping his promises. I saw a Facebook post where a woman decried her husband’s “toxic” inconsiderate behavior, her sentiment further cemented my own view. As women, we can let our thoughts get away from us. We argued about it. “You can be so inconsiderate!” I said. His response helped me adjust my perception. “You are right, I can be better – but when I give you a break and take the kids to the store, or shovel the walkway – why doesn’t that show you that I am considerate?”
I was putting my attention on one thing – the trash. I was letting that frame my perception. I was going down a dark road. His inconsistency with the trash was one reality, a true one. But it wasn’t the only truth. Sure, he was forgetful and didn’t always have my desire for empty trash cans forefront of his mind. But there was another much more important and profound truth – he is a good and loving man, and I am blessed he is my husband. With time, we have learned to communicate and negotiate over each other’s annoying trifles – while also putting them in their proper perspective.
“At every trifle take offense, that always shows great pride or little sense.”
The modern bandwagon says, “Cut toxic people out of your life!” Many now label others by their flaws rather than their positives or potential. Our definition of “toxic” is usually based solely on the perspective of the smudges. It is tragic to see people label family members who truly love them as “toxic” because of imperfections or disagreements. If I had let my mind run away with me, I could have created a world where I saw my husband as “toxic”. But when we realize, as William James did, that inattention is just as important as attention, we can create a different reality. We can clean the smudges that need cleaning, while not forgetting to also take a break and focus our eyes on the glorious view.
‘“Choice of attention–to pay attention to this and ignore that–is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.”
“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 too sad to 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.
When I hear stories of my grandparents and great grandparents I am shocked by what children used to be capable of. My grandfather was seven and already helping drive cattle. My grandpa used to say, “Maybe there is a way to raise kids without a farm but I have never seen it done successfully.” Let’s hope he was wrong. But modern parents are at a real disadvantage compared to our ancestors in one way – teaching resilience and toughness through work used to be a naturally occurring process. Parents of the past not only wanted to have children, often they needed to have children. They needed help on the farm, in the shop, or in tending to household chores. Our modern sensibilities assume this “child labor” was all bad. But many children developed confidence and mental toughness through these necessary responsibilities. They knew they were helping drive their family toward safety and stability- modern children are often clueless passengers. While we should be grateful that children don’t have to carry the burdens they once did – we should not be blind to the downsides of our modern lives of ease, if that is what we have. (There are still billions living lives of financial and physical hardship all around the world).
While those blessed with economically stable lives may not be able to recreate the “necessary work” of our ancestors – we can be creative. I don’t believe in creating work for works sake – this can feel torturous to children. There must be some purpose and goal to work for it to feel meaningful. Raising chickens, involving them in household chores, and looking for opportunities to serve others – can help in building fortitude. Sports, music, and outdoor activities can be a good medium for teaching resilience as well.
“The habits we form from childhood make no small difference, but rather they make all the difference.”
As parents it may be easier, and safer, to keep our children on the couch – to entertain them with Netflix and video games. But Seneca points out, there must be “daring” if we want to grow strong children. We must dare – dare to point our children toward hard work and adventure and not mourn when difficulty arises, but rather see difficulty 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. We must resist the temptation to step in too soon, dare to risk a peck or two at your children’s feet.
Adversity and worry are a part of life, and increasingly seem to be crippling our youth. But we can raise a child that is capable of facing fears. We can “dare” them to do the difficult and unfamiliar and encourage them in appropriate risk-taking. We can 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.”
A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
We have heard the story of the brave Spartans at Thermopylae, 300 brave men standing against thousands. This legend has stayed vibrant after thousands of years of telling. Why? Because every society depends on courage for its survival. Suffering, temptation, deceit, death – they are all coming for us. If our courage fails at the onslaught – we, and our nations, will fall.
“Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.”
The men of Sparta were hardened and made courageous by a brutal childhood. They were trained to see a glorious death as the ultimate goal. They were indoctrinated in their individual purpose and their nation’s ideals. They had a deep love of their homeland. In our modern world, many of these methods seem antiquated and backward. But have we dropped too many of these standards? We now see news stories of defenseless women attacked on the Subway while dozens watch, or film, without aiding her. We hear of known abusers of children or women never being confronted because of their power or position. We hear biological facts ignored, moral truths undefended, personal beliefs disregarded – all in fear of societal backlash. We need to make courage the supreme virtue again. But how?
The children of Sparta were trained from a young age to be courageous, the children of America, and much of the west, are left untrained for any battle – moral or physical. (To be clear, Spartan culture was pretty horrific and child abuse was the norm, so we shouldn’t follow their precise example.) The first step in inculcating a child in courage is to encourage them to step into the unknown, to be brave for five minutes longer.
It is parents who plant the seeds of courage in their children. They do this by encouraging them to step into the darkness of the unknown. My dad would often quote Mark Twain to us kids when we complained about doing something out of our comfort zone – “Do something every day that you don’t want to do”. As a child, 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 (and honestly they probably didn’t want to do it). 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 about 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.
The brave man is simply an ordinary man, 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 areas and as many times as we can, so when the time for heroics arrives – they know what to do.
“Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.”
A few weeks ago as two of my children were rummaging through my pantry, they discovered a rogue candy cane leftover 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, and 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 the 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 not as compliant with such surgery. 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 curved end. 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 were 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 a 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 cell phones 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.”
* perhaps Aristotle
So we see that fairness is not easily discerned by us – my daughter still can’t comprehend it after many attempts to explain it. 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 the 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 preferences, 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 was 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, we and our children, can easily be taken up by feelings of envy or resentment which cloud our judgment.
“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
Yesterday was my youngest child’s 4th birthday. She followed me around all day, asking for details on her cake, ice cream, and presents. To each response, she would squeeze my leg and say, “You are the best mom EVER!” Her siblings came home from school and bounded in the door excitedly, yelling “Happy birthday!” She gave them each a hug, in turn, and said, “You are the best sister (or brother)…ever!” We had a wonderful evening at home celebrating our enthusiastic, loving, and intelligent little girl. She is our fifth child, and despite my children’s pleas for more siblings, my five c-sections and general weariness demands she be the last.
Babies as a scourge.
As I saw this image on my Facebook and read the caption, “The most loving gift you can give your first child is to not have another”, I couldn’t help but think of my sweet little 4-year-old. What would life be like if, like a scene from The Avengers, we snapped our fingers, and she and three of her siblings vanished – leaving us with only our oldest? Life, for us, would be instantly transformed.
We are told that our earth is dying, and each new baby is hastening it’s destruction. There is no doubt that greed and materialism produce waste and pollution that harm our environment. However, would the world be better off if my family of 7 became a family of 3? I don’t think so. Our family would have much more money – more resources to buy new cars, a bigger house, and more trips. It seems likely that our now smaller family – with our excess – may end up being a bigger strain on the environment. Our demands always seem to exceed our supply. All the resources my four additional children consume – mostly in the form of peanut butter sandwiches and second hand clothes – are unlikely to equal the burden to fulfill the desires of a bored and wealthier family of three. Children help us be content with less stuff – we made the trade for more life.
The other thing that struck me from this billboard was the image of that sweet black baby. It took me back to my days working with cute babies in Eastern and South Africa. While doing my research and service work, I encountered many pregnant women or new mothers, often in the most destitute circumstances. I would sometimes question the wisdom of these women’s choice to have a child in such conditions. “Isn’t it irresponsible to get pregnant when you couldn’t even afford a floor for your shack?” However, despite my reservations, these African women took a different view. They would always refer to their babies as a blessing. The birth of a new baby is always met with celebration in African villages. In contrast, we, in the West, produce billboards featuring black children with a caption encouraging fewer children. I only pray those of African ancestry stick with the culture of abundance, rather the culture of scarcity we find in the affluent West. (Talk about Neocolonialism and exporting bad ideas…)
The reality of life with our fifth child seems a direct contradiction to the popular idea of today – “humans are a parasite on the earth”. The earth, they say, is at risk of collapse. This makes children messengers of destruction. But often, environmental concerns hide our real motivations for having fewer children. We live under a flawed philosophy – “there is not enough”: not enough time, love, attention, wealth, compassion. The scarcity-doctrine” has convinced many to either have no children or very few.
China went so far as to limit each couple to one child. They came close to creating a sibling-less, cousin-less, aunt and uncle-less society. Is this the path to stability? It hasn’t proved to be for China. When children are devalued, we seek other, often destructive, remedies to fill our new lack. A world that sees new life as a curse is spiritually and emotionally dead.
“With each new baby, the whole universe is again put on trial”
In America, we recently saw Amy Coney Barrett, a woman with seven children nominated to the Supreme Court. Rather than feminists celebrating in the streets at this momentous sign of societal progression, we see questions about her choice to have a large family. Some call her irresponsible for having so many children; others question her motives in adopting children from Haiti. The concepts of “love” “goodness” and “self-sacrifice”are starkly absent in such perspectives.
Does each human soul detract from the world or enhance it? Michelangelo, one of five children, did consume materials from the earth to build the dome of St. Peter’s, but is the world worse off for it?
“Brothers and sisters are as close as hands and feet.”
I am the youngest of seven. My eldest brother still recalls my dad lining up all the kids after my birth and introducing them to their new little sister. He told the children, “This baby is perfect, let’s try not to corrupt her.” They did – and I reveled in the corruption. We had a great childhood. Now, we seven live all over the world, but we have a cherished bond that still stabilizes me.
“Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply.”
Is the world collapsing?
We certainly need to carefully consider if and when we should have a child. But, according to Prince Harry, he, a happily married prince, would be irresponsible to have more than two children…“for the sake of the planet”. But is all this panic and guilt-tripping about population growth actually based in fact? No. The truth is that our world is headed into a demographic winter. The population is decreasing at a rate that is not sustainable. The choice of how many children a couple should have is very personal and should not be dictated or judged by outsiders. However, from society’s point of view, responsible and loving parents should be having more children, not less.
The answer to anyone who talks about the surplus population is to ask him whether he is the surplus population ; or if he is not, how he knows he is not.
It is, of course, true that more people will eat up more resources. This is something we should be aware of and adapt to. My university degree is in Environmental Studies. Sustainable development and conservation are topics I am passionate about. The environment should be protected, and parents need to be the primary educators of their children in how and why we care for the earth. Landfills are crowded with parenting excesses – toys, clothes, and baby gadgets – we need to simply our lives and stop filling it with “stuff.”
As a mother, I teach my children to care and protect the earth and be the solution to environmental problems. We should make this a focus of our teaching, and be an example of someone who values our environment and makes sacrifices of our own comfort and pleasure to protect the environment (paper plates and plastic baggies are certainly convenient for us mothers but they pile up quick in the trash). We can help our children see how they can contributors to the abundance of this planet.
However, the idea that we are headed towards population disaster is only true if you mean we will have too few people to support the existing ones. We don’t need any encouragement to have fewer babies. We are already choosing not to at alarming rates.* Ultimately, the difference between those advocating for a sibling-less society and those, like my African friends, that see each child as a blessing, is perspective. One says “Humans are the scourge of the earth”, the other “Humans are the caretakers of the earth.”
The reality of love.
There are two roads that diverge in our modern yellow wood – and the road less traveled is the one that prioritizes children. The modern road strives for status, pleasure, and material excess and avoids or limits family, they are seen as boulders on the path of attainment. But there is another road, it’s likely to be weeded-over, like my own yard, there isn’t a lot of time for maintenance. Those that take this road devote their time to relationships – with spouse, children, community members – these relationships may limit material gains and status, but the joy of a happy family will make all the difference in our lives.
In order to live in the truth, we can not allow ourselves to become detached from the spiritual and emotional realities of life. We have to reject a purely material interpretation of life and people, this interpretation will lead us to the well-worn path of self-interest. In a purely material world, reality becomes warped. Statements like “humans are a parasite” don’t sound horrific anymore. Love and goodness are mythical because a material world only runs on power and envy. Such a materialistic life will only lead to misery and to more excess, more waste, more environmentally destruction. We need connection, we need solid and enduring relationship, we need a worthy mission to dedicate our lives to. As we fill our loves with this spiritual excess we can let go of physical excess.
Our lives are only full when we have love and a purpose to which we can dedicate our lives. Children fill our lives with love. They are the reason for our striving. They do not take our time; they are the reason we were given time. Every day with my youngest child is a day I get to experience more of life. Her laughter, cries, and the unfolding of her personality are priceless. Her siblings are more emphatic, considerate, wise, humble, and entertained because she exists.
Each person has to decide what they really want out of life. If they decide they want to build a life of “less stuff” and more relationships, go ahead have a kid, and then another, and as many as you want. Together you can save our world.
In answer to this ad, I say – less joy, less excitement, less life, is not the gift you want to bestow on your child. Give them a sibling and see the Earth flourish as a result.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
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Responses to Covid-19 vary within nations, states, counties, towns, families, and individuals. The new tension within these groups, created by our responses to Covid-19, has created collateral damage in our relationships, financial lives, civic lives, and governance. While, in general, it is easy to criticize strong responses, my interest in this article is not to critique our responses to the crisis, but how to recover from the damage they have caused to our personal relationships. Our relationship lives have been affected by both social distancing and our deeper immersion in the polarized public response to political action. Once the threat and fear of the virus has subsided, we must assume that collateral damages to our relationships will remain. Now what?
CRISIS RESPONSE: THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY
As is typical in the fog of crisis, it’s hard to see the silver lining. Many families are facing financial ruin due to government-mandated cessation of their revenue. While that subject deserves loud discussion, this article does not intend to focus on that component of the Covid-19 tragedy. Here, I intend to look at some nuanced changes in our social relationships and their implications. It’s not as if there are no positive social outcomes from our response to this pandemic. No doubt, in houses across the USA that have not been visited by medical despair brought on by Covid-19, families have been expressing some positive sentiment about baking more bread at home, reducing expenditures, creating more reliable family rhythms, and increased time spent with nuclear family members. Also, I suspect there is serious upside potential in re-thinking how we educate our children. We are learning a lot about the means of education while schools are closed. And regarding friendships, many families are doubtlessly pleased to find that some friendships are being prioritized while others are fading. This is kind of a study in the Darwinian fitness of our friendships. Only the strong [friendships] will survive while the weaker ones will fade into oblivion. This will allow more decidedly “important” priorities to arise within families. That’s great. But, seeing the upside in the shake-down of our friendships will require us to deal with some negative feelings as well.
Let’s look at how shame fits into this scene. Shame can be either self-imposed or foisted on us by others.
SHAME ON YOU
The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the tension in our already-tense public discourse. Being immersed in strong opinions about political action is not new to us. However, this dynamic has really ramped up and been accentuated with some additional features. Rather than merely each waking moment being an opportunity to shout our opinions about Federal competence, we now have added opportunities to squabble about varying expert medical opinions, failed infection rate models, fiscal and monetary action, the role of scientists in a cohesive advisory body, the costs and benefits of planned economic slowdown, whether or not human safety can be discussed in terms of monetary cost, the effectiveness of our local government’s response in comparison to that of other cities and counties, etc. As if we didn’t have enough to disagree about, Covid-19 is providing ample opportunity for us to further upset each other with differing opinions. Add the risk of lethal infection and observe heightened levels of emotion.
Being worked up about any or all of the changes resulting from our reaction to Covid-19 needs no justification. Change can be hard to accept. Add to that any mistrust or cynicism toward decision makers or community members and it is natural to get frustrated. However, how about when someone close to you starts talking in a way that really irks you? How about when a friend or family member starts talking ignorant nonsense? We are familiar with the admonishment of a person when they say something stupid, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Maybe they should be. Or maybe you aren’t listening well enough. Thus, the emotional walls can be erected and catapults loaded with burning tar.
When the dust settles after any social display of anger or fear there is always at least one party who is left feeling less than good. Someone is left sweeping up the pieces (maybe under a rug!) and reconciling what just happened. Part of the fallout when someone recognizes that they over-reacted is the feeling of shame.
We often feel ashamed or humiliated from our own public displays of weakness or vulnerability. This is as true for uncontrolled crying in public as it is when we look physically incompetent by stumbling on the sidewalk. We can feel shame when we display any type of incompetence that is seen by strangers. Losing a job can feel shameful if we think the loss makes us appear inadequate. A girlfriend or boyfriend breaking up with us after we admitted love to them makes us feel ashamed. Losing a house to fire can make us vulnerable and ashamed when our projection of competence is interwoven with our possessions. I had a friend who felt deep shame after their home was plundered by burglars. Even on social media, unhinged outbursts and emotional recriminations toward our neighbors fit this description. Losing control is rarely seen as virtuous and many think it is shame-worthy.
The cloak of privacy that shields our identities on social media doesn’t help matters. I like the analogy of a Mardi-Gras mask and social media. When people don a flamboyant mask (I’m not talking about an N-90 face mask) at Mardi-Gras they might feel more apt to do something out of their ordinary because they feel anonymous. However, committing what you might think is a slimy act while being unrecognized doesn’t change the fact that you observed yourself making that particular decision. Will you feel ashamed at having done so? Maybe. The experience of unfettered freedom does not guarantee the feeling of pride in what you choose to do with it. The same goes for our behavior on social media. Regardless of how the person in question feels, we often think a person’s lack of emotional control is deserving of shame.
Emotional control is certainly virtuous for civilized adults, but hardly something to force in a young toddler. As a first-time parent of a toddler, I had to learn this lesson begrudgingly. If emotional control is required for my children to participate in society, why couldn’t they just learn it early! Since realizing that children can only learn to regulate their emotions from adults who model it, I have (far too often!) found myself in a horribly strange house of mirrors where my frustrations are simultaneously cause and result of difficult moments with my children and wife. Some of these emotionally-complicated moments just feel like a small slice of Hell and shame is not helpful for anyone.
This isn’t to say that shame is never helpful. Even for children, an interior feeling of shame can be both a helpful indicator that they behaved incorrectly, as well as a motivator to not repeat the incorrect action. Self-imposed shame can be felt in big doses and small doses, and can likewise be useful or toxic. As with many things, the “poison is the dose.” It might be that the interior perception of our own shame is useful only in proportion to our capacity for self-reflection and ability to articulate a way forward.
When shame is cast by one upon another, the scenario gets even muddier. Why would someone cast shame on others? Sometimes they deserve it. Casting shame can function as an accountability mechanism in a community of adults who share common interests. To the extent that the interior experience of shame motivates us to avoid shame-worthy behavior, others can signal it in our direction when they think we are toeing the line of inappropriate behavior that jeopardizes our common interests. Beyond this, people can cast shame for all sorts of dark reasons. Maybe they see something in another that they hate about themselves and fight it with casting shame outward. When we shame others, we had better either get it right or apologize quickly.
Shame is often cast on others very hypocritically. In our responses to Covid-19, we have created a lot of opportunity to cast shame on strangers. A good buddy of mine was tide-pooling at a beach with his daughter the other day. There wasn’t a person in sight. Soon, a duo of cyclists cruised by. One of them shouted, scornfully, at my friend, “Social distancing!!” To what benefit? I’m not sure, but the attempt at shame-casting was shame-worthy.
In an environment of heightened emotions, we might think other people are acting shamefully with more regularity than usual. Or maybe, with a little reflection, even our own actions deserve a little shame.
SHAME ON ME
In social distancing, we have agreed to not see people that we would normally spend time around. Some of these people we miss dearly. Others, we are pleased to avoid. Some other social situations we had previously not considered avoiding, but now enjoy their absence. How does this affect us? Usually, when we get enjoyment from an act we “should not” enjoy, (like eating too much cake or avoiding a friend or family member) we feel at least a little bit of shame or guilt. There’s a reason we call it a “guilty pleasure.”
Humor me while I indulge in a hypothetical shaky moment between uncertain friends. Let’s say that you have a monthly dinner date with a friend but the requirements of social distancing prevent you two from meeting this month. Also suppose that you were getting a little tired of this monthly dinner date. The whole idea of monthly meetings was an experiment. He wasn’t really that great of a friend, and you suspect that he benefited more than you did from the monthly meeting. After all, all he did was complain about mutual acquaintances and you found it annoying. While you thought he was a bit broken, you could see that he needed a friend. You were happy to be that friend when it was convenient, but now seems like a great opportunity to duck out of the arrangement. “Thank you, social distancing.” Next month, maybe you’ll feel different.
You’re probably thinking that this relationship was destined to dissolve (and maybe they should try different meds) but that isn’t necessarily true. Government-mandated restrictions on gatherings create a layer of fog between some friends. The veil of ignorance covering the reason for friends not seeing each other (“Have they not visited because of government mandate, or just because they don’t like me?”) creates a prisoner’s dilemma where we can do more harm than good.
The psyche is a bizarre thing. What happens when we observe ourselves wronging a person with whom we have an unsigned contract of friendship? Shame begets mistrust. When we feel a little ashamed about avoiding our friend, our psyche, in a tantrum of projection and blame avoidance, can easily generate mistrust toward the person we wronged. Once we wrong that person (by neglecting our relationship) we assume his willingness to neglect, or betray, the relationship too. Thus, we can begin to mistrust another person when we grow suspicious of their capacity for betrayal. What tipped us off to the idea that they might betray our friendship? Our own betrayal of the relationship… no matter how small it might have been at the time. We assume our friend is unaware of the pleasure we gained from avoiding him. However, this pleasure is not without consequence. In fact, we might begin to mistrust him precisely when we understand that he might get the same guilty pleasure by neglecting our friendship in like fashion. I don’t need to point out the obvious immaturity here. In this example, the root cause of our mistrust toward our friend’s commitment is actually our own shame in choosing to avoid him.
Changes in our psyche are rarely made under our full control. One emotion morphs into another when we see our reflection (no matter how distorted) in another person. In this example, we are obviously not talking about a super high-quality friendship that has weathered many ups and downs. Many friendships can benefit from the endurance of stress. Others whither and disappear, and not without emotional fireworks. While some personalities are far more neurotic and insecure than others, everyone must maintain positive relationships for overall health. Government-mandated social distancing has fertilized the soil for negative feelings between friends. And this can make us ashamed of ourselves.
Cringe-worthy behavior not befitting of our pre-Covid-19 social interactions can yield self-righteous indignation, pity, resentment, belittlement, or self-centered anger. We mustn’t forget that we will see our friends and family again. Even a single moment of resentment or pity toward a community member or family member will silently change the dynamic.
Covid-19 has, indeed, presented additional complications to an already-complex world. One of many results is an increase in potential for shame in our social lives. This additional amount of shame has resulted in damage to our social fabric that is difficult to quantify. How do we mend the fabric, and who is responsible for righting the wrongs?
As an analogy, let’s look at how we recuperate financial losses before looking at social losses. To the extent that we as individuals have taken financial losses due to societal responses to Covid-19, our solution sounds easy; “Give me my money back.” If money is lost, and debt accrued, because of a mandated response, then an appropriate post-crisis recovery includes an attempt to recuperate those financial losses and resolve the debts. Because we can chalk up these losses to either an act of God or to government restrictions on income, choosing the methods by which we are made financially whole is obviously problematic. We have many options, such as renewed personal commitments to save instead of borrow, work extra hours, business ventures that profit from the post-Covid-19 landscape, insistence that governments intervene on our behalf with the redistribution of other’s resources, etc. The possibilities are endless. Nonetheless, quantifying the loss is not impossible, and most of us agree on our desires to recuperate financial losses and pay down personal debts.
SHAME AS DEBT
To the extent that love and careful attention are a relationship’s currencies of transaction, shameful social action puts us in debt to those with whom we share friendship. Acting shamefully towards our community members is to over-spend our relationship currency, no matter if the act is passionately unwitting or deliberately malicious. Shameful social action is deficit spending; an emotional debt payable to those in our community.
How can we ever pay this back? How can we encourage others to move on and forget our shameful actions? The shameful debtor is in a helpless position. How can we work it off? For the answer, we must put ourselves in the shoes of the person to whom the relationship debt is owed.
The ancient Israelites had a way of dealing with debt that can be useful in this discussion. Every forty-ninth year was a “Year of Jubilee” wherein all debts were forgiven, slaves freed, and prisoners released. This effectively placed a ceiling on how big a debt could grow. Applied to this discussion about emotional debt and the release from shame, we can see how a moment of Jubilee would effectively limit the size of any grudge. (I suggest not waiting forty-nine years.) How does Jubilee translate to personal shame amidst our responses to Covid-19? Show a little mercy.
We must have mercy on those whose actions we think deserve humiliation. I think marriage and parenthood have equipped us with some useful tools here. Routinely in family life, there is somebody over-reacting, freaking out, lashing out, blowing up, or breaking down. Whether the cause is missing an afternoon nap or anger toward political theater is irrelevant. In a family where emotional closeness is requisite for proper function, the forgiveness of ridiculous acts is eventually required. Sometimes, following a shameful act of irrational frustration, a peaceful understanding is reached through explanation and discussion. Other times, blood-sugar is low, sleep deprivation has set in, and work is stressful. In these situations, we constantly say and do ridiculous things that we would never plan on doing after a full night’s rest, hearty breakfast in our belly, and gleeful work environment. When our spouses act in such irrational ways, and we think we understand why, what do we do? Show some mercy. They deserve it.
In stressful times, people freak out. Shall we hold it over their heads? Shall we ransom them with ridicule and reminders? Shall we be the type of debt collector that brutalizes his debtor? Of course, strangers on social media are not the same as family members in our household. Also, some behavior absolutely requires legal response. What I’m talking about is the irrationality that can drive wedges into our social lives due to stressful and extraordinary times. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Show some mercy. A lot of us need it right now.
I am forty years old man with a wife, a 4-year old son, and a 2-year old daughter. We live in the Pacific Northwest. We want our children to become good spouses, parents, reliable employees/employers, and responsible citizens one day. Parenting strategies often permeate conversations that my wife and I have. Like most parents, we are perpetually discussing ways in which we can rear our children properly. We read about discipline, emotional expression, resilience, healthy attachment, and so on.
I suspect there is such a thing as being so deliberate that the “soul” of parenting is eclipsed by external advice. I sometimes wonder about the downside risk for children when their parents over-prioritize their own rationality in the parenting process. But, having said that, what have we learned from “studying” parenting in our household? Certainly, we’ve learned that there is no single “method” which is comprehensively correct.
I remember when our son was very young, I would frequently (and cynically) think this about parenting books: Each person has their own unique combination of neuroses and coping strategies. When two people pair up and create a couple, their neuroses and coping methods mesh (and clash!) to create yet another unique emotional landscape. Now introduce the particular eccentricities of a new-born child’s neuroses and peculiarities into the scene and watch them create what we’ll now call a “family dynamic.” If everyone’s neuroses and coping strategies blend into a perfectly cohesive (including codependent!) flow of emotional ubiquity, one of the parents will write a parenting book about what they did, how they felt about it, and why everyone else should follow suit! For the rest of us, we deal with a perilous emotional landscape of briars and roses, mountains and valleys.
A bit cynical? Sure. Sleep-deprived parents are sometimes prone to cynicism. I don’t mean to say that everyone who writes about parenting has a disturbingly codependent home life. However, it is true, that a cohesive emotional landscape does not have to be a pretty one. A family dynamic can be uniformly terrible. This is to say that a parent doesn’t have to read a ton of parenting books before recognizing conflicting ideas and competing motivations between many books, and the dominance of sometimes narrow perspectives from which any book can be written. The point of being deliberate in our parenting (if we can include studying as deliberation) is not to eventually stumble onto a golden goose that will deliver perfect wisdom to every scenario, but to simply gain perspective, increasing our capacity for wise decisions.
Adding to the ambiguity is a dubious consensus among many Westerners that we are experiencing some broad cultural problems at the moment. If this is the case, and we are acting, learning, and endeavoring in the context of a troubled culture, then why should we put stock in the system? How do we know when we are ingesting others’ psychoses as palliatives? And how do we ensure we don’t disperse our own psychoses to those in distress in the guise of compassionate advice?
Because it is important to take parenting “strategies” and advice with a grain of salt we have to somehow put this recent genre of literature in the context of something much bigger. When saturated with conflicting ideas about parenting, all claiming efficacy, we must pursue more fundamental dynamics. When things become unclear, we must step back and ask what has generated our ideas, and with what intention?
TOWARD FUNDAMENTAL DYNAMICS
One such dynamic that might generate fruitful contemplation is the ancient tension between Being and Becoming. Philosophies and religions have dealt thoroughly with these matters, and with diverse orientations. Most religion and philosophies generally emphasize either Being or Becoming more than the other.
“Being” is a broad philosophical concept referring to objective and subjective essences of both material and immaterial reality. Fixed, absolute, realities.
“Becoming” is a different, just as broad, philosophical concept that asserts everything is impermanent. “No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”
Who was right? Parmenides, when he said “what is-is.” Or Ephesus, when he said nothing in this world is constant, except change and becoming? One can easily get wrapped in pretzels around these questions, but these fundamental questions do, indeed, have effects that influence our daily lives and awareness.
Consider the difference between Zen’s emphasis of meditation on Emptiness (a way to conceptualize/embody/unify with absolute Being) versus an evangelical Christian’s emphasis on being “born again” (a way to conceptualize Becoming as paramount). These are very different approaches to the inner awareness that orients us within an unseen reality. Our immersion in these questions (via methods of inquiring about nature, our religious organizations, social discourse, etc.) does influence how we think about the world, our family, and ourselves.
From the time of Jesus through the end of the fourth century A.D., what was developing into “the Christian tradition,” a rare conceptual and experiential harmony was in place between Being and Becoming. The basic worldview was held between many writers from this time period (and into the following few centuries) that there is indeed mostly ungraspable transcendent Being, and within it, as incomplete expressions of infinite Being, humans Become. Humans can’t fully embody Being, the best we can do is honor it while Becoming. We cannot fully embody an absolute essence, but absolute essences are the context for our inevitable becoming.
A simplified understanding of the early Judeo-Christian deity is that its name is a somewhat ambiguous conjugation of “to be.” Speaking with the deity, Moses flat-out asks the deity to describe its own name, and the reply was “Eyeh-asher-Eyeh.” This is often translated in English as “I AM”. The Israelites translated their bible from Hebrew into Greek around 250 BC and the same passage got translated as “ego eimi o on,” or, “I am the One Being”. In the ancient world, neighboring tribes deified and made appeals to principalities like rain, war, and lust, each being embodied by a personage, animal, or emblem of some other variety. However, the Israelites humbled themselves under a yet-higher reality, Existence itself. Or, maybe even more poetically, the Israelites formed a relationship with the very possibility of existence. After all, there’s no reason to assume that existence is inevitable. Yet, existence seems “to be” and there is serious utility in humbling ourselves before such a fact. This was a brilliant innovation in how we can orient ourselves in the cosmos. “Being” is real, and we are entirely subject to it. The Israelites often referred to their god as “LORD.” (Christian bibles have maintained the same title.) In the ancient world, where human slavery and servitude were commonplace, referring to the ultimate Cause as LORD reflected the universal inevitability of Humanity’s submission to the forces of nature.
An elaboration of this understanding came when the example of Jesus became understood as the embodiment of the Logos. This heralded a new age and orientation within Reality. Theologically, “Logos” is an expression from the utmost transcendent, an expression from Being itself. Logos is the embodiment of Purpose. This understanding of the finite (human) component of Jesus as the expression of the infinite and unreachable “One Being” closed the circuit in an open debate in Hellenic philosophic circles regarding Being and Becoming. Namely, that personal experiences of “One Being” are largely restricted to peak experiences not common in our daily reality and only described via metaphysical language. The only way for a finite entity to orient itself within an infinite structure of Being is to become. What we are left to do is fully become that which we are; incomplete expressions of the Transcendent. Logos is the momentum of life, fully realized, and it is accessible.
Therefore, it isn’t that Being and Becoming are antagonistic toward one another, but that they are different categories that must be related to with each their due and proper respect. There is a hierarchy of Being within which we exist, and our proper behavior is to Become. Being is a noun that we cannot fully experience. Becoming is an eternal action, a river upon which we drift between two unreachable banks. Life, Growth, Becoming are synonymous.
Modern (and quite pervasive) philosophies, like Deconstruction, have effectively flattened our understanding of the Hierarchy of Being. Deconstruction, in part, informs us that Truth is only relative within an individual and pursuits of truths that transcend an individual’s interpretation are problematic, even dangerous to the “greater good.” Fair enough. We live in a culture confused about how to orient ourselves in a complex universe. Our ancestors worked out that we must orient ourselves as finite creatures destined to Become (for the good or the bad) within a transcendent tapestry of Being. We have no choice but to figure out how to best play the hand we were given. In Modernity, this is now old-fashioned and anathema. The idea is viewed as particularly backwards if a person goes so far as to develop a relationship with that ungraspable existence of Reality, with God. We have lost our orientation within reality and our befuddlement bleeds onto every realm in Modernity.
TO BECOME A PARENT
Let’s explore this disorientation through the lens of the parent/child relationship. If recognition of Being is recognition of that which is, then let’s look at particular ways that we as parents relate to it in our children. We can recognize that which is in our child and react many ways. It is indeed rare that we merely observe our child. When we observe our child, emotional information immediately floods our consciousness. We can like what we observe or dislike it, we can affirm it or reject it. It can cause us to cringe, and it can cause us to want the child to somehow change or continue along the same path. Observing our children can even give us feelings about ourselves. For better or for worse, a child’s being is tangled in their parents’ emotional worlds. Let’s look at two specific parental instincts that are hot topics right now, and I think they correlate with Being and Becoming. Affirmation and confrontation.
WHAT MOTIVATES OUR OUTLOOK?
All “parenting strategies” are complicit with a particular view of Humanity and human nature. Do we primarily see ourselves (and our children) as diversely rich entities requiring recognition and expression (Being)? Or do we primarily see ourselves (and our children) as imperfect creatures who must properly develop within a sometimes-hostile world (Becoming)? If humans develop, what shall they develop towards? What is Humanity? Is Humanity a mere collection of hairless apes in an accidental multiverse? Or is there a transcendent component to Being, within which we must actively orient ourselves? Are Humans just miscellaneous meatballs acting out pre-programmed actions in a deterministic universe, the result of one long chemical reaction and stoichiometric equation? Is parenting a divinely-appointed responsibility? Our actions towards our children reflect our views on these matters.
A person who believes that their child’s personality traits are baked in from day one will parent their children differently from someone who believes children must learn to become civilized. A parent who believes there is no “purpose” to life might look to secular humanism for ethical answers while a person who believes parenting is a divine responsibility might look to spiritual resources for ethical answers. Ethical answers from different sources can conflict. These conflicts are displayed, in part, in the differences between our “parenting strategies.”
What is the most fundamental task of a parent? Is our primary role to affirm our children’s emotions and psychological states? To affirm the emotional Being of a child, just as they are? Or is our role to encourage them to a place beyond where they are currently? To confront them with their own Becoming towards our best understanding of the Human ideal? Of course, like Being and Becoming, the parent’s affirmation of a child and the parent’s encouragement of the child toward confrontation of challenge are two different categories, and therefore require each their own due in fundamentally different realms. But do we ever confuse these two reactions and make the wrong move? Do we ever tell the kid when they know they’ve screwed up, “It’s okay, Sweetheart, you are perfect just the way you are,” when we should have said, “I understand that you’re embarrassed because you handled that poorly, but tell me how you will do that differently next time.” Yes, of course we do. Do we ever get angry at our child because they are not the person we want them to be? Sure. We can fail our children by wanting their essential traits to be different. Likewise, we can fail our children by wanting their passing phases to be frozen in time.
Just as transcendent Being and human Becoming both exist, but at different levels, both affirmation and encouragement to confront change are required of us as parents, but toward different levels of our children’s realities. We must orient ourselves toward these two levels of reality. What, exactly, about our child is permanent? And are those qualities physical, intangible, metaphysical, spiritual, emotional? What about our child is developmental? And are those qualities physical, intangible, metaphysical, spiritual, emotional?
Our stereotypical mother/father roles have largely worked this out on their own. Mothers are very affirming to an infant’s needs. This is necessary and creates a secure and healthy emotional attachment, the foundation upon which the child will build all future relationships. Seen traditionally, fathers generally push their children’s comfort zones to build resilience in a world of uncertainty and risk. There is a time and a place for each.
MANIFESTING DARKNESS, MANIFESTING LIGHT
When the roles of affirmation and confrontation are improperly channeled, unnecessary conflict will result in the household. Here, family dynamics exists in all their nuanced and glorious opaqueness, and things get dicey.
Can a mother’s negativity display itself in smothering the child’s potential through what might appear to be acts of affirmative charity? Sure, we call this woman the “devouring mother.” Think of the witch in Hansel and Gretel and her methods of gaining the trust of children that she consumes. In the fairy tale, we don’t know what dynamics generated her bitterness toward children. However, we do know that she affirms the desires of manipulated children to sustain her bitter existence. Maybe she sacrificed her career to have children only to discover that sometimes it is horribly challenging and miserably frustrating. She gains the trust of naïve children with an endless supply of dopamine and oxytocin. Just as her momentum as a successful career woman was foiled by these little buggers, she gains the children’s trust before her shadow emerges and devours their potential in an outburst of negativity. The more the children look to her for comfort and security, the more gratifying their confusion and pain will be to her when she ambushes them with her dinner plans. It’s her children’s fault that she is now suffering instead of presenting at board meetings, and they will not go unpunished.
Can a father’s projection of his own inner-turmoil and weakness justify his own cruelty toward his son? Yes. Can the father justify his actions as a necessary hurdle that will build strength in the child? You bet! We call this man the “tyrannical father.” He acts out the idea that even accidental cruelty toward his son will serve as a helpful aid when his son enters a hostile world beyond the front door. For generation after generation fathers can justify their own bad tempers and dark tendencies as that which build character in their sons. This justification is generally performed in post-blowup moments of shame-turned-excuse and is a convenient mechanism for deferring our own development. Of course, in maintaining willingness to keep this inner-darkness in our unconscious we are perpetrators of future bad deeds toward our children and spouses. To paraphrase Jung, the origin of the child’s neurosis is the unconscious of the parent. Our behavior effects our child’s understanding of the world and their mechanisms for engaging with it; their becoming.
These exact perversions occur in households daily and they perpetuate personality and behavioral challenges that echo for generations. They result from misorientations toward Being and Becoming. In these narrow examples, we over-esteem a very low form of our own Being and project the need to Become on those around us. However, once confronted with knowledge of our own dark proclivities to violence, rage, malice, resentment, and general miscreance, it is our responsibility to integrate these traits in ways that no longer subjects others to suffering. This is difficult work, and is merely one more category lumped into the phenomena known as “becoming an adult.” To become an adult in the Modern West is to do so in the context of ideologically-possessed public discourse and eviscerated religious structures. Dicey, for sure.
PROPERLY AFFIRM, PROPERLY CONFRONT
An element that is relevant to both parenting and self-care is the way which we orient ourselves toward Being (which transcends our own individuality) and Becoming (individual, family, community development). Recognize the spark of Being in all people, and positively participate in their inevitable tendency to Become. Said non-metaphysically: Affirm human dignity and encourage proper human development. Do not merely affirm weakness and confusion when encouragement will improve the situation. Growth is Life. Life is Growth. When children are confused or in trouble, they need an adult to help them with the tyranny of painful immaturity. This help often comes in the form of a broader perspective or a re-statement in your belief the child’s ability to survive the situation and maybe even improve it. After all, to encourage someone means to instill courage in that person, to conjure their inner-strength out into the world.
A spectacular example of a parent’s proper alignment with Being and Becoming is the story of Mary with her son Jesus at the wedding of Cana. I will paraphrase. They are at a wedding party. Jesus had not yet unleashed his potential as Logos and was apparently a little uncertain about the matter. Mary, who was aware of his potential and his latent capabilities, felt the urge to prompt her son out of his comfort zone. Meanwhile, the party runs out of wine. Mary tells her son, “Hey, son, they ran out of wine.” Her son, perhaps feeling a little self-conscious about his mother’s expectations of him, says, “I’m not ready yet. It isn’t my time.” Because Mary knows her son so well, and knows what type of pushing, and how much, will end poorly, she doesn’t push him directly any more. She has provided a space of possibility for him. She has informed her son that she knows the seed that is growing within him needs water and sunshine. She provided some. She tells the servants at the party, “do whatever my son asks you to do.” She might as well have told her son, “I have known you since before you could talk and I know who you are. You might be uneasy with yourself, but I am not. You are great, and this is a chance to show yourself to the world. Be the Logos that can transform the mundane to the spiritual. Son, turn water into wine.” The rest is history. Mary honored his Being while prompting his Becoming. She affirmed his dignity while encouraging his growth. Nearby were six stone jars used to hold liquids for Jewish rites of purification. Jesus told the servants, “Fill them with water!” After they did so, Jesus told them to pour some out and give it to the chief steward. After tasting it, the chief steward declared that this water for traditional Jewish purification has been transformed to a “spirit,” wine. At his mother’s prompting, Jesus revealed the transformative power of Logos. Atta girl, Mary. A serious parenting “win.”
We sometimes talk of the “character” we instill in our children. The Greek root of character is “kharássō,” or, “I scratch, engrave.” As a noun, “kharaktḗr,” is an engraving instrument, a person who engraves, or a stamp. To have “good character” or “bad character” is to have been “well-etched” or “poorly etched” during your life. Good character is not instilled via passive affirmation. If we can agree that instilling “good character” is desirable then we must investigate what generates good character. Is it merely affirming our children’s qualities as sufficient? No! It does no good to delude them with the impression that their current manifestation as fragile and larval selves is sufficient to engage with a hostile and thorny world. They must obtain the necessary tools and garments with which to face the world beyond our front doors. Yes, affirmation is critical for a child. We must affirm their potential. We must affirm their sacred and fragile spark of Humanity while carefully fanning it. We must affirm the Being within them while encouraging their Becoming. For their own well-being, we must simultaneously honor their innocence while conjuring their potential. Confrontation with the world, affirmation of fragility, Being and Becoming are not mutually exclusive but must be artfully employed and honored in the right dimensions. Only a parent has the amount of love and dedication required to work out such intricacies.
Suppose every individual has a particular capacity, unique to them, for resilience and strength of character. (There is room for debate over that idea, but bear with me.) Resilience and strength of character are not merely generated by will. They are tapped, conjured, called upon, only in the personal confrontation with challenge, difficulty, and complication. If strength of character and resilience are manifest only through confrontation and engagement, and every individual has a unique capacity for resilience, then there must be, for every individual, a given volume of duress required for the child to manifest their latent potential. Let me rephrase that. To maximize a person’s resilience is to optimize their exposure to challenge. Notice I didn’t say “maximize their exposure to challenge.” Optimize. One of our primary parental duties is to know our children so well that we know what kind of challenges and how much of those challenges will foster their optimal development. We can only gain such knowledge after we first affirm their individual sovereignty. After we honor the Being within them, we get insight into how to best help them Become. The parents’ broader world view will invariably affect the process.
An important consideration, that we often apply unconsciously, is that when we interact with a child, we are not simply interacting with them at their current age and role. When we interact with our child, we are interacting with multiple people simultaneously. When we offer guidance, for example, we are actually becoming involved with the future child. At all moments, we are dealing with the present child, future student and her study habits, the future girlfriend and her emotional fortitude, the future spouse (and her ideal husband!), the future employee and her reliability, et cetera. To get really spacey, we are actually even dealing, maybe too much sometimes, with a child from the past who lives only in our imagination and hopes. The point here is that the desired outcome of parenting is not merely a pleasant child, but a competent adult.
COMFORTABLE DECAY VS. UNCOMFORTABLE GROWTH
In a culture of immediate gratification, resilience is under attack. The attack is not coming from individuals as much as it is from conditions of material well-being and ease. I don’t know anyone who would debate that in the face of flamboyant material wealth we are experiencing a problematic volume of psychological dis-ease. In such a world, might a customized austerity be the best gift we can give our children? In an absurdly cruel irony, material and physical well-being might just be the source of our unhappiness. Now, perhaps more than ever, we must grapple with our responsibilities towards our children’s needs to Become. Paradoxically, this modern era of material fecundity is confronting adults with the inner, immaterial, realm as the location where we are to confront our most productive challenges. If meaning can be generated by physical deprivation what generates meaning in physical opulence? The Modern landscape for making meaning and Becoming must lay largely inside ourselves.
There is indeed, largely ungraspable, transcendent Being, and within it, as incomplete expressions of the infinite, humans Become. But become what, exactly? Exploring that question is our parental task. If parenting a child is a window into a reality bigger than ourselves, then the only proper response is our own personal transformation toward the highest ideal.
Am I suggesting that we abandon our pursuit of practical parenting tips for meditation upon ancient abstractions? Of course not. But while we might busily read books and worry often about our children, we must not confuse motion with progress. Let us remain tuned to the more fundamental frequencies that govern our lives and listen through the static of the culture’s conflicting manifestations of noise. Let us, from time to time, deliberate upon our understanding of Humanity and what our fundamental parental responsibilities are. Let us, from time to time, deliberate upon our personal orientations with Being and Becoming. If we live in an expanding universe, then a part of ourselves is expanding as part of it. We can’t help but Become. Let’s do it properly.
 This is how Plato summarized Heraclitus’ position in his dialogue, Cratylus.
 Evelyn Underhill’s magnificent treatise on the subject, The Mystic Way (J. M. Dent and Sons, 1913), focuses squarely on the time period of Christ through the end of the fourth century A.D., while the theology of what was to become The New Testament was being hotly debated and ironed out. She carefully puts the psychology and spiritual practice of the early Christian mystic in the context of the then-current spiritual, ritual, and philosophical trends and leanings.
 This is evident in the Johannine biblical writings, many biblical Pauline passages, and writings of Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Plotinus, and Proclus, to name a few.
 Exodus 3:14. See discussion in Jewish Publication Society’s Torah Commentary: Exodus.
 Exodus 3:14. King James Bible,New Revised Standard Bible.
 Exodus 3:14. This exact translation is used in the Apostolic Bible Polyglot, Second Edition, 2013.
 See especially, preface to gospel of John where the metaphysics of relations between Logos and ultimate Reality are elaborated. For more on Logos, read Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BC). There is ongoing debate regarding whether or not the Johannine gospel grew out of ancient Greek questions or ancient Hebrew wisdom literature. That is beyond the scope of this article.
 See an appendix in David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament for a thorough treatment on the prologue to the gospel of John and a look at Logos.
 See Pauliina Remes, Plotinus on Self: The Philosophy of the ‘We’, Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007, where in the first chapter, the author explores Plotinus’ ontology of eternal existence and the fluidity of temporal becoming within the human composite.
 Moses’ encounter with I AM in a cloud. Also, the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor and Christ’s Ascension.
 For example, Jesus’ seven “I Am” statements in John, and Paul’s description of physical versus metaphysical existence (I Corinthians, chap. 15).
 For a comprehensive discussion regarding both the dignity of Modernity (differentiation of art, morality, science) and disaster of Modernity (dissociation of art, morality, science) see Ken Wilber’s books, especially The Marriage of Sense and Soul.
 Much is made about the absurdities in the denial of anything transcendent so I will not belabor the point here.
 Consider that Rousseau’s interpretation of “blank slate” as it relates to the un-cultured mind of a child as effectively worshipping the child’s Being. His ideas of the uncorrupted “noble savage” also apply to the uncivilized child. Here, instead of looking above the child for ultimate value, he either flattens the hierarchy of Being, or deifies the child’s innocence (both moves are effectively the same.)
 “There can be no doubt that that it is of the utmost value for parents to view their children’s symptoms in light of their own problems and conflicts. It is their duty as parents to do so. Their responsibility in this respect carries with it the obligation to do everything in their power not to lead a life that could harm the children… Parents should always be conscious of the fact that they themselves are the principle cause of neurosis in their children.” C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 17, par 84.
“What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents… have not lived. This statement would be rather too perfunctory and superficial if we did not add by way of qualification: that part of their lives which might have been lived had not certain somewhat threadbare excuses prevented the parents from doing so. To put it bluntly, it is that part of life which they have always shirked, probably by means of a pious lie, that sows the most virulent germs.” Ibid, par 87
“Parental influence only becomes a moral problem in face of conditions which might have been changed by the parents, but were not, either from gross negligence, slothfulness, neurotic anxiety, or soulless conventionality. In this matter a grave responsibility often rests with the parents. And nature has no use for the plea that one ‘did not know.’” Ibid, par 91
 “Every individual needs revolution, inner division, overthrow of the existing order, and renewal, but not by forcing these things upon his neighbors under the hypocritical cloak of Christian love or the sense of social responsibility or any of the other beautiful euphemisms for unconscious urges to personal power. Individual self-reflection, return of the individual to the ground of human nature, to his own deepest being with its individual and social destiny here is the beginning of a cure for that blindness which reigns at the present hour.” C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 7, p. 5
“Every advance in culture is, psychologically, an extension of consciousness, a coming to consciousness that can take place only through discrimination. Therefore, an advance always begins with individuation, that is to say with the individual, conscious of his isolation, cutting a new path through hitherto untrodden territory. To do this he must first return to the fundamental facts of his own being, irrespective of all authority and tradition, and allow himself to become conscious of his distinctiveness. If he succeeds in giving collective validity to his widened consciousness, he creates a tension of opposites that provides the stimulation which culture needs for its further progress.” C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 8, p. 111
“We do not sufficiently distinguish between Individualism and individuation. Individualism means deliberately stressing and giving prominence to some supposed peculiarity, rather than to collective considerations and obligations. But individuation means precisely the better and more complete fulfilment of the collective qualities of the human being, since adequate consideration of the peculiarity of the individual is more conducive to better social achievement than when the peculiarity is neglected or suppressed.” Collected Works, Vol 7, p. 267
 “It is not possible to live too long amid infantile surroundings, or in the bosom of the family, without endangering one’s psychic health. Life calls us forth to independence, and anyone who does not heed this call because of childish laziness or timidity is threatened with neurosis. And once this has broken out, it becomes an increasingly valid reason for running away from life and remaining forever in the morally poisonous atmosphere of infancy.” C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 461
 A modern dilemma is the treatment of young people’s ideas about sexual preferences and gender identity. We know positively that parental abuse can affect psycho-sexual development in children. In public discourse, it seems we know more about how to identify certain types of abuse and how it affects our children’s psycho-sexual development than we know about proper adult handling of the child’s confusion and uncertainty on such matters. What is the opposite of abuse when our child surprises us with questions or statements about their own identity? When does guidance become hurtful (and is that hurt harmful)? When does affirmation become abusive?
 “Psychological insecurity, however, increases in proportion to social security, unconsciously at first, causing neuroses, then consciously, bringing with it separations, discord, divorces, and other marital disorders.” C.G. Jung, Collected Works, Vol 17, par. 343
 Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Warning to the West, Gulag Archipelago.
In the last hundred years we have seen a tremendous change in society. In the West, rights and privileges have expanded and there is relative peace and prosperity. Until recently, it looked as if Martin Luther King’s dream for his children, “not to be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” was a real possibility.
But today group identity is increasing in importance. Rather than seeking to look beyond race, today at the University of Minnesota it is deemed a ‘microaggression’ to say “There is only one race, the human race”, because it denies the individual as a racial being.* Little girls’ clothing bears girl-power logos like, “the Future is Female.” Many say these efforts are to correct imbalance and educate children about bigotry and their own “implicit bias” (depending on their race), but to me it seems incredibly divisive. Academia in Social Sciences focus much of their research on the differences between groups and how one group victimizes others. Rather than seeking reconciliation and understanding, politically-motivated professors seem determined to increase tension. Douglas Murray, in his recent book, The Madness of Crowds, told of a recent speech given by a professor at Boston University, who she said, “I’d like to be less white, which means a little less oppressive, oblivious, defensive, ignorant, and arrogant.” Murray writes, “To her audience in Boston she also explained how white people who see people as individuals rather than by their skin colour are in fact ‘dangerous’. Meaning that it took only half a century for Martin Luther King’s vision to be exactly inverted.”
Every human being is intended to have a character of his own; to be what no others are, and to do what no other can do.
William Henry Channing
Supremacy of Group or Self?
The current era of “identity politics” is worrying me. I hate to step into “political” realms in my writing, but as parents I think it is critical that we see these new trends for what they are – an undermining of individual freedom. I think perhaps, in part, I am particularly concerned because I am raising bi-racial kids in an race-obsessed society. I am not as worried about the prejudice or racism my children will face, as the rising supremacy of groupthink. I have seen what being a member of a group often requires – a sacrificing of self and conscience to preserve the identity of the group. I have seen the backlash received by those who are judged unworthy by other members of the group.
I remember in high school that I loved watching skateboarders do their tricks and was incredibly impressed by their abilities. I wondered why they all ended up dressing and speaking the same way – baggy pants and long hair. Why did they all do pot behind the school? They all seemed to be rebelling against the world’s expectations – but they were all rebelling in the exact same way, only creating a smaller world of expectations. In our teenage years, we lack confidence; we are seeking for our place in the world. Often, we end up attempting to find identity in a group. We outsource the work of discovering ourselves and instead become a cookie cutter image of the next skateboarder. But what if one of those kids had decided – I love skateboarding but I will remain a unique person of character and not identify myself merely as a skateboarder? Then he could freely choose to not smoke pot and wear whatever pants he wanted. It would be tough to break off, but then he could be free of their limitations. He would gain the power, as an individual of choice, to show a higher way to his skateboarding friends. Skateboarding would be something he enjoys, not a confining group with stifling definitions. I hope the increasing focus on group identity is a stage our society and teenagers can grow out of.
“The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.”
My kids favorite football player is Russell Wilson. He was once asked to respond to statements made by some other football players complaining that he wasn’t “black enough”. I found his response interesting.
“In terms of me, ‘not black enough’ thing, I don’t even know what that means. I believe that I am an educated young male that is not perfect, that tries to do things right – that just tries to lead and tries to help others and tries to win games for this football team, for this franchise. And that’s all I focus on. … I think, for us, there are no distractions at all. I think it was people trying to find ways to knock us down.”
He seemed confused and uncomfortable by the line of questioning. It is obvious that in his own personal “hierarchy of identity,” Wilson saw himself as – Russell the individual – on the top, or near the top of his self-identity ladder. Who knows where his other identities were positioned? Maybe he put quarterback above African American; maybe he put Christian even above Russell (he is devout). But it occurs to me that where we place our various identities on this ladder is also where we place our value, our responsibility, our actions and our worth.
“Achievement has no color”
Group Identity: Glory and Blame
The other day I was listening to the classical radio station and the male DJ said, “This was conducted by the first female conductor from Hungary. What a step for women everywhere and a sign of a progressing society!”
I found this statement very patronizing. Perhaps I was projecting, but I assumed this woman had the same personal hierarchy ladder I did – putting her individual self on top. If I were this conductor and heard women and society given the glory, and my own name mentioned as an afterthought – I would have felt cheated. She likely did have to overcome a lot because she was a woman, but she is the one who overcame. Instead of honoring her personal accomplishment, the credit went to her gender and society.
The downside of placing the individual on the top of the identity ladder is that the person has to take the responsibility and the blame. Many of us opt to stand on the group identity rung because responsibility can be swallowed up by the group. It’s like fighting in a crowd – you become a nameless and faceless actor. But more importantly, you can be a victim of an entire group’s circumstances – whether or not it is an honest reality for you. I personally am only too willing to step down the ladder a few rungs and say it was not me that was at fault, but the repression brought upon me by one of my identities. I can step down to my mother rung and complain, “Our society is not family-friendly anymore; it’s so hard to raise competent kids with all these electronics,” despite the fact that I have the capability of preventing access to electronics. But when my children succeed, I don’t give glory to mother-kind for overcoming, or praise society for supporting me. No, when my children achieve, I get to boast on my personal Facebook page.
Confusion of Shifting identities
Rather than giving ourselves strict identities we usually end up moving up and down the ladder whenever it suits us, taking credit individually and then abdicating it to a sub-identity when things get tough. This is not to say that some of our identities do not cause hardships – they do. However, I believe that if we place ourselves on top – unique person of character- and the buck stops with us, then we will be properly oriented toward the world. But we have to stay there, in good times and bad. This is where we gain the strength to face the hardships lower down. This is where choice happens, where progress is made. We accept that the identities below us will influence us for good or bad – but they are secondary to us – as an individual of free will.
When society starts placing group identity higher than individual identity, it creates a world that doesn’t know where to hand out blame or glory. Rather than Russell Wilson being a unique person of character, he was given a new identity by his interviewer: black man of character. Well that seems fine, there is certainly nothing wrong with being black – but what if the first part of this new identity (black man) is questioned by other members of that group? Is he really black enough? If that identity is given precedence, then failing there is more important than failing at character. Being honest and hardworking matters little now, only not being good at being black.
We all want to see the end of racism, sexism and bigotry. But how do we do that? Bigotry is one thing only – refusing to see the individual. Let’s not go back to labels. Let’s not assume a person’s views or judge them for not holding to the expectations of a group. Let them show themselves to us.
“Once you label me you negate me.”
― Søren Kierkegaard
The Rung of Character
The rung we stand on is where we get value. When we stand as an individual, we expect to be treated as an individual. We know we will get the blame but we also know we will get the credit. We know that the choices we make are made by us and that we are not victims of the choices of other members of a group. We do not have to fall in line with the expectations of a group or make the mistakes groups often make. We will certainly experience difficulty because of identities below us on the ladder. Racism, sexism, bigotry are real things. But if we stand as an individual of character, we find the strength to face the battles below us on the ladder, and we gain the confidence to let struggles below us not define us.
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
As parents, we must teach our children to stand on the rung individual character. If we start to see our child conforming to a group by dressing, speaking, or acting in line with the expectations of friends or online discussion groups, we must remind them where confidence is built. We must teach them that when they give up their individuality, they give up freedom. We must be examples of free will, unswayed by others expectations, unashamed to live life independently and obeying our own conscience. This will require more sacrifice and responsibility, than those that opt to define themselves by group. But our children’s self-worth will grow as they see that their choices can improve their lives, and that they can live one rung above the childish fray of cliques and “in-groups”.
“To see God is to stand at the highest point of created being.”
The limitation of group-identity is you get worth and judgment from the group. But despite its preference, the rung individual of character also has a weakness. If we seek validation from the individuals of this world, we will only be valuable according to earth-bound measurements – beauty, intelligence, wealth, performance. These terrestrial measurements are shaky; they don’t take our internal world into account – our soul – this is a world only God can know.
“Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God…we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”
1 John 3
As a Christian I would say there is rung above individual of character, and that is the rung of a Child of God. A Child of God does not get his/her worth from individual accomplishment, or group accomplishments – but from God Himself. This rung is safe and stable in its height, it has a strong Hand steadying it. The worth and value gained from this identity does not change with worldly praise or disdain. God looks at us as His children who are forever learning, having successes and failures, but secure in His love. Faith and sacrifice are required to stay on this rung but the peace and joy we gain surpasss any glories the world can provide.
“Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither.”
C.S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian
I think this song, by Lauren Diagle, should be a soundtrack playing in every young and grown woman’s heart. I listen to it when I need to be reminded to move up to the Child of God rung, to accept the value given me by God, not the condemnation often given by the world. “In You I find my worth, in You I find my identity”…
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“This Helper who will, in the long run, be satisfied with nothing less than absolute perfection, will also be delighted with the first feeble, stumbling effort you make tomorrow to do the simplest duty. Every father is pleased at the baby’s first attempt to walk: no father would be satisfied with anything less than a firm, free, manly walk in a grown-up son. In the same way, ‘God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.”
C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity)
The relationship between God and his children is a model for the ideal relationship between parents and children – easy to please, yet hard to satisfy. I love the analogy of a baby learning to walk. As parents, we want our children to walk. We know we can’t do it for them; they have to figure it out themselves. But we still have a powerful role to play, a Helper as they stumble uphill towards greatness.
How we react to our children’s first steps and the role we play in their striving will frame their experience in life. Sometimes we may want to discourage our nine-month old who is already trying to walk. She is still a baby, she will hurt herself! I am not ready for her to grow up. While an understandable reaction, this is Stifling Motherhood – low expectations and ultimately selfish. Other times, as was the case with my overly-contented babies, we are frustrated by our chubby 14-month old who is still satisfied with his crawling. Is there something wrong with this kid? Why can’t he just walk! This is Disappointed Motherhood. Because our expectations are too high, we miss being present with our current child- the glorious crawler. We have already forgotten our joy at his mastery of that long-awaited skill.
As a previous post explained, we need to have proper expectations for our children. These should be high, but adapted to each child’s capabilities, personality, and talents. We can have high hopes for our child but we must also glory in every feeble step they take- no matter how imperfect or delayed. Expectations become a burden when children feel incapable of achieving them, or when parents never seem content with their efforts.
The Answer of Patience – Joy
So what is this God-like attribute described in the quotation above? How do we maintain our hard-to-satisfy expectations while glorying in our children’s journey? The answer – Patience. God looks upon our feeble and halting steps here on earth as a Loving Father towards his learning toddlers. Just as we would never shame our two-year-old who tearfully admits to knocking over the lamp, He does not chasen us when we trip and fall short of perfection. He freely forgives, if spiritual toddlers even need forgiveness. God may well laugh at our distraught anxiety at our imperfections – just as I chuckle at my three-year-old’s frustration that she can’t ride the hoverboard like her big brother. He knows the timeline, he is in no rush, but the expectation remains the same. Our immaturities do not demand condemnation. They simply require patience and perseverance. Perfectionism is the thief of joy.*
A few years ago, while living in graduate housing at Norte Dame, I began praying for patience every night – having 3 kids under 4 can do that to a woman. One night after a day full of my own impatience, I had the thought, Maybe I am doing this wrong. Do I even really know what I am requesting? I would pray, “Please give me patience with these kids’ disobedience! Give me patience with my cold and moldy basement apartment! And please give it to me now!” I don’t think I actually wanted patience. I wanted my wishes granted. I wanted submissive kids and to get out of that basement.
So what is the patience we seek? It can’t simply be learning to wait because necessity requires that. It also isn’t an ability to stop wanting things. We need our desire so we feel compelled to crawl, walk, and run. Good desires should not be abandoned on the altar of “patience”, and waiting without action is no virtue. What we need is to develop God’s patience. Patience is finding joy while we wait. We don’t wait to have joy when our kids are perfectly compliant or our house is above-ground but we find pleasure in the here and now, while we wait. Rather than begrudging that my chunky baby wasn’t walking, I could glory in his crawling. Instead of complaining about living in dilapidated student-housing, I could buy heavy curtains and rejoice in my space-heaters.
“The principle part of faith is patience.”
When our children start to walk, but continue to fall; or when they get discouraged and refuse to attempt the journey into our welcoming arms, we show them God’s Patience. We also accept that our Helper’s patience is there for us as well, in our stumbling steps as a mother. We strive to be better, and delight in each and every small stride. We bless our children with a joyful mother, modeled after our joyful Father, glorying in their small steps toward greatness.
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