The Value of a Woman’s Inattention

“The function of ignoring, of inattention, is as vital a factor in mental progress as the function of attention itself.”

William James

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. 

Self-Created Reality

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.

A Woman Seated At A Table By A Window, Carl Holsoe

“Reality is created by the mind, we can change our reality by changing our mind.”

Plato

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. 

Shoes, Vincent Van Gogh

 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.”

Alexander Pope

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.” 

W.H. Auden

Resources:

*Book: Parenting For The ‘90s, Phillip Osborne https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0934672733/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i0

Below: Excellent Q&A with Jordan Peterson. Minute 9 begins some wonderful relationship advice.

What We May Miss in our Struggle With Our Children

From Guest-Author, Jana Squires Flake, Child Development Psychotherapist

Monte Crews, Problem Child

As parents, we may struggle with our children.  This struggle is real and often intense. It may become so intense that we begin to seriously question, “Is there something “wrong” with my child? “Is there something “wrong” with me, and my capacity to parent this child?” We don’t want to struggle, – we want peace and confidence.  As a counselor focusing on brain development, I have worked with hundreds of struggling children and struggling parents. This work has led me to conclude that there are simple things we often “miss” as we seek solutions for our children. In this essay, I hope to highlight the questions we must ask –  and answer before we can realistically address our child’s emotional or behavioral challenges. These foundational questions are both physical and environmental: “What is physically going on with this child?” “What is happening in their environment that could be underlying this problem?”  

Maybe some examples will help me make my point. 

* Little 5-year-old Emily is having a very difficult time controlling her emotions.  She becomes unreasonable and difficult to handle.  Talking to her just makes her more angry and she is demanding and moody.  There are times, however, when Emily is pleasant and agreeable.  Her parents wonder if she is bipolar because of what they have read and her mood fluctuations.  They are concerned that she will have a difficult time when she starts school. 

*Eric is ten years old and is easily overwhelmed.  He is having trouble focusing in school and when asked to do tasks like clean his room, he just sits in the middle of the floor unable to begin the task.  When he is trying to do his homework, it is very difficult for him to stay on task.  His parents wonder if he needs medication to stay focused.  

As parents struggle in their duties, they can fall into maladaptive behavior as well, so let’s use an example of a parent that needs to look at physical/environmental causes:

*Sarah, a mother of three, is serious about her mothering and has studied the influence a mother can have on the emotional intelligence of her children.  She is concerned about her inability to remain calm when things are hectic around the house.   She has a lot of guilt because she sees herself “losing it”  and her children show some of these same high frustration levels when they are stressed.   She observes her day and records when she is feeling calm and focused and when she is feeling anxious, irritable and manipulative. (It is very important that she records her specific behaviors and emotions during her times of high frustration.  She will never know if she is making progress if she isn’t  mindful of the specifics).   She realizes that her worst times are whenever she is in a time crunch and specifically between the hours of 4:00 and 6:00 pm.  By the time her husband gets home from work, she is a basket case.  She wonders if she may be depressed or have anxiety – should she go on medication?

All of these individuals need some intervention, but let’s start first with looking at their environment and how their body is functioning.

* Let’s look at Emily.  Her mother tracks her mood swings/irritability and finds that they occur specifically when she first wakes up in the morning and in the early afternoon. She also gets angry and “controls with negative emotions” (meaning she uses her emotions to try and get the outcomes she wants).  There is a history of insulin resistance in the family so we wonder if there is a blood sugar issue, it usually gets worse when she hasn’t eaten for a while.  To test out our hypothesis, Mom goes in first thing in the morning, and gives her a little smoothie.  Emily has been given lots of treats – sugar – as a reward for her “being good”.  Instead, mom fills the house with healthy treats; she makes sure Emily doesn’t go too long without eating; and encourages Emily to notice when she first begins to get irritable.  Mom teaches Emily to be self-aware – to notice when she is feeling frustrated.  Mother and daughter then come up with a list of interventions that Emily can use to help her gain control like getting something to eat, taking deep breaths, physical exercise  or listening to music.  Mom also notices that Emily doesn’t drink water – she always wants juice.  She refrains from buying juice and ensures that Emily has a drink of water when she feels stressed.  Through tracking, Mom realizes that Emily’s  mood swings and irritability are often worse after she has had a lot of screen time, his new awareness leads to environmental changes – less screen time and more physical movement.   Emily has ownership in her solutions and feels empowered.. (The issue of emotional manipulation can be addressed with other interventions, I suggest the book Smart but Scattered” by Drs. Peg Dawson and Richard Guare) 

*Eric has another issue going on.  He can’t stay focused in school and is overwhelmed by tasks that are beyond his ability to handle.  Eric is a creative little boy, what some would call “right-brained”.  He has lots of great qualities – he is intuitive, sensitive and can take things apart and put them back together.   However, when he is stressed, he checks out into his imaginative brain. I was a school counselor and saw this play-out many times.  For example, a teenage boy could take an engine apart and put it together in auto shop class, but sitting in a class with a teacher lecturing  and having to memorize facts was very difficult for him.  So why can he work so well with hands-on tasks  and struggle in math class?  It is likely due to his brain dominance.  We all have a right and left hemisphere that work together.  However, when one is under stress, we lean too far into our dominant hemisphere.  Iain McGilchrist has brought the differing functions of the brain back into public awareness.   Because of how Eric’s brain functions, being asked to clean a messy room is  a lot for his brain to handle.  He needs more structure.  His mother decides to do some work to help him succeed.  She organizes his room, ensuring there is a designated place for everything.  Then she puts a chart on the wall which shows the four things he needs to do whenever she says, “Go clean your room”.  She is acting as his left-brain (the detail-oriented side) until he can learn good habits and develop a more structured approach himself. ‘When you decide to help your child develop more effective skills, you should always begin by changing things outside the child before moving on to strategies that require the child to change.” (Smart but Scattered, p.73.) Remember Supernanny?   Her first intervention was always making a schedule.  In his difficult school subjects, Eric gets extra help to organize the ideas and use his creativity to make learning more active.  As Eric is helped by his mother to succeed, he gains confidence that he is capable and intelligent.  Dawson and Guare (Smart by Scattered) make a vital point in helping children be successful:  intervene just enough for the child to be successful and then slowly back off so overwhelm and discouragement are minimized.  Provide the structure the child lacks until he/she begins to develop it themselves.  Be patient with your child, realize that their brain may not work in the same way yours does, and there are many advantages to their more creative view of the world. Right-brain learners* often struggle in our modern school system and may lose confidence in themselves.  This is a tragedy because there is so much a parent can do to help a child like Eric succeed.  Give them the tools they need to succeed, and their apparent weakness can become their strength. (See Smart Moves, Why Learning is Not All in Your Head,” Carla Hannadord, PhD. 

*Sarah becomes mindful of her environment after she has identified the times of highest stress and resultant frustration as between 4 and 6pm. Her children come home from school and want to talk, she is trying to figure out dinner, homework needs to be done, the children fight…she unravels.  But what are her key triggers at that time?  The study of brain organization and sensory integration shows us that some people are more negatively-affected by noise than others. Excess noise can send them into stress mode as cortisol runs through their body.  Their prefrontal cortex for observation and rational thinking diminishes.  Sarah remembers as a student that if she had lots of noise around, she could not focus. For her, rest and relaxation always involve peace and quiet.  Now that she has identified that noise is highly stressful for her.  She begins to discover where the noise is coming from.  During the day she has the dishwasher running, as well as the washing machine and dryer.  She often listens to music with words as she works.  Her children play and fight; they demand attention;they have many questions. All these noises, good or bad, build up in her brain.  They cause Sarah to go into stress mode. When she is stressed, she raises her voice, her children raise theirs and she “loses it”.  (Even the voice quality of a person who is yelling, harsh or demanding can cause people with this hearing issue to react negatively.)   Sarah makes a plan, she prepares for those two “witching” hours, between 4 and 6, by making dinner early.  (When she is in stress mode, she can’t even think about what to make for dinner).  She explains to her children that she has a problem with noise, she wants to be a patient mother so she is going to make some changes.  She buys noise canceling ear-plugs when machines are running (or runs them at night) and she cuts out any unnecessary noise. When she wants to listen to a child,  she takes them into another room so she can focus exclusively on them.  As Sarah accepts her physical limitations, she begins to find more peace in motherhood – she lets go of the unnecessary, and enjoys more peaceful moments with her children.  When she is less able to control her environment, her knowledge of her limitations helps as she attempts to control her reactions.

In our fast-paced and impatient world we are often too eager to label, to medicate, to despair.   But there is hope.  So much of our anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, inattention, and emotionality may be helped when we take the time to examine our environmental and physical realities and work toward solutions. There is purpose in our struggle, if we seek the causes. As we come to understand our children and ourselves, we can find peace and joy in parenting. 

Resources:

Smart But Scattered https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QAMfDEafz8     

Kids and Screen Time, https://www.eehealth.org/blog/2016/02/too-much-screen-time-and-kids-mental-health/

Hypoglycemia, https://naturopathicpediatrics.com/2015/05/15/blood-sugar-hypoglycemia-child-behavior/

Supernanny, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jopbys6iikM  

*The phrase “Right-brain learners” is simplistic.  We all use right and left brains, however some people do tend to rely more on their left brain (detail, logic) and other right brain (big-picture, creative) particularly under stress).

Jordan Peterson on practical solutions for anxiety and brain fog. https://youtu.be/GuQxOxVq3eY

Should I Homeschool?

“The direction in which education starts a (child), will determine his future life.” Plato, The Republic

In our

In these chaotic days we find ourselves increasingly concerned about our children’s education. We hear horror stories of negative influences, indoctrination, undercutting of values, and wasted time in the public school system. Increasingly, parents are deciding to leave the system and find other options. But is this the correct choice for you and your child? I recently interviewed a deep-thinking mother who has done the research, made the switch, and learned much along the way. We discuss opposing points on the benefits and downsides of public and homeschooling, as well as how and if we are capable of becoming our children’s full-time teachers. I hope this video is helpful to those struggling with the very difficult question, Should I homeschool?

If you enjoy the video please share and leave a comment. Thank you!

Seneca and Anxiety

“To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden.”

Seneca

I have recently been studying the ancient Stoic, Seneca. He lived over 2000 years ago and became an advisor to two Roman emperors. He wrote much about overcoming the fear of death. He put his philosophy to the test when he calmly killed himself at the order of Emperor Nero. The fear of death haunts many of us, but everyday anxieties can be even more emotionally and physically stifling. The world has always been full of worry, full of fear – often justified but rarely helpful. Recently, we have all been given real cause to fret – for evil is showing its face for all. How can we face the reality of the world and yet calmly do what needs to be done? Below are some thoughts by Seneca on dealing with our anxieties and implementing the wisdom of the Stoics.

“There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

“What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come.”

“Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.”

“Silence is a lesson learned through life’s many sufferings.”

“We should always allow some time to elapse, for time discloses the truth.”

“He who indulges in empty fears earns himself real fears.”

“Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all, – the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.” 

All Quotes by Seneca

Young Hetetics episode on Seneca and the Fear of Death

The Worship of the New

In modern culture we worship the new, the young, the future.  We seek out a new theory, the next fashion, or a fresh perspective.  This “cult of progress” reaches deep into academia.   I was a research assistant for several social science professors at a university where the pressure to publish weighed heavily upon them.  To be published, you must come up with some “new” and eye-catching research.  If your work included a paradigm-shifting idea, your chances of publication dramatically increased.  Research is now conducted with the goal of being original – interview questions are composed, phenomena described, and statistics analyzed in the hope of catching the eye of a prominent research journal.

This modern emphasis of over-valuing the original and distinctive features bothers me.  I find it hard to believe “new” things.  If, in the thousands of years of human thought, no one else “made the connection”, is it worth making?   There is a deep arrogance in supposing that what is new is better. This is how we end up with Reeses with potato chips in them.  

Much of my disillusionment with modern thought started in high school.  My mother encouraged me to read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevesky.  That book changed my life, my perspective.  A few months later my high school English teacher assigned me The Great Gatsby – a modernist masterpiece. I hated it.  How could an author from 19th Century Russia speak so deeply compared to a 20th Century writer?  I continue to be amazed by the wisdom found in even more ancient writings.  From Aristotle to Chesterton, the long-dead still speak to my soul.   When I compare much of our modern culture to antiquity,  it seems clear that standards are lower. Old Town Road was a #1 song after all, and in 1750, even Bach wasn’t good enough.  He only became popular after his death.  

Progress on Wise Backs

We have made progress.  We live in the age of novocain and indoor plumbing. Much of the most tangible progress has been made in the hard sciences – technology, engineering, science, and medicine. The advances made in these fields are truly staggering.  Yet, when we compare rockets going to Mars and recently published research in Sociology, the difference in quality is quite stark.  So why have the hard sciences advanced while the arts and social sciences haven’t? Hard sciences are humble. They know that progress is only made on the back of previously-gained knowledge.  But in the “softer sciences” and even in our own lives, we think we can scrape the “old”.  We think, they were “backward” back then. The world has changed fundamentally since then. We have evolved and advanced beyond their morality.  Really? 

We are the descendants of generation upon generation of deep-thinking human beings –  generally more deep-thinking than ourselves.  If you doubt it, read a letter written by the average uneducated soldier in the Civil War.  The eloquence and depth found there will leave one ashamed of our emoji-laden texts. 

The minds of the past had advantages we don’t. Their ideas often came out of necessity or love of knowledge, not a need to publish in a prestigious journal. They sat for hours, months, decades, centuries and pondered the deeper things of life without the modern distractions of cell phones or Netflix. Their thoughts were not warped by the promise of world-wide attention to follow discovering that Abraham Lincoln was, in fact, gay or Jesus was a Zealot. Their wisdom was gained through hard work, with little chance of fame or recognition.  

 “Now I take a very low view of ‘climates of opinion’…All discoveries are made, and all errors corrected by those who ignore the climate of opinion.”

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain 

Nothing New

I had an interesting encounter online recently with a young man, a devout atheist. He was protesting one of my pieces, which I am fairly certain he didn’t actually read.  His retorts were right out of the atheists’ scriptures: “If God were good why would he let children die painfully?” and “Why doesn’t God just show himself?”  In speaking with this young man, it became obvious that he thought these questions were “new” ideas that Sam Harris or one of his other idols had originated and which now “debunked” religion.  He was surprised when I pointed him to ancient philosophy that answered his “new” doubts. 

 There are no doubts that have not been considered for thousands of years. There are no “new” philosophies.  Plato, 300 BC, would not be suprised by any arguments for justice and equality made by Marx or in CRT.  Thrasymachus, a character in the Republic, argued “might makes right” thousands of years before Nietzsche.   

“The safest general characterization of European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

A.N Whitehead
School of Athens, Raphael

There have been hedonists, material determinists, polyamorists, utopians, anarchists, etc since we started writing down ideas.  The human mind has gone deep and shallow, skeptical and faithful, pessimistic and optimistic, far and near since there were human minds.  Our ancestors’ moral backwardness is only equaled by our own. Our sins are not unique, our virtues are not progress.  

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."  Ecclesiastes 1:9
“There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man” 1 Corinthians 10:13

Classical Education

Previous generations valued “classical education”.  They looked to the wisdom of the past, before disdain for the old became the predominant philosophy. The moral progress we can claim, such as the abolition of slavery in the West and equal treatment under law of women and minorities, was achieved by men and women who respected and utilized the scholarship of the past to make advancement in modern times.  (Barron clip on MLK

Rather than labeling the imperfect men and women of the past as unworthy of their time and attention, previous generations accumulated wisdom by reading “the greats”.  To be “educated” meant to have common knowledge of key works of literature, philosophy, art, and music.  Now, to be “educated” simply means sitting in classrooms for long enough to get letters after your name. (There are still many private schools and home-school curriculums which provide a “classical-education”, focusing on teaching of the great works of logic, art, and literature.)

At university, we are schooled in criticism –  taught to look critically at past scholarship. We read their works seeking out biases and agendas, never truth. We are to be the judges of our predecessors, not their students.  

“The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement by an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true.” 

C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters

Universities are now dropping requirements to study classical literature such as Shakespeare and Homer. A piece in the National Review described the reason behind the decline in teaching the classics, “Critics believe that the study of classics ‘has been instrumental to the invention of ‘whiteness’ and its continued domination.’” 

This is folly. The traditions and philosophies of the past were built on the backs of millions of minds gathered together for the benefit of mankind.  Why throw that away? We need not accept every tradition, every past belief – for human vice certainly influenced the development of many. But surely we can learn from our intellectual ancestors.  We now have an expanded ability to pull knowledge from various cultures and religions – great thoughts were thought in every land.  But let’s not toss out what has proved beneficial and enlightening because it is “western” or “old”. We need to read Shakespeare. There will never be another like him.

Miranda from The Tempest by Shakespeare, John William Waterhouse

Strive to be Unoriginal

A few weeks ago I published a piece in an online magazine. It was generally well received but one commenter obviously disagreed with the premise and said sarcastically, “Thanks Karen. These are such original ideas.”  I had to laugh. It took me back to my college days, when I still strove for notoriety.  I remembered how I became disenchanted with the exaggerations and twisting of data that I saw in academia as professors sought to be “original”. I now take the insult as a compliment. I have no desire for originality.  If I am the only one to think of it, it probably isn’t worth thinking.  But I hope to uncover the eternal thoughts written by those before me. 

“Our Lord never thought of being original. The older the saying the better; if it utters the truth he wants to utter.”

George MacDonald

Ancient and Eternal Truths 

When I look at our modern world it is clear we are missing something –  we are missing something old.  When we discover missing truths, they do not surprise us in their revelation.  In fact,  they will likely sound quite familiar because truths are eternal and morality innate.

“There is no learning without remembering.” 

Plato

C.S. Lewis describes this old and deep wisdom as the Moral Law, written in the heart of everyman.  Because all men, through all ages, have had contact with this Moral Law, we can look back in confidence that they were not, in fact, total morons.  Practical morality may differ between cultures but there are commonalities between all cultures because the idea of right and wrong is innate.  Our traditions, religion, and family structure were built up with this Moral Law as a guide.  

“The soul might seek the strangest and most remote lands and ages and still find essential ethical common sense.  It might find Confucius under Eastern trees, and he would be writing ‘thou shalt not steal.'”

G.K Chesterton, Orthodoxy

“Particular law is that which each community lays down and applies to its own members….Universal law is the law of Nature. For there really is, as every one to some extent divines, a natural justice and injustice that is binding on all men, even on those who have no association or covenant with each other.”

Aristotle, Rhetoric

Aristotle understood that different cultures have unique laws, social stigmas, and customs. But Universal law must undergird these “particular laws” or we will end in  moral chaos. When we examine traditions of old, we should examine whether this tradition is grounded in morality or more a product of vice. 

No Boundaries, No Truth, No Respect for the Old

“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”

Henry David Thoreau

Today, as we increasingly and overtly reject the idea of a moral law or transcendent truth, the wisdom of the ancients becomes irrelevant and customs outdated.  There are no moral ties that bind the generations so it follows that the past must be left behind.  Progress, to many, means moving beyond any fences, any morality, which may stifle us. Our customs, our new traditions need not be “good” to be acceptable –  they simply must be accepted to be acceptable. 

“[Consider], a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’ If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.”

G.K  Chesterton, The Thing
The Corner of the Paddock, Julian Rossi Ashton

We are tearing down fences without considering why they were built. We tore down sexual morality, are we better off now? As we tear down religious dogma, are we more compassionate?

The Wickedness of the Past Guides us to Future Righteousness

Let’s be clear – the past was certainly not full of virtue. Ghengis Khan and Vlad the Impaler could have benefited from reading Plato too.  The past has been full of wickedness. Morally we may be no better than them, but they were no better than us. Vices like envy, greed, and the drive for power, have always lived side by side with virtues. As much as we can learn how to be good from our ancestors, we learn how they went bad.  

We can read from the words of the wise who lived in dark times- “saints” that sought to pull people out of the darkness and back towards the light of morality.  These greats-of-the-past were often those rejected by the people of their time, or honored for their bravery in pointing out their society’s excesses.  

“The Saint is a medicine because he is an antidote.  Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote.  He will generally be found restoring the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age.  Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is not what the people want, but rather what the people need.  Therefore it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.”

G.K. Chesterton, Biography of St. Thomas Aquinas

Seek Out Old Books

Our youth, as the youth of the past did, seek a better future – a Utopia, a Zion. They believe we can build a better world. I pray they are right; we should try.  But how do we build it?  We have rockets going to Mars because wise scientists still read Einstein and Newton. Can we build a Utopia without Aristotle, without Jesus Christ?  

It is time to revisit the wisdom of the past.  We must read old books, and point our idealistic youth to them. If we gather wisdom from the ages, we are much less likely to be swayed by the fads of the day, the modern trends that will fade into history like so many before them.

C.S. Lewis warned against focusing our study on modern books, “Where they are true they will give us truths which we half  knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”*

As parents, we should be wary of the new and popular.  We may fear that we will be “backward” or that our kids will be awkward, but we must trade the “accepted” for the “truthful”. We live in a world where tradition, religion, and the wisdom of the past are increasingly cast aside.  The philosophy that undergirds much of the music, media, fads and modern ideas (on topics such as sexuality, identity, freedom), is untethered to eternal and time-tested principles or values.  We are more likely to find useful lessons for our kids in a classic fairy tale than in Pete the Cat. Fairy tales have drifted to us through the centuries; Pete the Cat, sweet as it may be, is churned out as a product for consumption, leaving our soul unsatisfied. We only have our kids for a short time, let’s not waste their Saturdays with SpongeBob. Looney Tunes at least has classical music in the background. We must be discerning of what we put into our minds and our children’s.  Is it full of arrogant modernism or does it propel us to think more deeply and to act more virtuously?  If we start our children young on deep things, shallow things will bore them. 

There is such a wealth of ancient knowledge at our fingertips, even for busy moms.  We can thank our modern technology for enabling us to access the deep wisdom of the past quickly and easily.  I am currently listening to Orthodoxy when I clean or cook.  I am learning about Plato from Spencer Klavan of Young Heretics as I drive around doing errands. 

It has only been in the last couple years of motherhood that I have been able to listen and read much at all. We have to be patient and realize that digging into Plato may not happen till kids are older.  However, we can learn much from the fairy tales we read to our kids. In fact, according to Chesterton, our nightly fairy tale reading may make young mothers the wisest of all mankind. 

“Fairyland is nothing but a sunny country of Common Sense….I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery, and I have not found any book so sensible since. I left the nurse guardian of tradition and democracy, and I have not found any modern type so sanely radical or so sanely conservative.”

G.K Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Let’s gather again the wisdom of the ages and raise our children to value the words of their ancestral teachers.  When we stop valuing originality, but rather truth – we may discover that what we truly seek is very old indeed.  

-Ally

Further Quotes on the Value of Modern Arrogance and Ancient Wisdom

“My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.” G.K. Chesterton, New York Times Magazine,  Feb. 11, 1923  

“Men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.” G.K. Chesterton “The Unfinished Temple,” What’s Wrong With The World

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking about.” G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

“Only the learned read old books and…they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so.” C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters 

“It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.” G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy 

“In the first place [Barfield] made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also a “period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.” C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

(Advice from one demon to another) “The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers.  We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic.  The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.” C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters 

‘ To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge – to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour – this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another.”  C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters

“It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended Through Time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voice rather to some isolated or arbitrary record.” G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy 

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happened to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.” G.K Chesterton, Orthodoxy 

“The two most potent post-war orthodoxies–socialist politics and modernist art–have at least one feature in common: they are both forms of snobbery, the anti-bourgeois snobbery of people convinced of their right to dictate to the common man in the name of the common man.” Roger Scruton

“In place of the old beliefs of a civilization based on godliness, judgment and historical loyalty, young people are given the new beliefs of a society based on equality and inclusion, and are told that the judgment of other lifestyles is a crime. … The “non-judgmental” attitude towards other cultures goes hand-in-hand with a fierce denunciation of the culture that might have been one’s own.” Roger Scruton

Resources:

“Abraham Lincoln Was Gay.” Washington Post.  (By the way, he certainly wasn’t)  https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/was-abraham-lincoln-gay/2019/04/23/37bbe08a-65e2-11e9-8985-4cf30147bdca_story.html

Christ was a Zealot (By the way, He definitely wasn’t) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zealot:_The_Life_and_Times_of_Jesus_of_Nazareth

“Are The Classics Racist?”  The National Review.

https://www.nationalreview.com/2021/02/are-the-classics-racist/?fbclid=IwAR2QweKcX3BcfG_-r18Z7GT7CSe2VqflBd2srY8Nc_hN47jLcI_H-suqWoQ

*Quote from Introduction to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation

Deep Waters: Who Will Be Saved, C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald

As mothers we live firmly in time, in the daily strife of this life. But we also swim in deep waters, so we need deep answers. Motherhood is not about changing diapers or making meals. It is about raising our children in truth. Our concern for our children reaches into the eternities. What is the purpose of life? Where will I, and my children, go after death? What is the nature of God? Is there any purpose in suffering? The eternal answers we find are perhaps more informative to our parenting than any self-help or parenting book we will ever read. The purpose of this site has always been to point us towards seeking these deep truths.


Theological questions are perhaps the deepest questions we can ask. What is more important to know than the reality of God and His true nature? The last three months I have been reading and researching for this piece, published by the beautiful site Mercy on All. It compares the views of two great theologians: C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald as they ask these deep questions, particularly regarding our eternal salvation. The purpose of this piece is not to convince or plead a side but to uncover the wisdom of those wiser than myself. I hope you may find it helpful as you seek the deeper things of life.

Click link below:

https://www.mercyonall.org/posts/macdonald-and-lewis-the-master-and-the-student-on-universal-salvation

A Fool Seeking Wisdom

“But indeed the business of the universe is to make such a fool of you that you will know yourself for one, and so begin to be wise!”

George MacDonald, Lilith

At times it feels this is particularly the business of Motherhood. Mothers accept, as part of their labor, the title of cook, nurse, teacher, interior decorator, theologian, repairwoman, housekeeper, accountant, psychologist, conflict negotiator, etc..the list goes on. We receive no real training and sometimes it shows. So yes, we realize quickly that we are fools. But how do we turn this knowledge of our own foolishness into wisdom?   First, laugh.

“Laughter has something in  common with the ancient words of faith and inspiration; it unfreezes pride and unwinds secrecy; it makes people forget themselves in the presence of something greater than themselves.”

G.K. Chesterton

As Chesterton says, we should laugh at the ridiculousness of life.  Laugh at the fact that my six-year old is asking me, me, “Where do numbers come from?”, and, expects me to come up with a good answer.  In our laughter, we discover that we are a fool and that maybe that isn’t such a horrible discovery. We see the humor in the impossible job we imperfect women are called to do. Then we develop humility.

“The secret of life lies in laughter and humility.”

G.K. Chesterton

 Humility grows wisdom. If we do not see our foolishness, we never seek wisdom. 

“The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the man who calls himself a fool at least once a month.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky

And yet, rather than allowing self-knowledge to bring humility, we women often ruminate on our imperfections. This is not humility but another form of self-absorption.  We often allow our inadequacies to turn into self-resentment and jealousy. This is not the path to humility but misery. When we realize we are no good at something, we should either try to improve or accept it and move on.  

Boys often are made to learn this early in life. A small, skinny boy is told quite bluntly that he isn’t going to make the football team. That’s okay. He can be a jockey. Girls are more likely to avoid this useful lesson.  They are taught, “You can do anything!” and are protected from situations where they may realize what a lie that statement is.  So when we women discover we are a “fool”, we can’t laugh, our hands are closed so tightly on the idea of perfection. Rather than humbly seeking wisdom we often decide we are useless.

The other day I was invited to visit a nearby church.  A dear friend of mine, Sarah, was also there. She is a wonderful mother of four well-behaved kids. She is gorgeous and hardworking; her house is always clean; she is extremely considerate of others, very intelligent, and always cheerful.  She does influential charity work all over the country and yet finds time to homeschool her children and stay fit. While she has trials and difficulties like all of us, she handles them with grace. I have always appreciated the influence she has had on my life. Our family sat and listened to the sermon and then were surprised to see my friend get up and sing for the congregation.  Wow! She has one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard. I have known her for six years and had no idea she could sing like that!  In the middle of the song, I felt a temptation enter my heart.  Many of my daily temptations go unnoticed. (I wish I could also say they go unheeded.)  But this temptation spoke very clearly and very loudly and what it wanted was clear –  Be Jealous.  I feel like God was there with me at the same time and so I saw the darkness in this thought.  I share this not to boast of my virtue, but to tell one of my rare success stories.  I dismissed the idea and sat there in tears at the beauty of the song she sang, Joy to the World!  What a gift all of us in that congregation received.  What an incredible person I have the blessing of knowing!  What beauty I would have let slip through my fingers if I had followed the temptation to allow that wicked seed of jealousy to grow in my heart. 

It is true, I cannot sing like that. If I put in thousands of hours of effort, I don’t have that ability.  I will never be all that Sarah is. But what a blessing that I have Sarah as a friend!  I hope some say the same of me and my contribution to this world, we all do. But even if no one says that of me,  what matters is what I say. 

 “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.” 

George MacDonald

There are really two ways to interact with the world. As a fool seeking Beauty or as a victim seeking Justice. Many say, “They are taking this from us.”  “We deserve this”  “There is not enough”  “Her beauty distracts from mine.”  If you want to inhabit that world, go for it.  But think about where it leads.

“We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.”

C.S. Lewis

If we follow the darkness of jealousy, it takes us to bitterness. We will seek justice for the unfairness of life – for our lack and others’ abundance.  We will never find it.  But in the seeking, we will miss all the beauty, joy, cooperation, and gratitude those we envy could have brought us.  We will miss seeing that we are a fool, and so are they – but we are made for a purpose.  I want to become what God made me for. I want that for others as well.  

It’s great to know I am a fool. Now I can let go of the ridiculous idea that I can do everything.  Now I can move forward to acquiring the wisdom I lack and relying on those that are less foolish than me – and hope they can rely on me where I am less foolish than them. 

-Ally

Two Women At A Window, Bartolome Esteban Murillo

Benevolent Wife

“Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence as well as some malice in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbors, who he meets everyday, and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice then becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.” Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis
(Advice from one demon to another.)

It is sad truth that we women often kindly “thrust our benevolence” outward, yet don’t save enough for our own family, particularly our husbands. I was in a grocery store on Christmas Eve. As I navigated the aisles, one couple was doing the opposite route I was – I passed them on nearly every aisle. The wife kindly smiled at me as I passed her in the baking aisle, then she turned to her husband and berated him for picking the wrong flour off the shelf. The next meeting was in dairy, she spoke down to him like a child as she explained the sugar content of Yoplait. Five times I passed them, the wife laughed as she noticed our frequent passings. She didn’t seem to notice the malice with which she addressed her husband. He didn’t seem pleased with her method of communication but didn’t say anything. Maybe because it was a public place, maybe because he had allowed his wife to disrespect him to the point of losing his own sense of his worth. But the scene was difficult to witness.

I went home and treated my husband like a King that night, for fear I may be anything like that woman. There is no one on earth we should treat better than our husbands. They may be far from perfect, but if we have within us this benevolence spoken of by one of Lewis’ demons – let’s not allow it to be deflected from the one whose relationship we value, and depend on, most. Let’s save the most benevolence for our husband.

Christmas Demonstrations

“The Christmas season reminds us that a demonstration of religion is always much better than a definition of it…especially in front of the kids. Perhaps the best Yuletide decorations are to be wreathed in smiles and wrapped in hugs.”

Charles Dickens

Let’s not allow the busyness of the season to cause us to forget the business of Christmas – celebration of the birth of the Good King. We should tell our children the story of baby Jesus. But demonstrations of the joy this knowledge gives us, is a more lasting lesson.

If we tell the story of Christ born in a humble stable and then stress over the inadequacy of our Chistmas tree – we are not demonstrating our religion. If we are distracted by obligations and materialism our children will not see our joy, and we won’t feel it. Our children are more likely to believe our actions than our words. Let’s not forget to show joy. This may mean fewer presents but more laughter. A messier house but more connection.

Christmas Prayer, Joseph Christian Leyendecker

A Child at Christmas

“Winter is the childhood of the year. Into the childhood of the year came the child Jesus; and into the childhood of the year we must all descend. It is as if God spoke to each of us according to our need: My son, my daughter, you are growing old and cunning; you must grow a child again, with My Son, this blessed birth-time. You are growing old and careful; you must become a child. You are growing old and distrustful; you must become a child. You are growing old and petty, and weak, and foolish; you must become a child – My child, like the baby there, that strong sunrise of faith and hope and love, lying in his mother’s arms in the stable.” George MacDonald

Christmas is a time to burn off the deadwood which keeps us from growing young. Christmas shows us how. It points us to joy and gratitude, to service and love. We enjoy the taste of good food, the sound of beautiful music, and the pleasure of laughter with family and friends. We see the world as a child – free of cynicism and regret. This is a time to become young again. And to glorify the day when the Eldest among us, became a child.

Artwork: Madonna and Child, Carlo Maratti