How Jordan Peterson Made Me A Better Mother

I was asked to do a series of articles on Jordan Peterson and Women. This week’s article for Public Square Magazine was published yesterday and is my personal story of finding a friend in Jordan Peterson when I desperately needed one. Over the next few weeks, the series will continue on Public Square.

Click the link below for the article.

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

A Difficult Childhood

“The best predictor of a child’s security of attachment is not what happened to his parents as children, but rather how his parents made sense of those childhood experiences.”

Daniel J. Siegel

If you had a difficult childhood, you can overcome your experiences.

“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”

Carl Jung

You can “make sense” of those experiences and become a deeper and more intentional parent in spite of, and even because of, difficulty in childhood. These hardships will not pass to our children through our DNA. If we refuse to continue bad traditions, they die.

“From the house of my childhood I have brought nothing but precious memories, for there are no memories more precious than those of early childhood in one’s first home. And that is almost always so if there is any love and harmony in the family at all. Indeed, precious memories may remain even of a bad home, if only the heart knows how to find what is precious.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

We all had a difficult childhood. This is not to discount the pain of childhood trauma – some of us have much more to overcome than others.* But we are not alone if we harbor pain from our earliest memories. We can find precious memories even in a “bad home”. We can turn pain into triumph. We should avoid catastrophizing the imperfections of our parents or allowing a difficult childhood to define us. Human history is full of suffering, full of parents who made a mess of things.

We have memories for a purpose. Painful memories are a tool, they can help us consciously determine how to move forward into the present.

“The purpose of memory is to extract out from the past the lessons to structure the future. If you have a traumatic memory, that is really obsessing you, if you analyze that memory to the point where you figured out how you may have put yourself at risk and you determine how you might avoid that in the future than the emotion associated with that goes away. So memory has a very pragmatic function.”

Jordan Peterson

When bad things happen to a child, as they inevitably will, the parent must swiftly and intentionally act so their memory is not steeped in pain, but instead in a feeling of overcoming. Children must be left with a firm understanding of what happened and how it will be avoided or overcome should it arise again.  When this does not happen in childhood- because of inattentive, ignorant, imperfect, or malevolent parents – we have painful childhood memories.  

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Carl Jung

Traumatic events and abuse make for difficult memories, but even more subtle perceptions gained in childhood can become stumbling blocks to progress in adulthood. Parents’ actions and teachings may have turned some of our unconscious perceptions away from reality, away from an understanding of moral truth, and have inhibited us from knowing and feeling the true God. The way our parents related to us may skew our perception of our own worth. 

Perhaps you had a mother that only showed love when you accomplished something. Now you have become a perfectionist, never feeling valuable in your inadequacy. There is a lie you believe. Your worth is not derived from your accomplishments.

Perhaps your father heaped excess praise and attention on you for your physical attractiveness. Now you believe that if you are not beautiful you are not lovable. This is a lie you believe. Your worth and value is not derived from physical beauty, which inevitably fades, your worth is as eternal as you are.

“We cannot change anything unless we accept it.”

Carl Jung

Let’s analyze the lies we believe, the stumbling blocks of perception upon which we repeatedly fall. As we examine our childhood we can move forward with hope, knowing our own children will have parents that have sought to make sense of their own childhood and will be better parents as a result.

“Contrary to what many people believe, your early experiences do not have to determine your fate. If you had a difficult childhood but have come to make sense of those experiences, you are not bound to re-create the same negative interactions with your own children. Without such self-understanding, however, science has shown that history will likely repeat itself as negative patterns of family interactions are passed down through the generations.”

Daniel J. Siegel

….

*Some may read this and believe the horrific conditions of their childhood are too much to overcome. The road may not be an easy one. Only God knows what you have been through. Every suffering of every child is known to Him. Every child is loved by Him. He promises to make recompense. The lyrics to this song are a powerful reminder to me, when it seems we no one understands- God knows.

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me.”

Isaiah 49:15-16

Ally

Acorn Baby

 By Rebecca Gingerich

“Hard work makes a mother.  We like to think something magical happens at birth, and for some it does; but, the real magic is keeping on when all you want to do is run.”

— Call the Midwife (‘Nurse Phyllis Crane’)

The dust has settled, the smoke has cleared, and here I sit as a completely different person from who I once was.  Anyone else out there with a difficult second born child?  Based on the many conversations I’ve had with mothers, this seems to be the going trend.  The experience I had with my second born son forever changed me for the better…eventually.

Nursing Mother and Child, Pablo Picasso

The default temperament of this baby was misery.  Pure and sheer misery.  The constant cries literally brought me to my knees most days, as overwhelming levels of anxiety washed over every bone in my body.  I would have emotional breakdowns every couple of months while I waited out the chaos, hoping he would magically snap out of it once he could eat solids…or sit up…maybe when he could crawl…or when he could walk..or God forbid, would I have to wait until he could talk??  These milestones proved to show no sign of improvement to his miserable little self.  The neediness and the constant cry for attention drove me to the ground.  Survival mode was my closest friend for the first few years of this little boy’s existence.  

“What we can’t handle or manage, we don’t like..”  

— Stan Tatkin

During these initial years, I did not like my second born — and that was a hard pill to swallow.  What made matters worse is my firstborn child had to witness the gradual decline of his once content, stable, and self-controlled mother.  I sadly recall a very difficult day when I lost my temper and was yelling at the baby to stop crying (not my best mommy moment).  I turned around to see my four year old son walk to his bedroom and close the door behind him.  I proceeded to follow him, gently opened the door, and saw him lying on his bed with his fingers firmly shoved into his ears.  To this day, this memory brings tears to my eyes.  I swiftly came to his side and apologized for my emotional outburst.  I told him I would do better.  Going forward, I did my utmost best to venture off alone somewhere in the house when a private ‘freak out’ session was in order.  Looking back, it was such an added blessing to have my firstborn child with me; it definitely helped keep me going, and gave me purpose outside of the universe of ‘cranky baby’.

“The purpose of life is to find a mode of being that’s so meaningful that the fact that life is suffering is no longer relevant.” 

— Jordan Peterson

In the midst of this trying season, I managed to stumble upon Jordan Peterson, who is a well renowned clinical psychologist.  I watched one of his many Youtube videos, and randomly found his talk about ‘The Big Five Personality Traits’ (one of them being agreeableness vs disagreeableness).  This peaked my interest, as I am typically a less agreeable person by nature.  I learned that the majority of agreeable people on the planet are indeed women.  He stated, “..you’re wired to be exploited by infants”.  I then began to laugh and thought to myself, “YES, that is exactly what my little ornery baby is doing…he is exploiting me!”  Right then and there a revelation was born — I am not agreeable; therefore, I am not easily exploited; therefore, I am losing my mind because I have absolutely no control over my current situation.  It was a ‘light bulb’ moment that greatly helped me understand myself in the context of motherhood.  And I guess it’s no surprise that I gave birth to a child with a temperament very similar to my own (which my husband conveniently reminds me of every so often).

“‘Child’, said the Lion, ‘I am telling you your story…I tell no one any story but his own.’”

— The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis

Before this insightful self-awareness kicked in, I did experience pockets of wondering, “What is wrong with me?”…“Why can’t I adapt to this child’s temperament?”…“Why do I lose my cool so easily?”  Now, it’s important to note that just because I am less agreeable, this obviously never excused bad behaviour.  I never leveraged my temperament to promote a lack of self-control; instead, it meant I had to work very, very hard to try and maintain a healthy level of self-regulation, especially during the first few years of my second baby’s life.  

“..give thanks in all circumstances..” 

— 1 Thessalonians 5:18   

I also wrestled with the comparison game.  Some days I felt like a ‘lightweight’ mom.  Here I had a healthy baby boy — what the heck was I complaining about?  I initially dismissed my feelings of anxiety and stress, as there were mothers out there who were dealing with much more stressful situations than my own.  I thought, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way”…”I shouldn’t be struggling as much as I am”.  Thankfully, throughout all of these moments of self-doubt, my older sister helped me understand that we cannot compare our suffering to others (and this was coming from a mother with a child who has Type 1 Diabetes).  She knew a struggle far deeper than my own; yet, she helped me acknowledge and accept that just because my pain and suffering was not as severe as someone else’s, my feelings still mattered, and they needed to be expressed and worked through.  How freeing this was for me!  In fully embracing these negative emotions, I was able to mourn my own personal suffering, and then ultimately I was able to gain perspective and see the blessings that surrounded me each and every day.  This was a wonderful balance that gave me a vast sense of self-acceptance, as well as a genuine heart of gratitude.  

“You will come to know that what appears today to be a sacrifice will prove instead to be the greatest investment that you will ever make.” 

— Gordon B. Hinckley

Oak Leaves and Acorns, Leonardo da Vinci

To my great and utter joy, this very difficult stage did not last forever.  Eventually, my strong-willed boy reached an age where communication, consistency, and firm discipline helped restore most of the control I had originally lost.  I vividly remember that beautiful spring day, walking with my two boys along a nearby scenic route.  My second born was now three years old, and life was progressively getting easier (and more positive) in regards to my relationship with him — things were looking up!  

As we were slowly meandering along, he stopped to look at some rocks along the path.  I waited for him as he explored the environment, and then I noticed he picked something up.  I walked over to him and asked him what he had found.  He held up his prized possession and exclaimed, “A heart!”  I stooped down and inspected the object in his hand.  It was half an acorn, and the inside resembled just as he had described it — a heart.  He then extended his little arm towards me and proceeded to give me his “heart”.  I couldn’t help but see the metaphorical significance this precious moment had offered me.  My boy was an acorn.  The hard, rough exterior represented the extremely difficult stage of his infancy.  But with time, the outer shell cracked, and deep within, the heart (at last) exposed itself.  The clouds had separated, and I could finally see the light.  A new chapter had begun.  

While we journeyed back home that afternoon, the tears streamed down my face as I firmly held half of that little acorn in my hand.  I had arrived.  I had survived.  Hallelujah, I had reached the depths of my little boy’s heart.

-Rebecca

Who is to Blame?

“If you make it a habit not to blame others, you will feel the growth of the ability to love in your soul, and you will see the growth of goodness in your life.”

Leo Tolstoy

The other day my little girl came crying to me, “Cameron yelled at me!” I went to Cameron to get the full story.  Turns out, after an independent fact-check from my oldest daughter, that she had stolen a pink monster truck out of his hand.  She declared, “It’s mine, it’s my favorite color!” Then, to prevent any such insolence in the future, she gave him a little push on the way out.  He, in response, yelled, “You are so meeeeannn!”

As parents we see similar situations play out multiple times a day.  What I have come to notice is that in all cases – the offended party sees themselves as completely guilt-less.  They seem incapable of seeing their part in the matter.  They don’t see their actions, only others’ reactions. I don’t think we ever fully outgrow this.  Our tendency to see ourselves as the innocent party makes it difficult to discern the truth of a situation.

The Parable of the Mote and Beam,
Ottmar Elliger the Younger, 1700

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Matthew 7:3

We are all victims of circumstance, of others’ poor choices, and of society. This is part of the struggle of life. We should speak up when others’ actions harm us. I certainly want to know when my children hurt each other.

However, as Tolstoy expresses, when we are stuck in blame – when we seek someone to accuse for every difficulty of life – we start to see our fellow man as opponents, rather than fellow travelers in this difficult life.  So often in our finger-pointing, we are blind to reality. We see malice where there was none.  We see willful action where there was a simple misunderstanding.  Our blame makes matters worse. My son just picked up a lonely-looking truck, look how it ended for him.  

Thankfully we have more self-awareness than my 4-year-old. We can look to ourselves. So when we are seeking someone to blame, let’s first consider ourselves. We may find that rather than being burdened with the realization of our own folly, we will experience an increase in love for others and a corresponding strength to overcome our weakness.

“To recognize that we are to blame, is to say that we ought to be better, that we are able to do right if we will.  We are able to turn our faces to the light and come out of the darkness.”

George MacDonald

Rejecting For Creation

A scene in the TV series “The Last Kingdom” has stayed with me since I saw it.  The series follows King Alfred, a medieval king of Wessex and a devout Christian who sought to convert his subjects to Christianity.  He was forced into exile due to the advancement of the brutal pagan Danes.  He was protected by the warrior Uhtred.  King Alfred is standing alone in a flat featureless marsh where the protective Uhtred finds him and asks:

“Were you worried that I would lose my way?” asks the King. 

 Uhtred says, “One path looks like another.”

 Alfred asks, “What do you notice about this place?”

“It’s wet.” 

 Alfred says, “There are no horizons.  No sense of something beyond.  My priests have visited here once or twice to preach.  The people are oblivious to God.”  

I pondered that a bit – A simple yet profound exchange.  Why would a horizonless landscape produce such a faithless mentality in its people? 

An open and featureless plain does not give our eyes a place to rest; it provides no quest or goal to yearn for. 

Featureless horizons do not direct our attention, call us to a destination, or produce a beckoning.  Our soul looks for beauty; it longs for the hope found on a path leading towards a beautiful destination.  The more worthy the destination, the more joy we can hope for in its attainment. Boundless potential and subjectivism produce oblivion. If we are capable of anything and everything, and all roads are of equal worth, we are easily lost in the marshes of life. 

For all of human history, a woman’s purpose has been tied up in her biological capacity to have children. Now, she has more choices – limitless potential paths. 

As King Alfred learned – with no sense of a horizon, it is easy to become lost – and not even know we are lost.  Today women are lost. Women are less happy than their grandmothers, despite our freedom and opportunity.*

So how do we follow a path that leads towards something worthwhile when our culture is increasingly unwilling to point us towards such a purpose, and instead actively discourages us from looking to our female progenitors for guidance? Ironically it seems that our path is often found more easily in what we reject than what we choose. 

“Creation means rejection…for a man cannot make statues without rejecting stone.” **

GK Chesterton

Creative Femininity

“For in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being.”

C.S. Lewis

We all strive to create a beautiful life.  And yet, we must understand that in every creation, we are rejecting another potential creation.  I remember the difficulty of deciding whether I should attend a prestigious graduate program or work to help my husband finish his undergraduate degree.  When I made my decision, mostly out of financial necessity, I pictured my future potential self, a graduate of Cambridge, blowing away in the wind, like a victim of Thanos.  

The act of creation through rejection is evident in many aspects of a woman’s life, and it is a painful process.  It is never easy to forgo a passion or to prioritize one thing over another. It is difficult to turn our backs on potential; we are often unsure if the path we have chosen will bear good fruit. 

The archetypal feminine is often depicted as Mother Nature. She has the power to destroy and create. The death of plants in Winter will eventually give rise to Spring.  Lighting strikes and burns down an old decaying forest – a new one grows in its place. There is suffering in those destructions and hope. 

Women create –  often through mysterious and chaotic ways. We create new life; we renew humanity; we produce beauty in the world around us – this is a terrible and beautiful thing. 

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

Albert Einstein

What Is Beauty? 

“Beauty matters. It is not just a subjective thing but a universal need of human beings. If we ignore this need we find ourselves in a spiritual desert.”

Sir Roger Scruton
Rory McIlroy Bizarrely Pictured As Michelangelo's David On ...

We know beauty when we see it.  Encountering a sculpture such as Michelangelo’s David is a truly spiritual experience.  Beautiful art is truth revealed to an artist, and each artist produces unique work.  We don’t judge Monet for not painting like Van Gogh – both their works are masterpieces. 

As we look to our own horizon, we must decide what to discard to create our beautiful life. Some things that might be beautiful must be cut out to reveal what is more beautiful.  Smaller truths must be overcome by ultimate truth. Worthy desires must be forgone for greater purposes.  As the artist we are the ones with the chisel; we discard these lesser beauties to unveil our creation.

Some would say that art is simply in the eye of the beholder, there is no real beauty or true art. They say that any choice can lead to a beautiful life because all is subjective. These opinions come from those living in the featureless plains spoken of by King Alfred.  Those who subscribe to this view of life will find it hard to find a horizon to fix their gaze upon.  They will turn this way and that with the ever-changing winds of passion and emotion. 

As C.S. Lewis explains in The Abolition of Man, there is objective beauty and truth and we know it when we see it (assuming this perception has not been brainwashed out of us). No one standing before the sublimity of a waterfall can question its awe-inspiring beauty.*  No one walking under the dome of St. Peter’s can say it is equal to the local community center.   No one seeing a devoted mother hold her precious newborn baby can doubt the goodness in their embrace. So there must be some creations more worthy than others. 

A Rejection of Motherhood

Recently an actress was awarded a Golden Globe.  She was emotional as she spoke of her gratitude for being able to make the choices necessary to receive such an award.  She was referring to her choice to have an abortion. She felt having a child would have blocked her path to this “great” achievement. This is obviously a creative and talented woman.  However, she allowed her drive to create and her ambition and desire for recognition to limit her potential. In her desire to be the author of her life, she aimed too low – she settled for less.  She made many choices and those choices led to what seemed to her a necessity –  if she were to have the life she wanted. She chose to reject the creation of life and instead received a lifeless golden substitute.  

The actress wanted to, “Recognize my handwriting all over my life…A life I have carved with my own hands.” She declared, “We should make the world look more like (women) who are…seeking their own self-interest.”

 She created and rejected what she desired so her life became what she wanted. This is the mantra of modern life, I want what I want in life, all else be damned. But is the art this produces beautiful? It seems unlikely when its creation is based on wandering desires and self-interest.  Beauty comes from truth and virtue – not desires. Many now regret the choices they once yearned to make. 

“The idea of beauty is the fundamental idea of everything. In the world we see only distortions of the fundamental idea, but art, by imagination, may lift itself to the height of this idea. Art is therefore akin to creation.”

Leo Tolstoy

A great artist attempts to create beauty that can lead to many and varied creations – but they will leave many lesser creations unmade. This actress left a greater beauty unborn. 

Every statue Michelangelo chiseled meant another statue was never born.  But what if instead of a beautiful statue, he could make a man?  What if he could build up a real David, capable of conquering armies and raising a nation? Would that not be more glorious than the man made-substitute we must now be content with?  But only Nitzevet, King David’s mother, had the power of bringing David into the world.  When comparing the beauty of a statue versus the beauty of a human being, do we want to live in a world that would choose the former?

So when we embark on this journey to create a masterpiece – the carving of our own beautiful life – we should not carve out a statute as imperfect as our own desires, as weak as our own failings, as ugly as our own selfishness.  Rather we should be true artists, seeking out beauty and truth to guide our sculpting. Otherwise, we produce narcissistic and disjointed art that is not a reflection of truth but an idol of self-worship.

“Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.”

C.S. Lewis

We are often told, as women, that we can have it all, and in the next moment we are shown we must choose between a child and success – and that the latter choice is the more worthy one. A beautiful life requires no victims to achieve, only the discarding of our own pride and weakness. 

I want to make this clear – Not every woman can, wants to, or will have children – and they are no less of a woman and no less capable of creation than a mother of seven. Mother Teresa, John of Arc, Julian of Norwich- these and millions more women never had children and created lives worthy of admiration. They gave up their own “self-interest” and progressed toward a greater hope – one we can all look to.  When I write of motherhood this is not limited to the act of raising biological children- all women become mothers of humanity as they create beauty in the world.

“It is an ancient view that truth, goodness, and beauty cannot, in the end, conflict.”

Sir Roger Scruton

True femininity is not limiting but expansive. Yes, we must reject much, but we gain much. Women can’t do it all at the same time, we must put first things first, but life is long.  We don’t have to drop passions- we can integrate them into what is most important. What version should we accept – the one that tells us we must end a life to live the one we want?  Or the one that tells us that bringing life, bringing love, and sacrificing self for others supersedes any man-made glories? 

Beauty Personified

Michelangelo carved an even greater statue than his David.  This other masterpiece is his most acclaimed and admired.  This statue has drawn millions of pilgrims to stand before its awesome beauty.  It is not like David; it is not of a man that defeated giants or conquered nations. It has a much more remarkable subject –  a mother and her child –  a humble and poor woman, deemed inconsequential by most in her time.  It is of a woman gloried not for her accomplishments but for her sacrifice –  for her rejections: the rejection of her reputation as she carried her child; the rejection of comfort as she journeyed to Bethlehem; the rejection of a safe and simple life as she accepted her role as the Mother of God; the rejection of good for better, of pride for humility, of wickedness for righteousness.  It represents the rejection of a “life of self-interest”, to make way for a creation that makes all rejections trivial – the Savior of Mankind. The beauty and majesty produced by these rejections are clear to any standing before this masterpiece – this horizon of stone. 

-Ally

Resources:

Artwork: :

Thrive, Daniel Popper – Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Reflection, Odillion Redon

The David, Michelangelo

The Pieta, Michelangelo

* https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/06/the-price-of-feminism-it-neglects-duty-and-commitment/

Full Quote:

**“Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense, every act is an act of self-sacrifice. When you choose anything, you reject everything else… Every act is an irrevocable selection and exclusion. Just as when you marry one woman you give up all the others, so when you take one course of action you give up all the other courses… Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe. The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel from the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called “The Loves of the Triangles”; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing.”

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

A great discussion on beauty between Sir Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson

On Fear

The Young Girl and Death, Marriane Stokes

As mothers, arriving with our first child, come new and troubling fears. With great love comes great fear. Fear that what we have been given, we may lose. Fear that who we love, may suffer. Fear that we are not worthy of this freely-given love. Yet, we must be aware of these new fears, and the dark roads they may take us – and the worthy roads they may keep us from traveling.

We need not be ashamed of our fear, much of it is beyond our control – but also not allow it to rule our better nature. We must recognize it for what it is, when it inevitably descends on us. Our natural maternal instincts drives us to protect and encourage our precious children. We should. Our feminine spiritual nature desires unity and comfort, building a home of love and sacrifice. A most worthy endeavor. Fear can keep us from reaching these feminine potentials. Rather than encouraging our children to face an often disappointing world, we may let our fear of suffering stifle us – making our children “safe” rather than capable. Fear can twist our desire for comfort into a controlling quest for perfection. Fear, unchecked, infects our beautiful nature and distorts it. The quotes below can help us look at our fear and help us refuse Fear as our Master.

“There is no harm in being afraid. The only harm is in doing what Fear tells you. Fear is not your master! Laugh in his face and he will run away.”

George MacDonald, Lilith

“Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.”

C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

“Don’t be overwise; fling yourself straight into life, without deliberation; don’t be afraid – the flood will bear you to the bank and set you safe on your feet again.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears.”

Rudyard Kipling

“To fear death is nothing other than to think oneself wise when one is not; for it is to think one knows what one does not know. No man knows whether death may not even turn out to be the greatest blessing for a human being; and yet people fear it as if they knew for certain that is is the greatest of evil.”

Socrates, Plato’s The Apology

“Fear is pain arising from the anticipation of evil.”

Aristotle

“Let fear once get possession of the soul, and it does not readily yield its place to another sentiment.”

Leo Tolstoy, Sebastopol Sketches

“Fear is Faithlessness.”

George MacDonald

“The unhappy person is never present to themselves because they always live in the past or the future.”

Soren Kierkegaard,  Either/Or

“I fear you will never arrive at an understanding of God so long as you cannot bring yourself to see the good that often comes as a result of pain.”

George MacDonald

“Don’t be afraid that your life will end, be afraid that it will never begin!”

Henry David Thoreau

“Face the demands of life voluntarily. Respond to a challenge, instead of bracing for catastrophe.”

Jordan Peterson

“I do so dearly believe that no half-heartedness and no worldly fear must turn us aside from following the light unflinchingly.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter to Edith

“A man that flies from his fear may find that he has only taken a short cut to meet it.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Hurin

Heroism: Five Minutes Longer

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.”

C.S. Lewis

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.

Leonidas statue, Thermopylae, Greece

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.”

Aristotle

Light in Political Darkness

The US election is today. Many of us fear for the future of our nation. I find the news, with its dire predictions and “worst-case scenarios”, disquieting. America’s chaotic situation is beyond my control. My thoughts and actions ARE within my control.

“Misery is almost always the result of thinking.”

Joseph Joubert

As I look at my children, I want to be a strength to them. I hope to guide them through these storms as an example of fortitude. I want to be a light in darkness.

“Light unshared is darkness. To be light indeed, it must shine out. It is of the very essence of light, that it is for others.”

George MacDonald

I hope in the coming days, instead of ruminating on my own worries – I will share the light I do possess with those that may need it. We all have untapped strength. The political system may be failing – but we have a spouse we love, or children we cherish. Maybe our candidate loses, but we still have our faith in God. We can find confidence in our gratitude. We can use that as a point of strength to help others. The more we stop thinking of our own concerns, and focus on others – the brighter our light. We will be active in relieving suffering, rather than dwelling on our own. So this week, let’s distract ourselves with well-doing. As we sacrifice our own fear, we will bring peace and light to this chaotic world.

Girl with Candle, Godfried Schalcken