Exploring where life and story meet!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A tale worth the hearing?

My favorite stories are full of people doing the hard thing, the right thing, of sticking to the right and the good and the true even when the road seems impossible and the personal cost staggering: Jane Eyre's flight into the night, Jean val Jean turning himself in to spare a man wrongly condemned in his place, Rebecca and Ivanhoe parting ways amidst a budding romance, Elizabeth Bennet spurning her presumptuous suitors, the astonishing conclusion to a 'Tale of Two Cities,' Sam and Frodo plodding hopelessly into Mordor, Luke Skywalker taking on the Empire, when God became man to pay a debt He did not owe...to quote Sam (from the movie):

"It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn't want to know the ending, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened. But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come and when the sun shines it'll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr Frodo, I do understand... I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only the didn't. They kept going, because they were holding onto something...

Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?

Sam: That there's some good in this world, Mr Frodo... And it's worth fighting for."

Society once held that there was such a thing as right and wrong, a standard of goodness and truth apart from any individual, cultural, or national preferences, opinions, or ideas.  Now everything is relative, based on individual inclinations, emotions, or whims at some particular moment, do what feels good or seems right to you and everybody will just get along fine...until my whims interfere with yours and then we have anarchy.  And though our cultural mood seems to say there is no truth or right or wrong, practically however this is ridiculous, imagine how you would feel if I just happen to help myself to your $100 you left sitting there, because obviously if it makes me happy I should do it, not that it makes you very happy, but hey, there is no wrong, right?  Right and wrong, moral truth, and virtue have not changed, merely our cultural observance of them.  Perhaps that is why all the stories have died.  I have yet to find a modern author that can captivate me like those who wrote the tales above.  And our modern storytelling venue, the movie, has not only fallen flat on its face but continues to sink into the murky depths of the fen it now occupies with each passing year: remakes, obscure comic book characters, sequels and prequels galore...not one good, memorable story in the bunch.  Why?

We do what's easy rather than what's right.  We must have things now (on credit) rather than saving and working and earning to own it later.  Our consumer mentality has infected not only our moral lives but our stories as well.  Sam's right, the tales worth telling and remembering are the ones where the characters stick it out through the good and bad, doing what they know is right rather than what's convenient or expedient.  Will our own tales be worth remembering someday?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

'She is tolerable, I suppose...'

“She was nothing more than a mere good-tempered, civil and obliging Young Woman; as such we could scarcely dislike her -- she was only an Object of Contempt”  
~Jane Austen, Love and Friendship

While Mr. Collins may be the master of 'flattering with delicacy,' Jane Austen is no stranger to the witty criticism or comeback.  Sadly, most of us are nowhere near so witty in our own attempts, though we seem to make up what we lack in quality with quantity, much like Miss Bates and her three dull things.  While in school and sports we must each have high self-esteem and everybody is special and perfect and a winner and nothing negative is ever said, and in the media and university and workplace we must be culturally sensitive and politically correct, afraid to speak anything that might be construed as negative or critical of any sensitive group, online and in person however, our tongues are very sharp indeed, or if not sharp, at least a deadly bludgeon with which we happily whack away at everything and everyone from retailers to fellow social media addicts to bloggers and journalists and politicians.  Just check the comment section on any blog or for a given product on any retailer or sites like yelp or your favorite social media site.  The 'mommy wars' are a great example, where one mother runs down another for her choice of feeding, diapering, work or not, or whatever, because the way the former does it is obviously the only way to do things and anyone who says otherwise is a child abuser (ouch!).

But what we are all missing, whether we are of the 'no input for fear of crushing self-esteem or being labeled a hate monger' crowd or the 'running down someone because you think you know better or are better' groupie is that none of it is effective.  There is a place for constructive criticism certainly, but this culture wide addiction to insult and negativity is destructive not only to our social fabric but to each and every individual heart, mind, and soul.  It is a canker that is quickly undermining our very value as people and the cohesiveness of our society as a whole.  What can we do to stop it?  How about noticing the good, the excellent, the wonderful for once.  Instead of 'straining at the gnat,' let's appreciate the soup!

My in-laws are a perfect example: they mean well, they certainly care deeply for their grandchildren and son, but they think the best way to 'help' is to criticize and advise at every turn, making us feel like they think we are stupid, horrible parents, when truly the best thing they can do for their grandkids is to support and encourage their parents.  It is the same with every aspect of society and every relationship.  My mother learned from her mother, and so forth back into the foggy mists of time, that the only way to raise a daughter is to constantly tell her what she does wrong.  I certainly learned what not to do, but I never figured out exactly what to do and I ended up hating myself for being such an idiot that could never do anything right, certainly not a healthy habit!

I ran across this little article on just this topic.  It is very strange to me that the world has been ending since first I opened my 'Weekly Reader' in elementary school, but the cause is always different and we have yet to witness the world's last night.  Back then it was a looming oil crisis (we would have completely depleted world petroleum supplies in 50 years, but 30 years later here we are in the midst of a surplus!) and the Ozone layer was being depleted and the Rainforest was being destroyed and acid rain was obliterating our temperate forests and frogs with supernumerary appendages were a certain harbinger of doom for the rest of us...then there was bird flu and SARS and Y2K and global warming...but we're still here.  I'm not saying there aren't real problems and threats and concerns in the world or that everything is perfect, far from it, but this chronic pessimism is, well, depressing!  I think we all need a good dose of G.K. Chesterton, most especially the media.  A good laugh is just what we need, and he'd be laughing at us certainly, if he could see the muddled pinnacle our modern pessimism has attained.  So remember, above all else, if you want to make the world a better place: laugh, smile, have a little fun, compliment somebody on something they did well or right, contemplate the good and the true and pass it on to others.  Bring a little sunshine to your own dark corner of the world; be a vector of Joy!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The beauty already there

We live in an age of fixers, especially since google makes it so easy to solve every problem in three easy steps with the contents of your sock drawer.  Men are notorious fixers when it comes to relationships, or so I've heard many ladies repine, they just want him to listen, not fix them then and there.  Women aren't much better, especially moms, we look on Pinterest to discover how to easily make our baby quit spitting up (let me know the secret when you find it!) and try to fix everything from grammatical errors to plumbing issues and get impatient when we can't magically resolve something.  I think it's a drug, we get a momentary high when something goes right and we want to feel it again, bring on the problems!  Except it doesn't work every time and then frustration and discouragement set in.  We want to know we are in control, we want to know we can handle everything and anything that comes our way.  And with more technology, information, and resources at our fingertips than any generation or society has ever before possessed, our desire to succeed only grows, and so too our frustration when things don't go right.

My family has gotten into a complaining rut.  We look only for problems and things that aren't going right and lose sight of the 95% of things that are good, right, true, and beautiful.  We can't see the person for the wart or enjoy the cake because it is slightly dry or we wanted chocolate not vanilla.  Pretty petty, but it can destroy happiness, contentment, and make life miserable.  We've lost our sense of fun, wonder, and adventure and feel overwhelmed and depressed.  It's time to take off our blinders, put aside our petty complaints, and look at this marvelous world anew.  Let us be thankful someone is in our life, warts and all, and enjoy their company.  Let us be happy to have food, let alone something so extravagant as dessert!  There are sunsets, music, books, food, forests, rivers, cats, clouds, smiles, old jokes...just waiting to be enjoyed.  But we must choose it.

The world surrounds us with negativity and despair (just watch the news or read something online); it falls into our lap without effort or thinking.  We must choose the good, the beautiful, the wonderful.  We must choose to enjoy things.  We must choose to have an attitude of mirth, joy, and contentment.  It isn't just a modern phenomenon, it's a problem as old as Eden, perfection and Paradise surround us and yet the serpent whispers doubt into a susceptible ear.  Will we let that wretched snake spoil our Joy or will we choose to trust that things are not as grim as he would have us believe?

Trust, it is so hard to do in this 'do it yourself' culture.  Especially when so many never learned it at home, having no one to take care of them and depend upon but themselves, we can't trust anyone but ourselves, but that way lies misery and despair.  There are some things we can't do alone.  Laughing at our own jokes sounds rather hollow.  Enjoying a movie alone night after night is rather sad.  We need community and society and companionship and we aren't likely to find it online.  We need real flesh and blood relationships, but that requires trust.  And work.  And the risk of getting hurt.  But it is the only way to live, all else is just existing.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A constant dripping of rain

One thing I love about the Old Testament is its use of metaphor and analogy to describe a variety of situations, in our visual culture, we often forget our forebears relied on word pictures because visual representations were impossible to come by or prohibitively expensive.  Everything from a donkey in heat to a swarm of locusts is used to represent something else, and some of them are downright funny, especially in the Proverbs.  Such as the man who would rather live on the roof than in the house with his ill-tempered wife!  Another such example is, 'a wife's quarreling is a continual dripping of rain.'  I never appreciated that line as I have in the last few days, and no, I have not been a quarrelsome wife, but rather we have had some adventures in plumbing and it has really been a literal damper on life as usual.  I didn't know how much until it was actually fixed!  There was either a constant drip drip in the background or we had the water shut off to the entire house to keep it from dripping (you don't know how much you rely on something until it is gone!).  After they fixed it, we all sighed in relief.  I literally felt like I had had a broken leg that had yet to be attended to and once it was set, life was so much more hopeful and joyous.

Is there some unresolved wound in your life or soul or emotions?  Is there a 'constant dripping,' an old wound or leak, that has become normal and you don't even realize it?  Mine was a broken family and the resulting emotional havoc, which will likely take a lifetime to heal, but I didn't even know it was a problem until I figured out that what I thought was 'normal' was far from it.  How much misery are we unwittingly inflicting upon ourselves or others by putting up with such 'drippings?'  Ignorance is one thing, pretending something is fine when it isn't or ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away are something else entirely: it's like knowing your roof leaks but not wanting to do anything about it for whatever reason while it slowly destroys your house.  And sadly, modern life encourages just that.  There is no longer anything that is Good or Right or True for everybody, rather we each define our own reality and what is good for me might not work for you.  But the roof still leaks, no matter how you, me, or anyone else tries to justify it and the damage is still going on, even if we can't see it at the moment.  How much injury are we willing to endure just to pretend that everything is 'fine?'

Social media shows us that everybody else has it all together, but it's a lie, we're all a mess, in our own peculiar way.  That's another thing I love about the Old Testament, it doesn't sugar coat anything.  The greatest heroes of the faith are also painfully flawed: murder, adultery, cheating, lying, fear, doubt...it's all there; it's still here today, just nobody's talking about it.  You're no worse (or better) than anyone else in history, we're all human, we're all a mess, and happily we're neither alone nor required to stay that way.  You can heal and grow, but first we need to admit there is a problem: I had to admit there was a leak I couldn't handle before I called the plumber, and life's Plumber is always on-call!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

They shall rise up and call her blessed

What is success?  What is a meaningful life?  What is our purpose and reason for being?  It's a question man has asked since first he gazed upon the stars, lifting his eyes in wondering bafflement at his own place in the universe to those glittering dots, so certain and sure of their own place and course in the heavens above.  It is certainly a question that haunts modern man, perhaps even more so the modern woman.  For millennia a woman's place was in the home, raising the children and seeing to the needs of her family.  In the modern world, a woman can pretty much do as it pleases her, but with so many choices and opportunities, how is she to be certain what will make her happy?

That's easy, promise a thousand different voices, all vying for precious time or money, you need only do X, be Y, or own Z to make all your dreams a reality, but we've tried each and found it lacking, much as the writer of Ecclesiastes protested thousands of years before us: pleasure, wealth, power, relationships, he had 'it all,' but was still unhappy.  How about we modern ladies, can we
'have it all' and be happy and successful with everything like all our female heroes seem to proclaim?

I'm a displaced professional, I tried the career thing but ended up burned out and dissatisfied, wanting to be at home for my then 1 year old son.  A lengthy and messy job loss and an eight hour move later, I got my wish but the career ended up on the back burner.  I've enjoyed my time as a mom, wife, and domestic CEO but as school loomed on the horizon for our son and no more children seemed forthcoming, I assumed I'd be heading back to work this fall on a more regular basis.  But then our daughter appeared when we had almost given up, I was all ready to sell the crib and donate the diapers, having waited almost 3 years with nothing but a failed adoption to show for it.  This past weekend I attended a professional conference, baby in tow, and was reminded just how frustrating and hard it was the first time to balance baby and career, even with a stay at home dad, could I do it again?  The answer was a resounding 'no!'

Now this isn't the answer for everyone, certainly, but I felt a sort of weird peace that I was doing the right thing.  Many still question my choice (mostly those who want the convenience of calling me at strange hours for something that may or may not be an emergency) or those who prize prestige or possessions as life's highest good, but I know this is not that for which we were made.  I married a pastor, not only do I have a family, but I have a church to take care of.  I don't get paid, nor do many realize the hundred little things I do that make a huge difference, the same goes for life in our home.  Can I live with that?  Some have glorious careers, devoted clients, others famous ministries that do worldwide good; my fame barely crosses the living room, where my five year old seems to have forgotten that I just told him not to wake up his sister.

The feminists would tell me that this is demeaning, a waste of my time and talents.  The financial gurus would say I'm wasting my prime earning years.  I'll forgive their ignorance, as they've probably never waited three years for the chance to hold a baby.  No, this isn't what I planned to do with my life...it's better!  There is no magic formula for a happy life, except to do what you know is right, even if the whole world thinks you're nuts!  Even if it is really hard or not what you want (or think you do) and life gets ugly, disappointing, or confusing for awhile, it will be worth it one day, just keep going.

My grandmother never was able to have biological kids.  She adopted my father and his sisters out of the foster care system and strove valiantly her entire life to be the mother they needed, but they had various issues and made poor choices.  One died young.  One is an alcoholic.  My father was abusive, paranoid, and self-absorbed and never once thanked his adoptive parents for anything but rather blamed them for his failings and was always demanding money.  My grandmother never had a day of maternal peace and joy in her life, but ever she pressed onward, was patient and loving towards her erring children, and ever cheery for her grandkids.  She died nearly 20 years ago.  She didn't live to see her great grandkids, but without her influence and example, I'm not sure she'd have any, for she was the only positive familial influence in our lives: she showed us what family could be, she was a light amidst the darkness of neglect, abuse, divorce, and dysfunction.  She never had a fancy title or made a lot of money; her efforts were never rewarded with temporal joy, but the difference she made in our lives will influence generations to come.  Is it worth it, this 'slaving away' in obscurity?  Yes, totally, even if we do not personally live to see it, certainly others will, as does He who, 'sees in secret,' and thus our efforts are neither unknown nor unappreciated.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

We're all orphans

Here's an excellent article about adoption, love, and the Trinity, it's a good read for anyone who has ever been human!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Of corn, lobsters, and the end of the world

Has anybody else been disappointed that the looming apocalypse has not yet materialized?  Between Y2K, Bird Flu, SARS, acid rain, depletion of the ozone layer, two headed frogs, global warming, and a hundred other scenarios, I would have thought the world would have imploded, exploded, or otherwise gloriously disintegrated by this point.  I'm getting a little tired of apathetic doomsday scenarios, if you are going to say the world is going to end for whatever reason, it would be nice if you were actually right.  Two fairy tales come to mind: Chicken Little (who thought the sky was actually falling) and the Boy Who Cried Wolf (and got eaten when a real wolf showed up).  The Emperor's New Clothes wouldn't be out of place here either, but where's the kid to holler that the Emperor is naked?  All we have is scientists and activists and alarmists nodding gravely and pointing fingers about who is to blame, with no one saying that the last 374 predictions have all come to naught, why should we believe the latest one?

My favorite example involves whales.  Exhibit A is Star Trek IV (yes, that cheesy '80's movie).  Exhibit B is two trips on an east coast whale watching cruise roughly 10 years apart.  So we have 1987, 2007, and 2017 represented along with Humpback Whales, what could be better?  In the movie (my favorite) aliens from the future are inadvertently destroying the planet because the extinct whales won't return their calls and Kirk and crew must go back to 1987 and bring back a whale to 'tell the probe what to go do with itself.'  My two whale watches both involved an onboard naturalist (a college intern majoring in some -ology) who on the first trip assured us that midwestern crop farmers were responsible for the despicable shape of the oceans, while on the trip a decade later it was actually lobster fishermen who were responsible for most cetacean-type woes.  At least Star Trek blamed it on some actual whalers.  So there you have it, three theories on why the whales, and probably everything else is going to die; personally I prefer the Star Trek version, at least the movie had plenty of funny parts.  These modern doom and gloom prognosticators have no sense of humor whatsoever.

It was also a little annoying to be spoken to like a small, clueless child by someone in their sophomore year of college.  I simply asked after the birds they were likely to see on such an outing (being an avid birder and a landlubber) and was told that yesterday they had seen a Manx Shearwater feeding near the whales and it was beautiful (all in a tone that implied that obviously I could in no way appreciate such aesthetics and couldn't tell an albatross from an ostrich) but on this trip there really wasn't much to see save an occasional Wilson's Storm-petrel so I'd best go sit in the galley and drink overpriced cocoa.  But I was pretty sure I had seen something but had to wait to discover what until I got home and could download my pictures and there it was, a Great Shearwater; she was wrong about the birds, maybe, just maybe the lobster theory was flawed as well.  But then sophomore means, 'foolish wisdom' and I remember from my own sophomore days that I really felt like I knew everything, but a year later I suddenly began to realize how much I didn't know.  I was just as confident in my ignorance as she was, but thankfully life has taught me a few (painful) lessons since.  Just like this gal is so sure of the evils of lobster fishing and the behavior of pelagic birds, so too are 'the experts' who tell us the world is going to blow up or wither away in the next decade or two in some creative way or another.

That is not news, we all know the world is going to end; no matter who you are or where you are from, we all know that things cannot last forever as we know them.  All stories end, everyone dies, and so too will the tale of the universe one day come to an end.  It's fine to develop theories and prepare, if you can, for doomsday or try and save some species from extinction, what isn't good is telling everyone that you are certain sure everything will end tomorrow or a decade from now via this means and then it doesn't happen and then you do it again and again with some other trigger or cause now the greatest threat to existence we have ever seen.  Today it's lobsters, tomorrow it's corn, next week it will be singing off key...world without end (that's irony!).

Forget about the means for a bit and focus on the end.  What will you do on the world's last night?  Be it the end of the world or the end of your own life?  That's a far more important question.  For the whale lady, everything will just go down into darkness, the forgetfulness of death and the great infinite nothingness.  But there are other theories.  This isn't a new question, the disciples were pestering Jesus about it 2000 years ago and I'm sure people were pondering it long before that.  The question is, is the End really the End of Everything, or is it just the curtain falling on the first act of some far grander tale?  Personally, I think the whale lady's theory is just depressing and saps life of all its purpose and interest, but if this flawed reality is just the warm up for something far better, no wonder we're anxious to know how it ends and what comes after!  We spend so much time predicting and arguing about the means but no one seems to care what happens at the End, which is really a far more important question.