On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy died. I vividly remember a television commentor remarking that 60 people had also died that day in a horrific nursing home fire. In God's eyes, he admitted, those deaths were equally important, "but we are not God."
Death is all around us, every day. Some deaths move us more than others. To some extent, that's as it should be; if your own mother's death isn't more significant to you than the death of a random woman in South Dakota, there's something wrong with either you or your mother. I get that.
What I don't get is what moves the general media, and thus (sadly) the general population, to chose to highlight, amplify, and honor certain deaths for which most people have no personal connection. One child dies in a hurricane, and it's played over and over on the news. More than a dozen children die weekly in auto accidents, and rarely get airplay. Workplace or school shootings arouse great fear and anger, but gang-related violence is mostly ignored. The death of Travon Martin brought intense media attention from all over the world to Central Florida; the concurrent brutal death-and-burning of two young men on a bike trail nearby was all but ignored even by local media.
And then there are ostensibly minor events—like the Sandy Hook shooting, and Orlando's Pulse nightclub attack—which have taken on iconic status, with commemorations that amount to the feast days of some American secular religion.
I do understand that. Human nature, even that of hard-boiled atheists, needs a form of religion, and anything at all can spring into the vacuum created when more traditional forms of faith are abandoned. What I don't understand is why churches buy into it. I'm not even sure why churches celebrate Mother's Day, Veteran's Day, and other secular holidays—much less Super Bowl Sunday, which, no kidding, has been honored at some churches I've been in.
This is no commentary on what my own particular church does or does not do. I am on vacation in a place where the church celebrations are Pentecost and Trinity Sunday; I can't speak for what's going on back home. But if it's like previous years, churches all over Orlando will be talking about the Pulse attack, and tolling their bells 49 times. I don't think that's necessary, or even important. But for those churches who do choose to join in the secular remembrance, I have one plea:
Ring your bell 50 times.
You will hear again and again that 49 people died in the Pulse shooting. But the true number is 50. Any church calling itself by the Name of Christ must acknowledge that the 50th death—that of the attacker—is just as important, and just as tragic, as the other 49. As I wrote a year ago,
The natural way is not the Christian way. It is very, very clear that we are to love our enemies, which at the very least means mourning the violent, if necessary, death of this angry and unstable young man. He, as much as any of the other victims of this tragedy, was someone's son, someone's brother, someone's father, a human being, created in the image of God—no matter how distorted that image had become.
As that commentator acknowledged more than 50 years ago, we are not God. But if we are Christians, we should try to be more like him, and less like the world.
Variations on this article have been making the rounds on Facebook recently: "Should Arabic numerals be taught in schools? Most Americans say no." Briefly,
CivicScience, whose mission is to power the world’s opinions and bring them to the decision makers who care, asked 3,624 people if schools in America should teach Arabic numerals. By the numbers, 2,020 people said no, 1,043 people said yes and 561 people shared no opinion. In simpler terms, 56% of respondents said no, 29% said yes and 15% chose no opinion.
Perhaps the numeral system’s name exposed a bias among the respondents. Maybe they just didn’t know where our numeral system came from. Both could be true, but CivicScience CEO John Dick is calling it bigotry. “Ladies and Gentlemen: The saddest and funniest testament to American bigotry we’ve ever seen in our data.”
I doubt it.
It's not the apparently negative findings about the American public that worry me, it's that the polling organization is creating polls clearly designed to show Americans to be ignorant and prejudiced. Then, they see what they want to see. For some reason, that sells.
Why is the immediate conclusion that those who rejected the idea of schools teaching Arabic numerals are bigots, and that they are reacting negatively because of the word “Arabic”? I can think of a few reasons off the top of my head that are at least as likely to be true:
- The polls were not set up in a way designed to get an honest, thoughtful response. I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands of surveys in my lifetime—and created a few—and I know it’s hard to make one that does not prejudice the data. Surveys designed by those with an axe to grind are particularly egregious.
- People who think our teachers are already overtaxed, people who believe our schools are already being asked to do too much, and people who say schools are not being very successful in what they teach as it is, are automatically choosing “no” to what is presented as if it were something being added to the current educational program.
- People are hearing “Arabic numerals” and thinking “Roman numerals,” which they vaguely remember from elementary school and consider to have been a waste of time and effort. This is the most likely scenario.
- People recognize the question as ridiculous, and are having fun with the pollsters. Don't underestimate this possibility.
It takes little thought and minimal charity to come up with conclusions that treat people with respect. Isn't this what we would want done for us? Why do we immediately assume the worst?
Of all the Seven Deadly Sins, Pride fittingly takes pride of place as the one considered the worst by most Christians, though Lust seems to get the most publicity. Today, Envy is making the headlines. It seems that the fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame touched many hearts and opened many wallets, including those of some very wealthy people and corporations.
Naturally, this generosity has caused a nasty backlash.
As I wrote a couple of years ago, I never have understood why people hate the rich. I'll admit I don't seek them out, as a class, even though our summer vacations often throw us into the midst of people who are very wealthy indeed, because we seem to have very little in common. (Who am I kidding? The real reason I don't seek out our wealthy neighbors is the same reason I don't seek out our poor neighbors: I'm an introvert and very happy filling my time with the family and friends I already have. But the other sounds better.) I have observed, however, that most people with wealth work incredibly hard, put many, many more hours into their work than I ever wanted to, and often accomplish more for the general good than I can dream of. That's hard to hate. But maybe the real reason there's no temptation for me to hate the rich is that I do not envy them their lifestyles.
I suspect Envy has an awful lot to do with the backlash, even if it's couched in seemingly compassionate terms. How else to explain this comment, from an article in The Guardian?
We should also be asking ... why those generous donors are so averse to giving their money to democratically chosen priorities, which is what taxes represent. If the ultra-rich can chuck in so many millions of euros for a building, then what stops them ending hunger and poverty?
Why? I can think of a couple of really obvious answers.
Why would the rich rather support a cherished cause directly rather than pay more taxes? For the same reason anyone would. Instead of me giving to Charity A, you tell me you will take my money, keep some of it for yourself, then give the rest to Charities B, C, D, and E—and you expect me to be happy about it? I don't think so. There are good reasons for paying taxes, but this is not one of them.
What stops the super-rich from ending hunger and poverty? Perhaps because money is one of the least reliable means of doing so. When you give money to rebuild a cathedral, in a few years the cathedral is rebuilt and stands there till the next disaster. It's a simple, satisfying equation. Take that same money and give it to an organization trying to end hunger and poverty, and you may make a little progress, or you may not. Ask Bill Gates. You may even end up doing more harm than good. It's a much more complicated equation, and you may never see the results of your contribution, because anything that isn't a band-aid approach (feed a chronically hungry person today and he's hungry again tomorrow) is difficult to do right and takes a long time to show sustainable results. There are good reasons to make wise donations to organizations of proven reliability that have shown some success in lifting communities out of poverty, but if you take all their money from all the billionaires in the world you won't solve the problem—and then where will you get your next billions?
There is only one question worth asking when it comes to giving money, and it's not, "Why don't others use their money the way I think they should?" It's "Am I being both generous and wise with the money that has been entrusted to me?"
It's Easter, and I'm writing about a different holiday.
Why? Simply and solely because the Easter post I want to write would be far too much work for the remainder of a day of rest after an exhilarating but exhausting week. I will celebrate Easter by not writing about it—yet. Besides, Easter is not one day, but a 50-day season, so I have some time.
On March 25 of this year, our church celebrated the Annunciation. To the best of my recollection, that's the first time, in all of our many and varied churches, that we have done so.
That celebration set off an interesting train of thought.
It's usually around Christmastime that my thoughts turn especially to the Incarnation. As I've said before, for years I unthinkingly accepted the idea that Easter should be more important to Christians than Christmas. After all, the resurrection of Christ is the one spectacular event on which Christianity stands or falls.
Or is it? If it is unique and astonishing that a man so clearly dead should in three days be so clearly alive, and alive in such a new way that he has a physical body (that can be touched, and fed) and yet comes and goes through space in a manner more befitting science fiction—is it any less unique and astonishing that God, the creator of all that is, seen and unseen, should enter his world as a human being, not in the shape-shifting ways of the Greek gods, but through physical birth, with human limitations? I finally concluded that debating which holiday is more significant for a Christian is like asking whether my left or my right leg is more important for running.
But now comes a new holiday into the mix: Annunciation. Obviously the birth of Jesus is still an important and awesome (in the literal sense) holiday. But if we're celebrating the Incarnation, aren't we about nine months too late? Figuring Jesus was conceived about the time of the Annunciation—ít's no coincidence that the feast day is celebrated nine months before Christmas—if we're celebrating the Incarnation, this would be it. So why is this holiday almost unheard of in most Protestant circles?
Thus I have some questions for other Christians:
- If your church believes, as I do, that conception is the defining moment in the creation of a unique human being, but does not celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, why not?
- If your church believes that the defining moment in the creation of a unique human being is at some point other than conception, what is that point, and how does it affect your view of the Incarnation?
In over 66 years on this planet, more than two-thirds of them as a professing Christian, I have never asked myself these questions. I am astounded at my ignorance. To be fair to myself, I've never heard anyone else ask them either.
I read it in the Orlando Sentinel, on page 10 of the front section of today's paper, part of an article entitled, "Will census show Latino boom?"
And people wonder why I don't trust the mainstream media. Part of me still retains a small hope that professional news organizations—like our local newspaper—have more of a chance of getting the news right than the average Internet source, but they keep taxing my credulity. Here's the latest.
[E]xperts say the typical hurdles for an accurate census have been aggravated by a controversial question proposed by the Trump administration—"Is this person a citizen of the United States?"—that some fear will dissuade non-citizens from participating.
"The biggest barrier is one that the Trump administration has created," [attorney Tom] Wolf said. "This would mark the first time in American history that the census would try to ascertain the citizenship status of the entire country."
The emphasis is mine. Tom Wolf is "an attorney who specializes in the census and redistricting at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York." Specializes in the census? I suppose I could give him the benefit of the doubt and allow that perhaps he was wildly misquoted—but I'm skeptical.
From my genealogical work, I knew he was wrong: citizenship questions had been asked before. What I didn't know until I looked it up again was just how wrong he was. Check out the following census years:
- Is the person a male citizen of the United States of 21 years or upwards?
- Is the person naturalized?
- Has the person taken naturalization papers out?
- What year did the person immigrate to the United States?
- How many years has the person been in the United States?
- Is the person naturalized?
- Year of immigration to the United States
- Is the person naturalized or an alien?
- Year of immigration to the United States
- Is the person naturalized or alien?
- If naturalized, what was the year of naturalization?
- Year of immigration into the United States
- Is the person naturalized or an alien?
- If foreign born, is the person a citizen?
- If foreign born, is the person naturalized?
From 1970 on, the census stopped asking all the questions of everyone—only a small percentage of households received the long form with the interesting questions. Speaking as a genealogist, that was a very big mistake.
- For persons born in a foreign country—Is the person naturalized?
- When did the person come to the United States to stay?
- Is this person a naturalized citizen of the United States?
- When did this person come the United States to stay?
- Is this person a citizen of the United States?
- If this person was not born in the United States, when did this person come to the United States to stay?
- Is this person a citizen of the United States?
In 2010 the short census form had a mere 10 questions, and the long form was replaced by the annual American Community Survey. The ACS asked questions about citizenship.
So, Mr. Wolf is correct if he only considers the censuses taken from 1960 onward. But he ignores eight censuses in which the country did, indeed, "try to ascertain the citizenship status of the entire country." The proposed question is hardly something new.
The U. S. Federal Census has often asked nosy and sometimes peculiar questions, such as
- Is the person deaf and dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic?
- Can the person read?
- Was, on the day of the enumerator's visit, the person sick or disabled so as to be unable to attend to ordinary business or duties? If so, what was the sickness or disability?
- For mothers, how many children has the person had? and How many of those children are living?
- Is the person's home owned or rented? If it is owned, is the person's home owned free or mortgaged?
- Is the person a survivor of the Union or Confederate Army or Navy?
- Person's father's mother tongue
- Is the person an employer, a salary or wage worker, or working on his own account?
- Does the household own a radio?
- Number of weeks worked in the year
- What is the highest grade this person has attended in school?
- How did this person get to work last week?
There was a time in my life when I was disgusted with the census for asking such personal questions. But now I see them as an invaluable glimpse into the world of my ancestors—and our country's history. I grieve that the names of all household members don't show up until 1850, and that most of the country has been excluded from the interesting questions since 1970.
I don't see how the Sentinel has a leg to stand on with its statement that the census has never before asked the citizenship of all the country's inhabitants. Why I continue to believe so much of what I read boggles my mind. Maybe for the same reason I agree to all those End User License Agreements.
How can anybody think that they're better than anyone else—that their race is better, their country is better, their religion is better, their people are better....or even that their sport teams are better?
With that, a friend began a heartfelt plea for love and compassion that anyone could shout "amen!" to. But while I add my voice to the chorus, I take exception to his idea that the divisions, wars, hatred, and other evils that beset us are caused by the belief that something special and peculiar to an individual is better than other things of the same sort. I grant that it can appear to be true, but am utterly and completely convinced of this: It is not this belief, this feeling, that is wrong, but rather a twisted, diseased, misuse of it. It's rather like saying, "Money is the root of all evil" when the Biblical text is actually, "The love of money is the root of all evil."
I'm certain my friend thinks his own wife is "the best." And so he should. if he doesn't, he's a lout and a cad and doesn't deserve her. My own grandchildren are the sweetest and smartest grandchildren ever. I love my country more than any other place on earth, closely followed by Switzerland, my country-in-law My husband is the greatest, and there could never be parents and siblings as fantastic as my own. I appreciate many cultures, but like best the immediate culture in which I grew up, and the Western European culture that is my inheritance. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it is very good. In the words we say in church every Monday night, "It is meet and right so to do."
Why? Why do I say it's good to think the best of what is near and dear to us, when that seems to cause such divisiveness?
Because it's the only way to learn the love we so desperately need.
In the words of the Bible again, "He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen." Or in my own words: Don't pretend you love strangers halfway across the world if you can't even be kind to your spouse.
Love is meant to work outwards, from our families to friends to communities to those more and more "other" to us. We're not meant to start from the outside and work in, because we don't know what love is until we've practiced it small and local. You might as well expect to go from couch potato one day to ultramarathon runner the next. The special feelings that we have about our own particular "small and local" are our coaches, teaching us the skills of love in action and building our endurance.
Where we go wrong is in not taking that training into ever-widening circles. The wise man can hold in his mind without contradiction both the belief that his own wife is the best in the world, and the knowledge that every other man feels (or should feel) the same way about his own wife. That is exactly how it should be, and both are absolutely right.
Our local affections are meant to lead us onward and outward. If instead they become ingrown, they fester and rot. As C. S. Lewis said, the better and higher something is, the farther it falls and the worse it becomes when it goes bad. But the original is good.
It is from a secure feeling of "home" that we can truly value that which is different from our small and local world. I want to learn about French wines from someone who thinks there is no better wine than that which grows from French soil. I want to tour a new country guided by one whose family has known and loved its culture for generations. I'd rather not eat at a restaurant where the chef believes his food to be no better than average. And I certainly would be more comfortable in the company of someone who thinks her husband is the most wonderful man ever, than with someone who entertains the notion that maybe my husband would be a better choice.
Go ahead, love your own family, your own culture, your own country, your own heritage, even your own sports team better than any other.* Then go, have a good laugh with your neighbor, and learn why he feels the same about his family, culture, country, heritage, and sports team. Therein lies joy, and hope.
March 21 is World Down Syndrome Day.
Temple Grandin wrote:
It is likely that genius is an abnormality. If the genes that cause autism and other disorders such as manic-depression were eliminated, the world might be left to boring conformists with few creative ideas.
Down Syndrome is not genius, at least not in the intellectual sense. If I could wave my hand and eliminate that third copy of the 21st chromosome, I imagine I would do so. But would that be a good thing? The more I hear from families of children with Down Syndrome, the more I wonder if these people have something important to offer the world that shouldn't be thrown away.
Even if eliminating the genetic defect that results in Down Syndrome would be best for all concerned, I know for a fact that eugenics is not the right way to effect a cure.
The population of people with Down Syndrome is diminishing rapidly, not because someone has cured the condition, nor found a way to prevent its occurrence, but simply because more and more babies with Down Syndrome are killed before they have a chance to be born. Prenatal testing to determine the presence of that extra chromosome is widespread, and more and more parents are opting for abortion rather than meet this challenge.
It's not my place, here, to judge another person's response to a difficulty I have never faced. But as a society we need to be aware of exactly what we are doing. There have been other times in our history when we have made deliberate efforts to eradicate the "unfit," and those actions have been rightly condemned by subsequent generations.
I appreciate living in this time and place. I know I've sometimes said that I think I was born in the wrong century, but in truth I'm glad to be in the era where we have antibiotics, smoke-free plane flights, and respect for women. That said, I'm shaking my head more and more at our modern American culture (and I'm not sure Europe is any better).
Born in the early 1950's; laboring through most of my education under dress codes that required me to wear a dress or a skirt to school every single day; learning from my voluminous childhood reading that boys are smart, strong, and have adventures, while girls are intellectually inferior, weak, and interested only in clothes and romance; having been the "first and only girl" in my Boy Scout Explorer troop, high school stage band, physics classes, and who knows what all else—I've witnessed quite a bit of change, much of it for the better, when it comes to how our society views men and women.
But now I think we've taken a few steps backward. A walk through the toy department in any major store reveals that children's toys are nearly as sex-stereotyped as they were when I was a child, and much more so than when our own children were young.
Even worse, if you deviate in interests, abilities, or goals from the norm for your sex, you're not just a bit odd—you risk being labelled "transgender" or at best "confused about your sexual identity."
Why can't we acknowledge, and celebrate, the fact that interests, abilities, and goals are broadly spread among males and females, without snipping that spectrum up into labels and diagnoses so that almost no one feels normal? The issue of making differences into diagnoses is much bigger than sex stereotyping, but the gender dimension happens to be especially big these days.
Here's an article about a Viking warrior's grave, assumed for more than a century to be that of a man; it was discovered in 2017 that the body is female.
When researchers announced in 2017 that the warrior was actually female, they received a lot of pushback—surely the archaeologists had made some mistake? Perhaps they tested the wrong body?
Now that's an attitude that could have been from the 1950's. A strong leader? Must have been male.
The following, however, is clearly from 2019:
The ensuing conversation raised questions about the role of women in Viking culture—as well as how Vikings understood gender identity. Unlike other Viking women buried with weapons, this person wasn’t wearing typical women’s clothing or jewelry.
“In this grave there is nothing that we archaeologically would interpret as female,” says [Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, who co-authored the 2017 paper about the discovery].... “It’s not a typically male costume either probably because it’s very high status…but there is nothing indicating a woman, there are no typical finds that we link to women.”
There is speculation, then, that the woman must have been "transgender," an issue the author addresses in a more recent paper.
As for the warrior’s gender identity, Hedenstierna-Jonson and her colleagues write, “There are many other possibilities across a wide gender spectrum, some perhaps unknown to us, but familiar to the people of the time.
“We do not discount any of them.”
So. In the 21st century we have moved on from the archaic idea that only men can be strong leaders, not women. But what have we moved on to? The idea that women still can't be strong leaders, because if you are a strong leader, you must be someone who isn't really female, but something closer to male on the spectrum.
Is that progress? Not for women.
I fell in love with Penzeys Spices the first time I walked into their Pittsburgh store, many years and ten grandchildren ago. What an enormous array of herbs, spices, and extracts of excellent quality, as well as their own superb spice blends! I couldn't say enough wonderful things about Penzeys, in person and here on this blog.
You may or may not have noticed that I don't do that anymore. My interactions with the company have left a bad taste in my mouth, and when your business is selling food ... that's not a good situation.
Once upon a time I stocked up on Penzeys products whenever we visited our daughter in Pittsburgh. I put myself on their mailing list, and in between times would sometimes place an order through the mail. But imagine my joy when Central Florida finally got its own Penzeys store! We generally visited once a month, to take advantage of the free spice coupons in the catalog, and of course we almost always made other purchases as well.
Ah, the catalog. In each one, Bill Penzey wrote an enjoyable little column about spices, food, cooking, and family. I used to like reading that, almost as much as I enjoyed the food & family stories contributed by customers. But gradually, that changed. Politics started to infuse the catalog, first in Bill's column and then in the customer stories he chose to include.
Well, I don't usually discriminate against great products based on the political opinions of the company. I continued to drool over the catalog, skipping Bill's column. When I did read it, I was usually sorry I had. We continued our monthly visits to the store, where even the employees rolled their eyes at the political turn the company was taking.
And then Penzeys closed our store.
I understand that companies must make difficult economic decisions and sometimes stores must be closed. I'm okay with that, even if it makes me sad. Their lease was up, and rents are high in the area they had chosen to open their store. What my anger flowed from was the implication on their sign that they would soon be opening a new store in the area, though I certainly was looking forward to that.
You see, in his political writings Bill Penzey consistently positions himself and his company as the defenders of the common people, the little guys, the poor and needy ... you get the picture. He's always denouncing people and businesses that make decisions based on what he perceives as selfishness and greed. Yet he decided to close a store and reopen elsewhere just to get his company out from under an expensive lease, leaving his employees—the little guys, the poor and needy common people—high and dry. They could not afford to wait for the opening of a theoretical new store: they needed jobs. Given all Bill Penzey has said about what other people should do with their money and in their own businesses, I would have expected his company to bite the bullet, forgo some profit, and at the least not close the existing store until a new one, nearby but in a less expensive neighborhood, was ready to provide jobs for their displaced employees.
They did not. That moves the scenario from necessary business decision straight to hypocrisy. And as it turned out, it has been four years since they closed, and there is still no sign of a Penzeys store any closer than Jacksonville.
On top of that, despite my many attempts at communication—before and after this event; whether contribution, compliment, or complaint; by e-mail or postal mail—I never heard back from Penzeys. It was worse than writing to a politician and expecting communication!
Since then, Bill Penzey's political rants (which now come to me by e-mail rather than printed catalog) have gone over-the-edge extreme. The hypocrisy, the hate-preached-as-love, would almost be funny—if it weren't so sad.
The following incident did make me laugh, at least until I started wondering what tax advantage the company might be angling for. Last Friday, the mailman delivered a box of excitement: my most recent Penzeys order. Penzeys packages often come with a freebie or two tucked in, such as sample-sized envelopes of herbs or spices (my favorite) or something advertising the store or one of Bill Penzey's pet causes. Here's one of the latter that came this time:
It's a sticker, no big deal except for the waste when it ends up in the landfill. What makes it bizarre is how it appeared on the packing slip, which you can see below, with some prices I've circled in red.
For this sticker, which I didn't order, they charged me $6.95, then "discounted" the price at the end. What kind of pricing is this? Who in his right mind would pay $6.95 for a sticker, let alone one not even worth sending to grandchildren? And what's the point? Some sort of shady accounting practice or tax benefit?
Amusing in a different way are the accolades Bill Penzey gives himself by first (1) making an extreme political statement, then (2) offering an extraordinarily good sale, 'way too good to pass up, then (3) bragging that his customers clearly endorse his political beliefs—just look at the spike in sales!
But do you know what? I still buy his spices. Not nearly as much, not nearly as often. As I said, the company now leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But the taste of the spices is still wonderful. I don't believe boycotts to be generally useful, and in most cases I choose businesses by quality and price without asking about politics.
Penzeys' reputation for quality is no doubt why they feel they can get away with repeatedly and consistently alienating half their customer base. It puts me in mind of what a math professor friend said about Harvard University years ago: The quality of education at the school has gone down significantly; students are no longer getting what a "Harvard education" used to mean. Harvard is living on its reputation. And that will be slow to die, because the Harvard reputation will still give Harvard graduates' résumés a great advantage over others. More importantly, it will continue to attract the best students, which will give them both the "iron sharpens iron" benefit and an unbeatable network of connections for the future. You can't live forever on reputation alone, but if you have once been great, you can fool yourself and others for a long time.
I believe Bill Penzey is fooling himself. As long as Penzeys' spices are perceived as superior—and many of them really are—even the spurned, denigrated, vilified half of his customer base will not flee en masse. But many—like some students who forgo applying to Harvard—may decide that the difference is not worth the cost. The love and the loyalty are gone.
One key to holding on to our sanity is realizing that it is in the interest of so many others to keep us in a state of fear. Fearful people stay riveted to news programs, they buy lots of stuff they don't need, they indulge in expensive and unhealthful habits to dull the pain, they give up their vital freedoms and basic rights in the name of security, and their anxiety is all too easily turned to anger and hatred. Fearful people are sheep, easily manipulated and ready prey for the politician, the salesman, the agitator, the televangelist, the gang leader.
Another key is to understand that as horrific as are the events we hear about on the news, they are much more rare than we are led to believe by those who profit from our fears. From school shootings to vaccine reactions, from raw cookie dough illnesses to child kidnappings by strangers, we are given the impression that statistically infinitesimal risks are looming over us daily. They're not.
Generally, crime rates in America are much lower now than they were when my own children were young, but it's today's parents who are afraid to let their kids walk to school—or even play in the back yard without an adult present—and won't leave 11-year-olds alone at home for a few hours. (Twenty years ago, 11-year-olds were considered responsible babysitters.) When one is bombarded daily, and repeatedly, with stories of crime, and crimes against humanity, it's hard not to think that our world is worse than it is. More concerning still, studies show that fictitious violence (movies, television, video games) has the same effect on our gut as real news stories.
In any case, here's the very important paradox: No matter how bad we may think the world is, the way to raise healthy, well-adjusted children—the kind who will contribute to making the world better—is to avoid passing on our anxieties. Children need to know that the world is, generally, a safe place, beginning with their own families, and that where it is not, it can be faced with courage and hope. Growing up fearful is not conducive to good mental health.
How to resolve this? For one thing, we should help our children to become as competent as possible in basic life skills, so that they have—and know that they have—the tools to face the world as it comes to them. I also recommend the Fred Rogers quote about the importance of looking to the helpers in any bad situation. And stories. Lots of good stories, from biographies of heroes to heroic fairy tales, where evil is defeated by goodness and strength and courage. As C. S. Lewis said, "Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage."
Maybe that can work for adults as well. It's worth a try.
I laughed, I cried, I groaned, I was on the edge of my seat till the very end!
A romance novel? An thriller? Murder mystery? Action-packed drama?
Well, no. The most recent blog post from The Occasional CEO, entitled, "25 Rules for Writing a Book." This actually showed up in my feed reader at the same time as the announcement of a new book by another friend, who writes as Blair Bancroft.
Eric Schultz writes completely different books from Blair Bancroft, though I wouldn't be surprised if Blair recognizes herself in some of Eric's points. I'm pretty sure that in this post he's writing about a book I've been waiting years for, ever since he dropped a hint in another post. If you read his 25 rules, you'll understand why I say I hope it's still the book I've been looking forward to.
- Don't throw anything away! No experience is ever really wasted, but becomes fodder for something in the future. You never know when you might find it useful. (That attitude is why I have trouble decluttering my house, my photos, and especially my computer.)
- When I accidentally deleted and had to rewrite a very long blog post, you assured me that the re-written post was guaranteed to be better. Based on this, I predict that when the new book is finally published, it will be your best ever.
- I'm an Oxford comma person. But I also like semicolons.
- Finish the hat???
- Love the snowy owl!
- I'm still looking forward to reading it, even if it is now more of a business book than a history book.
To everyone else: read it. Even if you don't consider yourself a writer. It's not just about writing; it's about life. Mothers especially can relate.
The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis (Simon & Schuster, 1986; originally published 1940)
This is not a review, but a collection to replace the sticky notes I had affixed to this book as I re-read it recently. With some comments. The emphasis is my own.
Chapter Three: Divine Goodness
The association of ... man and dog is primarily for the man's sake: he tames the dog primarily that he may love it, not that it may love him, and that it may serve him, not that he may serve it. Yet at the same time, the dog's interests are not sacrificed to the man's. The one end (that he may love it) cannot be fully attained unless it also, in its fashion, loves him, nor can it serve him unless he, in a different fashion, serves it. Now just because the dog is by human standards one of the "best" of irrational creatures, and a proper object for a man to love—of course with that degree and kind of love which is proper to such an object, and not with silly anthropomorphic exaggerations—man interferes with the dog and makes it more lovable than it was in mere nature. In its state of nature it has a smell, and habits, which frustrate man's love: he washes it, house-trains it, teaches it not to steal, and is so enabled to love it completely. To the puppy the whole proceeding would seem, if it were a theologian, to cast grave doubts on the "goodness" of man: but the full-grown and full-trained dog, larger, healthier, and longer-lived than the wild dog, and admitted, as it were by Grace, to a whole world of affections, loyalties, interests, and comforts entirely beyond its animal destiny, would have no such doubts.
The man (I am speaking throughout of the good man) takes all these pains with the dog, and give all these pains to the dog, only because it is an animal high in the scale—because it is so nearly lovable that it is worth his while to make it fully lovable. He does not house-train the earwig or give baths to centipedes. We may wish, indeed, that we were of so little account to God that He left us alone to follow our natural impulses—that He would give over trying to train us into something so unlike our natural selves: but ... we are asking not for more Love, but for less.
Chapter Four: Human Wickedness
This chapter will have been misunderstood if anyone describes it as a reinstatement of the doctrine of Total Depravity. I disbelieve that doctrine, partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and party because experience shows us much goodness in human nature. Nor am I recommending universal gloom. The emotion of shame has been valued not as an emotion but because of the insight to which it leads. I think that insight should be permanent in each man's mind: but whether the painful emotions that attend it should also be encouraged, is a technical problem of spiritual direction on which, as a layman, I have little call to speak. My own idea, for what it is worth, is that all sadness which is not either arising from the repentance of a concrete sin and hastening towards concrete amendment or restitution, or else arising from pity and hastening to active assistance, is simply bad; and I think we all sin by needlessly disobeying the apostolic injunction to "rejoice" as much as by anything else. Humility, after the first shock, is a cheerful virtue: it is the high-minded unbeliever, desperately trying in the teeth of repeated disillusions to retain his "faith in human nature" who is really sad.
It's important to realize that when Lewis talks about sadness as being bad, he's not referring to the kind of sorrow, for example, that we feel when someone we love dies. The chapter is about sin and human wickedness.
Chapter Seven: Human Pain, continued
We must never make the problem of pain worse than it is by vague talk, about the "unimaginable sum of human misery." Suppose that I have a toothache of intensity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x: search all time and all space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone's consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.
I'm not sure I buy this argument completely. I'm quite certain God knows (and feels) the fullness of that "composite pain"—though if there's a human limit, Jesus as man could not have experienced more than that. Lewis is speaking of human suffering so maybe what Omniscience knows doesn't count. And I do believe that to some extent pain is additive (or multiplicative): If I am sufferning x, and my child is suffering x, if we remain ignorant of each other's suffering, then we are indeed each only experiencing x. But if we know, if we can see, if we can hear each other's agony, then our own pain becomes greater: 1.5x, 2x, 10x, whatever—but definitely greater. This is why the media's fascination with reporting tragedies in all their gory details, over and over, is a problem. The graphic portrayal of even false suffering (think movies, TV shows, and video games) affects us badly. It might be worthwhile if it resulted in an outpouring of effective efforts to address the needs represented, but I believe the net effect is actually an increase in the natural responses to viewing suffering we cannot alleviate: depression and callousness.
Chapter 10: Heaven
Each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the divine beauty better than any other creature can. Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently? And this difference, so far from impairing, floods with meaning the love of all the blessed creatures for one another, the communion of the saints. If all experienced God in the same way and returned Him an identical worship, the song of the Church triumphant would have no symphony, it would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note. Aristotle has told us that a city is a unity of unlikes, and St. Paul that a body is a unity of different members. Heaven is a city, and a Body, because the blessed remain eternally different: a society, because each has something to tell all the others—fresh and ever fresh news of the "My God" whom each finds in Him whom all praise as "Our God."
Union exists only between distincts; and, perhaps, from this point of view, we catch a momentary glimpse of the meaning of all things. Pantheism is a creed not so much false as hopelessly behind the times. Once, before creation, it would have been true to say that everything was God. But God created: He caused things to be other than Himself that, being distinct, they might learn to love Him, and achieve union instead of mere sameness. ... Even within the Holy One Himself, it is not sufficient that the Word should be God, it must also be with God. The Father eternally begets the Son and the Holy Ghost proceeds: deity introduces distinction within itself so that the union of reciprocal loves may transcend mere arithmetical unity.
[The preacher] began to discover one peculiar advantage belonging to the little open chamber of the pulpit—open not only or especially to heaven above, but to so many of the secret chambers of the souls of the congregation. For what a man dares not, could not if he dared, and dared not if he could, say to another, even at the time and in the place fittest of all, he can say thence, open-faced before the whole congregation; and the person in need thereof may hear it without umbrage, or the choking husk of individual application, irritating to the rejection of what truth may lie in it for him.
This passage from George MacDonald's Thomas Wingfold, Curate (chapter 7) applies not only to the pulpit, but also to the blog. The trouble with opinions, complaints, suggestions, and exhortations spoken in person (or e-mail, or text—anything addressed to an individual or a distinctive group) is that the hearer often takes the words personally, as directed towards himself, even when they are not. A blog post, on the other hand, is an offering, one of many in a smorgasbord, presented to the world so that one might take, and another reject the offering, in whole or in part, without offense to either the giver or the recipient.
Rather than spending Christmas Eve writing the same sentiments in a different way, I'm making a few modifications to my Christmas post from two years ago. It's still appropriate.
Once upon a time, the War on Christmas was led, with good reason, by Christians themselves. Over time, I've come to be more understanding of those, like my Puritan ancestors, who banned the celebration of the holiday. It had become anything but a holy-day, filled with drunkenness, lewdness, and all sorts of riotous and unseemly behavior, hardly appropriate to the sublime occasion. If our moral behavior is no better these days, at least the holiday is kinder to children.
It is unfortunately fashionable among Christians to mock other Christians who worry about what they think is a secular war on Christmas. Despite Martin Luther's approval of its use in certain circumstances, I think mockery is a very low form of argument, hardly suitable for one human being to use against another. Be that as it may, I don't think there's an actual war being fought against Christmas.
Call it cultural appropriation.
Christmas is one of the greatest festivals of the Christian year—among many Christians the celebration lasts 12 days. Some would say Easter is more important, but if it is unique and astonishing that a man so clearly dead should in three days be so clearly alive, and alive in such a new way that he has a physical body (that can be touched, and fed) and yet comes and goes through space in a manner more befitting science fiction—is it any less unique and astonishing that God, the creator of all that is, seen and unseen, should become a human being, not in the shape-shifting ways of the Greek gods, but through physical birth, with human limitations?
Christmas is the celebration of this Incarnation: The God who in the act of creation made the world separate from himself, at a specific time in history implanted himself in that world, not from the outside like some alien visitation, but from the inside, as deep and physically inside as a human baby in a woman's womb. This is what we celebrate at Christmas. It is beyond astonishing, and absolutely requires the Virgin Birth. Take away either the unique conception of Jesus, or his physical resurrection, and you are left but a religion of good intentions and wishful thinking.
However, just as there is commonly a lot more involved in the celebration of a wedding than the legal act of marriage, many traditions have enriched the essential celebration of Christmas. From gift-giving to special foods, from carols to children's pageants, from decorated Christmas trees to stockings hanging by the chimney, beautiful customs have grown like many-faceted crystals around the core meaning of Christmas.
Indeed, these traditions are so special that millions hang onto them who reject the idea of God entering the world as a particular baby at a specific place and time. They even retain the name "Christmas" for this eviscerated holiday. Once upon a time that bothered me, but then I recognized that the symbols and traditions of Christmas are so rich and so powerful that—like a Christmas tree—they can retain life and beauty and a pleasing aroma for quite a while even when cut off from their roots.
Using the term "Christmas" for a celebration that no longer acknowledges nor respects the holiday's origin and history may be what is derisively called cultural appropriation, but I'm no longer convinced that's a bad thing. Christmas carols are very popular in Japan, a country where less than 2% of the people believe the words they are singing. In Europe, Christian holidays are celebrated by people who probably know no more about the meaning of the days than that the stores are closed and they don't have to go to work. In America, children eagerly count the days till Christmas who neither know who Christ is nor have ever been to mass.
More power to them. Cultural appropriation at its best is a terrific learning opportunity. For ourselves, let's take pains to celebrate the whole tree, root and branch. Beyond that, I see no need to fret about keeping Christ in Christmas. He's there, in every lovely symbol and custom, waiting patiently, as he always does, to be revealed at the right time.
Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, however you choose to celebrate it.
Not long ago, I was eating lunch with a woman whom I had just met, and she asked me the oddest question: What are your hobbies?
The question threw me, not only because I hate personal questions that come out of the blue like that, but because I had no idea how to answer it. I answered simply, "I don't have any," hoping she would drop the subject. Porter tried to help by mentioning a few projects of mine, but as I had absolutely no desire to talk about any of them, much less explain why they were certainly not hobbies, I resorted to my usual strategy in such situations, and flipped the question as quickly as possible to her own "hobbies." Works almost every time.
Nonetheless, the encounter brought home once again the thought that I apparently have very different idea about work from the rest of the world. Some would say that is because it has been almost 40 years since I worked for a paycheck, but I don't believe money comes into the equation at all. Certainly my attitude towards work and leisure predates my wage-earning.
Work is what I do.
I have no memory of a time when my life was separated into "work" and "leisure." Some work, e.g. school before college, was more annoying and unpleasant than other work. Some was associated with a paycheck, some not. But neither monetary gain nor whether or not I enjoy a task marks it as work or not work for me.
My first memorable encounter with someone else's definition of work was in high school physics, when our teacher told us, "if you are holding a 100-pound weight above your head but not moving it, you are not doing any work." I had a problem with that. Of course, that problem is just a quibble, because physics has a specific, particular definition of the term "work," independent of how the word might be used by ordinary human beings. I can handle that. However, society's definition of work, although fuzzy and unstated, is no less restrictive.
A friend of mine creates beautiful quilts, much sought-after as gifts. I think she must realize that she is an artist, but seems to have bought into the idea that quilting is a "hobby." She's a writer, also. Unlike me, she gets paid for her writing! I consider myself a writer, and writing to be (one part of) my work. Vocation, not avocation. But again, she considers her own writing to be a leisure-time activity. She is also an avid gardener—another hobby. I know she recognizes that what she does is of value—and she certainly knows how much effort goes into it and that the alternative would be to pay someone else to do the job—but she still accepts the world's idea that her work is somehow unimportant because...well, I'm not sure why. Because she doesn't live on the income? Because she has no degree in the field? Because each one is not her sole interest? I don't know.
What I do know is that I like the definition of work given pride of place in Google's definition:
[Work is] activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result
That expresses exactly what I have felt intuitively all my life.
Everything I do has a purpose. Usually a deliberate, serious purpose. Preparing a meal? That one's obvious. Sifting through census records? Genealogy research, and the last person who called that a "hobby" got a vicious evil eye from me. Reading a book? Education. Walking? Exercise. Doing a puzzle? Mental exercise. Sleeping? Much-needed mental and physical rest. Writing? That one's tough, because there's so much to it, but it is sufficient to say: I write for the same reasons I eat.
How about watching television, which is high on just about everyone's list of worthless activities (even if it fills much of their time)? For me, the primary purpose is as a social activity, usually with my husband. Depending on the show there may be other purposes, notably education. But with or without that, the social result is the activity's primary purpose.
Staring into space? Yes, even that is purposeful and deliberate. If I look zoned out, with eyes open or eyes closed, one of three essential activities is going on:
- I'm listening. I hear better if I can shut out, mentally or physically, the visual stimulus.
- I'm thinking. I'm concentrating on something, or working out a problem. For what it's worth, in my own brain, this usually takes the form of unwritten writing.
- I'm not thinking. I'm letting my mind free-range, as a butterfly flits from flower to flower, or I'm resting in the silence. This is vital for creative activities (read: life).
Okay, so there's one other possibility, and any of the above may transition seamlessly into the fourth:
- I'm sleeping.
If an activity has a purpose, it's work. If not, what is it? I don't know—boredom? Fortunately, I'm almost never bored.
What do you do for fun? is another question that throws me for a loop. Usually I can manage to respond with little more than a pathetic, "I don't do anything for fun." Perhaps it would be better to say, "I do everything for fun."
Fun is a travelling companion of work.
A rather fickle companion, it is true: unpredictable, here today and gone tomorrow, disinclined to come when called but also showing up in the most unexpected places. Some of my moments of intensest joy have occurred while doing simple housework. Anything I do can be fun, tedious, difficult, frustrating, exhilarating, exhausting, or refreshing.
The only downside I see to having my own, skewed definitions of words such as work, play, hobby, leisure, and fun—besides communication problems with others—is that it is difficult to decide what is and what is not an appropriate Sabbath day activity. If everything is work, how to I handle the command to "do no work"? I tend to lean in the direction of grace, on the grounds of "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." It doesn't matter what the particular activity is: if the net effect is restful, refreshing, or uplifting, it's a good Sabbath occupation. If it's stressful, frustrating, or exhausting—necessities excepted—better put it off for another day.