Trying

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”               – T.S. Elliot

 

This is such a challenging quote for me. Too often, most often, I think and think and think about the best course of action with “best” being judged by having the best outcomes. When the “best” choice isn’t apparent, I resign myself to inaction, to being busy – so busy I don’t have time to waste on considering the “best” option –  with whatever is in front of me: work, hobbies, family etc. This quote, though, is right. Life should be an adventure with open-ended possibilities.

I use the word “should be” because most of us would rather have stability and security in the form of the predictability of ready made life paths than having to figure out existing as we go. This attitude, though, guarantees that the general malaise of the past 125 years will continue. The promise of pursuing the American Dream or seeking the typical routine of the various life stages was that life would fulfilling if the goal was reached, but this simply hasn’t been true. If, then, we have the courage to get off the treadmill of “living the good life,” what are we to do? This leads us back to the quote: “For us, there is only trying. The rest is not our business.”

Thoughts from Ethic of Freedom

Jacques Ellul’s, The Ethics of Freedom, is a wonderful book. I have been slowly reading through it and each time I open it, I am rewarded with some insights. It had impacted my hopes for my children, my work as a teacher, my love for my wife and my view of my life. As I read this past week, a couple of thoughts have imposed themselves on me. Even at inopportune times, like when I’m attending SDSU’s 28-14 win over Sac St. two quotes – one comforting, one challenging – keep going through my mind.

The Comforting Quote: “… Love cannot be lived out except in a direct personal relation. It is hypocrisy to think that love can be lived out through other people and things. … Means such as money, technology, and politics give me many other powers. I can quickly help my neighbor by giving him a check or enlisting him in my party or church or finding him a place with a single telephone call. These things, however, relieve me of the commitment of love.”  

When I first started thinking about this quote, it was more challenging than encouraging, because when I think of helping the people in my community, I think of organizing food and clothing drives, building houses in TJ or volunteering at a soup kitchen, so this quote challenged that way of thinking. But, as I thought about it more, it became encouraging because each time I’ve participated in meeting the needs of a mass of “disadvantaged” strangers, I walked away wondering if I was really making difference in their lives or changing society enough to make my effort worthwhile. Yet, this quote turns this idea around suggesting that even those people with power to change society, who exercise that power, aren’t actually being loving no matter how benevolent they are. This is encouraging because each of us has the same opportunity to love. In my life, I have done a better job of loving those I am in relationship with than loving abstractly those I don’t know. Society tells me that I’m not making a difference, but what if they’re wrong?

The Challenging Quote: In effect, however, this attitude {of pursuing happiness as a style of life) gives the object (what makes me happy) priority in my own conscience and existence. The trigger of my desire, the object itself, becomes the meaning of my life, the catalyst of my intelligence, the nerve of my energies. the pole of my orientation. In other words, I cease to have any other life-possibilities.”

Obviously, we live in a society that’s fixated on happiness. Justification for every action, no matter how destructive, is provided by the mantra, “I’m living my happiness.” Every person I know, myself included, spends the majority of their free time pursuing what makes them happy. On the surface, this seems like a great idea, because the alternative is intentionally doing what doesn’t bringing us happiness, but the quote above illuminates the problem of centering our lives on the pursuit of happiness: it eliminates the possibility of doing anything else. If we are honest, what brings us day to day happiness, what we end up actually doing with our free time, is often frivolous. Yet, it consumes most of our time and energy. Games like Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit are centered around the “useless knowledge” we’ve all acquired pursuing our areas of interest. Personally, the amount of sports knowledge I’ve amassed is embarrassing in light of the quote above. If I poured the time reading and talking about sports into my education, I could have a PHDs! The challenge is not to dwell on the past, but moving into the present, how do we change the direction of out lives from following our happiness to live for others?

Love

duck-tales.jpg“Life is like a hurricane, here in Duckburg,” is the beginning line of the theme song to the best cartoon from my childhood, Duck Tales (woo-oo). This song echoes in my head at some point each week as I’m trying to put my children to sleep. When one child needs to go to bed, there is a whirlwind of activities, emotions and negotiations that’s hard to imagine, and in my house with four kids under eight, it can be quite an adventure.

Clean up, diaper changes, teeth brushing, milk before bed, wardrobe changes, reading time and fighting off the thousands of ways these little people have creatively invented to delay the inevitable is a nightly occurrence. Couple all of this with the fatigue of a long  day and the anticipation of getting to sit without doing anything and you start to get the idea. A week ago, just like the thousands of times before, we began our night time routine. As usual, my boys were engaged in their delay tactics, and wrongly, I used my size and my voice to hurry the process. Roaring at them, I commanded their unconditional obedience to get into bed. Almost immediately, I realized I was at fault. What’s the bigger offense, their getting ready at a molasses pace or my unloving response?

After I apologized to my boys and they were finally in bed, I picked up the book I’m currently working through, Jacques Ellul’s The Ethics of Freedom. My choice to give in to my anger just before served as an object lesson for what I read. “Love does not give us the content of action but its manner.” The rest of the week wasn’t any easier. My offspring, acting like the children they are, continued to resist retiring for the evening as if it were a plague, but my eyes were now opened to a wonderful truth.

Love is not an action, it’s the quality of an action. There is no particularly loving act, there are only acts that we do in a loving way. LoveTo love my children at their night time routine, then, meant doing the exact same behaviors in a way that expresses my affection for them. What I found is when I intentionally tried to lovingly brush their teeth or lovingly read them a story, I slowed down, was present in the moment and enjoyed the privilege of being with them. We all want to be loving people, and I think we search for ways to love, as if there was a specific action that was love, but love more than anything infuses what we are already doing with a unmistakable quality. It saturates even the most mundane experience with significance and worth.

Losing Your Life

Every semester, I have a couple of those students who for whatever reason are incongruent with school; they don’t get along well with teachers, have attendance issues and generally don’t do much work. This leads, of course, to the dreaded parent – teacher conference. This entire meeting boils down to three things: feelings, thoughts and behaviors because these three qualities, as far as the school is concerned, are what children amount to. Parents, especially mothers; however, see their child differently. For them their child is more how he acts. There is a kernel of individuality, that the student might not even know exists, but a loving parent sees it undoubtedly because good parents treasure their babies long before their children have any sophisticated feelings, thoughts or actions.

Spend any time with a young child and you’ll see it too. Children play, sleep, talk and love without discrimination, violence or pretense. What we call innocence in children is actually the part of our identities that precedes how we act, feel or think. As we grow older and interact with our environment, we begin to identify ourselves with our choices, our desires, our thoughts and the part of our humanity so alive in childhood is slowly crowded out. In its place, we learn to see ourselves for our part in our community, both local and global. Which brings us to the quote that’s been stirring in my mind the past two weeks.

“Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but     whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”                                                                                   – Jesus

This paradox about losing our lives in order to find it is in part an invitation by Jesus to embrace the piece of us that can only been seen by loving eyes – like those a mother possesses towards her child. The path to getting reacquainted with this essential part of us – that would exist regardless of our sociological context – is to die to the other parts of our identities. This death is especially difficult to embrace for those of us who have been trained to see ourselves only in what we consciously and unconsciously do, think and feel. Put another way, our time is filled up with a myriad of thoughts, feelings and actions, but these do not make up the totality of who we am. Often, these thoughts, feelings and actions occur as we fulfill certain roles in society. Losing my life would mean disassociating ourselves from the roles we fulfill. For instance, I am more than a teacher, husband, father or even more basic, I am more than a white, middle class, heterosexual, man. When I die to all of these roles and forsake the benefit they bring me, I will meet again the part of me that proceeding all of them. In doing so, I will acquire the joy and freedom a child brings to all she does; I will find my life.

 

Birth Order

Talked to some friends last night about the realities of having four children. They have three and wanted to know how difficult adding one more was. Jim Gaffigan says that adding a fourth child is like drowning … and then, someone hands you a child. As true as that may be, having our first child was the most difficult because of the change in lifestyle, being terrible at everything child related and having all your pre-child plans fail miserably. One of the pre-child hopes that I had was to have our oldest be a girl so she could set an example for her siblings for how humans should live. Currently, I’m glad this hope went unrealized.

Our two oldest are boys, 7 and 5, they have the privileged of helping to raise their younger sisters, 2 and 5 months. This is a great advantage for them – or my oldest at least – because when they grow up, they’ll have life experience at caring for babies. When you have four children, it gives the older children vital, important and needed roles to play. We simply can’t get along as well without them. A couple of weeks ago, I took the four children to Costco sans wife for dinner and shopping. In order for dinner to happen smoothly, the boys had to take my credit card, stand in the long, snaking, line to order and make runs to get water, napkins, etc. When we shopped, my oldest had to push his youngest sister in her stroller while I navigated the shopping cart. He had to keep his concentration; his sisters well-being was in his hands. Admittedly, if they were girls, they would have benefited from being needed, but boys, too often, are shielded from doing domestic work, and thus, never become like the Patriarch Jacob a “complete man.”

Being the oldest has also helped my boys because they get to be around their mother as she breast feeds their sister. The first breast I ever saw was in a ripped up, Playboy Magazine. I think I was five. Those breasts, in that context, started me on a road to separate women from their bodies. In contrast, the first breast, my boys will remember, will be their mother’s. It will be impossible for them to separate her body from who she is to them. Hopefully, this will help start them out to have healthy relationship to women, which makes me glad we got boys before girls.

 

Feelings…Part 2

Last post, I ventured into some tempestuous waters as a man trying to express some thoughts on female emotion. When I mentioned the topic, my wife asked if I was “Mainsplaining.” But, after reading it, she gave her approval. Subsequently, I asked some of the women who inspired the thoughts to read it, they also approved, so it gave me confidence to mention a few other thoughts. The disclaimer from last week still applies: I offer no solutions only observations.

Observation #5 Mosaics Make Terrible Role Models

Some of the anxiety I have seen women have arises from the fact that they measure themselves against the best quality in other women. That is, rather than finding roles models whose entire life is known, women look at the one best quality in many women’s lives and judge themselves by these. They pull a women with great organizational skills and criticize themselves because they aren’t as coordinated. Or they look at women with four small children who write books and wonder why they can only find time to raise their children. While they certainly don’t need me to point out how unrealistic their expectations are, it does seem odd to me to look up to so many people. Role models are great, but it should be limited to a couple of people, who we actually know in our offline lives.

Observation #6 Don’t Deal With Your Emotions

Talk to most anyone about emotions and it won’t be long before someone mentions “dealing with emotions.” It strikes me that this sort of talk comes from a place where emotions are a burden, something that gets in the way of the important work. Emotions should be embraced, experienced and not just the good ones. It’s easy for a less emotional man to say that they should be valued, but there does seem to be something healthy about women embracing themselves and not viewing their bodies and hormones as if they are in constant revolt.

Observation #7  It All Adds Up

Turn on any television, read any website or listen to any radio station and there is bound to be something tragic on. In fact, every day, each of us sees thousands of headlines where the worst of life is being experienced. Somehow, we have been trained to see these stories and unemotionally glaze over them. Men as I tried to explain here have been molded to value objects like cars more than people, so when we read about these tragedies, it has very little impact. Women, though, can’t callously ignore the pain the people in these articles are feeling. In the moment, women are able to block out their feelings, but I think this adds up and impacts them in two ways. 1. In the moments when they can’t control their emotions, the episodes I just described come out and make these times more negative and severe. 2. The internet has become the main source of reality for all of us – it is literally what we see (in the pay attention sense of the word) most. It spikes anxiety in men and women because it makes our world feel more dangerous than it probably is. Women feel the need to be more vigilant to protect themselves and their loved one from the random, inevitable tragedies they see on social media, television etc.

Observation #8 The Alarm Is Sounding

Finally, my motivation for writing these two posts was because of a series of conversations that took place over the past few months with seven different women all describing the same issues, anxiety and emotions.  As I thought and read about it more, I realized these problems were not unique, women across society seem to be struggling too. As a father of two young girls, I wondered if the struggles of these women would inevitable inflict my daughters. Emotions, I think, should be analyzed as a whole not in isolation from each other and together, the negative, uncontrollable deluge many women are experiencing should be a sign to the rest of us that the incongruities in society that pit women and their bodies against each other is wrong. It is up to all of us to cultivate a way of living which is more sustainable.

Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings

Fact Faith FeelingSometimes certain themes pop up in my life in various places from different people which force me to pay attention. Lately, the struggle of anxiety and the place to give emotions  has been a consistent refrain among many of women I’m closest with. What follows is not a solution to this problem or really even advice. It’s simply just some observations from a interested, caring outsider.

Observation 1: Image Is Everything

Individually and collectively we all carry culture baggage from the choices our ancestors have made over the past few centuries. This luggage is spiking the anxiety in women. Both men and women are treated and have been treated like objects rather than people. Historically, men have been objectified for work in the market place by their bosses, companies and governments, while women have been objectified to fulfill men’s sexual desires. Society values men as tools for what they can do and women for their appearance. If a man dresses poorly, he needs help. If a women is not put together, she’s lazy or worse, ugly. Likewise, at work, when a man fails to do his job, he is seen as a tool that needs sharpening. When he’s not good at something, he needs training. But when a women fails do her job, it reflects on her person, her image. This leads to tremendous amounts of anxiety because in all walks of life women whose image is not perfect are replaced by another, often younger, model.

Observation 2: You are your Emotions

We live in a world that is constantly seeking the one best way to be human. In this pursuit we are being molded to all have similar habits and experiences. As mentioned above, men used to be valued solely for what they could do and women for how they look, but with social media men are increasingly being judged for the image they project (thus the birth of Hipsters with their creative haircuts, beards and hats). Gender roles and gender, itself, are being re-imagined or erased altogether. The ideal human is even keeled, easily adaptable to any change, fun, happy, energetic, uncomplicated etc. For many of the women I know, their biology does not allow them to become this person, which constantly gives them a negative view of themselves. What if the problem isn’t women, but the society that forces them to be different than they are. Our emotions are what make us individuals. We have little control over the homogenization of experience, but how we react to them, how they make us feel, is who we are. You could capture what my wife does in a book, but you could never come close to knowing how she feels except by talking with her or by being privileged to live with her i.e. knowing her. Without the strange cocktail of feelings, my wife wouldn’t be her. If she could drug herself to not feel, we would lose the gift of who she is.

What I wonder is if our emotions are intended to be guides for our reason. We can often make plans that don’t take into consideration our limitations and when we implement them, our emotions erupt as a sign that there’s more to life than reason alone can perceive. Emotions work with our rational ideals so they can enter into the present.  This is why emotions are not allowed in the work place – they undermine the strategic plans of the bosses. Understanding our emotions is complicated, but they can be incredibly helpful. Take anger for instance. Am I angry because I need to change or am I angry because something around me needs to change? Knowing the difference is vital.

Observation 3: Girls Just Want To Have Fun

Judging from the women in my life, the only valid emotion is the happiness. If women are irritable, angry, sad, etc. these are  the emotions we put up with or demand that they change. Yet, why are any of the smorgasbord of emotions any more valid than any other? There’s so much happening in our lives and each requires a different emotional response. Sometimes I wonder if the large discharge of emotion in women is a result from having to suppress them all the time. When a man is moody, he’s “acting like a chick,” but when a women is moody “she’s a bitch.” That’s insanely wrong. Emotions, to be sure, are exhausting, inefficient, impracticable, but they give light and color to all we do.  Perhaps, it’s our expectation of never being inconvenienced by someone else’s emotions that should be reconsidered. It’s wonderful and life giving when the women around me are happy, sweet and upbeat, but who can do that all time? Why should they be expected to?

Observation 4: Doing More Won’t Help

For many women I know finishing their task list is main way of dealing with their anxiety. Yet, never before have women had more control over their lives, accomplished more at all levels society and yet, anxiety is increasing not decreasing. Perhaps, in certain roles, the strategy of finishing everything before you can rest is effective, but in roles where women are working with other people, it can be maddening, because there is always more to do. I’m not suggesting any solutions much less the trite cliche “don’t worry about it so much.” But what I wonder is if this desire to have full control and security over every aspect of their life is sustainable. As mentioned above, the unfair burden placed upon women is crushing, but waiting for a society that’s so inconguent with all things biologically and socially female to help is not the best strategy. The women I know – my wife, my mother, my sister, my friends, my colleagues – are the smartest, most capable, most insightful, most powerful people I know. If a solution is to be found for my daughters, my niece and the next generation of women it will come from within this group not outside.