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Happily Ever After

The catachism says that God created us to be holy and happy.  I believe this must be another one of those things that is buried deep inside us- because most of us have an attitude about being happy.

We believe we have a right to be happy; and if we are not happy, then not all is right with our world.  I don’t know how much of this attitude may be the times or culture, but considering that most sin is committed to please ourselves, I suspect an insistence on happiness is age-old and borderless. 

At the same time, I do think the modern tendencies toward instant gratification, being true to yourself, and fighting for your rights have exasperated the situation.  Especially in the United States, where life is admittedly easier than in many other countries, benefits more numerous, disadvantages fewer: the only thing to do when you have it all is look for more.

It is not a sin to want to be happy.  In fact, wanting what we were created for is not only the right attitude to have but pretty much inescapable.  The problem begins when we confuse what being “happy” really means.

A child assumes that an entire chocolate bar will make him happy- and when there’s a chocolate bar right there, and other people are eating chocolate, it seems an unjust exercise of adult authority for his parents to refuse him.  There is nothing wrong with chocolate, and it would certainly provide a period of pleasure.  But it would be pointless, harmful, and lead to insignificance if his parents permitted him to spend his life eating chocolate bars- or even promised him periodic chocolate retreats for good behavior.

And yet that seems to be what most of us not only want but expect.  We expect to be happy.  And the more fools we, to be honest.  Yes, God loves us; yes, God gives us hope; yes, God has promised us eternal life through His son in eternity with Him.  But we are not in Paradise yet, we are so far from Paradise that we really can claim a parallel universe.  We live in a world that has been dominated by evil for close to 8000 years.  We are sinners, living in a sinful world.  Yes, we have, thank God, been redeemed.  But we have not yet been perfected, we are not in our glorified bodies.  And even if we were- there are millions, even billions of our neighbors who are not only not perfected, but not even redeemed (yet- there is always hope).

Makes it seem kind of foolish when we want to live in Lemony Snicket’s story of the Happy Elf, doesn’t it?  We look at other people’s lives, and it does seem as though some people’s lives are remarkably free of turmoil and trial- but, even ignoring the fact that God may have different plans for different lives, I am certain that there is not a person alive who has never known despair and fear at 3 am.  What we see is not always what is there.  And trivializing another person’s life can be just another way to judge him.  We never know another person’s heart; only God does.

And when we return to contemplation of our own lives, and reflect that we’ve “paid our dues” and it’s time for a vacation- we’re forgetting the very nature of life; man IS born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.  We live in a fallen world; and while God does occasionally perform a miracle when it is right and needed, if He constantly interfered in entropy we would no longer be creatures of free will- and we would have no need for faith.

Because God has given us so many blessings, we see our way clear to demand more, to imagine something of the life promised us in Heaven.  But this is not Heaven.  We are here, now.  And we are here, now, for a purpose. 

I certainly do my fair share of complaining.  Bewailing. Pitying myself and wondering why it always has to be me.  And yet at the same time, I do see God working in my life.  It’s certainly not the most rewarding work He’s ever done, most of His lessons take much longer to reach my heart than my brain, but I can see Him changing my thinking.  I am beginning to see the trappings of our “happiness” for the shadows that they are, and realizing that the truth is much rawer and deeper.  That the real point of life is not being “faithful” (read “marking off the checklist”) and therefore having obedient children, a loving husband, and a glowing testimony at church; the real point is being full of faith- in each and every catastrophe, major or minor, and the dull times in between, and those elusive”happy” moments when you think you’ve got it made- praying, and leaving it up to God.  The real point is not whether I have good children (my WORKS as a good mother) or a good marriage (my WORKS as a good wife) or a line of people thanking me for my witness (my WORKS as a good Christian) but whether I am in communion with God, praying in each and every circumstance or without them, not taking events into my own hands to micromanage a happy ending but just abiding in God (His GRACE as God).

And this is where the catechism really comes in- because it says God created us to be HOLY and happy- not the same thing as  being happy.   Being happy might look like a day at the beach, a picnic with hotdogs, hamburgers, friends and family; but being HOLY and happy means knowing that God’s will will be done, and that far from picking up the pieces, He holds them in His hands.

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No pain, no gain

Sometimes we don’t think at all, and sometimes we think too much.  Sometimes we over-spiritualize things, and sometimes we don’t take the fact that everything is God-related into account.  Sometimes we feel like we’re stuck in an anecdote where one person of two is telling the truth and the other is lying, and we have no idea which is which…

So, self-sacrifice is a good thing.  Maybe almost the best thing, after all, Christ sacrificed himself for us, and we are supposed to identify with Him.  As a matter of fact, if we have a choice to do something we want to do, and something someone else wants us to do, we should always choose the latter, because that is what God wants us to do, and we musn’t be selfish or egotistical.

And we can feel noble when we sacrifice, whereas we only feel guilty if we don’t sacrifice.

Actually, God never told us to be noble.  Nowhere will you find that concept in the Bible.  As a matter of fact, He never even told us to be the bigger man.  He did tells us to forgive, and to love, and not to insist on our own.  And somehow we inferred nobility from that.

Nobility is pride, when you come down to it.  I only realized this after C. S. Lewis did, of course.  He shows how the devil tempts the Eve-type character on Venus to sin by appealing to her nobility and calling for self-sacrifice.  What?!  The devil is tempting someone into self-sacrifice?  (And no, it isn’t a blood offering.)  You could read the story (Perelandra) to get all the details, but it’s related to sacrificing her own holiness for the supposed benefit of her husband.

I think this is one of the hardest and most confusing aspects of the New Testament.  I say the New Testament, because although stories in the Old Testament may show some self-sacrifice, only the New Testament talks about it.  We automatically assume that self-sacrifice is good, and that if we are trying to determine God’s will and one way requires self-sacrifice, that’s probably God’s will.

And we’re right back to humanly over-simplifying and trying to make rules to make things easier for ourselves.

Self-sacrifice is sometimes more prideful than being selfish.  It’s sometimes more selfish than being selfish, if you can get your mind around that one.  Every story has two sides; my father-in-law never accepted any sacrifices his wife made- insisted that she eat the last piece of fruit, etc.  From his side, he was sacrificing so his wife could have something nice.  But from her side, he was refusing her the joy of being able to give him something- even the blessing of sacrifice, if you really want to spiritualize it.

Not that I’m going to talk about my poor beleaguered in-laws again.  Well, actually, I am, but in a slightly different setting; this just struck as one example of a way sacrifice could go astray.  Another example might be the man who “sacrifices” his free time to work overtime to provide more for his family, and who justifiably feels he’s doing a good thing- but his family only wants him to spend time with them at home.  Or the person who sacrifices due to a subconscious desire to manipulate certain rewards or benefits.

Or the person who sacrifices health, work, friends, family life, etc to live with her elderly in-laws, because it’s a good thing to do, but her heart was never in it.  Right, that would be me.  And I totally flunked that test- again. 

I really did assume that refusing this sacrifice would be wrong.  A sin.  And that sacrificing would be right, and would result in certain ways.  Maybe not physical blessings, but certainly a more exalted spiritual state.  And I really did read way too many Grace Livingston Hill books when I was developing.  (And I think some Louisa May Alcott got in there too.)

Well, I was wrong.  In the short term view, at least, my “sacrifice” did not exalt anyone, and made pretty much everyone miserable.  But I did feel very noble.  And even if I wasn’t exactly serving with my heart, I did sincerely believe that I should sacrifice, that it was the Christian thing to do. 

In the long term view, I do believe that God does not drop stitches; that there are regardless lessons learned, which is part of what we’re here for.  And that though we often may not see the point, there is one, and God always sees it.

But how did I so deceive myself?  What contortions of thought brought me to a sincerely misguided sacrifice that was perhaps not ultimately, but immediately pointless?

I guess we’re right back to those nice, convenient little rules we make to make our lives “easier”.  Only they don’t; they make our lives more complicated, and less faithful.  Living the faithful life seems so very difficult, and seems to require so much faith- it really does seem easier to follow “spiritual” logic.  1. My husband felt we should do this, so I was submissive (good, right?) 2 We’re supposed to take care of our parents, and not abandon them like the Pharisees (and these are my husband’s parents, not mine, so double good- me and Ruth, saints together) 3.  We’re supposed to be humble and not insist on our own happiness (and I was miserable, so that had to be good). 

Well, it may be logic- of a kind.  (And empirical reasoning is not really the best kind of logic.)  But it is not “spiritual”.  (We do misuse that word so.)  In fact, I was going right back to rules and forms and religion.  And while my intentions were for the most part good, the results showed the faultiness of my reasoning.

Or maybe not.  I am perhaps being a little over-harsh here, because it is a very difficult situation, and there are no easy answers or solutions- and we truly don’t know what God intends in having allowed it.  But I do believe that this simply underlines my growing conviction that we are too prone to have our list of answers and whatever they call them in the army, those responses to crisis situations.  I do not think that there can be one answer to a particular problem, even for Christians.

And that means that self-sacrifice is not always the better path.  Sometimes there’s just too much self in self-sacrifice.  Not that it’s unnecessary, or wrong.  No; there is a very real place for self-sacrifice, and without it we could not live at all (just ask the woman who gets up three times in the night to nurse a baby.)  But just because it’s self-sacrifice doesn’t mean it’s right- unthinking self-sacrifice is no more reasonable or virtuous than any other unthinking act. 

It all comes back to that little point about waiting on God and abiding in Him.  Not attempting to manipulate things based on our own efforts and works, but listening to God’s voice, and doing what He calls us to.

Excuse My Blush

This is a real can of worms.  And it doesn’t matter who opens it, he (or more likely she) will end up with mud on his (her, obviously) face.  That fascinating little topic of modesty…

Recently reading a blog on the issue, I disagreed with both the author and the readers’ comments.  Yes, I do believe that it is good to be modest.  Yes, I agree that certain quantities of skin may be a problem.  Yes, I agree that we certainly can cause a weaker brother stumble with some modes of dress.

But I’m afraid it’s a much wider subject that any of us wants to admit.  And the “rules” aren’t necessarily what we think they are- because there aren’t any. 

We do so love our rules!  They give us such feelings of satisfaction as we check off our good deeds for the day.  And how nice, we never have to use our brains- just follow the guidelines and be godly.

Of course, they do tend to differ widely; jeans are inappropriate in certain institutions, though jean jumpers are not only acceptable, but even laudable.  (Must be the ugly factor, a sort of modern self-flagellation.)  One person commented that their religious organization required that shorts be no shorter than a the width of a dollar bill above the knee; presumably, this is the holy measurement- God-ordained.  Many people would agree that long hair is holy, though whether one wears it down (so everyone can see it’s long) or pinned up (so only your husband can see your split ends) is a matter of debate.

Yes, I know I’m being flippant.  And I don’t really belittle a woman’s sincere desire to dress in a way pleasing to God.  But I thoroughly deplore our human insistance on making rules.  These rules so often become a matter of self-righteousness, of judgement, of dissention, of organization social classes, and of turning off our minds and hearts.

Rules are one of those ways we attempt to control our surroundings.  Fearful of the sheer freedom of hundreds and thousands of people- different people, different from us, we create rules that will protect our fragile sense of self and dignity.  We try to control the sheer chaos we imagine resulting from the freedom that God so unthinkingly gave us- well, maybe not us, but those others, the ones who are different.

It’s wrong.  Not modesty, no.  God did speak to us about modesty, though I don’t recall any commandments referring to dollar bills- or even shorts, Bermuda or otherwise. We are wrong when we try to take control.  That is precisely what Adam and Eve were doing; instead of being content to live on faith and trust, they wanted to be like gods and control their own destiny.  (Incidentally, I wonder what length robe God made for Eve in the garden, one does hope it covered her knees…)  Of course, living on faith and trust requires a tremendous amount of effort, and even thought, and some sensitivity- and we do know that while Adam and Eve, who obviously were not up to the challenge, may have used 100% of their brain capacity, we descendants use only 7-10%.  Perhaps we have an excuse.  Then again, we descendants do have that advantage of being born again, and Spirit-filled; we can’t cry too loudly.

It may be that we too often play the culture card, but it is still true.  What is good for the goose may not be good for the gander if the gander happens to live several thousand miles away.  Something as fundamental as climate can change realistic expectations of dress;  I really desperately would have loved to be able to wear slacks to church when I was travelling 15 km by bus before sunrise in -40 weather, if only they weren’t a sin.  (Which is really funny, because as I’ve pointed out to my mother-in-law in my more persnickety moments, Jesus wore a dress, and there weren’t any slacks in Biblical times anyway.)  Similarly, while hot pants and halter tops may be stretching the point, a hot climate is not the place to be worrying about open shoulders.  On the other hand, the uniform that many of the more conservative Christians consider appropriate in America would look downright lewd on the streets of Saudi Arabia.  And has anyone considered how difficult it might be for tribal women in the jungles of Africa to grow their hair long?

I am no better than anyone else, and there have certainly been people I have criticized in my heart for their appearance (though in my case, it’s been the jean jumper with sneakers type as often as the midriff-bearing, skinny jeans with stilletoes type.)  But the more I’ve been judged unfairly- not only for my appearance, which is rarely hair-raising- the more I realize how frightening it is to make easy judgements.  Especially about something so easily misunderstood and misinterpreted as appearance.  Americans may think that many of my Russian students look like street-walkers, but my students think Americans look like slobs.  (Um, I’ll just take this opportunity to mention that the reason I pass as Russian if I don’t open my mouth is because I dress like my colleagues- NOT my students.)

Another case is a girl who goes to our church and sings in the choir.  Apparently, she is concerned that her ankle-length white dress with lace trim may be too transparent, so she wears another white skirt underneath, and a white blouse partially buttoned over the dress.  Considering the current temperatures and humidity, I think this a very laudable effort.  The fact that she looks half-undressed, like one of the girls dancing around in petticoats in an MGM musical, or several less savoury comparisons I can think of, has probably never occurred to her.  And it may not have occurred to anyone else but me, because I doubt there are many people here who watch MGM musicals or have a tendency to think in terms of gypsies and Dumas adventures.  (She’s a very nice girl, and I really have no issue with her dress, especially knowing that she does not have much money to work with; I just thought it was interesting that covering as much skin as she could actually had the opposite effect to what she intended.)

The sad thing is, in all the kafuffle over rules and rulers, the heart issue is lost.  I have told my mother-in-law so many times (in my imagination, that is) that the whole point of the verse about gold and silver and broiding of the hair isn’t in the gold and silver (or my lipstick, which was not mentioned once in the Bible).  The point is that our emphasis is supposed to be on our hearts, not our appearance.  And when we’re in the midst of finding dollar bills to measure our hemlines, and debating whether or not open-toed shoes are more provocative than sandals, we are putting the emphasis precisely on our appearance.  We would seem to be more concerned with looking Christian, than being Christian. 

I truly believe that if we worried more about our hearts, our dress would take care of itself.  The closer we are walking with God, the purer our motives will be, the less easily influenced we will be, and the less time we will have to primp and preen.  Okay, so I acknowledge that none of us are that far advanced- and nor will be, if we continue to spend all of our time in figuring out the rules for polite Christian conduct.  I love etiquette, I was a rabid fan of Amy Vanderbilt’s book in my teens, but I do not think that we should be spending our time as Christians competing with Emily Post.  One of the reasons the Catholic church has been slow to canonize Mother Teresa is because of an incident when she was young when she stripped naked (more or less) to jump into a river to save someone’s life.  Not modest, no, nor even polite- but most definitely a Christian act.

Quite honestly, I think our fascination with rules of Christian conduct is one of the trickiest tools the devil has come up with.  Because while we’re worrying about filling in all our checkboxes to be holy, the real life of faith is passing us by.  Now, I should be quick to add here that I am certainly as bad as anybody else- there are things I “just won’t do” and moments when I preen, but I desperately want to break out of this bondage to this world.  If not for myself, then most definitely for my children.  Why do so many “Christian” children grow up to be black sheep?  Because from childhood they are taught that Christians dress this way, listen to this music, don’t drink, smoke, dance, and read three chapters of the Bible a day.  But most children are not taught that while these are good rules, they really have nothing to do with living, breathing faith in God- faith that knows that all things are in God’s hands, not mine; that I need to accept God’s will, not insist on my own manipulations; that my first “task” is to sit before God and wait.  And that no, it is not easy, and it is not something that will ever be checked off the list, because there is no list- but it is the only vital thing in our lives.

The Briar Patch

Do you ever feel as if when the Bible says “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall have them in derision” that it’s talking about you?   And not as the one sitting in the heavens either.

Sometimes it seems as if we’re missing the joke; I thought about this as I dragged myself home from work.  “Home” being a relative term here, intended to signify the dwelling in which I live- otherwise known as my in-laws’ home.  Located on the other side of the tracks, over a bridge of 67 steps- one way.  I was dragging because I had spent Sunday mousily playing while my mother-in-law took her feline tendencies elsewhere- and playing in this instance means cleaning the house, getting rid of clutter and using the kitchen, so that I have spent the last two days recovering.

Which is ridiculous.  When you cannot even clean your house without having to recuperate, and you are only 32, something is rotten, and it’s not in Denmark.  And when this infirmity is joined by joint and muscle pain, hormonal imbalances, thyroid wierdness and insulin resistance- you haven’t got a thorn in the flesh, you’ve jumped into the briar patch.  And the really pitiful thing is that minor chronic illnesses don’t even have the dignity to be respected, so in addition to being a mild basketcase, you appear to be a sluggard.

And they keep multiplying… and you wonder who’s getting a belly laugh out of this, and what’s so funny?  And are the details of living with your in-laws, in a half-convenienced house, on the other side of the tracks, on a rapidly shrinking paycheck really necessary to the punchline?

Misery loves company.  And I am not miserable, because I am not dying of cancer and leaving 5 children behind; I am not sitting in an Islamic prison for touching the Koran with unwashed hands, while my children fend for themselves outside; I do not live in a famine zone, watching my children die one after another; I am not awaiting the next bomb on the East Bank; I am not waiting for someone to pull my husband’s body from a collapsed mine shaft.  And forgive me, but I do not want to be a part of that company; oh, I’m sure it’s commendable, and character-building, and ultimately rewarding to eke out your pain-wracked days in a prison cell, but- in that lovely Southern phrase, I have enough to say grace over.

Not that I’m saying it.  I’m sitting hunched over, kicking at the pricks, and wondering how I got here and how to get out.  But was it really ol’ Brer Fox who threw me in here?  Yes, I’ve gotten my hands tarred often enough in this life; but was I tossed into the briar patch, or was this where I was born? 

Why do I keep thinking that I’m supposed to have a happy (read “easy”) life?  What makes me any different than any other rabbit?  Why should my corner of the briar patch be the hybrid, thornless corner?  And why was Brer Rabbit so happy to come back to this vale of sorrows?

We could hope that Brer Rabbit was glad to escape the tar baby and sin and temptation, but I suspect it was more likely the safety in the thorns- because when the thorns are so thick, the enemy can’t reach you- unless you take off running into his claws.  And the size of the thorn- prison, leprosy or aches and pains- makes the difference in how well one is protected.  You’ll excuse me if I’m not so eager for protection as to claim longest, sharpest thorns… but if hiding within the thorns is what keeps me near to our thorn-crowned King, maybe I need to see things a little differently.  And maybe I need to be saying grace a little more fervently…

Thanks and Giving

I downloaded a pdf file with two trees (“Thanks” and “Giving”) and a collection of leaves for us to keep track of our thanks for the month of November.  Okay, so today is already the 6th… time and organization are not among the items on my gratitude list.  We managed to find 5 things to be thankful for today- with a little prompting, Sofia was thankful for her preschool class, and playing with the neighbor girls, and having cake with her tea, and I was thankful for coffee (after a week without) and getting in touch with old friends on facebook.   But neither of us could think of anything kind we had done to hang on the “Giving” tree.

Being thankful is certainly a start, and a good thing- but if we only hang leaves on our Thanks tree what does that say about us?  I know that after months of criticism from my mother-in-law, and then losing our daughter, and finally, having some serious health issues, I have pulled back into my shell; I know that I am not open with people, and I tend to choose the side of caution; but do I actually go an entire day without doing one kind thing I could hang on a Giving tree? 

I suppose it’s a natural reaction; people seem to react to trials as ostriches, ignoring them, or turtles,disappearing for protection, porcupines, sending out stay-back messages, or the good old skunk, who proactivelys sends everyone scurrying.  But it’s wrong .  That isn’t why God sends trials.  We’re supposed to stay open and trusting through them- sometimes even that’s why He sends them, to open our hearts to those around us. 

Humanly speaking, that’s unnatural.    It just doesn’t seem normal to open yourself up to possible hurt and pain.  Not when you have enough already. 

I’m not even sure how you go about it- being open to those around you.  Not being afraid, or still more, knowing you could face a rebuff, or just totally flunk- and volunteering yourself anyway.   

I do know that just having “feelings” does nothing at all; oh, I have certainly developed a heightened sense of understanding and empathy, but if I’m keeping it to myself, is there any point?  It’s sort of like the old women praying at church in tears, and then walking out the door and turning them off.  I’m sure they feel that they have prayed with zeal and sincerity, but if it’s only a momentary emotion I don’t think it has much value.  (I’m not going to say it hasn’t any, because I’m not God, I don’t know, and I’m sure that even a momentary softening does something good in our hearts.)

And I really don’t know how you start; there are millions of people in incredible pain in our world, but I can’t help all of them- and even those I “can” help, I may not actually be able to help.  I remember the two little boys last spring who were starving, literally, with their alcoholic parents.  We bought them groceries,we kept an eye on them, called their aunt, planned to call Child Services but somebody beat us to it.  I know they are far from the only children starving in Birobidzhan- but what’s the next step?

Remembering the Good Samaritan, I suppose we just take in stride the next person in trouble we meet.  The sad thing is, I know that we can’t always help people.  That the woman who begs on Gorkova St. and whom I buy bread for is actually mentally disturbed; that the gypsy children have more money than I do; that the man we got into the rehab center is taking advantage of an easy life, and will go back to drinking when he leaves.

On the other hand, the charity that begins at home is harder; it’s harder to take the time and patience to talk to my mother-in-law- and yes, that does make me ashamed.  That’s why I couldn’t put my lame efforts at a few conversational phrases on the Giving tree.  Keeping my mouth shut about the mess and clutter also seems to fall more under an obligation than a kindness.

So how am I going to fill my Giving tree?  And how am I going to teach my daughter to fill the Giving tree? Do I want her to grow up to be as cold as I am?  I don’t even want me to grow up as cold as I am.  Today I read a phrase, “loving God has to be more than hating evil- because love is a verb” on Ann Voskamp’s blog.  I don’t suppose I am the only person for whom love is not a verb, but I did feel that among sinners, I am chief.

So back to what seems to be only solution available to any question- praying.  Praying to be open, to be brave, to be foolish, tobe less cautious, to be kinder, to live my life in verbs- and active verbs at that.  And not forgetting to give while I’m thanking.

Recently I was re-reading “The Secret Garden”- something I’ve done fairly frequently since I was eight.  To be honest, I can’t explain why I love this book so much- there are a lot of wonderful children’s books, but this is the one I’ve read the most.  I like the reality of the characters, the romance of the garden, the “coming of age”, “voyage of discovery” theme- and the descriptions of the food, second only to Laura Ingalls Wilder in flavour.

But in this particular re-reading, I paid attention to the whole “Magic” theme- which of course has nothing to do with magic, or even meditation as so many panicked Christian homeschoolers wrote about 15 years or so ago.  It’s really more along the lines of the power of positive thinking; very forward-looking of Francis Hodgson Burnett, since the power of positive thinking hadn’t even been invented yet!

This is her comment on thoughts and words:  “To let a sad thought or a bad thought get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body.  If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never over it as long as you live.  So long as Mistress Mary’s mind was full of disagreeable thoughts about her dislikes and sour opinions of people and her determination not to be pleased by or interested in anything, she was a yellow-faced, sickly, bored, and wretched child… So long as Colin shut himself up in his room and thought only of his fears and weakness and his detestation of people who looked at him and reflected hourly on humps and early death, he was a hysterical half-crazy little hypochondriac who knew nothing about sunshine and the spring and who did not know that he could get well and could stand upon his feet if he tried to do it…There was a man wandering about… beautiful places…a man who for ten years had kept his mind filled with dark and heart-broken thinking.  He had not been courageous; he had never tried to put any other thoughts in place of the dark ones…”

Of course, “circumstances” interfered in all three cases- and “Much more surprising things can happen to anyone who, when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into his mind, just has the sense to remember in time, and push it out by putting in an agreeable determinedly courageous one.”

I read this coming up to my birthday- a birthday I had already refused to celebrate because, officially, we didn’t have the time or money, and I’m not a child any more, and unofficially, because I was, quite frankly, sulking.  Why celebrate my birthday if I’m not happy, if I’m dissatisfied with certain key aspects of my life?  (If I’m living 1. with my in-laws, 2. in a house I hate, 3. on the other side of the tracks and I could continue my complaining.)

I read this simple little story about the rebirth of these three miserable people, and I felt very foolish and childish.  I don’t actually have much to complain about- no, my life does not fall in with the way I might have planned it.  But does anybody’s?  People live lives a hundred times worse than mine- and I have a thousand reasons to be grateful.  And a great part of my problem is an overindulged imagination, a heightened sense of importance, and a bad case of self-pity.  Too many bad thoughts; too many internal discussions; too little courage in refusing to sulk.

I have developed over the last few years a tendency toward negative thoughts; something that has definitely influenced a tendency to depression; and it’s not only foolish and self-destructive- it’s a sin.  F.H. Burnett  says “Two things cannot be in one place: ‘If you plant a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow.'”  The Bible puts it more revealingly-“The eye is the lamp of the whole body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matt. 6:22-23) and ” If therefore your whole body is full of light, with no dark part in it, it will be wholly illumined, as when the lamp illumines you with its rays.” (Luke 11:36)

Life is not perfect, and it would be foolish to insist that it is.  Happy endings are not a given.  Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people.  But indulging in dismal Eeyore thoughts and self-pity do not relieve the situation.  They only intensify it.  I see no reason to pretend everything is wonderful- that is silly, too, and I think the American tendency to pretend  (does anyone ever answer “how are you?” honestly?) explains the explosion of analysts, therapists, and psychologists.    But we do have a choice: we can choose to dwell on our ills- or to be grateful for the good that we can find even in the worst situation.

A colleague recently said that pessimism and optimism are almost the same thing- the pessimist says, “Well, it’s about time.”  The optimist says, “It’s about  time!”  I think both pessimism and optimism can be self-indulgent and self-deceptive.  I think the main thing I want to focus on is being grateful for what I have instead of mourning what I haven’t.  I suppose some negative emotion is inevitable, and someone has said that suppressed emotion leads to cancer- but I intend to allow myself a strict amount of time to journal my frustrations (10 minutes? 5? )  and to discipline myself to follow that with a list of what I’m thankful for.  Words have power… words are- magic.  (Don’t tell any Christian homeschoolers I used the m-word.)

Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo

 

Magic doesn’t appeal to everyone; some children love fairies and fairytales and some are disinterested or even annoyed. And fantasy only emphasizes that divide. Of course, within our Christian circle the situation is intensified by those who consider anything magic-like to be sin.

The pertinent point is that there is no such thing as magic; oh, I know, there are witch doctors, and shamen- or is it shamans?- and as many variations on that theme as there are peoples, but they aren’t , strictly speaking, using magic. Magic is some kind of mumbo-jumbo power that allows you to do things other people cannot do, which I think we can all agree is nonexistant. Witch doctors and shamans might do some weird things, but in the rare instances that their tomfoolery pays off it’s more a case of demonism than magic.

Of course the problem with magic is that its pursuit can lead to demonism, and that’s where its opponents have their best point. And within our world, there is no doubt that magic is not Christian; that is, not literally, and not philosophically. Philosophically, magic is an attempt to control one’s environment (not my thought, I read it in Trevethan’s Beauty of God’s Holiness), and “inevitable when divine reality is immanent but not transcendant”. To believe in magic, you can’t believe in God- or at least not in God as He is. And you have to step out of our created order as creatures under a Creator, and control your own destiny.

And that’s where the temptation comes in, for those of us magic-minded. Because the struggle since Adam and Eve has been whether we would will or submit to God’s higher will. There is an inborn desire for control in each of us- we want to be the captains of our fate, whether for good or ill. I think the difference in whether one is drawn to fantasy is merely in the level of drive for control in our outer lives, and the self-confidence to achieve it.

Personally, my self-confidence fluctuates, as does my self-image, and I am not particularly extrovert- so I tend to enjoy a vicarious or voyeuristic “control”; whereas those who are more forceful physically may not need to prove themselves in this way. Then again, those who may be more physical probably just tend to read books about physically forceful people. And if magic were an option, I doubt I would use it; it raises too many philosophical questions about free will, self-determination and equality.

Mother has noticed that people with higher IQs in general seem to be more fantasy-minded, and she equates it with those people having more grey tones in their moral code. (Black and white people almost never like fairytales.) I agree, but I do think it’s odd, because in fact, most fairytales and even fantasy have a strong moral code. Of course, at the same time, they raise new questions about morality that may just be beyond the imagination of moral zebras.

But as an aficionado of fantasy (though one does have to be careful with a lot of modern fantasy, which isn’t so much fantasy as harlequin romance with a dragon or two) I’ve noticed that there are certain themes that repeat themselves. Interesting, because I remember what C.S. Lewis said about certain ideas in mythology repeating themselves so often that you had to recognise they were twistings of a truth.

One of the most commonly repeated themes is the power of words.  This isn’t original to fantasy, of course.  Classic Cabala literature speaks of words as the origin and definer of reality; but before Cabala, the Bible tells that the Word was with God, and the Word was God- all things were made by Him and without Him was not anything made which was made (quoting from memory, I might have the order wrong.) 

So there’s biblical authority on the subject.   But what is the significance?  I am not a philosopher, and only a bit of a philologist, but I know that words are very significant.  Speaking two languages, it’s very frustrating when you can’t express something in one, because there is no word.  And there is a great comfort in finding a word- I treasure them up, when I find them, like the Russian word for “neat” which I finally found in a children’s story book, after searching the dictionary in vain.

Speaking something tends to make it true; to define something we feel, but may not understand; to bring catharsis or sometimes to create something that wasn’t.  One of the best books on essay writing I’ve read stressed that you have to think BEFORE you write (something not many people actually do, apparently); I’ve found that writing is thinking for me- when I speak the words, I understand them, or keep speaking till I do.

I suppose, in a way, words are magic- the one magic available to us.  In words we do create our destiny; we change things; perform illusions and transformations- curse and bless.

It’s a scary power.  And one we rarely respect.  If Harry Potter used his wand as carelessly as we use our words he’d be worse than Lord Voldemort ever thought of being.  We quote “the pen is mightier than the sword” but do we ever really think about it? 

If we consider our words to be a magic wand, and their power equivalent- what will we say, what won’t we say?  Our one chance to play with fate- which fairytale character do we wear?