Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Life and Work: By Erica and Patrick

    The other day as I was running, I started thinking about life and how, for some—for most in our society—the pursuit of pleasure is extremely important.  So important in fact, that it is seen as being the highest goal of one’s life. Carpe Diem! Seize the Day! But what exactly does this even mean? I thought how, if this was my view, if I were to believe that life, this all too brief life, were all that there is, then that would be extremely depressing. Our lives speed by in the blink of an eye.  One comment that parents hear so very often is, “it goes by so fast.” It does, it all goes by so very fast. Therefore, if this is it, if this is all that there is, then I should be an extremely depressed individual because life is hard. Fortunately, this is not what I believe. 

     This thought—how glad I am that the pursuit of pleasure and my personal happiness is not the most important thing in life—was running my though my head the other night at dinner when I told Patrick that Sebastian had been complaining a bit about doing school. Patrick turned to Sebastian and gave him one of the best little “pep talks” that I have ever heard. I found it to be especially wonderful because it was something that I also needed to hear. (When this conversation took place I had just had several days of feeling extremely unmotivated and tired of doing it all.)  This is the gist of what he said.

      Life is about work, we don’t just get to do whatever we want. We act as if we have some innate right to play and to have fun and to do whatever we want, but that is not life. Life is work. We need to not resent this, but rather take joy and pride in a job well done. We need to strive to do our work to the best of our ability and, through our work, to draw closer to God. We need to sanctify our work and, through it, to become more holy. Our inclination is to resent our work and, oftentimes, to try to find ways out of it. We procrastinate or complete our tasks grudgingly, viewing them as obstacles that are in the way of us getting on with our lives and doing whatever we desire. This is the devil talking as he would like nothing more than for us to focus upon ourselves and our own desires and “me” time. Life is about work, take joy in it, take pride in it, and you will honor God through it.  

   Work as gift!: work is the normal mode of life for most people in most places, from youth to old age, and it always has been; and this is appropriate. Work is one of the primary means God has given us to use the gifts He has given us and to participators in His divine plan for creation. Even in Paradise, there was work!: “The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it” (Gen. 2:15). 

    This does not mean that work is the highest mode of life. Leisure, especially worship, the highest form of leisure, most perfectly expresses our ultimate purpose and place in God’s order, but in this life we are granted only small foretastes of this eternal bliss, in which our spirits will rest finally and completely in our Lord.

     The attitude that work is merely imposition, curse, something ultimately to be gotten through (the assignment, the work day, the work week, the semester) to attain the weekend, the next vacation, retirement—this attitude is poisonous to earthly contentment, not only because it is contrary to the spirit of gratitude that should characterize every Christian life, but more basically because it runs counter to the normal mode of human existence.
Much of this attitude is rather implicit and subconscious than it is explicit and actively cultivated. And it seems to me that a normal childhood (even otherwise entirely healthy childhood) as part of a modern first-world family (even a deeply Christian, culturally-traditional family) breeds this sense of life-as-leisure almost unavoidably. Think of the families you know whose children only read good books, who never watch TV, who spend time playing and exploring outdoors, who are required to help around the house, etc., etc. Quite healthy, to be sure, but even so, those children’s lives are still dominated by leisure, by play—a few chores, a few hours of schoolwork, and the remainder of the day free for play. Don’t believe it? Just compare the lives of any child you know with the lives of children in most times and places—even to the lives of my parents, who were raised on farms and from a very young age were actively engaged in the daily rhythms of workaday life. 

     Now surely the freedom our children have now to learn through play, through exploration, is a great gift in many respects. Who of us would wish on our children the necessity of “growing up” before they have had the chance to be children? But I work every day with 18- to 22-year-old children from very sensible, even remarkable, families, children with a deep devotion to our Lord and a basic desire to be and to do good. And these same children are handicapped—just as I was and still am—by having lived the first 18 (and more) years of their lives largely in leisure or at least oriented unrelentingly toward leisure (the end of the school day, the end of the school week, etc.). One might think that six or seven hours spent in school and more spent in extracurricular activities is hardly a life of leisure—and in many respects it is not—but I don’t recall school being particularly challenging (quite the opposite, and boring to boot); and my extracurricular activities were hardly work, though they did require some measure of sacrifice. 

     The end result of all this, which is terribly exacerbated by the typical college experience, even in “good” schools, is young people for whom work is always something to be gotten through or around as quickly and efficiently as possible so that the real business of life—being with friends, “vegging,” partying, sleeping—can be gotten on with and maximized. And it is worth emphasizing that for those persons who have this expectation about life, precisely those who work hardest to maximize their leisure time, for them “leisure” is the least substantial, and is characterized primarily by mere absence of any obligation—we have all felt the call of a television at the end of the day, that powerful attraction to a purely passive “relaxation.” Hence the statistic that the average American watches something like four hours of television a day. Brainless passivity is the highest form of relaxation as it is the furthest from anything requiring work, physical or mental. 

     The inordinate desire for leisure breeds acedia, that deep existential boredom which is also discouragement vis-√†-vis the normal patterns and routines of daily life; Aquinas-via-Pieper tells us that acedia, which is not laziness but is closely akin to it, is most fundamentally a sadness in the face of our high calling. He who suffers acedia, true sloth, “would prefer to be less great in order thus to avoid the obligation of greatness” (Faith, Hope, Love, my emphasis).

      Again, this is largely a subconscious orientation or expectation about life, but all the more powerful for that. And it is difficult to see how to combat it, if I am right about what I said above about even the most well-structured childhood in our society. Awareness of the dangers seems to be the first step toward counteracting this powerful psychological force. Secondly, and most importantly, we must demonstrate to our children by our example a healthy gratitude for and joy in work—even a certain ambition, understood as magnanimity, a desire for great things in our normal routines of work—and a concomitant appreciation of authentic leisure.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Better Late Than Never: My Opinion About the Twilight Series

    I was just reading a very old blog post called, “Why You Can’t Read Twilight, a Letter to my Daughter."  I then made the mistake of starting to read some of the comments that were left—something that I should never do as it always makes me angry because I tend to read things about three years after they were written and therefore, anything that I want to say about the topic is now completely irrelevant.  So, instead of uselessly ranting on a two-year-old blog post, I am going to tell you why I believe that the Twilight books are actually dangerous for teenage (and the “Oh, Too Young To Be Reading These Books in the First Place” pre-teen) girls. I am going to skip over the writing style and skill (or lack thereof) of the authoress and purely address the basic storyline and emotional appeal that these books have upon the reader.
    The main character, Bella Swan, completely ordinary.  When she describes herself she says that she is average. Dark hair, small, non-athletic, not terribly popular, but smart, a girl who loves to read. The author has just describes most high school girls.  This heroine is not the star of the basketball/softball/soccer/track/whatever, team, she is not the cheerleader that dates the star quarterback or the lead in the high school musical, she is not the valedictorian, but she is also not the nerdiest girl in her class.  Bella Swan is every other average girl who doesn’t feel special in any particular way. Boys don’t really pay attention to her, while she is a good student, she isn’t the best, she is insecure, at times awkward, and very clumsy.  What you have here is a girl who wants to be special, but isn’t.  Most girls are drawn to this heroine because this is them.  Honestly, this was me in high school. While I wasn’t especially clumsy or insecure, I was everything else. “Nice” looking, definitely not the best looking girl in the class, a decent athlete, not the star, a good student, not the valedictorian, no boys paid attention to me, I wasn’t asked to lots of parties, I spent lots of time reading. I was average. Girls will be drawn to Bella Swan, they will like her (though at times they may find her obnoxious), but, for the most part, they will identify with her. 
    Bella moves to a new town and all of a sudden, she becomes really interesting.  People want to be around her, lots of boys ask her out, and most importantly, the “most beautiful” guy in school, the “popular guy” the one that every girl is secretly in love with but who doesn’t pay attention to any of them, wants to date her. This is most high school girls’ dream. So the reader is hooked, the reader identifies with the heroine, the reader is emotionally involved because she wants this to happen to her. (This of course all plays out in about the first half of the first book.)  From here, the rest of the story starts to unfold, but I’m not really going to get into all of that.  What concerns me the most is not everything that happens in the middle, which is bad enough, but the end.
     First of all, Stephanie Meyers has taken an evil tradition and turned it on its head.  Traditionally, vampires are evil. Vampires are soulless, blood-sucking monsters (as seen in books such as Dracula). People have attempted to alter this tradition as the popularity of vampires has risen. The TV show Angel portrayed a vampire with a soul, who unlike all other vampires around him, feels remorse for his evil deeds (because he has a soul) and therefore, he doesn’t drink human blood and tries to help people. The TV show The Vampire Diaries puts forward the idea that the vampires are able to do good because they have a “humanity” switch.  When they still have their humanity they feel remorse and have some sense of right and wrong.  However, if they “turn off their humanity” they become the monsters.  Both of these ideas still address the issue that vampires = monsters = bad. In the Twilight series, this issue is presented as a “lifestyle choice”—“will I drink human blood and thereby kill people or will I eat from animals?” Some very nice and “good” vampires choose not to drink animal blood.  This whole, “Vampires Kill People” thing is really glossed over.  Rather than vampires being represented as bad, they are actually compared to angels.  Throughout the books when Bella describes Edward, she talks about his, “angelic face” or how he is more “angel than monster.” The vampires “sparkle in the sun.  They are more angel than demon. 
     Lastly, when Bella becomes a vampire, she is transformed from something completely average, to something extremely special.  She doesn’t just become a vampire, she becomes the most special and best vampire around. She is graceful, drop-dead gorgeous, extremely rich, super smart, and she has special powers.  She says at one point that she was basically born to be a vampire. Then, at the end of the books, she gets to live, FOREVER, with tons of money and clothes, in paradise with everyone that she loves. Just living their ordinary lives, together, forever, while being beautiful and special.
   As a reader, once I finish the books what have I learned here? I can be amazing if I have a guy who loves me like Edward loves her, and if I become a vampire.  And this is why I think that these are especially dangerous books. In a vampire obsessed culture, emotionally vulnerable girls (and frankly, this is most high schoolers), are being shown something that is evil, but it is represented as being good, beautiful, and an answer to all of one’s wildest dreams.
    Will I let my daughters read these books? No, because no good can come from it, but plenty of harm could be done.  “But, does it really matter what they read as long as they are reading?” Of course it matters.  That is like saying, “Does it matter what they eat as long as they are eating?” If your child will only eat chocolate and nothing else, they will die from malnutrition.  Do I allow my children to read trashy romance novels (which I have not read but I do know that these days most are EXTREMELY graphic) but say that it is okay because, “at least they are reading”? No, and I’m sure most every parent would agree with me. So where do we draw the line? I’m a parent, so I must be the parent, and sometimes that means making the hard choice (or in this case, not so hard).

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Hold Them to Higher Standards

      Parenting has changed a lot since I was a child.  There are a lot of different views on parenting out there, and like diet plans, the “professionals” are constantly changing their opinions of what is “good for the child.” Many of these changes are bad, a few of them are good.  One change that is prevalent today and, I believe has life-long consequences for children, is how little we expect of them.  We excuse poor behavior in our children because we act like they are incapable of knowing better.  But then, if we don’t teach them the right way to behave or hold them to that higher standard, of course they will behave badly. These children will then grow up to expect less of themselves because nothing was ever asked of them when they were kids. If we are constantly making excuses for them now, rather than requiring change, then they will make excuses for themselves for the rest of their lives. 

        A three-year old hits her brother and refuses to share. “You are just being ornery today.” (When Evelyn is being a stinker she is constantly telling me, "I just being ornery") Yes, this is true, but it does not make the behavior acceptable.  This is not an excuse, it is a fact, and it needs to be dealt with.  If a parent allows a child to behave poorly just because they are in a bad mood, that parent is teaching their child that it is acceptable to be ruled by their emotions. You feel tired, you feel cranky, therefore, it is okay that you refuse to share and that you are constantly yelling and throwing temper tantrums.  These behaviors are never acceptable. The child that is taught that it is okay to act like this when they aren’t feeling their best, is the child that will grow up to say whatever unkind thing they want just because they aren’t in a good mood.  It is not okay for me to yell at my kids just because I didn’t get enough sleep last night. We need to train our children on how to control their behavior as it relates to their emotions.    

        “My four-year old Can’t sit still for church.” No, your four-year old doesn’t Want to sit still through church. They are capable of doing so, it just isn’t easy.  If children are constantly allowed to squirm around in their seat, crawl on the ground under the pew, get up and dance around in the aisle, then by the time they are seven (or whatever age) and you tell them that it is time to start sitting still, this transition is going to be really hard because they have never done it. However, if you start with the idea that, “church is a place where we show proper respect towards God, not a playground” then the child will learn from a young age that some things are appropriate behaviors and some are not.  They will learn how to sit still, bit by bit, and get used to it. Will this require a constant effort on the part of the parents and consistency when it comes to disciplining naughtiness? Of course, but it is necessary in order to teach the child that we need to do what is right, even if it isn’t the easy thing to do.

       A six-year old refuses to look someone in the eye and say hello. “He is just shy” His mother excuses him. Of course he is shy, lots of kids that age are, but they can still be taught the manners to look at someone and say “hello.” You are not asking them to have a prolonged conversation with a stranger, just show the common curtesy of a word of greeting. By teaching a child to look past the shyness, we are teaching them a life-long skill when it comes to communicating with other people in the world, no matter how they feel.

        Children actually like to be challenged. If you hold a child to a higher standard, then (after much work and patience) they are going to rise up to meet it. Does this need to be balanced with a healthy recognition that kids are kids, of course. Like all areas of parenting there is give and take and no one extreme is right. Parenting requires a great deal of common sense. But if you want your child to behave well, you need to clearly communicate what is acceptable behavior and what is not, and teach them how to achieve that. Raising children is not an area of our lives where we can just sit back and take a break. There is constant involvement, work, and love required until the day when we let them go and pray that we taught them well.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Tips for Getting Through the Day

Some days are pretty easy.  By "easy" I mean that I am pretty motivated, I'm got a good night's sleep the night before so I am well-rested, and the children are being obedient and happy.  These days are might still involve lots of work, but it isn't hard to make myself get things done. Then there are the Other days, the days that aren't so easy, and this is most of life.  Sometimes I will walk into the kitchen and think, "I really don't want to wash these dishes," or do anything for that matter.  As a result of this, very human, response, I have little things that I do that either help me to stay motivated, or just give me energy throughout the day. Because we all know that even on the best days, raising children, keeping a home, working, taking care of others, or any of the above, is tiring. 

1.) Get a large glass of ice water and drink it. Cold water is the key here as it helps to wake you up.
2.) Every time that you feel anxious or stressed, stop, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and count to five.
3.) Make small prayers throughout the day. Such as, “Lord, make haste to help me.”
4.) Take a break. Send the kids outside to play, sit down with a cup of coffee, and read a book or say prayers.  Set the timer for 15-20 minutes so that you don’t end up staying there too long.
5.) Set a time for later in the day (such as once the kids are in bed) when you will intentionally stop to do something that you really enjoy doing.  Then, during the day when you are tempted to waste time, remind yourself that you are working towards your guilt-free reward later by working hard now.
6.) Listen to up-beat music when you are feeling especially tired.  Taking a few minutes to dance around with the kids will put everyone in a good mood.  I’m a big fan of Dean Martin, Michael Bubl√©, Queen, or Disney music for this one (as you can see, my taste is eclectic.)
7.) On the flip side, listen to classical music or Gregorian chant in the morning and/or the evening to begin and end your day on a peaceful note.
8.) Listen to audiobooks.  Now, if I attempt to listen to an audiobook while the kids are around it makes me cranky because they keep interrupting me. But, if I have to fold laundry after they are in bed, or iron shirts, or do dishes, if I listen to an audiobook that I enjoy, the unenjoyable task all of a sudden becomes rather relaxing.
9.) Take the time to eat, and eat well.  Don’t skip meals. Bites taken from your child’s cold leftovers does not a meal make. Take the time to sit and eat something healthy that will give you energy throughout the day.
10.) Don’t waste time.  It just makes you mad at yourself and cranky with those around you. Stay away from Facebook. Make good choices and you will be a happier person.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Dinner as a Family

One of my favorite childhood memories, is how we always sat down together for dinner. We would sit in either our kitchen or our dining room and we all had our usual seat. Sometimes the meal would be fancy or, when my dad wasn’t home for dinner, it might be hamburger patties, macaroni and cheese, and carrot sticks. We never ate popcorn or cereal for dinner. On very rare occasions, we had breakfast for dinner.  But, no matter which table we were at, what we were eating, or whether or not my dad was home—which he mostly was—we always sat down to eat as a family.  In this area, I know that my husband was raised the same way.
This is something that is very important to both my husband and me. Each night we all sit at one table together, pray a blessing over the food, eat, and talk.  (There are nights where Patrick is working and cannot be home for dinner, and on these nights the rest of us still sit together at the table for dinner.) This will always continue because it is one of the few times in the day where we are all together as a family.  I believe that this is important for a few reasons:

1.) We teach our children table manners.  My kids are ages six, three, and ten months, and they are able to sit through an entire meal without being crazy.  Each night while we eat we are teaching our children as well as spending time with them. (“Sebastian, put your knees down and sit up straight at the table”, “Evelyn, we don’t wave our fork, with food on it, around or try to dance at the table,” “Cecilia, don’t scream or throw food on the ground.”) We remind them to say “please” and “thank you,” to just sit at the table and wait quietly if they finish before everyone else does, and then, when we are finished, to ask to be excused. They are not allowed to come, eat—or not eat as the case may be—get down when they want to be done, and run off to play more. We sit as a family until we are all finished.  Some evenings we will say prayers after the meal, or read a bible story. (This does not happen as often as we would like, but we are working on improving it.) It is a time where we focus upon each other and just being together.

2.) The kids learn that they are not the center of attention—something that is very important for them to learn. At dinner, Patrick and I have a conversation. This does not mean that the kids just sit there silently and never say a word, they are more than welcome to join into the conversation.  However, we are teaching them not to interrupt, and to not be too silly at the table while we are attempting to talk.  Patrick will also take the time to ask each child about their day and find out what they did.  This is an opportunity for the kids to tell daddy their special stories or exciting news about learning to ride their bike or something that they read in a book. 

3.) We all eat the same meal. I am not a special order cook, I do not make different food for the children, they eat what we eat. However, the kids are allowed to have one thing that they may choose to not eat, (Sebastian doesn’t like eggplant, Evelyn isn’t a huge fan of potatoes) but they have to eat everything else. We are teaching them that, someone took the time and energy to make you this food, be grateful, and even if you don’t really like it, you don’t show it, and you never say, “yuck.”
 The result of all of this work? We are able to enjoy family time (in a way that really means a lot to my husband) while also teaching our children how to behave in public. Do my children behave perfectly? Of course not. Is this a work in progress? Always, but it is something that I believe to be worth the effort.