image by sarah mccoy photo

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Depth and Heights

On day fifteen of a grueling drive across thirteen states, with one hour left to our destination, my husband turned the jeep off onto a country lane. We had split the kids between our cars and I assumed the one in his backseat was begging for a potty break. The rollicking greenery falling away to every side seemed unlikely to offer up a Chevron or a Dunkin Donuts, I thought. But soon my phone’s map adjusted to show that this was no detour, but a route, a reward of pastoral cruising to end our Interstate sojourn.

The girls shrieked with unbridled delight. “Up, up, up, up, up,” they crescendoed up each crest, and down each hill we rolled amid squealing laughter. Geronimo bubbled over, exclaiming things like, “Look guys, I can see the whole world!” and “I’m so exciting! I am riding on a chocolate rainbow!” (This is highest metaphorical praise from a newly four-year-old.) Songbird added, “It’s exhilarating!”
 And it was. We had been privileged to watch the changing landscapes of desert to scrubland to bayou to woodland over the past two weeks, but these hills were straight out of a Little Golden Book illustration, all farm and forest in swells of green and dappled sunlight.

I couldn’t help but contrast this belly-deep joy with the dully pacifying effect of trail mix and donuts, solitaire apps and tablet movies that I had been tossing back at intervals to break up the monotony of sitting in a five-point harness for 3,474 miles. Those were hits of cotton candy to this feast, saccharine powder to this fresh summer peach. Something to numb versus something to enliven.

How much of what is designed for children (or to keep children unobtrusive) can never sate, but keeps them discontentedly lapping for more? Here was something that drew in their minds, senses, and imaginations with a breadth and depth only found in a real, live world.
The saccharine offerings of modernity leech away our joy in real things because real things are interactive. They require something of us in response. And though that engagement is itself a joy, the easy passivity of watching and receiving images is…easier. It lulls little brains with dopamine hits.

And so it takes radical, daily decisions to protect our inborn delight in the world from succumbing to the mind-numbing flashes and bangs coming at us. And so it becomes countercultural to engage delightedly in the real world and its study; children who play Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh because history thrills them and roll out of bed to do extra math pages for the joy of accomplishment are weird. And so their interests appear at best boring, perplexing, and at worst pretentious.

Children and parents who each day choose to revel in realness are still susceptible to the mindless pleasure of the saccharine. I love Tennyson and Netflix. My girls love Shakespeare and, heaven help us, Sofia the First. But when cultivated purposefully, our fickle minds will too crave the deep satisfaction of the real.

If we can imagine it.

Before we can purpose to transcend the mundane expectations of our time, the two-dimensional aspirations of GPAs and SATs and a house in the suburbs and an Employee of the Month plaque, we need to imagine something radically different. We need to see our Parnassus outlined behind the clouds before we can try to plant our feet on its base.

When once we have conceived of those heights, we will see the cycles and stories and relationships of this world as living metaphors for the wholeness of truth, and we will never again be content to be lulled into futility. There are mountains to climb.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Peaceful Sleep of Babes

I have one child who every night, by her very positioning, exudes a blissful sense of security. When I pop in to turn out her reading lamp, she is lying on her back, face towards the ceiling, snoring softly, arms flung wide as if to embrace the night sky above her roof. It strikes me every night as the most confidently vulnerable position a body could choose in which to surrender consciousness. And it reminds me every night how few children sleep with such fearless abandon.

I say this to establish that while my philosophical argument in the face of global tension may sound callous, I am not. That while you or I might personally lay down our lives for a stranger’s child, I don’t think America has the moral footing to make such statements collectively. And that is an important distinction.

It starts with Rene Descartes. In developing a mechanistic vision of the body, he was unable to account physically for the soul and so cast personhood as a separate phenomenon: a “ghost in the machine.” Odds are, whatever else you believe, you assume some kind of mind/body dualism that stems from this notion and affects how you interpret the world. The philosophical end of this split is a fact/value dichotomy that dominates modern thinking. Things we can study empirically go in the lower story of facts, and everything else is relegated to the upper story of values. This is the basis of the dogma of relativism.

Yet there is no one on earth who can live as though this is true. Because it doesn’t reflect reality, it tears asunder the cohesive nature of our true world and ourselves. We live in tension.

And nowhere does this become more depressingly apparent than when a nation suddenly rises in moral outrage against atrocities. Because by what measure can we rationally call anything atrocious?

I don’t know (and I have a MA in the subject) exactly what the right theoretical role of a hegemon is in morally policing the world, or how the rights of individuals and the rights of sovereign nations are rightly weighed in international law. Maybe nobody does.

But I do know that in embracing the cognitive dissonance of a fractured reality, we have surrendered our standing to make any big moral statements whatsoever.

The thing is, most moral or even theological frameworks are attempts to describe the real world. They exist to fit with reality. Christianity goes so far as to beg for a good fact check. Its explicit basis is in historical fact and it claims outright that if those historical claims are not verifiably, objectively true, then its entirety is null and void. While I don’t know that any other religion is so forthright, most purport to describe reality. 
Yet such is our devotion to empirical knowledge that we forget that knowledge is not so limited in its sourcing. What we find is that our modern desperation to shut belief systems into an upper story, divorced from physical reality, cannot be lived out rationally. Truly, most of the vociferous denouncements of “values” attempting to weigh in on issues of fact, are aimed at religion. Because there are broad moral statements being made with impunity in all other realms.

Think of the rhetoric of most politically active groups. When we state that kill shelters, rape, racism, child abuse, puppy mills, sexism, and environmental pollution are wrong, we do not mean that we personally dislike them. We do not mean that it is a value divorced from physical reality. We mean that these things are universally, unequivocally, wrong for everybody. If they were values, existing in their own sphere, then the guy with the dog fighting ring could say, “Oh, this is ok for me. That’s my truth.” And we would say, “Carry on, brother! Do what seems right to you!” But we don’t. Because whatever we say, however we cling to Cartesian dualism, we all know deep down that it doesn’t fit reality.

Our sense of justice may be shaped by current cultural dynamics, but the fact that it exists implies that it reflects a reality, that justice and injustice exist outside of the individual mind.

And all of this is to say that our collective cognitive dissonance is thrown into relief every time something is so egregious that we all pretend we weren’t just saying “you are your own truth” and instead together shout, “Stop this evil!” 

We are right to try to stop evil. We are wrong to pretend it is relative. So long as we fight to keep knowledge limited to the realm of empiricism, we will live with the tension of a life disjointed. But for those for whom knowledge forms an integrated whole, a Matrix-like beauty, the tension dissipates. In the face of evil, our hearts still break. We cry with the afflicted and rage against the oppressors. But amidst the tumult, we sleep the peaceful sleep of babes.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Mama Bears for Jesus in the Digital Age

It’s very in vogue just now to take a discomfiting exchange and recount it online with the indignant gravity that causes your friends to rally to your side in supportive outrage. You know what I’m talking about, Christian mommies. Grocery-Store-Stranger Angst.

Here are the examples I see most frequently:

“My big family attracted this sarcastic criticism…”

“My mixed/adoptive family attracted this intrusive curiosity…”

“My homeschool family attracted this leering condescension…”

And all these complaints end with the italicized kicker: “…and they said it right in front of my kids!

Beloved sisters, here’s my exhortation to you.

If you’re a Christian and you’re in any of these categories (or all of them!) then you have probably become the sort of family that draws public contempt in direct response to the call of God on you to glorify him by leading an off-trend life.
What that looks like in 2016 is not what it has looked like in other eras, but rest assured this is just another iteration of the promise that we will never look like the world and that we will draw its [frequently negative] attention.  So first of all, congratulations on reflecting Christ in quietly bold ways!

But…there’s always a but... when we take our frustration at the world’s lack of understanding and trumpet it as indignation, we’re reflecting our culture, not our faith. The expectation that society should be sensitive to our preferences and hide signs of natural curiosity is our culture’s current reigning ethic.

It is not a Biblical one.

The Psalmist cries, “Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us, for we have endured no end of contempt. We have endured no end of ridicule from the arrogant, of contempt from the proud.” But he cries out to heaven, not to his facebook fanbase. And like James, he knows that trials, and even the temptation to vent, produce endurance and joy. Like an HIIT workout for the spirit.

Families making counter-cultural stances must expect some hostility and view curiosity as a welcome opportunity. Especially, especially right in front of our kids.

Here’s the thing. If you’ve got eight kids, or if your kids are eight different skin tones, or if they trail after you at Target during regular school hours (in matching jumpers or not) it’s a little unfair to expect people to not wonder. We all try to make sense of what we see. Whether those curious strangers should say anything or not may be a matter of opinion, but I’ll say this: can we simultaneously bemoan the loss of community and village-mentality in our culture and act scandalized when a stranger engages us? Even if the question betrays ignorance, as Christians we should extend grace where the intent seems innocent. It’s how we’d all want to be treated.
But of course, sometimes it isn’t innocent. Sometimes the hostility is blatant. Well, if you can write an eloquent and witty blogpost, you’re probably smart enough to know when to walk away (pearls before swine and all) but I tend to view even many hostile openings as openings.

Think of this. Your family, just by existing, is prompting conversations with strangers.

Every. Single. Day.

You have daily invitations to explain the reason for the hope that is in you. Speaking of your children, do they see you jump through that opening and offer up something to send that stranger off pondering, or do they see you grit your teeth and go home and rant online? Your children will hear things that hurt (which in many cases still doesn’t really compare with the suffering of myriad children worldwide if we’re honest) but what they will internalize is what you did in that moment.

Remember this. Our culture is hostile to big/colorful/homeschooling families because they fly in the face of the imperative to seek self-gratification. Here’s what we offer the world, and those who are grasping at fleeting pleasure: whatever thing they fear to lose, that your ten children threaten, is its own reward. There is no derivative benefit. Jet setting, night life, power career, whatever it is, its pleasures never outlast the moment.

Are our family choices inconvenient? Yup. They really are. We really do sometimes wish we could leisurely try on bathing suits and then read at a cafĂ©, or prioritize bikini waxes and manicures and travel. We really do. But they know all that. What they don’t know, if we respond defensively instead of joyfully, is that by investing in people (and there are many ways to do this without having kids! Teach! Volunteer! Counsel!) we reap benefits that increase exponentially with time and generations. That’s something you get to share with someone who’s curious enough to ask.

So if someone assumes that the kid behind you in line isn’t with you because you don’t look related (whether because you’ve adopted or in our case, because of hilarious genetic happenstance), put your arm around her and say, “Oh, she’s all mine!” and tell them how she completes your family. Right in front of her. Make her blush. Everyone wins.
If someone questions your qualifications to teach your kids and wonders if you’re raising unsocialized weirdos, gush a little about how you get to see the “ah-ha” moments and how much time you can spend reading good books over pancakes and how vibrant their relationships with all age groups are. I’ve seen so many cynics soften when I share my excitement instead of getting (as the Marines say) butt hurt about it.

If someone wonders if you’ve heard of birth control, let it slide and bubble over with the unique joys a big family experiences while you share the sweet anecdotes that make the sacrifices worthwhile. They don’t know. How can they if you don’t tell them?

All that to say… culture will give you a pass if you turn from these encounters and seek comfort from those who are already like-minded. Sensitivity is A-OK in the public arena. But not in the Christian life. We were called to stand out, take some abuse, and turn it all to his glory. So rejoice if someone notices how weird you are. You have a unique platform. I know you can use it faithfully and well.