Saturday, February 21, 2015

What I Got from The Giver

While watching The Giver recently I finally figured out why I love to read (some) dystopian fiction. It was quite a mystery to me for awhile, because while I love many kinds of books--historical fiction, sci-fi, children's lit, fantasy, YA, mysteries, non-fiction (pretty much anything)--I'm not big fan of violence, or less-than-happy endings, so why do I enjoy (some) dystopian fiction?

Because it makes me think. And I love a book (or movie) that makes me think. Especially when it helps clarify and express thoughts I'd already been thinking.

That's why I add the caveat some dystopian fiction. I really dislike dystopian fiction if it is gratuitously violent and lacks any redeeming philosophical quality, like, say, The Maze Runner. I kept reading after the first book because I thought I knew where the series was going, but by the third book it was clear I'd been wrong, though I did slog it out to the end for the sake of completion. Ugh. I wish I hadn't.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed reading The Giver several years ago (I think it was my first dystopian novel), and watching the movie recently reminded me why.

The Giver starts out with a seemingly perfect society, where no one suffers, there is no crime, all material needs are provided for, and really there are no questions or unknowns. It is organized, logical, chaos-free.

I was fascinated. Wouldn't we all love to live in a world with no suffering, no doubts, no needs?

Of course the truth eventually emerges--this seemingly perfect world is missing something very important: love. That is impossible to experience in a world where all choice has been eliminated so there is no chance that anyone will experience pain. Yes, the possibility for bad and hurtful choices has been removed, but so has the possibility for good and loving choices.

Without freedom there can be no real love.

Without love, life isn't really worth living.

Living without pain is not worth living without love.

Turn it around and you have the message that suffering is a necessary byproduct of love, because true love requires the freedom to choose, which also by necessity requires the freedom to choose to hurt.

In other words, this secular dystopian novel articulates quite well the thoughts I have had in response to a question often asked of Christians: How can a good God let bad things happen?

It's a question I struggle with myself. I always seem to come back to the same conclusion: God could have made us robots who always choose to do the right thing. Then there would be no crime, no war. There would also be no love. And since love is one of God's defining characteristics, this would be an impossible state for creatures "made in his image."

He made us like him. Made us to love.

After all, the two greatest commandments, according to Jesus, are: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:37-39).

The fact that these are commandments implies the truth communicated in The Giver--we have a choice as to whether we will or will not love.

Unfortunately, many people choose to not love--God, or others, or even themselves. That option must be available to them or true love is impossible. And that is the source of pain in our world. People choose to hurt, betray, deceive, abandon, dominate, bully, harass, neglect...the list goes on and on.

So...that's it? We're stuck with this sucky world, doomed to endure the consequences of other people's choices as well as our own, and the consolation prize is that we are capable of love (though it often proves elusive, thanks to that dratted free will thing)?

No, that's not it. Thank God he didn't abandon us to this horrid hell of our own making. He knew what would happen when he made humans with this freedom to choose; he knew what we would choose. So before he even made the world, he made a plan to rescue us from the consequences of our own choices, taking the worst of it upon himself.

This is what differentiates the Christian message from any dystopian fiction that I have read--it gives us hope that we can have love AND no suffering, eventually, in Heaven.

I, for one, am looking forward to that!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

All or Nothing vs. Some and Something

I am a dreamer.
I am a planner.
I am a perfectionist.
And...I am a procrastinator.

Put it all together, and what do you get? Not a whole lot done, that's for sure.

Perhaps that's why my longest-running favorite quote (I have many of them, but this was the first to earn that distinction) is "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little" by Edmund Burke.

That was always me. Doing nothing because I wanted to do EVERYTHING, and if I couldn't do everything, well...I would do nothing.

For most of my adult life I've been trying to overcome this very debilitating character flaw brought on by a perfect storm of otherwise helpful personality traits.

When I started working at my church as a graphic designer, I quickly became overwhelmed by the number of projects requiring a creative touch. My perfectionist designer habits were not helpful in this job! Thankfully a fellow perfectionist friend was also on staff, and as we worked together on one particular project, we coined a phrase that I have used as a reminder many times in the years since: "We can do it perfectly...or we can get it done."

Which has a lot to do with how/why I started blogging.

Along a similar vein, I have always empathized with Prince Henry in Ever After when he said, "I used to think, if I cared at all, I'd have to care about everything, and I'd go stark raving mad!" There are so many good causes out there that it can be overwhelming to consider getting involved in any of them--how do you choose?

So after taking Randy Alcorn's Theology of Money class at church last semester, I knew God wanted me to invest more in eternity by "looking after orphans and widows in their distress (as James described "perfect religion" in James 1:27)...but where to start?
My sister and I have been making candles for a few years now. We make them as gifts and sell a few, too...originally we'd dreamed of a business that would keep us both home with our kids, but we are too busy right now to bring that to fruition. (Or I am I just too much of a planner/perfectionist/procrastinator? Hmm...) Eventually I had hoped to turn enough profit to start a non-profit, so our candles could bring the light of hope to people around the world.

As I said, I am a dreamer.

And the planner/perfectionist/procrastinator in me had always said, "One day we might be able to do that."

But I am trying not to listen to that particular voice in my head any more.

Cue Edmund Burke! I may not be able to do much right now. I may not be able to do it perfectly. But what I can do, I want to do.

And right now, what I can do is sell the candles I have made and give the profits to charity.

So that's what I'm doing!

My sister was totally on board with the idea, so we had our first candle fundraiser last December. She was burdened to help homeless children after working with a class of homeless first graders. If we'd waited for my planner/perfectionist/procrastinator side to be satisfied with researching charities, we would never have given the money away. But I prayed about it, was reminded of the ministry to Phoenix's poor/homeless that Andrew's dad has interacted with in the past, and took the plunge.

We raised $50. It doesn't sound like much to me. But it was something. It was a start! And it was a blow to my paralyzing planner/perfectionist/procrastinator side.

Now we're doing another fundraiser, for Valentine's Day. I read an article in the Desert Shamrock about the sex-trafficking that takes place in my very own city, and a ministry that helps the victims. What a worthwhile cause!

Is it the only worthwhile cause? Is it the most worthwhile cause? Probably not, but you know what?

I can do it perfectly or I can get it done.

A journey of thousand miles begins with one step.

You eat an elephant one bite at a time.

Two steps forward and one step back.

Never put off 'till tomorrow what you can do today.

Did I miss any cliches about overcoming procrastination?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Swimming Lessons for Mommy

Am I the only one who compares myself to others?

Hmm...that was a comparison, wasn't it.

Yeah, I've got it bad.

I've been self-conscious for as long as I can remember, worrying about what other people think. But I didn't realize how much it affected me as a parent until our son entered the Goldfish class at his swim school.

I mean, sure, parents are always comparing their kid to other kids, right? It's not always a bad thing; my son was born three months after my sister's son, so we were constantly comparing notes about our boys' development and issues we encountered. This type of comparison can be a helpful way to identify (and learn how to deal with) problems.

But often comparison is less about helping our kids than it is a way to make ourselves feel better about our parenting. Am I right?

After all, parenting is a really scary thing. The nurse hands you this screaming, squirming, breakable little being, and somehow you're supposed to not only keep him or her alive but also magically know how to nurture this unique person into a responsible contributing member of society? That's scary!

It's a hard job, and we constantly wonder whether we're doing the right thing, and question our decisions, so when we see someone else's kid acting up or doing something our kid would never do (ahem, really?) is it any wonder that we give ourselves a little pat on the back? "At least I'm a better parent than THAT person," we secretly think.

Or maybe it's just me.

Such comparisons might seem like a harmless little ego boost at the time. But I've learned that they always come back to bite you.

For example, my son started swim lessons at the tender age of three months, and really excelled at first. I confess I had brief dreams of him competing in the Olympics someday. (Don't we all do that with our kids? Or am I the only one? Wait--comparing. Sorry!) And, yes, comparing his swimming with that of the other kids made me feel better about myself.

So imagine how it felt when the tables were turned on me and suddenly my kid was the one screaming instead of swimming.

We had taken a two month break from lessons when our second son was born, and when we came back, our firstborn had developed a fear of the pool that took a long time to work through. By the time he was back to his pre-sibling skill level, his peers had moved on to other classes.

Then he turned three and moved into Goldfish, his first class without mommy in the water with him. His teacher had assured me that this usually helped kids progress, but not my kid, apparently. While his classmates mastered skills and moved up to Jellyfish, he continued to struggle with basics.

I was so frustrated.

My husband asked if my frustration had more to do with what other people thought (or what I thought they thought) of me and my parenting than it did with our son's lack of swimming ability. (He knows me so well.)

That's when I realized...comparing kids goes both ways. Sometimes you come out looking good. Sometimes you don't. But either way, judging the quality of our parenting based on comparisons with others is a losing proposition. 

Each kid, each family, is different, with a set of problems and priorities and privileges not quite like any other. Often these variables are invisible to outsiders, making it impossible to accurately assess what we see in public. It's like comparing apples and oranges. What's the point? Any good or bad feelings you get out of the exercise are likely unwarranted.

Rather than being frustrated with my kid for not being like his peers, I needed to deal with him as an individual, and figure out what I could do to help him get over this bump.

So, I talked to his teacher. She suggested practicing at home. Duh. It was something I knew we should be doing, but hadn't made a priority. Now that changed! If we weren't able to swim during the day, our son did dry runs on his bed before going to sleep. He improved a little, but his fears persisted, distracting him during class.

I realized he needed a little extra motivation to keep his mind off his fears.

We bought him a toy that he really wanted, and told him he would get it when he earned his ribbon for completing the skill he was struggling with. Before class, I reminded him of the promised reward. "When you're trying to do your backfloat, and you want to roll over instead, think about that garbage truck toy! Remember that you want it more than you want to roll over!"

He ran up to me after class clutching his ribbon saying, "Mommy, I kept thinking about the garbage truck, and it worked!"

Now, I'm not advocating constant bribery of our children, but sometimes having something to look forward to can help cut through fear and panic.

After all, this is how God "parents" us parents. We are each unique individuals, and, just as the master did in the parable of the talents, he has given us each a unique set of responsibilities (a.k.a. children). Our job is to do the best we can with what he has given us, knowing that when he sees the return we have made on his investment, he will say, "Well done, good and faithful servant. You were faithful over a little; I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master." (Matthew 25:21)

The truly great thing (which is sometimes the only thing giving me the courage to get out of bed in the morning) is that he doesn't leave us to do the job alone. One of my all-time favorite Bible passages is Matthew 11:28-30, where Jesus says, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

Yes, parenting is hard and scary, but I have the best help I could possibly ask for. I don't need to compare myself or my kids to others to see how I'm doing or get an ego boost. I'm accountable to just one person, and the reward he promises is way better than any short-lived warm fuzzies gained at someone else's expense!

Back to swimming lessons: a few weeks ago our son FINALLY mastered all the skills in the Goldfish level. As his achievement was announced to the school, no one was cheering louder than me! It had been a tough class--for both of us. We'd both had some hard lessons to learn.

And now...on to Jellyfish! 

I wonder what we'll be learning now?