Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bringing Up Geeks

 I just finished reading Bringing Up Geeks (Genuine, Enthusiastic, Empowered Kids): how to protect your kid’s childhood in a grow-up-too-fast world by Marybeth Hicks.  It is so excellent, full of totally common-sense objections to our culture’s vision of childhood, and I heartily recommend it to any parents who feel overwhelmed by the culture’s negative influences on their children or who feel alienated for having protected their children from them.

In her straight-shooting, funny style, Mrs. Hicks lays out in 300 pages her and her husband’s approach to parenting, that is: intentionally raising GEEKs or genuine, enthusiastic, empowered kids.  (Geeks, according to Mrs. Hicks, are kids who are: braniacs, sheltered, uncommon, well-liked by adults, late bloomers, team players, true friends, homebodies, principled, and faithful.) 

In describing how she and her husband sought to assist in the development of the physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual selves of their four children, Mrs. Hicks relays with great humor and poignancy the challenges they faced as their values and decisions  in child-rearing brought them head-on with the “culture of cool”.  In her second chapter “Raise a Sheltered Kid”, Mrs. Hicks relates how her husband went with a friend to see Matrix Reloaded, an R-rated movie described by screenit.com as “’heavy’ in blood, gore, frightening and tense scenes, profanity, sex, and nudity; and ‘extreme’ in guns and weapons, violence, disrespectful or bad attitudes, and scary or tense music.’”  The kicker?  Just before the movie began, Mr. Hicks watched as a mom walked into the theater with a group of his daughter’s twelve-year-old friends.  Mrs. Hick’s writes, “My husband’s review: Uncomfortable.  ‘I’m watching these graphic scenes, but the whole time it’s really awkward knowing Betsy’s friends are a few rows ahead of me. I felt like the girls should have covered their eyes,’ he said.  ‘Since they didn’t, I covered mine instead.’ (p. 59-60).” 

With water-tight logic and abundant statistics, Mrs. Hicks shows time and again how we as American parents have handed our children over to consumerism, unlimited media consumption, rudeness, and early sexualization, despite our knowledge of these things’ deleterious effects.  In her chapter entitled, “Raise a Sheltered Kid” Mrs. Hicks lays out some harrowing statistics regarding negative influences in the media, like “77 percent of prime-time shows included sexual content and 68 percent of all shows included talk about sex, with 35 percent of all shows incorporating sexual behaviors into their content (65), and the lack of supervision and standards at home regarding its consumption.  

Regarding current Internet trends and safety, Mrs. Hicks mentions the Chris Hansen series “To Catch a Predator” that ran on Dateline, and she writes

Some forty million people have seen Chris’s hidden-camera investigations in which he snags evil pedophiles in the act of attempting to meet young teens for sex.  The series as wells as the companion best-selling book of the same name have exposed to all of us the underhanded and insidious behaviors of those who use the Internet for criminal purposes.  And still—still—millions of kids hang out on My Space every afternoon, millions of kids have computers in their bedrooms, where they can roam unsupervised through the unchartered territories of cyberspace, and where they are routinely and repeatedly approached by icky sickos for unthinkable exploitation…But rather than belabor the mind-boggling trends, I’ll simply note that more than 85 percent of children and teens now enjoy regular access to the Internet, while only a quarter of the young people report that their parents have rules about how to use it (67-68). 
Far from being a list of not-to’s when parenting, Mrs. Hicks offers with each chapter the culture’s answer to parenting questions and the positive, formative, loving response we as parents can choose instead.   On the problem of talking-back in middle and high schoolers, Mrs. Hicks writes that she  found online from a social worker at a major children’s hospital a manual which read, “As children grow and become more independent, they have a need to assert more control over their own lives.  Talking back can be a way for children to separate themselves from their parents…Kids need to talk back, but they need ways to do it that aren’t disruptive to your relationship” (122).

Mrs. Hick responds in her usual, refreshing way, “Kids need to talk back?  Really?  And we need to help them do it in ways that aren’t disruptive to our relationships?  Man, there sure is a lot I don’t know.  Quick.  Someone, sign me up for a degree in child development.”

Later she offers her own tried-and-true method of teaching kids to be mannerly in an increasingly rude world.  After noting that her kids are often praised by adults for their good manners, she writes, “Again, are Jim and I proud of our kids?  Naturally.  But we’re not surprised by their skills.  We’ve worked on them!  We spend time coaching them about how to converse politely, we correct them when we see rude behavior, and we engage them in social chatter so they can learn to chat socially.  Heck, we even practice handshaking and getting them to look us in the eye when they say hello” (132)  She offers practical advice on how to work on manners at home and reminds the reader again about the importance and beauty of good manners, as they are the way we acknowledge others’ dignity in ordinary conversation.

I encourage any parent who feels weary from saying no to the culture to read this book for encouragement and hope.  Mrs. Hicks proves that saying no to the negative influences of our culture really is about saying yes to those things that help a child reach his full potential as a child of God, and she has the beautiful  fruit of her “happily uncool”, well-adjusted, mature, polite, intelligent, and faith-filled children to prove it.

She concludes, ”It’s not enough for me that my kids seem happy.  It’s certainly not enough that they be considered cool or that they feel popular.  It’s emphatically not enough to sell them short on character development in the name of social standing.  My obligation to my children and to the God who created them calls me to expect much more” (303). 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Be Daring with St. Josemaria

 I lost a bet to my husband.  The stakes were a medium vanilla iced coffee or, if my husband won, a movie of his choice because he always defers to me when picking out movies, definitely because he’s a gentleman and possibly to avoid the stream of negative commentary from his wife on his guy movie’s obvious flaws on everything from its immodest costuming to its totally unrealistic plots turns.  (“Wait, who’s Luke Skywalker’s dad?  Oh…I wonder if he named him Luke because he didn’t like his own name.”)
So when he won, I braced myself.  In justice, he really did deserve to pick out whatever movie he wanted to see, and I promised I wouldn’t say a word.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a contender, so you could imagine my delight when he finally settled on Roland Joffe’s There Be Dragons, on the life of St. Josemaria Escriva.  And everyone was perfectly clothed. 
The movie was wonderful; Charlie Cox played a super-cute, always-smiling Josemaria, and the setting, the Spanish Civil War, seemed familiar to me as an at-home mom of two preschoolers and a toddler.  I drew great strength from St. Josemaria’s example and had more hope for my days at home as he struggled and succeeded in keeping the faith and encouraging others to maintain their human dignity and virtue amidst the fighting.  And I didn’t say a word the whole movie…except for the occasional “wow”.
To prep for the movie, I flipped through my compilation of St. Josemaria’s The Way, Furrow, and The Forge.  Besides seeing thousands of his typical, always helpful, hard-on-sin exhortative nuggets—my favorite: “Don’t say, ‘That’s the way I am—it’s my character.’  It’s your lack of character.  Esto vir!—Be a man!” (The Way, 4.).   I came across a beautiful expression of love and of hope for us modern day saints-in-training:   
Don’t ask Jesus to forgive only your own faults: don’t love him with your heart alone.  Console him for every offense that has been, is, and will be done to him.  Love him with all the strength of all the hearts of all the men who have loved him most.  Be daring: tell him you are carried away with more love than Mary Magdalene, more than Teresa and little Therese, more carried away than Augustine and Dominic and Francis, more than Ignatius and Xavier (The Way, 402).
 Take it from St. Josemaria:  be daring.  Tell Jesus that you love Him today more than all the Teresas together loved Him, He might just give you the grace to do it.  And let your husband pick out the movie this weekend, it might just leave you speechless.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Modernly Distasteful Themes in Macbeth

                For Christmas this year, my darling husband gave me a copy of Macbeth by Ignatius Critical Editions, edited by Ave Maria’s Joseph Pearce.  Having so loved Ignatius’s Merchant of Venice and its reading of the play through the lens of our Judeo-Christian tradition, I knew I’d love this just as much.  And after a few intense nights of reading, I must say that it even exceeded my expectations.  Macbeth was truly a joy to read in all its ghoulishness.    
                The tale of Macbeth tells the story of the war hero Macbeth who just after securing a key victory for his country is approached by three witches who foretell that he will become King of Scotland.  His friend, the most upright Banquo, is quick to denounce the sisters and their witchcraft, but our hero, captivated by their prophesy, is not.  He dwells on their message and as other parts of their fortune begin to come true, Macbeth shares this strange event with his wife Lady Macbeth, who quickly understands that foul play is undoubtedly Macbeth’s only chance of realizing this fortune.  Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to kill their friend King Duncan, and he finally agrees to do so.  After the deed, the Macbeths slowly disintegrate; Lady Macbeth by her guilt and Macbeth by his death of conscience and paranoia, as he continues to slaughter all who stand as a threat to him and his ill-gotten crown.  Needless to say, they both come to a wretched end.      
                I’m grateful that my little ones can’t read yet, lest they were to wonder why their mother was sitting in the corner smiling, holding a copy of Macbeth.  But it was just so good.  And Ignatius’s generous footnotes greatly aided in my understanding of the text, mercifully assuming that I would not otherwise have known what a hautboy[1] was or that a sewer was a butler.
                What also helped immensely in my understanding of the play was Professor Pearce’s grand introduction and the essays that were to follow the play.  Besides laying out the time and place in which Shakespeare wrote his play, the pieces highlight what one author calls “conveniently overlooked themes” by modern critics.  Below are a few:
-Personal freedom can only exist in obedience to natural law.
We see the Macbeths become increasingly entrapped in themselves once they break from natural law.  After the murder of King Duncan, Lady Macbeth is haunted by the sight of her bloody hands, and Macbeth feels free only to slay any additional opponents, as he, too, is visited by bloody spectres.
                In his introduction, Professor Pearce cites G.K. Chesterton who writes, “Make a morbid decision and you will only become more morbid; do a lawless thing and you will only get into an atmosphere much more suffocating than that of law.  Indeed, it is a mistake to speak of a man as “breaking out”.  The lawless man never breaks out; he breaks in.  He smashes a door and finds himself in another room, he smashes a wall and finds himself in a yet smaller one.  The more he shatters the more his habitation shrinks.  Where he ends you may read in the end of Macbeth.”
Professor Pearce continues, “For us moderns, therefore, the first philosophical significance of the play is this: that our life is one thing and that our lawless acts limit us; every time we break a law we make a limitation.  In some strange way hidden in the deeps of human psychology, if we build our palace on some unknown wrong it turns very slowly into our prison.  Macbeth at the end of the play is not merely a wild beast; he is a caged wild beast.”
-Evil is the perversion of good.
                What was so clear to Shakespeare and seems lost on us in modernity is that evil is the perversion of the good.  The play opens with the weird sisters chanting, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”  It’s this moral equivocation that ensnares Macbeth as he eschews his friend’s Christian warning of witchcraft and takes to heart their prophesy. “Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more” (I.3.69-70).  Professor Pearce writes that Shakespeare wrote against the moral equivocation of his time, especially regarding terrorism in the name of religion, and it’s hard not to think of our modern day ills being passed off as goods, by name: “choice”, “marriage equality”, and “separation of church and state”.
-The desire to control the future leads to a war on children.
As Macbeth becomes obsessed with killing all those who stand as a threat to his kingdom, he goes after his opponents, as well as their children.  Lady Macbeth, to show her cut-throat dedication to the unrighteous cause of the usurpation of the crown, says that she would even kill her infant son if she had to. “What beast was’t then/ That made you break this enterprise to me? / When you durst do it, then you were a man…I have given suck, and know/ How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me--/ I would, while it was smiling in my face,/ Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,/ And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn/ As you have done to this” (I.7.48-59). 
James Bemis of the California Political Review, author of “Macbeth on Film” writes, “Another of the play’s conveniently overlooked themes is that the Macbeths’ pride—which fuels their ambition—leads them to try to control the future.  To control the future, they must annihilate it by killing anyone who poses a threat to their comfort and well-being.  As Macbeth says, “To be thus is nothing,/ But to be safely thus” (3.1.47-48).
“This is why bloody children appear everywhere in the play: in the Macbeths’ poetry, in dreams, in visions, in the attempt on Fleance, and in the horrifying slaughter of Macduff’s children.  As literary critic Cleanth Brooks notes in The Well Wrought Urn, the babe “turns out to be…perhaps the most powerful symbol in the tragedy”.  This war on children is a war on God’s providence and is a sin that hits very close to home for many in the modern world.  Few Shakespearean scholars comment these days on this obvious motif running throughout the play.”
The foulest tale in the fairest presentation: Macbeth, Ignatius Critical Editions.

[1] oboe

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Does God Love Unequally?: An evening of spiritual jealousy and cupcakes

It was twenty to eight at night.  I was sitting at the kitchen table with my apron still on.  The preschoolers and toddler were all in their respective beds, and I was waiting quietly for my coffee to brew.  Something familiar hung on me from the day—what was it?  Frustration?  Disappointment?  I stretched out my shoulders and tried to decide.  My husband sat next to me, working on his grad school paper.  I absently watched him type. 
I needed to write my own article and had planned to write on offering up daily annoyances.  Still struggling deeply in that department, I trudged downstairs to look for my Mother Teresa book for encouragement.  I brought the book upstairs and set it on the table, when, suddenly, I didn’t want to read it anymore.  I felt myself recoil at the sight of her testimony.  I didn’t want to hear her inspiring words—all the beauty and love she had found in her work.  I didn’t want to read how she had done her work so well and so lovingly.  She was able to do that, I thought, simply because God loved her more than me.  And it wasn’t fair.  And it hurt.
I glanced at our poster of John Paul II holding the Eucharist in front of a crucifix, and I thought of all the great saints like John the Apostle and St. Francis who had loved God so much and whom He had loved immensely.  I knew I probably wouldn’t love Him like they had.  And why was that?  Was it because He didn’t love me as much as them and so didn’t give me those spiritual gifts?  Why did God make me to love Him just a little?  Why didn’t He love me like He loved them?
Big drops fell on my cheeks, and I knew what had been hanging on me tonight.  Underneath it all, in the midst of the trials of the day, I felt as if God had given me my little daily challenges without giving me as much grace as other people had to conquer them.  I felt like if only He had given me the gifts He had given St. Francis or Mother Teresa or St. Therese, I wouldn’t be the sorry soul that I was.
I didn’t want to bother my husband as he did his work, but I also didn’t make any attempt to hide the giant tears that were falling near his keyboard.  He stopped and looked up, very concerned.  So it all came out, in bits and pieces, until I finally got at the heart of my heartache:  How come God doesn’t love us all equally?  He come He made me to be loved less than St. Francis?
After a big hug, my husband Paul, who received his Master of Theological Studies from Ave Maria and who’s currently working on a canon law licentiate, addressed my question with characteristic thoughtfulness and thoroughness, even citing the Summa.  And here’s, in short, what St. Thomas and Paul had to say:
Thomas addresses this question in Part I, Question 20, articles 3-4. 
Point 1: St. Thomas says that on one hand, we can say that God does not love some things more than others because His will is one and simple.  God loves everyone perfectly because He is incapable of loving imperfectly.
Point 2: But, on the other hand, we can say that God does love those more for whom He wills a greater good, though His will is not more or less intense.  God’s loving one thing more means His willing for that thing a greater good, for example: God might bestow on one person the gift of charity that He hadn’t bestowed on another.  St. Thomas points to the problem of deciding who loved God more, Peter or John, as proof of the difficulty of comparing spiritual gifts.  He writes that some say that Christ loved Peter more because of his gift of charity, and others say that He loved John more because He gave him the gift of contemplation.  The gifts are both so good, however, that it’s impossible for St. Thomas to compare them, and he concludes that it’s even presumptuous to do so since the Lord alone is the weigher of spirits (Prov. 16:2).
I didn’t want to be doing something that St. Thomas said was presumptuous, though I’ve done it for so long, but I was still unsure about the whole thing, especially as my imagination kept bringing up the fact of God’s bestowing more gifts on others.  How couldn’t that be a sign of His loving others more?  I put the question again to Paul, and again, he gently reiterated that it was essential to clarify that we are not talking about God’s intensity of will but rather on gifts given.  All spiritual gifts or grace comes from the cross, so we shouldn’t take the quantity of gifts given as the real sign of his love.  All gifts require His death, no matter how many He decides to give.  I glanced at our crucifix poster again and something clicked.
I imagined a spiritual gift as a cupcake.  I pictured one in front of me and three in front of the person next to me.  I suddenly knew that if I had known that someone had died to procure those cupcakes for us, I wouldn’t mind at all if I only had one and the next person had three because I knew how costly they were.  If someone had loved me enough to die for me, I’d be happy with whatever he decided to give me because it would be an expression of perfect love.  I was getting so happy that I told Paul that I wouldn’t care if I only had one cupcake and saw that someone had a whole pile…then, stopped.  No, wait, that seemed different, but then Paul was quick to point out that our limited human minds are always trying to equate the number of gifts with the intensity of will. 
I was content with that.  And happy.  And thinking about how upset I’d be if my children started comparing the cupcakes I had given them with the others’, as it would imply that my love for them was somehow deficient—when, in reality, those suckers were probably really hard to make—it made even more sense.  And then I was happy to put this whole mess behind me and get down to the business of loving God.  I resolved to no longer compare others’ spiritual gifts to my own because first, it’s impossible and second, St. Thomas says that we shouldn’t.  God has given me a certain mission and gifts to accomplish that mission, and like a good child, I should trust that He’s given them to me out of perfect love, and so I should respond to that love by loving Him as I carry out my mission.  In other words: no more being jealous of Mother Teresa’s cupcakes because He’s given me my own, at a very dear price.