Borders We Need: Brexit, Boundaries, and Love

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My son recently started saying “me” and “I” with great frequency.  He shouts “Help me” when he falls down, “I want” when he desires a specific activity, or  points to something he’s playing with or eating saying “me, me,” as in mine.  I love it.  He is learning how to develop and express his needs, wants, and preferences.  He is finding himself, he is learning about where I end and he begins, and it is a beautiful thing to behold.

Recent studies on childhood development suggest that children aren’t cognitively ready to understand the concept of sharing until they are at least three or four.  That doesn’t mean they can’t act kindly toward other children at younger ages, it just means they don’t understand what it means to share themselves and their belongings. To the child soul these enforced episodes of “sharing” are confusing invasions on their fragile and developing personhood.  Yet most of us parents follow our children around, managing their social interactions and begging them to share anyway.  Typically, these futile interactions with toddlers just end in tears for all.

Children can’t share until they first learn to possess.  They can’t fully give until they first understand what it means to receive, and then to own.  Before they can grow into their social skills, they must first grow into an understanding of their individuality.  Learning to say “me” is crucial for valuing “you.”  A key part of developing as people is understanding where we end and others begin.

It is in finding out what it means to be me and not my mother, my father, my siblings, or other family members and friends, that we equip ourselves with the ability to become healthy individuals and learn how to interact with the world.  Relationships, even in their most foundational and early states, need borders.

For those who still believe in the need for defined boundaries – personal and national – in our increasingly borderless world, who recognize that sometimes “no” is said with deep love, this one is for you.

We need borders in order to know and love ourselves.  Self-autonomy is a foundational component of healthy living.  In order to love ourselves we must rule ourselves.  In order to rule ourselves, and protect ourselves from abuse, we must define ourselves.  We need to know what is ours and what is not.  We need to own all that is unique and personal about our body, soul, and mind. As we grow into this knowing, we grow into an appreciation for who we are and who we were created to be, as well as an acceptance of who and what we are not.

We cannot love that which we cannot define or differentiate.  If I don’t know where my body ends and yours begins, how can I properly take care of myself without trying to involve you in the process? If I don’t know what my opinions are in contrast to your opinions, how can I think for myself?  If I cannot express or choose my own likes or wants but rather let you choose them for me, how can I become autonomous?  If I can’t distinguish my rights and responsibilities from yours, how can I adequately protect myself from being used or from seeking to use and abuse others?

Boundaries are a foundational component of personhood, just as borders are an existential necessity of statehood.  In contemplating the current debate regarding the electoral success of Brexit, the British campaign to leave the EU, I was struck by these similarities.

C.S. Lewis writes in powerful terms about the proper love for country and the many ways this type of love can be distorted in Chapter 2 of The Four Loves.  He begins by describing a love of home, a Need-love or natural love, which can develop for the place where you were born or for the many places where you choose to live over the course of your life.  It is a love of the familiar and a love for the unique ways that your home conjours up that special feeling of comfort and belonging.  The foods, the customs, the peculiar ways life is lived, and how it is governed, all of these features uniquely shape the lives of those who dwell therein.

To define these facets of our home(s) and to cherish them is to love them for their own sake. He notes:

Of course patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves.

If foreigners were to invade and rule our home country and try to impose their customs on our way of life, Lewis continues, we would rightly call for a defense.   Likewise, it is not evil to defend yourself against those who would seek to control you – as an autonomous adult – in how to speak, dress, eat, think, and feel.  To merely love your home, your country, for all of the unique qualities and charming familiarities, to be willing to defend your home when threatened because of that love, is not evil.

Of course, love of country can be used for evil, just as love of self can turn demonic and cause innumerable pain.  But to purely love that which is distinct and familiar, to love that which differentiates our homes or ourselves from others, is natural and necessary.

If you cannot define aspects of a country that make it unique, if you cannot say where that country ends and another begins, then how can you love it?  What are you loving, protecting, or identifying with if not specific attributes, perspectives, or customs found within a distinct border?  People need to know where they begin and others end.  They need to appreciate those features that are uniquely theirs, and so, too, do countries.  We need borders in order to know and love ourselves.

We need to define ourselves in order to love others. A significant part of being able to extend beyond ourselves in love for another person is to first know who and what we are.  Without that knowledge we easily become codependent or domineering in our relationships.  After I understand what it means to be “me,” as my son is so crucially discovering at the age of two,  I can understand and appreciate what it means for you to be you.  This is the foundation of empathy.

Lewis aptly observes how this principle works with love for country:

How can I love my home without coming to realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realised that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs–why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.

Properly balanced loves – both for who we are and for who or what we identify with – help us appreciate how others are different.  The common bond between all people is not that we share the same ideas or foods or preferences, but that we all possess the ability to have our own ideas, like our own foods, and live out our own preferences.  We share in our ability to love the particular, the specific, the defined, and the uniquely ours.

The problem comes when we want everyone else to think and act just as we do.  Or when we believe that all people should live in the same way and share our same customs, priorities, and values.  Our contemporary society is perilously edging closer to creating a world where borders, be they personal or communal, are no longer recognized or respected.  It is not enough to be left alone to live as we choose in our own homes, or in our own countries, for this is considered an offense or an affront to “humanity.”  But more on that later.

Because we are losing an understanding of borders we are losing an appreciation for differences – ironic in a world that supposedly loves “diversity.”  We cannot understand, appreciate, or defend the differences of other people if we lose the language and freedom that allows us to understand, appreciate, and define ourselves as distinct entities.

There is no need to be threatened by the fact that others choose or value something different than us.  Rather, through the experience of defining our own loves we can come to understand how someone else might appreciate foreign things or come to differing conclusions.  We need to define ourselves in order to love others.

Superiority is self-hatred, not self-love.  True evils result from the debasement of our loves.  One such evil particularly prone to surface in our abuses of how we love our ourselves and our countries is that of a superiority to those who are different.  It is a distortion of our proper loves to see ourselves as greater than others.

Keep in mind the admonition in 1 Corinthians that all members of the body are to be valued and cherished no matter the roles they provide.  That is the image of love we are to follow.  When such love is malformed, replaced by human rankings and castes, and taken to the extremes, it can lead to racism, improper dominion, and dehumanization.

Lewis addresses this type of superiority as “not a sentiment but a belief.” When love of country goes wrong it is no longer is capable of loving the other, and therefore ceases to properly love, or truthfully understand, itself.  He recounts:

I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, “But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?” He replied with total gravity–he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar–“Yes, but in England it’s true.” To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid.

Lewis also notes how this type of superiority is tied to our understanding of history.  It is all well and good to derive a certain appreciation for the fables and strengths of our unique pasts. Yet it is downright unloving to believe that any country, just like any person, is lacking the presence of ugly betrayals, persecutions, and failures as facts in their own history.  The mere presence of failure or darkness is no reason to stop loving our countries or our persons.  But acknowledgment of our past mistakes act as a cautionary restriction to temper our appreciation for ourselves and help us view other people or nations with compassion.

As regards Brexit, so far as a person in the UK loves their country for its unique otherness, they have done nothing wrong or evil to assert that autonomy.  Many are suggesting they wish to define and control the borders and governance of their own nation.  Ownership of our personal lives, property, or country – and a desire to protect what we own if trespassed in some way – is not wrong.  It is a natural part of life.

The potential evil is found in those forces who wish for the British to leave the EU because they believe themselves somehow inherently superior to other nations, or to people who come to their country from other parts of the world.  To leave lacking an appreciation for those who wish to remain, to leave lacking respect for those who live differently, is where the danger lies.

No doubt that within the British electorate there are those who sought to define their nation’s boundaries on the premise of hatred and superiority.  But there are also those who merely wished to ensure the right for all British people, regardless of ethnicity or personal history, to choose how to rule and define themselves going into the future.

A question for the British citizenry as they work towards meting out the consequences of the vote to Leave is this: just how many of their own possess hatred for others vs healthy love for country?  As I expect they shall discover, not all people who love their county and wish to possess, rule, and protect it are racist xenophobic bigots.

Knowing yourself, and standing up for the right to control that self is not wrong.  Misunderstanding yourself and your history, believing that you can justly control and lord over others beyond your borders, or to hurt and belittle those who are different within, is the true problem.  Where this evil exists, it ought to be noted and condemned.  You cannot love your country if you hate all other countries, just as you cannot love yourself if you hate all other people.  Superiority is self-hatred, not self-love.

Redefining borders, when lost or forgotten, is painful but necessary.  It is not uncommon in the course of our relationships to realize that we need to realign how we interact with others.  Typically this need arises for our own protection.  Sometimes we need to say no because we too often say yes.  Sometimes we need to say no because what is asked of us invades our personhood or our rightly ordered places of autonomy.  Often these “no’s” come after realizing that somewhere along the way we failed to sufficiently understand, define, and advocate for our own limits.

We need to correct relationships that overstep proper borders in order to preserve our own sense of self.  Such redefinitions can be difficult and often are not without some type of relational cost.  Yet the assertion of our boundaries, and the ability to properly rule ourselves, is typically required for our ability to survive and thrive into the future.  Redefinitions of borders are necessary in order to continue loving ourselves, and thereby necessary for enlarging our ability to love others.

In the context of love of country, Brexit provides an example of how a nation might need to reassert their borders, and their control thereof, to ensure survival as a distinct state.  Again, where that redefinition of borders is motivated by a hatred of others it is wrong.  But where it is founded in a healthy love of self it is understandable and legitimate.

One of the great blessings in choosing ownership and love of self is the ability to control how we use and manage our borders.  Merely asserting autonomy is not a decision to shut-out all people or to advocate isolation from the world.  In fact, rightly ordered personal autonomy can help us extend more grace and love to others.

We can love even as we seek to protect ourselves from those who would misuse or abuse us and our borders.  Just because people who transgress our boundaries or who disrespect our natural rights to self-governance are put at a new distance, does not that mean we have to close ourselves off to all relationships.

Those who respect our attempts to redefine our borders as we grow into our autonomy over the years are our dearest friends and allies.  Those who find offense at our choice to live, think, feel, believe, and govern differently are probably not of the sort we should hold nearest and dearest, or allow unlimited access to our lives or countries, in the first place.  The choice to protect ourselves from invasions, even of a bureaucratic nature, is natural and reasonable.

The British people now have a collective opportunity and responsibility to rise to the challenge of redefinition of borders.  This task is not just for those who voted Leave, but also for those who voted Remain.  There is room for a multitude of ways to walk out the process of leaving the EU behind and reasserting the independence of the United Kingdom (or the individual statehood of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland).

These choices are much like those presented to the character played by Julia Roberts in the film Runaway Bride.  Chronically co-dependant in her relationships, she needed an opportunity to step back and choose for herself something as small as the way she liked to eat eggs, for she had always ordered whatever her string of fiancee’s liked as her own.  In the end she decided she didn’t actually like eggs, not in any form.  This is exactly the kind of process we all go through when we need to step back, individually or collectively, and redefine ourselves and our boundaries.

The task when undergoing efforts to reclaim our borders is to stay grounded in a healthy love for identity of self and to see this self-love as a means to respect and understand others.  This task does not preclude the hardships that come during seasons where we must define and assert our borders.  There will always be prices paid and sacrifices made when reasserting ourselves as other and unique.  But the costs are well worth the price of staying whole and distinct, be it in our personhood or our chosen statehood.  Redefining borders, when lost or forgotten, is painful but necessary.

Without borders we lose our identity and thereby our purpose.  In spite of all these truths, there is a prevailing trend in our society to suggest that borders themselves are the cause of conflict.  Confident and unique identity, be it personal or national, is perceived as a threat to harmony and peace.  Because our loves are often distorted and abused in practice, all loves for the particular are held in suspicion.  It is thought better to leave boundaries aside all together, or to not stand up for them when threatened, for that is surely the best path to peace, harmony, and relationships.

It is argued that we must all come to believe, act, govern, and live the same way, for this is the inevitable and desirable end of mankind on earth.  Those who resist progress toward an enlightened multicultural cosmopolitan borderless society are bigoted, backwards, or even considered aggressive for merely thinking or choosing differently than their neighbors.

Perhaps the precedent for this type of thinking began in our contemporary society with traditionalists forcibly trying to keep a status quo of the past.  But now aggression with no respect for borders belongs to the intolerant tolerance found within our progressive globalism.

Lewis deals with this concept as well, noting that without borders countries and people are left with a “false transcendence,” one where the only recourse left for mankind is in “presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light”:

If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for “their country” they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity. This is a step down, not up. Patriotic sentiment did not of course need to disregard ethics. Good men needed to be convinced that their country’s cause was just; but it was still their country’s cause, not the cause of justice as such. The difference seems to me important. I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds–wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine–I become insufferable…If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world.

If we cannot love and define our country as unique and separate, we risk putting our actions out of order.  Wars are no longer just about protecting boundaries and homes, they are about defending universals.  Relationships cease to be about respecting and interacting with individuals, they are about the idea of the abstract category each person represents to us and all that we wish to derive from those roles (Family, Spouse, Friend, etc.).

This is the type of oppressive thinking which leads us into perpetual warfare and conflict. There will always be an “enemy” somewhere not living as we think they ought (i.e. not like us) or not upholding the values we deem to be best.  Here we find no room for compromise, negotiation, or a retreat within our own borders, for borders are no longer respected.  The only victory recognized by the borderless is one of complete subjugation where all differences deemed unacceptable or threatening within a person or a country are wiped clean.

Whether it is relational warfare or the actual use of military might, wars and conquests based on these attempts to subdue in the name of eternals are the epitome of death and destruction.  They leave us unhinged, disconnected from purpose, detached from unique loves, and free to attack at will.  The justification for our ruler’s choices, or for the way we treat others, gets confused with the will and role of God.

It is not our place to tell another autonomous individual how they must feel, think, believe, or act (although we may certainly enforce a consequence when those actions break laws or disrespect established boundaries).  We cannot force a certain type of lifestyle, set of preferences, or acts of personhood on another at will, even when it is perceived to be for their own benefit.

Likewise, the power afforded to a state, or a union of states, is not meant to force others to be made in their own image.  Such is not the purpose of any government or form of governance.  Unless, of course, it be the divine governance of God, and even He allows room for choice in pursuit of his purposes and the reflection of his image.  Choice to exist apart from Him is a critical component of the highest love, the love He offers to His creation.

Natural love, as Lewis defines love of country, is separate from our higher callings to affection, eros, and the most beautiful of all, charity.  Although Need-love is not the same sentiment as that which we encounter in most of our personal relationships or in our relationship with God, commitments to things like our home and our country act as models to help train or prepare us for accepting and growing into the higher spiritual loves of this life.

We shouldn’t worship or idolize our countries, but we can love them.  As part of that properly ordered love we need to define what they are and what they are not.  We need borders in order to know and love ourselves.

While we continually grow into our true selves, we can change how we use and manage our borders.  Self-awareness and appreciation creates a foundation for relationship and a respect for those whose countries or attributes differ from our own.  We need to define ourselves in order to love others.

In loving others we must protect ourselves from any deceitful notion that we are secretly better than those who live, think, or act differently than us.  Superiority is self-hatred, not self-love.

When we discover that we are in a relationship that has confused the boundary of what is mine and what is yours then it is time to reassert who we are.  Sometimes we must say no, and sometimes we must say goodbye.  Redefining borders, when lost or forgotten, is painful but necessary.

If we try to live without boundaries we lose guidance on how to respect and interact with others.  Lacking self-definition, we risk turning into the very tyrants we fear from abuses of patriotic and self-love.  Without borders we loose our identity and thereby our purpose.

There are so many ways we can choose to manage our edges and our internals, for good or ill.  But in order to give, in order to relate, in order to love, we must be able to define, own, and protect.  These are the borders we need.

 

For further reading on the importance of borders as a foundation for love, I suggest Boundaries by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

Free to Hurt: Guns, Refugees, and Choice

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Sometimes my 2 year old son hits his 1 year old sister.  Sometimes she retaliates (or anticipates) and hits him back.

In raising toddlers only a year apart there are moments when I seriously wish they just did what you asked the first time and never again repeated undesirable actions.  Hitting is particularly painful to deal with as a parent because who wants to see their child hurt another, let alone their own sibling? So in those moments I think that if I could only wave a magic wand and say, “no more hitting!” our problems would be solved. The lesson would be learned for good and we’d never have to revisit the consequences, pain, or difficulty of addressing their negative behavior.  Who wouldn’t want that, right?

Sometimes my 2 year old son jumps up from his playtime and gives his sister a big hug.  Sometimes she responds (or initiates) by giving him a big open mouth kiss.

In these moments of beautiful love I am reminded of the power of choice.  When my toddlers choose to show one another affection in such spontaneous, unprompted ways I realize how these moments are special precisely because they had a choice.  Yes, sometimes they hit and that is painful and ugly and hard.  But sometimes they hug.  They hug because they actively chose love over envy and anger.  The magic wand solution is no solution at all, for it takes away their power of choice and thereby the meaning of their love.

This love, even their child love, has a fullness of meaning because each time they express their love they choose it from among a whole range of emotions and responses.  If we enforced rules that trained them they could only ever hug, if hugs were mandatory or mere rituals, if hugs were magically enforced, then their actions wouldn’t express the same thing.  When my son could hit, but instead chooses hugs, that is love.

For those of you unsure of how to speak out on the social controversies of the moment, who want to strike a balance between naivety and fear, between the horror of violence without justice and the high price of ensuring safety, this one is for you.

Choice does not negate justice.  There seems to be confusion in our social and political discussions about the nature of justice.  For, it is argued, if someone can choose to do an act of evil then there is no justice in this world.  The problem is that this understanding of justice fully misunderstands the inherent connection between choice and evil. It is only because we have freedom, and we can choose to use our freedoms for good or ill, that justice even has a purpose to serve.  If we are only given one option then we create a society devoid of justice.  Choice necessitates justice.

In the case of guns and gun control I often hear people argue that the problem with our violent society is that guns are available to the general public in the first place.  If there were no guns, they claim, there would be no more tragic and needless deaths.  If only we took away the choice of how to use guns, and where and how and when to buy them, a great evil in our country would be wiped away.

I am hardly an advocate for the efficacy or need for guns in all of our homes or personal lives. For the record, it is highly unlikely I would ever seek out membership to the NRA or own a gun myself.  Still, I wonder if our knee jerk attempts to address the particular expressions of evil in which guns are involved, typically after they occur, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the problem before us.

Our problem as a society is not that we have access to guns.  Our problem is that we have access to evil.  Our problem is that we don’t value ourselves or others with the innate dignity that was gifted to us by our Creator.  We disrespect and devalue human life every day.  We do this with our words, with our actions, and through the media we consume.  And while we can most definitely do something to address the ways our culture discards and objectifies human life, and while we can opt to limit or take away legal access to guns, we will never be able to limit the potential in every heart to access and act upon evil.

This is why we have courts on earth, and this is why God sits on a judgment seat in heaven.  We all have a choice on how to use our lives.  Some people use their choices for good, but oh so many of us use our choices for ill.  When someone chooses evil over good it is painful and heartbreaking to watch or partake in.  Often, seeing others choose great evil is hard to understand.  But that is why justice exists.

Will the justice of the law or the justice of God satisfy or heal the pain and sorrow caused by evil in this world? No.  That is the role of Jesus: the sacrifice, forgiveness, and atonement offered though His life, death, and resurrection.  Yet the justice afforded to us both on earth and in heaven grants us a pathway to address the true problem, the problem of evil, and how some people use their freedoms to choose to do evil things.

We overstep the purpose of justice when we believe that we can somehow prevent or erradicate evil by limiting our access to choice and taking away our freedoms. That is not attainable nor is it wise.  To do so ignores fundamental truths about human nature.

Gun control or no gun control, evil will exist, people will hurt and kill others, and life will continue to be filled with the cost of sin.  I’m not saying there isn’t place to debate public policy changes in how we handle guns in our country.  But I am saying that no matter  where we stand on this issue, we ought to respect that gun ownership, like so many other rights and responsibilities, comes with a choice to use it for evil or to use it for good.

Seems to me that when a mother uses a gun to shoot and ward off home intruders we collectively cheer.  Or when a private citizen protects an innocent life using their concealed carry gun in public we label them a hero.   In our efforts to limit the potential for evil, we may also prevent or limit good.  Justice is personified holding a scale for a reason.

We needn’t fear our choices, for with the choice to do evil comes the choice to do good.  Because we can choose both good or bad, we can punish evil.  Choice is the very bedrock of the justice that we all look for when faced with tragic displays of evil in this world.  Choice does not negate justice.

Lack of choice does not ensure safety. When we take away the ability for ourselves or others to choose, we take away the potential for good.  Liberty, the founding principle of our nation, demands the opportunity for certain abuses and dangers to exist alongside the opportunity for goodness or righteousness.

Take away a choice in the name of safety and you are often left only with coercion, not goodness.  Coercive societies are joyless societies.  Coercive societies lack imagination, creativity, and individuality.  We may find that the cost of any “guaranteed” safety we create when we overly limit our choices and options is far too high.

Think about the current debate regarding refugees and immigrants from Muslim nations.  In the name of safety many argue that we need to cut off access to our country for millions  of people around the world.  Is there perhaps a chance than some small percentage – likely less than 1 percent – of those seeking entrance to this country intend to use this privilege for harm? Yes.  But think of all that would be sacrificed in the name of protecting us against this hypothetical threat.

Think of all the good that could be done in helping hundreds of thousands of families in need of a home.  Of showing the world the courage and openness that America was once known for through our welcoming arms and our willingness to accept the huddled masses.  Think of the certain good that would come from embodying the powerful imagery of a city on a hill, shining light for those from far and wide in need of refuge and a hope for a new life.

Think of how many of those seeking entrance here might, for the first time in their lives, be gifted the opportunity to live in a land where freedom of religion is real and the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in public.  In fact, not only might it be the first time they will have the opportunity to hear about the truth of Jesus, but it could offer them the first opportunity to consider following Him without fear of reprisal or violence at the hands of their own government.

Is it at times unsettling to know that potential terrorists might be dwelling in this country and seeking access to weapons? Yes.  But it is also unsettling to realize that in the name of protecting ourselves from this potential threat we would empower the government to decide, without recourse to justice through due process, who is and is not safe, who is and is not a threat, who does and does not have rights. Is it not also unsettling that we would ban a whole group of people from entry to our nation because of the faith or the place of their birth, regardless of the content of their character? For me, most certainly yes.

We can extend these powers to the government, we can limit ourselves and our society until our border is in lockdown and every building has a metal detector.  But no matter the laws passed or the precedent set we will never eradicate the evil that inspires terrorism or that leads mankind to kill.

However, we can choose to do good in the face of evil.  We can choose openness to protecting our choices and expanding our opportunities to heal and bless.  We can choose to hug and not hit, even if we were hit first.  That is how evil is vanquished in this world.

Evil wins each time we cower, we fear, and we stop living.  Evil wins when, in the name of safety, we close our arms and no longer extend them for the hurting and the broken.  Evil wins when we stop ministering to others or hide the words of the gospel for fear of rejection or misunderstanding.  Evil wins when we elect to take away our freedoms, not when we choose to defend or expand them.

Until the day of Christ’s return there will always be evil on this earth.  That is not a surprise, it is a promise.  Take away choice and not only does evil win, but it will find new paths for expression.  Increase the potential for light, increase the opportunities for good, and choose courage instead of fear.  That is how evil will be overcome, and oh how it shall be overcome one day!

We can be certain that so long as we are here on earth there will be sin and evil and pain.  Yet we are also certain that in the end goodness and beauty will win, that God shall render the ultimate justice, and that only His love shall remain.  Good shall conquer evil, that is a promise too.  Because we have this promise we have nothing to fear.

More choice means more paths for goodness to shine and justice to be rendered, not less.  We are safer when we more free, not the other way around.  Lack of choice does not ensure safety.

We are free to hurt so that we are free to love.  We should be neither surprised by nor scared of the existence of evil in this world.  When confronted by the existence of evil we are called to choose love.  We can promote free choice as a society to act for evil or for good because we have recourse to justice, both human and divine.  Choice does not negate justice.

Take away our choices or our options on how to live and we merely limit the potential for goodness to shine in this very dark world.  Lack of choice does not ensure safety.  If we severely limit ourselves as a nation, or as individuals, we will devalue any good we try to offer or create.  The power of love is found in the power of choice.  Forced love is no love at all.  We are free to hurt so that we are free to love.

 

Pressing On: How to Cope with the Difficulties of Stay-At-Home Parenting

408268-1_1920x1080_534843971868It is 8 AM and I am feeding my children a breakfast of honey graham bunnies, which they fetched for themselves, while I sit on our couch sipping coffee and crying uncontrollably.  Sometimes the tears come in droplets, sometimes in torrents, but regardless of the speed they arrive I just can’t get them to stop.  Welcome to the beginning of a very hard day in the life of a stay-at-home-mom. Welcome to my yesterday.

I am choosing to stay home with my children while they are little.  No disrespect toward those who choose to work. I suppose this post could be read in such a way to make those who chose differently feel better about their own choice.  But that isn’t the point.  The point is that even though I chose this for myself and my family, and even though I have no intention to go out and find a full-time job, I still find some days to be incredibly difficult to handle.  To those stay-at-home parents out there who feel the same way, this is for you.

I love my kids.  It’s absurd that I feel the need to reiterate that statement over and over.  But when you are struggling to like your job, and your job is as the primary caretaker for your kids, it is only inevitable to feel a certain level of guilt.  So let’s get this one clear.  Struggling to cope with the hardships of watching little children full-time, 24/7, sometimes on your own with them for 12 hours or more, does not make you a bad parent.  It doesn’t mean you don’t love them enough or that you are somehow the wrong woman to be their mother (or man to be their father).

You aren’t failing them when you are truthful about why parenting as your full-time profession is sometimes profoundly difficult.  In fact, it is only in acknowledging our struggles that we can best serve our little ones and love them even more. So the fact that I am not always excited to get out of bed in the morning to attend to my children’s needs does not mean that I don’t love them.  Nor does the fact that I let myself feel these difficulties, cry in front of them when it gets really hard, and explain to them that “Mommy’s get sad sometimes too” after I calm down.  I love my kids.

I get lonely.  I think this is the crux of so many of the other difficulties faced by stay-at-home parents.  While other people go off to work, see co-workers, and meet friends for lunch, I spend most of my days in our house with my kids.  When I do go out, even if I see others, I spend most of that time focused on my children, their antics and needs, and not the people sitting across the table from me.  Of course, I can try to do more to expand my community and I know that for some moms this isn’t a huge problem.  But not everyone has kids in the same place where you grew up or has an established community near people they love, trust, and who have time to see you during the day.

Building this kind of community takes energy, flexibility, and time, qualities often in short supply when raising little kids.  We have moved around so much in recent years it is disorienting.  And while those choices were the best ones for our family, it does make this loneliness harder to deal with and community more challenging to create.  For it is hard enough to make inroads with a new community when you are single or newly married, but add in the complex needs of little kids and this task can feel next to impossible!

Oh, but what about all those programs for moms? What a wonderful way to connect and make friends! Yes, ok.  I can personally testify that those morning bible studies or MOPS type experiences have been both life-saving and very discouraging in the realm of relationships.  Don’t get me wrong, I think ANYTHING that can help get you and your children out of the house to socialize with others is a great idea if you can make travel arrangements and fit it into your schedule.  I am genuinely grateful for all the people who I have met so far along the way.  Even if I only spoke with you for three minutes a year ago, you are significant in my life and I still thank God for you.  I’m serious.

However, using these venues to find heart friends, to find the kind of people you have more in common with than just child rearing or a free morning, to find people who you can call up to join you on days filled with buckets of tears and honey graham breakfasts, are much harder to come by.  The task of growing acquaintances into friends can be tedious and dissatisfying when you have a pressing need for deep relationships right now.  I know they come for many.  I am trusting they will come one day soon for me.  But it hasn’t happened yet, so I am often very lonely.

Some might say, “Oh, but you have your kids to keep you company!” Yes, yes I do.  And I love my kids.  There we go again.  But my kids don’t speak fluent English.  My kids have the needs, and thoughts, and desires of little children.  As is appropriate.  And while the whole point of staying home is so that I can build deeper relationships with them during these formative years, trying to commune with a 1 year old as my primary social interaction is not emotionally satisfying.  Nor should it be.

At the end of the day they are still my children and I am still the parent.  I shouldn’t look to them to fill my emotional needs.  That would be both wrong and expensive.  After factoring in the cost of therapy once they get older, I’d probably have to go back to work just to pay for our mental healthcare expenses. Plus, thanks to their desire to join me everywhere I go, including the bathroom, I am hardly ever technically alone.  While some parents might be cool with this lack of personal space, I actually find it makes the whole loneliness problem pretty darn difficult to process and manage.  I mean, if I want to have a private emotional breakdown I have to schedule it for nap time.  So yes, I love my kids, but I can spend all day with them and still be lonely.

I get bored.  I know, I know, childhood is an endless adventure! When you see life through their eyes it brings new meaning and interest to your own! Oh look! It’s a leaf and it is FASCINATING!  When watching little kids it is true that we relearn how even the small parts of life can be fun and mysterious and interesting.  We can enjoy simpler things and really appreciate the value of endless silly giggles.  But other times in the day I desire mental challenges or stimulating conversation that relates to a different part of my being.  Blocks and cars and children’s books are awesome, but after a couple of hours I am genuinely ready to focus my brain on something else.

Maybe not all stay-at-home parents have this problem.  But as a highly analytical and philosophically oriented person, I like having intellectual goals and tasks of a nature that aren’t currently a part of my daily parenting schedule.  I like talking to people about abstract concepts like the nature of God’s love, and having practical debates on topics like the best way to address the challenges in the Middle East.  These interests are a vital part of my personality and they didn’t just disappear or get filed away in the inner recesses of my soul as soon as my first child was born.  So while I truly value learning to have awe, and not just irritation, for the tiny ants that occasionally invade our kitchen, I also desire to use and be my whole self throughout each day.  Otherwise, I get bored.

I feel unfulfilled.  Ok, yes, the work of raising children is a tremendously important task for both the lives of our kids and the future of our communities.  It is a gift to have this opportunity to be here for them with consistency and to see each milestone in person.  It is a miracle to have a hand at shaping the life of another in such an intimate and complete way.  But when lacking outlets for my passions, or even time to figure out just what my passions are, I feel almost like a shell of myself.  A hollow person moving from task to task without real connection or heart.  We give to our kids by being our whole unique selves as God created us, and that includes integrating all of our interests and skills into our daily routines.

Some might ask then, “Why don’t you just go get a job?!” Well, for starters, I don’t need a job title to be whole for myself or for them.  Although, let’s face it, somedays I certainly wonder if that would be an easy solution.  Especially for boosting my self-worth in a world that can merge identity with work and that tends to see full-time parenting as the absence of work. I think this misnomer is where we can get tripped up in thinking that there is some fundamental quality about staying at home with kids that is unsatisfying or joyless.  It might not be right for everyone, but for most of us there is plenty of satisfaction and joy in spending this season with our children.  It’s just also incredibly difficult to make space for our own interests and well-being while striving to meet their relentless needs.

Yet we can try to find time for ourselves, and not just at nap times.  Toddlers can play by themselves, they really can, and I think it is healthy for them to gain independence and to see us doing things other than just housework or play.  Of course, I always make space for them and their needs, which means I am interrupted an average of every three minutes.  But I think we can choose to orient parts of our day towards our other goals and interests outside of childrearing.  I am trying, slowly, to write and read more throughout the day.  I periodically put CNN on in the background.  I aspire to join a book club.  These are just some of the ways we can connect with our whole selves. Yet when lacking this personal time to use all of my God-given gifts, or when doubting myself and my purpose, I feel unfulfilled.

I feel overwhelmed.  Sometimes the demands of full-time parenting are really just too much to handle without a good cry.  At least for me anyway.  Toddlers are emotionally volatile little people, and since I have been either postpartum or pregnant for most of this parenting journey, I am emotionally volatile as well.  It really doesn’t take much beyond the daily diapers, spills, mealtime messes, and tantrums to trigger an occasional torrent of tears or frustration from either or both of us.

The tremendous weight of forming another’s life, and the practical situations that we face in this task, can be both perplexing and stretching. Some situations find me looking upwards and saying, “I am not equipped for this,” and yet I still have to make a call, on my lonesome, for how best to take care of my children and help them grow in that moment.  While I usually figure out some response with varying degrees of wisdom and grace, there are at least a few seconds – if not minutes – where I just want to hide or hand over my parenting duties to someone else.

Plus, I hate housework.  There, I said it.  Some of you, I know, love it.  It helps calm you down or feel in control, and that is awesome.  But I hate it and I’m bad at it.  And while I try to take responsibility for a lot household chores as the spouse who is at home, I am not choosing to stay home to be our family’s professional maid.  I am choosing to stay home to help our children develop in a safe, positive, and familiar environment.  Contrary to stereotypes or cultural expectations, these two roles of maid and mother are frequently mutually exclusive.

Our home routinely has piles of dirty everything and it’s not because I am a lazy lout all day.  Seriously, have you ever noticed that trying to accomplish household tasks with the “help” of toddlers can take about 500 times longer than normal? Not to mention that if this was all I did all day long I would probably need a prescription for Xanax.  I count myself blessed to live in the age of google so I can figure out just how to handle applesauce stains on the sofa  or throw-up on the carpet.  And by handle I mean mitigate the damage, not restore unto perfection.  If you ever sit on our couches, I’m sorry.  After my panic attacks subsided, I tried my best.

So yes, on some days I find myself lonely, bored, unfulfilled, and overwhelmed.  And then I cry.  Sometimes I cry a little, sometimes a lot, and sometimes for hours on end because I just can’t keep it in anymore.  But then my husband comes home to hold me and give me a break, I take some deep breaths, and I remember why all this is worth it in the end.  I remember that I am choosing this path and that I can find ways to cope with the hardships day by day.  I consider new ways to walk out my calling and take care of myself, even if that means a part-time job, a nanny share, or a half-time pre-school.

I remember that God knows my struggles and he knows my heart.  I remember that He is always with me and that I can always cast my burdens upon Him.  I remember that He hasn’t forgotten the entirety of who He created me to be.  I remember that for all things there is a season and while some parts of me may lie dormant right now (like the part that exercises and showers on a daily basis), those pieces of me will blossom again, perhaps sooner than I can imagine today.  I remember that He prunes us to help us grow, and I pray that the fullness of my gifts and passions will flourish again in His divine timing and as a part of His divine plan.  I remember that He does not judge us by the cleanliness of our sinks but by the cleanliness of our souls.  And I press on.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings,becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrectionfrom the dead.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.  ~ Philippians 3:7-14

 

Note: Throughout this piece I use the term “full-time parent(ing)” to refer to the work of those parents who stay home to take care of their kids.  I recognize that ALL parents are full-time parents, regardless of where you are.  But the reality is that those who stay home are there do the work of parenting as their full-time profession.  No insult or superiority intended. I am just attempting to describe the daily tasks of parents who forgo a career in order to stay home with their children in a faithful and accurate way.