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Friday, December 23, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: Shut Your Trap

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Does everything that ever crosses your mind deserve to be aired?

By way of illustration, the Toronto Star prints this piece on “Moms who regret motherhood”. I’ll second the opinion offered by the writer of the story, who says, “All my pity is for the actual victims in these stories” — that is to say, for the children of the mothers who regret them.

Tom: IC, this brings up an interesting question: How much of what flashes through human synapses actually merits further scrutiny?

Sympathy and Reinforcement

Immanuel Can: Scrutiny, or publication?

These aren’t women who are just thinking about stuff. They are voicing those impulses, putting them out into the world to elicit sympathy and reinforcement. They’re making their worst, most selfish impulses real. And they are launching them out to where their kids can read about them one day. Wow.

Tom: Yeah, I hear you. But we’ve entered an era in which we seem to believe that every notion that enters our corrupted minds must be broadcast as extensively as possible in the interests of authenticity.

Do you think scripture has anything to say about that?

The Quest for Authenticity

IC: Definitely. For one thing, James has a lot to say about it. He compares the tongue to the rudder of a great ship — it’s small, but it determines the whole course of the great vessel. Maybe we don’t think about that much, but it implies a lot: one thing is that whatever we let loose from our tongues, that’s the direction our lives are going to go.

Put that one in your pipe and smoke it!

Tom: I have met Christians who argue that if you don’t let everything out, you are being less than authentic. They claim they are not being honest if they don’t let you know their “true” feelings.

IC: Well, they’d need to show me chapter and verse for that one! The scriptures teach the opposite: they say to keep your folly inside and that those who love to use the tongue will pay the price. Wise men hold their tongues and think before they speak and that in any case, not everything the heart conceives deserves to get out. That doesn’t sound much like our “express yourself” culture, does it?

Tom: Not exactly an infodump on Facebook, no.

Not Just Noises

IC: In scripture, “word” is a very powerful concept. All things were created by a word. The Son of God is called “The Word”. “Word” stands not just for noises, but for something like an oath or contract; an expression of action and intention, a revelation of purpose. Words are not idle things, not inert, not inconsequential — they commit us to things, and they make stuff happen. That’s not true for mere thoughts we hold inside. No wonder, then, that words have a lot to do with how we’re judged.

Tom: Understandably.

IC: Now, when we speak, we put stuff out into the world. When it’s only a concept in our hearts, nobody knows about it, nobody reacts to it, nobody carries it forward, and we ourselves don’t feel obligated to confirm it. But let it escape our lips, and it becomes part of our commitment, and an active agency in the world around us. And we answer for it.

The “If Only” Scenario

Tom: What’s particularly ironic about this push for “full disclosure”, “authenticity” and “honesty” about one’s feelings is that feelings are terribly subjective things. To say “These are my true feelings about X” is simply to say, “This is what I think at this moment based on the limited data available to me”. But tomorrow I come across some new piece of information that completely changes my attitude. And what are my earlier “true feelings” worth when it turns out I was wrong?

In this case, one mother says, “I regret having had children. I should have stayed on the job and enhanced my career.” But this is a fantasy. She might have stayed on the job and had an utterly miserable time, or have been fired a week later and never worked in her field again. These “if only” scenarios are always fictive and chimerical. There’s nothing real about them.

IC: Oh, yes. Good point. Yes, as they say, “The grass is always greener”. But contentment in life comes not from having what you want but don’t have (which is our natural way of thinking about it) but rather from taking a realistic assessment of what the Lord has given us to do, and of the circumstances under which he has called us to do it, then doing it with all our hearts. In other words, it’s not about wanting; it’s about accepting the given.

The Culture of the Therapeutic

These women have been given children. But they don’t like what they’ve been given. So instead of doing the adult thing about it, and asking, “Given what God has given me, how then should I act?” they choose to emote their discontentment. I detect in that inclination what has been called “The Culture of the Therapeutic”.

Tom: You’ll have to enlighten me. I’m not familiar.

IC: Well, it just means that in our culture today we think that everything is supposed to be “therapy”. Roger Lundin, the Christian literary critic, puts it this way:
“A therapeutic culture is one in which questions of ultimate concern — about the nature of the good, the meaning of truth and the existence of God — are taken to be unanswerable and hence in some fundamental sense insignificant. A therapeutic culture focuses upon the management of experience and environment in the interest of [a] ‘manipulatable sense of well-being.’ ”
In such a culture, the dominant assumption is that everything is supposed to make me feel better. If venting my contempt for my children strikes me as honest, or if I feel I really want to do that, then I’ll do that — because it feels good for me to say what I feel, not because it will be good for them to know their mother regretted them. The biggest sin is “repressing” anything. That is not only thought to issue in inauthenticity, but also psychic maladjustment and ultimately mental ill-health.

These women are products of that sort of selfish stupidity. But it’s all too common in our culture.

Affluence, Consumerism and Post-Freudian Psychology

Tom: I suppose the argument would go that being “honest” about your regrets over having children may help other women avoid the same terrible mistake. But I think that’s less likely a motive than simply trying to stir up a pity party and glory in the sympathetic attention. Which in this case hasn’t been all that sympathetic. Oops.

Really, the fact that someone else regretted this or regretted that about a choice they made in their twenties tells me nothing about my own circumstances and how I should behave in them. Mind you, it tells me plenty about the character of the complainer.

IC: Oh, I don’t see that this “therapeutic” orientation has anything at all to do with the good of others. It’s all about “self-realization”. It’s a byproduct of affluence, consumerism, post-Freudian psychology, and old-fashioned self-centredness.

Tom: There’s a lovely cocktail. But I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect the unsaved to stifle their desire to complain. After all, in a world in which all is random and you only have One Life to Live, losing 20+ years to a kid you didn’t like, or giving up your wonderful career for a bunch of screaming brats can be a pretty stiff blow.

Missed Opportunities and Disappointment

On the other hand, from a Christian perspective, even an ungrateful, hateful child grown to adulthood — while surely the cause of great sorrow — can be a source of tremendous blessing, if only for the opportunity that parenting provides to grow more like the Lord Jesus. More selfless. More faithful. More prayerful. More loving. More diligent. More dependent. The rejected parent who is truly Christ-like and who has modeled the character of God for his or her child can take solace in the fact that we are not in charge of outcomes, and that while there is life there is hope. As teens, some of us had to go right to the bottom to recognize the mistakes we were making.

But these complaining moms are seeing only missed opportunities and disappointment.

IC: I want to say to them, “Grow up!” Because maturing means understanding that the world is not all about me. It means coming to terms with the given and the possible, and knowing which is which. As for these women, what kind of behaviour are they modeling to their children? But worse, what are they saying about the One who is the source of all that is given us?

The Years the Locust Has Eaten

Tom: The prophet Joel says we have a God who can restore to his people “the years that the locust has eaten”. Now he didn’t mean, of course, that God was going to make each Israelite miraculously live twenty years longer. He meant that under the right conditions God can bring value out of those things that seem to us utterly valueless.

Let’s be real: some of us have children that, for the moment at least, do not seem to have been worth the investment. Maybe there were tremendous, unexpected personal costs attached to raising them. Maybe they have shown little spiritual character or love for God. It happens.

The natural human response is to have a pity party and call in the sympathizers. I think for a Christian that’s not the best reaction.

IC: No. It’s all too easy to get focused on what you “could have had”, which is always a product of imagination, not reality. It reminds me of what Fitzgerald said in The Great Gatsby, “No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart”. Imagination always has more fire and freshness to us than reality does. But it is reality that God has asked us to deal with.

Tom: Indeed.

Those Things That Lie Behind

IC: We are under no Divine commission to achieve our dreams. We are commissioned to be faithful and unselfish in the circumstances God has given us. That includes not just our domestic situation, but also our personal limitations of age, natural intelligence, talents, gifts, physiology … everything we cannot really change. One of the things we can never change is the past. We can torment ourselves with our imaginings and poison any chance of happiness we have in the present; but we cannot reverse things.

So Paul says, “forgetting those things that lie behind …”. That’s the appropriate reaction.

We don’t say, “If only.” We say, “Since I am here, what’s my next right move?”

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