Thanksgiving and Remembrances

Obviously, I haven’t posted in a while. Part of the reason is that I’ve been fairly busy lately. I spent most of the weekend and beginning of this week making sure that I had all of my papers graded before Wednesday so that I could spend Thanksgiving with my family. Part of the reason is that I did spend Thanksgiving with my family, which meant travel, get-togethers, food, etc. I also think that part of the reason, a subconscious part, is that 1) I’m still not entirely comfortable having followers on this blog and I want to get rid of all of you, and 2) the most significant thing I’ve had to say lately isn’t something that I’m actually comfortable saying yet. In fact, what I’m about to write I’ve told all of one person (my niece), and I had to force myself to tell her. It’s not that it’s a bad thing, in fact I think its a very, very good thing, but its something that is very personal, and very uncomfortable. I’m not used to it yet.

So, giving thanks. There are a lot of things to be thankful for, and something that we do at my church the Sunday before every thanksgiving is take a night to simply share things that we are thankful for. I couldn’t get up and share this, though I wanted to. There are many reasons to be thankful. Many things that should inspire gratitude in us. For one, I have a loving family that gets along well. I live in a safe town. I live in a safe part of time. I have good roommates. I like my apartment complex. I have a job that I thoroughly love. I have good friends who care about me. I have people who know they can depend on me. I have a plethora of amazing books to read. I have access to websites with even more amazing books to read. Let’s face it, even being poor in America isn’t all that bad unless you’re at the very bottom of the barrel. I could go on listing things about my church, the school I’m applying to, friend, hobbies, etc, but I think you get the point. I have a lot to be thankful for.

That being said, I haven’t always been a thankful person. Actually, for a long time I was an extremely ungrateful person. I always wanted more, no matter what. It didn’t matter what I did have. The only thing that mattered to me is what I didn’t have. (Don’t worry, I am actually getting to the point). I’ve mentioned several times that I used to be  (still am all to often) a right bastard. My lack of any form of gratitude was a part of that. There are still things that I’m working on. For instance, my last couple of birthdays have been difficult (hell, birthdays have always been difficult for me). The year before last my birthday was ignored entirely. This came on the tail end of a bad breakup in which the girl that I’d been ‘not-quite-dating’ dumped me and then jumped in bed with someone three days later. Admittedly, that was a low point, and I feel that I wasn’t entirely unjustified in being frustrated with my friends. My birthday this year wasn’t forgotten, a few friends even got together and threw me a party. Honestly, this should have been plenty to satisfy me, but the distinct lack of gifts stood out to me. I went out of my way to be profuse in speaking my gratitude, but I’m not convinced that it was entirely felt. A part of this is that gifts are my primary means of receiving love and affection. If you really want to make my day, send me an encouraging note or give me a little something with a lot of meaning.

I’m not saying that I need big gifts or expensive gifts. Honestly, how much it cost doesn’t matter to me at all. If you can get it for free, all the better. What does matter is the time, thought, and effort that you put into the gift. I have a few rules for gift-giving: 1) the gift should be meaningful to the giver, 2) the gift should be desirable to the recipient, 3) the gift should say something about the relationship between the two, 4) the gift shouldn’t be a necessity. So, the lack of gifts did actually mean something to me. However, I also think that lack of gratitude stayed with me for longer than it should have.

So, the point. One of the things that my church does on our night of gratitude is ask this question: What is one thing that you are thankful for now that you never thought you could be thankful for?

My answer to that question surprised me. I am thankful that God has kept me single for as long as he has. I’m not saying that I don’t still want to get married. I’m not saying that I’ve given up. I am saying this, and I’ve said this part of it several times. God has taught me more through loneliness and broken relationships than through any other single means. It is my utter, complete, and repeated failure with women that has taught be to love other people, and taught me about God’s love for me. This is probably the single most significant change in me over the course of my salvation, and I’ve been thankful for the changes themselves, but never for the process that led to them.

This is the thing that no one ever told me about gratitude. There are many, many levels of gratitude. It’s not simply about saying thank you, nor is it simply about being thankful for the things that you have or the things that you like. I need to be thankful for the things in my life that are good for me, even if I don’t really enjoy them.

Saying thank you and actually being thankful are two different things as well. I can say ‘thank you’ a hundred times and never mean it. However, saying thank you can (and some of the exercises on Happify.com have helped with this) actually help you to be thankful for things. Being thankful is more consistent than simply saying thank you. A simple ‘thank you’ can come out of nothing more complicated than politeness. However, being thankful comes from the heart. It reflects the core of one’s being, and it is one of the things that reflects godliness. We should rejoice and be thankful in general, but we should make special effort to rejoice and be thankful for those things that we are not at first eager to say thank you for.

So… I think at this point I’ve stopped making sense. So, I leave you with this: gratitude that is slow to appear, begruding, and quickly vanishes is less than real. It might be a good step, but it isn’t real. Gratitude that overflows from the heart, that is quick to the tongue, eager to be shared, and doesn’t disappear after being shared is the real thing. Strive for that.

Solitude

I often consider living on top of a mountain somewhere, or joining a monastery, or finding an island someplace where no one will bother me. In his play No Exit (Huis Clos), Jean Paul Sartre presents several excellent points. Sartre was by no means a Christian, but in No Exit he shows a particular insight into the human condition that I rather enjoy. Two particular quotes stand out, one of which Sartre is quite famous for. No Exit is about three people, Garcin, Ines, and Estelle, who are trapped together in a room in hell. As the play develops the three reveal their true natures to one another, hoping that these revelations will help them come to terms with their situation. However, in actuality, the revelations instead cause the three to hate on another all the more. The resolution of the play, Sartre’s thesis statement as it were, comes in Garcin’s realization that “Hell is other people”, which is the quote Sartre is famous for. However, another excellent point in the play is Ines’ declaration that “we are our lives and nothing else”. Plenty of atheist principles could be read into this latter statement, but for the moment I’m going to choose to take the line at face value.

I’ve spoken before about the cyclical nature of life that is portrayed in the competing standards of Taoism and Confucianism. Taoism essentially argues that if I am right internally (right being), then I will do the right things (right action). Confucianism, on the other hand, argues that if I do the right things, I will become right internally. These are both true and both false. Because of the imperfection of man (i.e. natural sin) no matter how deeply I cultivate my being, I will still be prone to wrong actions, and no matter how many right things I do, I may still do them from wrong motives. However, the opposite is true. If I truly cultivate a right spirit, then I will be more prone to right actions, and in pursuing right actions, I will encourage the rightness of my spirit. Thus, both right actions and right being are necessary for a right life. However, Ines’ claim is, on the surface, true. I am my life. Whether I am judged by men for my actions or judged by God for my heart, both are formed through the life that I choose to live. I cannot be ‘essentially a good person’ if I cultivate neither right being nor right actions. If God is not in my heart, and if my actions are not focused on his glory and the well-being of my fellow man, then my life is without value. I have nothing to offer to either God or man beyond my life.

However, my life is far from perfect. As is yours (don’t get cocky). We are all fallen people, prone to inflict immense amounts of pain upon one another. We are all selfish, even at the best of times, careless, and cruel. Even when we have the best of intentions we still manage to hurt one another, and so when our intentions (as is so often the case) are less than the best, we become for others the very hell that we fear. Please, don’t take me wrongly, I am not denying the existence of a literal hell (though I find more references in scripture to ‘outer darkness’ than to ‘fire and brimstone’. Nor am I denying that the torments of hell will far surpass the pains of this world. What I am saying is that the closest we will ever come to knowing hell during our lives is in the community of others. Similarly, the closest we will ever come to knowing heaven during our lives is in the community of others.

Tonight, a couple of friends and I were bitching about women. Specifically about the repetitive cowardice, dishonesty, and truly perverse expectations/desires that we see in most of the women who populate our city. Specifically the Christian women who populate our city. There are times when some (not all) of these women have shown a true depth of compassion, grace, and love. However, there are also times when each of them have shown a callousness and cruelty that, to this day, I find astounding. Women who have lost much of our respect through their actions towards ourselves and others (we kept the conversation very general so as to avoid gossiping about anyone in particular). Women whose lives, and thus whose selves, have inevitably been tainted by the stain of sin.

I live in a culture that often presents women as ‘innocent’, ‘pure’, ‘chaste’, or ‘virtuous’. I live in a culture that essentially says to women ‘you’re already morally perfect, so you don’t need to try, focus on your looks instead’. I cannot express how utterly devastating this culture is to American women. Forget the focus on looks. Forget the extreme dieting. Forget the size zero obsession. None of these even begin to compare to the incredible lack in moral quality that this attitude has encouraged in women. Instead of developing their hearts and minds too many American women have focused on career, appearance, relationships, etc to find their identity and virtue. The problem is that none of these things actually develops either identity or virtue. Instead, Christian women should be focusing on developing a strong relationship with God and learning the moral qualities that exemplify that relationship. This is where true identity and virtue lies, regardless of gender.

Thanksgiving Part 1

So, this has been a little bit of a frustrating weekend, and before I start into my post proper there’s something that I need to put down, just to get it out of my head. I met a young woman last week, lovely lady and clearly intelligent. This was the second time that I’d met her, but the first time that I really spent significant time talking with her. After some excellent conversation about the sociological messages in Ender’s Game and Keynesian Economics, I asked her if she’d like to get dinner with me, and she said that she would very much enjoy that. I ran into her again the next day, though not for long, and on Saturday I called her to figure out a time to get dinner. I caught her at work, and she asked if she could call me back. She never did. I texted her later that night, just in case she’d been waiting for me to call her. No response. I called her again this evening, and she didn’t pick up. If I’m going to be completely truthful, which is my goal here, this young woman has lost most all of my respect, and it’s going to take a truly excellent excuse to get it back.

Now, it’s entirely possible that she’s lost her phone somewhere and is panicking about not being able to get in touch with me. However, I can’t say that I expect this. I’ve mentioned before that women have, quite often, given me the ‘yes means no’ treatment, and I have no doubt that I’m not the only male that this has happened to. Honestly, this is, in part at least, what leads me to the general conclusion that there are no honest women. Even the best women pull this kind of stuff, and it just leaves me with the impression that ‘honesty’ as an actual concept has no meaning to the female mind. As far as I can tell, women in general lie by rote. They don’t even consider it lying. I can remember, when I was in college, girls telling each other that ‘when a guy who isn’t that interesting or attractive asks you out, just say yes and then give him the phone number for the campus police’. Apparently this was funny, but honestly I just find the incredible lack of honesty and compassion appalling.

That being said, I told flowergirl this morning that we are to be thankful for everything that happens in our lives. We thank God for the wonderful, pleasant, nice things (of course, that’s easy), but we also thank God for the tears, the lies, and the hurts that are a part of everyday life. This is a part of trusting God. As I’ve said before, if I only trust God to do the things that I want him to do, then I’m not really trusting him. I’m trusting myself. Real trust begins when God starts doing things that we don’t understand, or that we don’t want, and real trust is thankful for those things: not just after I understand what they were leading to, but during the trials themselves. Real trust in God thanks him for this girl who led me on a wild goose chase. Real trust thanks him for the terror I feel every time I look at taking the next step towards applying to Southeastern. Real trust thanks God when I don’t have the money to pay my electric bill (I do right now, just an example… I’ve been there in the past though).

My point here is that when we really trust God, then we thank him for everything that he allows in our lives precisely because we trust him. We know that ‘God uses all things for good for those who are called according to his purpose… because they are predestined to be conformed to the image of his son’ (Romans 8:28-29… I’ve paraphrased a bit). The goal of sanctification is Christlikeness, and Christlikeness does not come easily. It doesn’t come through comfort and luxury, and it doesn’t generally look like a malibu sunrise (either the drink or the place). Honestly, most of the time it looks a little bit more like Sarajevo during the civil war. It’s rough, painful, dangerous, and generally doesn’t make any sense. That’s good. That’s where we’re supposed to be. So, let’s thank God for it.

Confidence is Overrated

Any discerning reader will note that confidence, that lauded American ‘manly’ trait, didn’t make it onto my list of character qualities, and this reader may be wondering why. The first and foremost reason is that confidence is not a character quality, it is a result of character qualities. Like the man who earned $20 million dollars, we do not respect a man for his confidence in and of itself. We may admire his confidence, we may envy his confidence, but our respect is reserved for the qualities that have lead him to be confident, not for the fact that he is confident. Even when we do not know the reasons for his confidence, our respect is based on the assumption that there is a good reason for it. This is why we ‘fake it ’til we make it’ (a horrible idea by the way), because this faked confidence implies real experience that would normally inspire such confidence.

The second reason that confidence did not make it onto my list is because confidence is situational. We have confidence in those areas in which we have particular skill or expertise. For instance, I have been teaching for almost 4 years, 3 years with the same institution. I have dealt with a variety of difficult students and difficult situations, and I know my subject matter well. In the classroom and in my conversations with students I am very confident. I have been practicing martial arts for 20 years, I am not a small man, and I have been in a few fights. In a fight I am fairly confident. However, I have never had strong social skills, and I’ve had repeated negative experiences with women, so when it comes to wooing a woman, I am not particularly confident. Real confidence depends on how well our knowledge, skills, and past experiences match up with the situation in which we find ourselves. This is because real confidence is based in real skills and real experiences.

Self-esteem may be differentiated from confidence in that it is not based in real skills or real experiences. Self-esteem is, in common practice, based on the viewpoints of others, and often one’s self-esteem is most affected by those acquaintances who know one the least. This is because people tend to assume that someone who does not know them well will have little reason to lie when giving their opinion (generally this is often not true), but that opinion is also based on an extremely limited experience of the individual in question. Thus, these two bastions of the American mindset are both built on faulty ground. Self-esteem does not encourage a right view of oneself (i.e. humility), and confidence is based on the situation and one’s skills.

Confidence is, however, generally a boost both to oneself and to others. It is good to feel confident in oneself and what one is doing, and it is easier to follow someone who is confident. However, confidence should be a reflection of one’s actual ability to handle a situation, not a reflection of one’s ability to fake one’s way through life. Confidence is born out of courage, endurance, devotion, the skills that those character qualities have allowed one to develop, and the experiences that have tested them. True confidence is the child of strong character, not a part of it.

What Does it Mean to be a Man? Part 5

I’ve been discussing what it means to be a man for a while now. So far I’ve presented an introduction of the problem, shown that innate traits and talents are not a qualifier for manhood, argued that emotional maturity is one qualifier for manhood, and defended the idea that particular skills are not a qualifier for manhood, but dedication to mastering skills is. So far all of this has led to one overarching conclusion. It is not how I appear, what I have, or what I’m good at that makes me a man. It is the choices I make. Real masculinity lies in the character that I develop and portray on a daily basis. The claims that I have made thus far all lead to this conclusion. Neither the way I look nor my inherent capabilities make me a man. The emotions that I feel also do not make me a man, though the manner in which I express them might. The skills that I pursue do not make me a man, but the dedication with which I pursue them certainly says something about my manliness. All of this leads us back to the above conclusion: true masculinity is found in the qualities of character that an individual develops.

This being said, what character qualities make one ‘a man’? If we remember Kant’s argument that it is respect, not admiration, that is truly valuable in determining quality, then the conclusion is obvious. Those character qualities that are inherently respectable are what separates a man from a boy. Of course, in all of these things the same could still be said to separate a woman from a girl. While there are clear physical and emotional differences between the masculine and feminine genders, the qualities that separate an adult from a child are still going to be largely similar. Plato proposed four qualities of character essential to a valuable person: Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Temperance. The code of Bushido argued that the significant qualities of character were Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Respect, Honesty, and Loyalty. Confucius argued that the character qualities of a man were seen in five right relationships: Ruler to Ruled (Obedience), Father to Son (Respect), Husband to Wife (Devotion), Elder Brother to Younger Brother (Filial Piety), and Friend to Friend (Loyalty). The Christian Bible lays out the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, faithfulness, kindness, goodness, patience, gentleness, and temperance.

Many of these we can see as similar. For instance, Plato’s ‘justice’, Bushido’s ‘rectitude’, and the bible’s ‘goodness’ all speak of essentially the same thing. Similarly, Plato and Bushido both set forth courage as an important trait, Plato and the bible both set forth temperance as an important trait, and Confucius and Bushido both set forth Respect and Loyalty as important traits. Some of these we can also throw out entirely because they result from other traits. For instance, if one is righteous (just or good), benevolent, courageous, and loyal, then one will be honorable. Similarly, if one is good, kind, temperate, and gentle, then one will be patient. If one is loving, faithful, and at peace, then one will be joyful. At the same time some, while not exactly the same, are similar enough that they may be embodied in a single word. For instance, love, kindness, and gentleness may all be embodied in the word ‘love’. If one is truly loving, then one will be both kind and gentle. So, here is my first compilation of the essential traits of a ‘real man’: Wisdom, Courage, Righteousness, Temperance, Fortitude, Love, Honesty, Devotion, Humility, and Community.

Over the next few months (I said days when I started this series and it’s been two months already) I intend to discuss each of these in detail (I’ve already discussed Courage), but for now I’ll give a brief explanation of each:

Wisdom: A man pursues both knowledge and experience. He considers the world around him and is not rash or foolish in his decisions. He is capable of being impulsive without being ruled by his impulses.

Courage: A man does not allow himself to be ruled by fear. Instead of running or hiding, a man faces his fears and masters them.

Righteousness: A man has a strong moral compass and holds fast to those beliefs. He does what is right simply because it is right and does not knowingly choose to violate his moral understanding. (Please note that I have not attributed Righteousness to a particular moral system here)

Temperance: A man is emotionally stable and capable of controlling his actions. He rules his desires instead of being ruled by them.

Fortitude: This is one that you will not see in any of the lists above, though Plato does include fortitude in his idea of courage. A man does not avoid difficult things. He does not shy away from doing that which is good and/or necessary simply because it is hard or uncomfortable. Courage and fortitude are related, but courage is directly related to fear, while fortitude is simply a steadfast endurance in the face of hardship.

Love: A man shows concern for those around him. He is kind, caring, gentle, and patient. He willingly puts others before himself. Moreover, a man loves fully and deeply. He does not hide his heart away, nor does he build walls around it. A man accepts the risk of being hurt by others in order to have the chance of investing into their lives.

Honesty: A man speaks the truth. He is open, truthful, even vulnerable. A man is blunt when necessary, tactful when appropriate, and always speaks truth in order to be a boon to others, not to harm them.

Devotion: A man commits. Whether this is loyalty to a nation/faith/organization, dedication to the pursuit of a particular skill/career/path, or commitment to a woman or family, a man shows commitment to the things that he pursues.

Humility: A man has an honest view of himself. He is capable of seeing his strengths without being puffed up, and he is capable of seeing his flaws without being destroyed.

Community: A man realizes that he does not exist in a vacuum. He understands that independence is an illusion. Instead of insisting on his own independence, a man is willing to depend on others when necessary, and allows others to depend on him. He considers those in his community in his actions, he contributes to the community, and he allows the community to support him.

Obviously, none of us is a perfect representative of any of these traits. Courageous men falter, wise men make foolish choices, devoted men stray, and humble men have moments of pride. The judgment of manhood must not be an unrealistic expectation of perfection in these qualities. Instead it must be an understanding that one’s life should be characterized by these qualities. One should be known for these qualities, however imperfectly, instead of being know for foolishness, fickleness, pride, selfishness, cowardice, or deception. So, hopefully soon I’ll be discussing each of these qualities in greater depth, but these are the qualities that a man of high character embodies.

Assertiveness or Courage

I can’t say that I read a lot of blogs. I don’t actually read any religiously. However, I do read occasional posts from a variety of relatively random authors. A lot of the posts I do read then to be about dating and relationships (big surprise there), and I never quite know what to make of them. Everyone has an opinion. Period. Everyone has an opinion. Some people say one thing and some people say something completely different, and someone else says a third thing that has nothing to do with the other two. For instance, some people say that ‘a real man is assertive and he goes for what he wants’, other people say ‘a real man understands that no means no and he knows when to leave things alone’. I’m three-quarters of the way through a series of posts on what it means to be a ‘real’ man, and you may have noticed that I have said nothing about assertiveness or aggressiveness. This is because I am convinced that it doesn’t matter.

We often confuse assertiveness with courage, and they are not the same thing. When I finally get around to writing a post on character’s involvement in manhood (and I will), I’m going to point out that courage is one of the characteristics a man has. A man does not run from what scares him. He doesn’t hide in the corner, he doesn’t beg someone else to do it for him. However, this doesn’t mean that he is ‘assertive’ necessarily. Assertiveness is often essentially selfish. Today I read a post that said: ‘A real man knows what he wants and he goes for it’. This is a good example of assertiveness. However, this example also only takes into account the emotions and desires of the man himself.

A man is not free from fear, nor is he above fear. At the moment I have set the goal to have my application to Southeastern submitted by the end of the month. This is utterly and completely terrifying to me. I honestly can’t express how frightened I am. Simply in filling out the main application I almost broke down three separate times, overwhelmed by fear and doubt. I was convinced that I would be rejected, and that even if I wasn’t rejected that I’d fail miserably, and that even if I didn’t fail miserably that it wouldn’t matter in the long run. This process is more than uncomfortable. It is more than frightening. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure that I can do it again. However, I’m going to.

However, this does not mean that a man (that I) simply ‘know what I want and go for it’. Assertiveness on it’s own is not a good quality. War is assertive, rape is assertive, burglary is assertive, in fact there are many assertive actions that are fundamentally bad. A man can be assertive when it is necessary. He is not bound by fear and cowardice. However, a man is also respectful. Rudyard Kipling’s poem If here also has an excellent passage that is very helpful:

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools

And see the things you gave your life to broken

And stoop, and build’em up with worn out tools

And also:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it all on one turn of pitch and toss

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breath a word about your loss

One of the most important aspects of real manhood is the willingness to persevere. This is not an insane, reckless optimism that simply says ‘it’ll work, it’ll work, it’ll work’. This is not a pestering or stalkish nature that says ‘maybe if I just ask her one more time’. A man knows when to stop, when to let well enough alone, and when to walk away (and when to run :P). However, a man holds within himself the enduring will to keep going. A man does not give up on the things that are truly important, but at the same time he lets those things that are not important fall to the wayside.

A man is wise and courageous. He may be assertive when it is needed, but he is also able to tell when assertiveness is not needed. That’s something I’m still working on.

Monkeys on the Brain

In college I had a roommate who was obsessed with monkeys. Specifically with the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, but with monkeys in general. Largely because of this person the phrase ‘monkeys’ has become a cuss word for me that symbolizes everything bad in the world. Sometimes it refers to a specific problem, sometimes it refers to the generally cursed and depraved state of the world, sometimes it just refers to the fact that I get in my own way. Right now, I have a lot of monkeys. One of those monkeys is the fact that, over the past few weeks, I have found myself struggling with pornography to a steadily increasing degree. I have struggled almost daily, and generally fallen once or twice a week. It’s gotten to the point that a short-term goal for the coming week (Thursday-Thursday) is to avoid all forms of pornography. Once Thursday comes I’ll set a new goal. Assuming I succeed, it will hopefully be a longer goal (maybe two weeks). If I don’t succeed… well, try, try again, right?

Another monkey has been random bouts of hopelessness. Admittedly, I’m prone to periods of moderate depression. I don’t struggle with the ‘Life is worthless, I’m staying in bed’ extreme kind of depression, but there are times when I feel overcome by life in general. As I write this, and for most of the night honestly, I find myself completely sure that I will die alone. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t really believe this… mostly… most of the time. I generally believe that God does have a relationship in mind for me. I don’t know with whom, or when it will happen, but this is still my general assumption. Most of the time. Tonight, my general assumption is that no one will ever love or desire me, and thus that I will die old, alone, and probably miserable. I’m pretty much convinced of this really. I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it?

Feelings are deceptive things. They don’t portray reality in any meaningful way, and often they portray the very opposite of reality. Right now I know that there are people who love me. Perhaps no women who have a romantic inclination towards me, or at least none that have let me see that inclination, but people who love me whole-heartedly nonetheless. However, I don’t feel loved. My feelings don’t particularly care whether I am loved. The thing is, and it took me a long time to learn this, I can’t rely on any other person to make me feel loved. Most of the time those people don’t have a clue how to in the first place, and even if they did know how, they won’t always be able to.

I do want to find a woman who will love me. A woman who will want to take care of me, who will desire me and desire to be taken care of by me. A woman who will want to make me feel loved. However, even if I do find such a woman, it would be a disservice of me to always rely on her to make me feel loved. That isn’t something that she will ever be capable of. If I put my feelings in her hands, she will fail. This doesn’t mean that I am unwilling to give her my heart or my trust. I’m simply saying that she will be human, and prone to all the failings that humans have. Her love, however it appears, will be imperfect.

Honestly, this is obvious, and we’ve all heard it a thousand times, but I need to rely on God in these struggles. Not on people.

List Makers

Americans are obsessed with observable, trackable progress. I’ve noted this for many years in martial arts. For any of you familiar with martial arts you probably know that the system of ranking by colored belts is an American invention. In fact, since I started practicing twenty years ago, the number of belts has increased while the time required between them has decreased. When I started most schools recognized white, yellow, green, blue, brown, and black belts, and there was generally anywhere from three to six months between tests. This time increased the higher you went, so you might wait three months to test from white to yellow, but a year to test from brown to black.  Today I know of many schools that recognize white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, red, brown, and black belts, and some schools require less than a month to test from one belt to the next.

This is not what martial arts used to be. I briefly attended one school in Virginia Beach that used an archaic Japanese ranking system. When I started the first thing the instructor told me was that I had to understand that there were no belts in his class. I was a student until he told me to go start a school, at which point I would be an instructor. I had senior students (everyone else in the class), and I was the most junior student. Outside of this there were no ranks, tests, or obvious format of progression. I loved this system, and if I hadn’t moved away, I’d probably still be studying there.

I mention this because it is symptomatic of a much deeper problem in American culture: we want to be in control. Whether it is making a bucket list for the week/month/year, making a detailed list of short/long term goals, or making a list of qualities that we want to see in a spouse, we like to try to control our lives and the world around us. I’m not saying that having a list of goals or desires is a bad thing. It can help keep you on track, help you focus, and help you say no when you need to say no. I have a short list of long term goals that I’m working towards (I’ve posted this before). I have a short list of things that I’m looking for in a future spouse:

1) I want a wife who is a committed Christian with a visible desire to grow closer to Christ.

2) I want a wife who is intelligent and capable of carrying on an interesting conversation.

3) I want a wife who is kind-hearted and compassionate: who consistently puts others before herself.

4) I want a wife who is beautiful to me and to whom I am physically attracted.

5) I want a wife who is between 5 and 11 years younger than me (6-10 ideally, with 8-10 being the real ‘sweet spot’). Right now I’m actively against dating anyone who is more than 11 years younger than I am, simply because it’s been a habit that lead to very painful results in the past.

6) I want a wife who desires me and is willing to pursue me as hard as I pursue her.

7) I want a wife who is a virgin.

I know that I want these things, and I ask God to bring this woman into my life on a regular basis. However, in all of our planning and list-making we often forget one very important detail: we aren’t in control. My life is not my own, it belong to Christ and he can do with this life whatever he desires. God does give us the desires of our heart, but sometimes they don’t look the way we want them to, sometimes he asks us to do insane things, and sometimes he puts us through the ringer before granting those desires. If you don’t believe me, then read Isaiah 19-20, where God makes the prophet walk around naked for three years. Or read Ezekiel, where God makes the prophet lie on his side for a year and a half eating only bread cooked over dung. Or read Jonah, where God makes the prophet go and preach to the people who have oppressed, terrorized, and slaughtered his people for years. Or read Hoshea, where God makes the prophet marry a prostitute and accept children that are most likely not his own. Or read the gospels, where the father commands the son to suffer, die, and pay for sins that are not his own.

We don’t get to control our lives. This is true of everyone, the control that we are looking for is an illusion we create in the hopes of protecting ourselves from fear. However, in the Christian it should be especially true because we actively give up control over our own lives when we choose to follow Christ. Our purpose and highest goal is to glorify him in everything, and that should trump every other desire or goal that we have. Because of this all of my life-goals, all of my desires for a wife, everything that I could list out and say ‘this is what I want’ is negotiable. My will is to be subsumed in Christ, and anyone who thinks that Ezekiel wanted to lie on his side for a year and a half eating dung-bread hasn’t actually read the book. Ezekiel talked God down from making him eat bread cooked over human dung (bargaining with God anyone?), Christ begged God to ‘let this cup pass’ from him. We don’t see these kinds of objections recorded in Isaiah or Hoshea, but it isn’t difficult to imagine the difficulty the prophets had obeying the commands of God.

We must relinquish our need for control in our own lives and in the lives of others and learn to accept the things that God chooses for us. This is the path to true happiness, and this is the path to greater, truer, and more meaningful relationship with God.

Waiting, Still

I hope that you caught the play on words in the title of this post. I finally told flowergirl that I have feelings for her. This wasn’t a romantic confession and I didn’t ask her out, it was just something that came up in a conversation. We had a nice little chat about the fact that she thinks I’m really great, but just not what she’s looking for, which wasn’t in any way a surprise. I have to admit that, even though I’ve know this for a while and generally come to terms with it, I’m still a little disappointed. Nonetheless, I am still striving to reach a place in which I can simultaneously strive for those things that I desire, and those desires that I believe God has put on my heart, and trust in him for their timing. I’m generally good at doing one or the other, but I’m really not good at doing both.

That being said, flowergirl said something to me that I’ve heard all too often. Something that I find is very common in women, and increasingly common in men. When I asked her what she was looking for her response was: ‘I don’t know, a feeling I guess’. She didn’t elaborate much, and I didn’t ask her to. However, I’m guessing that I know what that feeling is, even though she doesn’t. American culture has built a view of ‘love’ that is focused entirely on romance, or on feelings of passion. I hear people commonly say that ‘you know you love someone when you get those butterflies in your stomach’ or ‘I want to just be swept away by love’. Here’s the problem with these ideas: while they are commonly portrayed in the media, and while ‘love at first sight’ is a real thing (I can say this from experience) it is also incredibly stupid. I’m not saying that it’s stupid to believe in love at first sight, or that its stupid to follow those feelings (though I will argue that it generally is), but that this form of love is, in and of itself, stupid. To be swept away by feelings of passion for someone is a good thing… when that someone is a person who you can be confident cares for you, values you, respects you, and will put your best interests first. To be swept away by feelings of passion for someone you’ve known for five and a half minutes is a very bad idea. ‘Love at first sight’ is based entirely on an initial feeling of passion that cannot take into account the kind of person the passion is focused on. It can’t take this into account because it can’t know the person in any real or meaningful way.

The thing that the movies repeatedly leave out is that healthy passion is something that you build in a relationship. It comes from time invested with the person. It comes from repeatedly seeing that person actively care for you and put you first. To follow passion is an act of absolute trust in the person towards who that passion is directed, and to be healthy that trust must be both given freely and given carefully. If this following of passion is forced on you by another person, whether through emotional manipulation, charismatic charm, etc, it is not freely given and extremely unhealthy. Similarly, if this following of passion is not given carefully, then it is unhealthy because it cannot take into account the nature and personality of the other person. This passion is similar to handing over everything you own to a stranger. He might be a philanthropist, but he might also be a thief. You have no way of knowing.

Similarly, healthy passion is something that you create and something that you control. By choosing to repeatedly to act towards another in love, you create that passion for them in your own heart. Love is, first and foremost, something that you choose to do towards others, not something that you feel. Honestly, I think that many of use know quite well how to say this, but have no actual concept concerning how to do it. Something that flowergirl told me yesterday, and that I’ve heard before, is that I work harder to love others than anyone she’s ever met. This didn’t used to be true, but it is something that I have put a lot of effort into developing. God loved me through some very difficult times, and now I try to always choose to love others, even when it is difficult. Sometimes I have to work hard not to be swept away with passion for the people (well… the women) that I work hard to love because I know that they do not love me in return. However, this is how I know that repeatedly choosing to love someone creates a passion for that person.

What I am trying to say here is that chasing after passion as the foundation of a relationship is similar to buying a bachelors degree and assuming that you’ll do the work to build a necessary knowledge base later. 1) You haven’t done anything to earn it, 2) since you already have it, you aren’t going to bother putting in the effort to earn it, and 3) just like the bought degree, this passion is meaningless and fickle. As soon as any real pressure is put upon it the passion will fall apart, and shortly after the relationship will also fall apart. There was a young woman several years ago who broke my heart (gave me a heart attack actually). I’ve mentioned this before. While I am not seeking after a romantic relationship with her (primarily because of some things that she did during the years when she wasn’t speaking to me), I still love her with all of my heart. My love for her was not built on a feeling, it was built on a series of choices, and the passion with which I feel that love may have changed its focus, but it has not dimmed in any way. This is what we should be looking for, but I’m afraid that the majority of us have forgotten that.