A Culture of Fear

I generally take Tuesdays off. I might log into my classroom to answer any questions that students have posted, but beyond that I don’t touch it. On my days off I generally do a fair amount of reading. Grading papers all day, every day is not conducive to reading (either scholarly or otherwise), and so on days when I am working I generally have to do what reading I intend to actually complete before I start working. However, on Tuesdays, I can read all day if I want to (every so often I actually do). As part of my reading today I found this article. While I agree with the post as a whole (though I do keep a facebook album of my nephew’s baby pictures, I’ll probably take it down (or at least make it unviewable) when they turn five or so. However, there is one specific point that she makes in the middle of her article that I think is particularly important to keep in mind.

We live in a culture that promotes fear. Every day we are told by various news outlets that crime rates are rising exponentially. Friends, churches, various celebrities, and recognized national speakers all warn us that we are in danger, or our children are in danger, or our homes are in danger. Commercials actually play a big part in this now. Security companies sell their services by warning us that, without their protection, our homes will be broken into (of course, I could just buy an ADT sticker, put it in my front window, and achieve much the same effect as actually hiring the company). Drug companies warn us that if we don’t take their new phramaceutical miracle we will inevitably die of a heart attack (of course, the warning that their drug might actually cause said heart attack is rushed to the point of being unintelligable). Facebook news feeds  and twitter are commonly filled with claims and articles (many of them easily falsifiable) that both infuriate and terrify us, such as the ‘scandal‘ a week or two ago concerning Costco’s ‘attack on Christianity‘ and the outrage from fearful Christians, which then sparked outrage in response from equally fearful liberals. Of course, when someone actually bothered to ask Caleb Kaltenbach (the pastor in question) what he thought, his response wasn’t directed at Costco. All of that hubub over a labeling error… it boggles the mind. Whether our response is to be outraged or to quail in the corner, the response is inspired by our fear of what the reported situation means.

However, much of this fear is utterly without any realistic foundation. Jennifer Doverspike (author of the article I mentioned at the beginning of this post) isn’t technically correct that our children are ‘safer than they’ve ever been’. Children in the mid-1950s enjoyed one of the lowest violent crime rates in US history, and they probably were a little bit safer (at least from criminals), but the intent of her message is perfectly accurate. We are fairly safe, our children are fairly safe. In the last 100 years the homicide rate (the near-universally recognized best indicator for violent crime rates) has remained fairly steady. At it’s lowest (the mid to late ’50s) the homicide rate was four murders per 100,000 citizens. At it’s highest (the early ’80s) it was a markedly increased 10 murders per 100,000 citizens. That’s right, in 1980, the most dangerous year in the past century, you had a 0.0001 chance of being murdered. Personally, I can see how that would terrify everyone. Really, I mean, the idea that I might be selected out of a crowd of 100,000 people is utterly terrifying. If you can’t tell, I’m being sarcastic.

Since the early ’80s violent crime rates have actually fallen drastically. They stayed high through the ’80s and early ’90s, then dropped in the mid ’90s, only to rise again. Then, in the early 2000s violent crime rates plummeted to a mere 6 murders per 100,000 citizens. Needless to say, this isn’t something that any of us should be overly terrified about. Now, obviously, local crime rates differ. At the moment, if you live in inner city Chicago, IL then you certainly have more reason to be cautious than people who live in Wake Forest, NC. However, in general our culture pushes us to an utter and abstract terror of everything that is not even remotely justified. Doverspike’s points about how we have let this fear affect our children are well founded (and, as I said above, I agree that we need to treat their online lives with a little less fear and a little more respect).

Instead of being sucked into a culture of fear, we should be exploring the nation we live in. (Oh, and by the way, I have actually lived in close proximity to drug dealers for an extended period of time. Sometimes they wanted to shoot each other, but I never found one who wanted to shoot me. This isn’t to say that drug dealers aren’t dangerous, but they don’t generally go around willy-nilly shooting potential clientele.) We should be exploring our neighborhoods, getting to know our neighbors, meeting people at local venues, and enjoying our lives. If we weren’t so busy being scared and then mad and then scared again, we might actually succeed in both finding meaning in life and sharing our faith with friends who don’t know much about it, rather than trying to ram it down the throats of strangers.

So, my point? Isn’t it obvious? Plato set out four virtues: Courage, Wisdom, Justice, and Temperance. As a culture we encourage none of these. Personally, I think it’s time to man-up.

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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.

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.

Sin and Guilt

Yesterday I was at lunch with a group of people from church. Flowergirl was one of them. I generally take her and one of her roommates to church on Sundays, and then buy them lunch afterwards. This isn’t an attempt at a group date (I’ve given up on her… almost completely), just something I like to do because they are both poor college students in need of good meals. During the meal flowergirl was rather frustrated with me, mostly because I kept laughing at her. She hadn’t had much sleep the night before and was very tired, and so I had to keep waking her up in church. I commented that her head resembled a metronome in the way it kept bobbing up and down as she tried to stay awake. She didn’t see the humor in this, mostly because she was ashamed that she was struggling to stay awake in church.

Flowergirl, like many of us, was under the impression that the fact one struggles with something is, in and of itself, something to be ashamed of. This is not true. All Christians struggle with sin, and as one of my professors used to say: all means all and that’s all all means. While I don’t entirely agree with this sentiment (in some cases ‘all’ clearly means ‘most’, ‘many’, or ‘those of which I have knowledge’), in this case it is entirely true. Outside of Jesus Christ who, being the Christ incarnate, can’t really be called a ‘Christian’ (i.e. little Christ or follower of Christ) there has never been an individual who did not fail in his/her struggle with sin. However, even Christ himself struggled with sin. We know that he was ‘tempted in every way as we are’ from Hebrews 4, and from both Matthew and Luke we know that he was tempted by Satan himself. Christ did not sin, nor did he have a sinful nature, and some will argue that he could not have fallen to temptation (this position is called ‘hard impeccability’, though personally I prefer ‘soft impeccability’ which argues that Christ was capable of sinning, but didn’t), but I do not know of anyone who will argue that Christ did not struggle with temptation. This fact is made absolutely clear in the scriptures. So, given that Paul clearly fell to sin… repeatedly (Romans 7), that Peter fell to sin the the worst possible way (the denial of Christ), and that Christ himself was struggled with varied temptations, why do we believe that to struggle is, in and of itself, a shameful thing?

The answer, of course, is the American need to be ‘better’. If you sin then I am better than you because I do not sin. If you struggle with sin, then I am better than you because I do not struggle with sin. If you are tempted to sin then I am better than you because I am not tempted to sin. None of these things are true, obviously, but they are the lives that we often attempt to portray, and also one of the most prominent reasons for the frequent and warranted accusations of hypocrisy within the American church. None of us is perfect. We all struggle with a variety of sins. Those sins may be different for different people, but none is better or worse.

This is another facet of the American church that needs to be addressed. We often rate actions by their ‘sinfulness’. Homosexuality is the most sinful thing a normal person could do. Pornography is a close second. However, gluttony, gossip, worry, and pride are all innocuous, inconsequential sins by common American standards. This is, obviously, a giant load of crap. James 2 makes it clear that sin is sin. All sin equally removes us from a right relationship with God and no sin is inconsequential. There is a passage in John 5 that discusses the difference between ‘sins not leading to death’ and ‘sins leading to death’, which was (I think) the primary impetus behind Augustine’s division between mortal and venial sins, but this is a theological question that I will address another time.

For our purposes here, sin is all equally damning in the eyes of God. All sins should invoke guilt in us until we turn to God in repentance. However, the simply fact of struggle with a sin should not. In fact, it seems to me that a man or woman who truly and honestly struggles with sin is respectable. It is easy to give up the struggle and simply fall to sin, and if we struggle we will eventually fall. However, to continue in the struggle, to run the race, to fight the good fight, is something that scripture repeatedly calls us to (1 Peter and 1 John are both good examples, as are 1 and 2 Timothy). We are called to struggle with our sins, and in struggling we pursue perfection, which is the process of sanctification. This isn’t something that we can, or even should escape.

So, do not let the struggle be a thing of shame. When you struggle and are victorious, count it as glory to God who aided you in your struggle. When you struggle and fall, be aware of your human frailty and repent. However, the struggle in and of itself is a part of being human. Consider it as such.

It’s Impossible I Tell You!

I have a superman complex. Especially when it comes to romantic relationships. Show me a young, broken, hurting woman who is not ready or willing to commit to a serious relationship and I’ll pursue her for all I’m worth, convinced that I can heal her wounds and we’ll live happily ever after. So far this hasn’t worked well for me, but I think it’s symptomatic of a more significant problem both in me and in American culture as a whole.

As a culture we push for the impossible. This is evident in our entertainment media, in our heroes, in our attitudes, and in the things that we pursue. As a culture we strongly emphasize pursing and doing things that should be impossible. I’ve talked a lot about doing hard things, and I think that it is important to do the things that are hard. The things that challenge us, stretch us, and push us are also the things that grow us as individuals and as a community. It is important to challenge ourselves, to push ourselves, and to set goals the require us to rely on God and on others. That being said, it is equally important to set goals that are realistically achievable.

Actually, one of the foundational keys to success is to set achievable goals, and this is something that we aren’t often encouraged to do. American media and culture encourages us to ‘reach for the stars’, ‘believe in the impossible’, and ‘trust that we can be whatever we want’. However, this has led to a patent and pervasive denial of realism. A few days ago I spoke with a friend of mine who is currently frustrated with waiting for her boyfriend to be ready to commit. I challenged her to set a realistic goal concerning how long she would wait, and her response was ‘I’ll wait for him forever’. While this certainly sounds romantic, it never actually works. We hear stories about the few people who can do something like this, who wait for their beloved for 10, 12, 15, or 20 years. I once knew a man who pursued his ex-wife (who had left him) for sixteen years before finally winning her back. I have to admit that there is a part of me that wishes I could do that, but I can’t. I’ve tried. I can last a few months, maybe a year… but my record is two years before finally giving up.

The attitude that ‘I can do anything’ is clearly and utterly ridiculous. For instance, as an extreme example, I can’t walk out the door of my favorite coffee shop and fly away. I am limited by my physical capabilities. I will also never be an astronaut. I am not mathematically minded enough nor committed enough to truly succeed in this career. Thankfully, I’ve never particularly wanted to be an astronaut. However, the principle is sound. We are all limited by our physical, intellectual, emotional, and psychological abilities, and while it is important to expand those abilities, it is equally important to set goals that are achievable within those abilities. Through hard work, determination, and commitment I can successively set grander and more difficult goals. However, those successive goals must be representative of my expanding abilities (i.e. they must remain achievable).

All to often the attitude I see in myself, and in others, is that I can do anything without effort. I set grand goals for myself (like healing a broken heart or waiting for years for someone) that are not even remotely achievable within my current capabilities. Often I see the same in my students. I can’t count the number of students who have declared to me, in grammatically atrocious (barely understandable) English, that they are going to get a Ph.D. in whatever their chosen field may be. Some are willing to do the word it takes to improve their writing and thinking abilities, but many are not, and this makes their goal clearly unattainable. Doing hard things doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, effort, commitment, and a willingness to suffer in order to obtain even minor steps towards our overall goals. The impossible isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be easy. It it was, then it wouldn’t be impossible.

What Does it Mean to be a Man? Part 3

I’ve spent most of the week thinking about how to write this next post. I think that we’re coming into the most important areas of question in this. While strength is certainly emphasized when it comes to manhood, most people won’t argue that we should judge the ‘manliness’ of an individual based on his property, appearance, or inherent abilities. This is quite clearly ridiculous. However, I think it is worth pointing out here that we often do judge an individual’s manliness on these qualities, and not just an individual’s manliness, but an individual’s worth. It is easy to dismiss a person as ‘not our type’ or ‘not the right kind’ based on how they dress, how they look, what they can do, or what they have to offer us, and I think we need to realize that this is a foundational element of American society. We judge one another on stupid things.

Admittedly, to some degree, in the context of romantic relationships ‘not my type’ is a justifiable objection. A strong romantic relationship requires physical attraction, and trying to date someone that you aren’t at least kind of attracted to is a bad idea. That being said, we often blow this one aspect of relationships far out of proportion, both romantically and in less physically important relationships. It really doesn’t matter if I’m attracted to my friends. In fact, if they are friends of the opposite sex, it is often better if I’m not particularly attracted to them. That way we can actually stay good friends.

However, I got a comment (still not letting any comments post, but I’ll always try to address the good ones) from a reader addressing a key message that men receive in American culture: Men “Gotta be strong, self-sufficient, never vulnerable, never fragile, never in need”. I think this is actually one of three major messages that American males receive on a regular basis. The second is that men have to be emotionally sensitive, fragile, and womanly to be acceptable. While the first message leads to the ‘man’s man’ stereotype, the second leads to the metrosexual stereotype, and neither of these men is a particularly good example of a healthy man. The last message I often see combined with both of these. This is that men are cretinous, stupid, worthless, and beastly. We live in a culture that repeatedly casts men as the villains, and if you don’t believe me try the following experiment. Go sit in a coffee shop or bookstore until you see both of the following scenes: an older man leading a young girl (5-6 years old) into the bathroom, and an older woman leading a young boy (same age) into the bathroom. Ask yourself which scene made you more uncomfortable and why. Then consider that there is a growing body of research arguing that sexual assault by female perpetrators, both on children and adults, has been grossly under-reported for decades, and that women are only slightly less likely than men to be be sexual predators. Lastly, consider that a relatively small portion of the population. Realize that, in 2011, there were just over seven hundred thousand registered sex offenders living in a nation of over three hundred million. Also realize that public urination can result in registry of the offender as a sex offender. We live in a culture that casts men as villains.

So, the majority of these messages have to do with the next category that I was going to discuss: emotions. Can we judge manhood based on emotions? I think the obvious answer here is in the negative. We all have emotions, and to be emotionally healthy we must recognize and deal with those emotions. This is just as true for men as it is for women, men simply often do this in a different way. However, there is nothing inherently masculine about being stoic, sensitive, etc. Being overly stoic and bottling things up, or overly sensitive so as to be incapable of functioning are both signs of emotional immaturity. So, the obvious answer is not necessarily correct. While emotional maturity does not ‘make one a man’ it is certainly a very important component of true masculinity. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, emphasizes a mature emotional state that recognizes feelings but is not controlled by them. I think this kind of maturity may best be described as sensitivity combined with endurance. True men must embrace their emotional natures and understand what they are feeling when they are feeling it. However, they must also respond appropriately to those feelings. A boy refuses to acknowledge his feelings. A boy throws a temper tantrum. A boy tries to stand strong on his own when he is vulnerable and weak. A man recognizes his feelings, good and bad, and acts on them appropriately. He expresses anger well by calmly addressing the situation. He stands before those he trusts, admits his weaknesses, and asks for help. A man is strong precisely because he knows when he can’t stand alone and is willing to accept that and ask for help.

So, while emotions may not entirely define manliness, they certainly add something to our understanding of what a man actually is.

Strange Days, Rest, and Decision Making

Well, I’ve spent the entire day sitting in a medical facility with a blood catheter in my arm. This is all part and parcel with the drug trial that I mentioned yesterday, but it’s still been a strange kind of day. Both odd, because I’ll have 27 vials of blood drawn by the end of the day (which is a freakin lot of blood), and oddly familiar, because I’ve been sitting in the facility doing my job all day long. I have to admit that I truly love the ability to take my job with me pretty much anywhere. However, it’s both a blessing and a curse because this ability also means that it is very hard to stop doing my job. For a long time (and still every now and then) I found myself working at all hours. I would be up at 3 am grading papers, I would work seven days a week and just never stop. Obviously, this isn’t the healthiest thing in the world. However, I got over a quarter of my week’s grading done today, which is great. Both yesterday and today have been extremely productive, which I am very, thoroughly glad about. I’m hoping to get everything done by Thursday so that I can take most of this weekend off to spend some time with my nephews.

Rest is extremely important in our lives, and I usually take Tuesdays off, so I haven’t had a really thorough day of rest in a while. I think that in America, and even more so in Japan and Korea, we don’t recognize the importance of rest enough. I know that I was raised to assume that taking time to rest was simply being lazy. It was wrong to relax, to just sit down and do nothing important, because in that moment I wasn’t being productive. Now I make sure to take time to rest (time that seems sufficient to me) and I still have a lot of friends who think that I’m working myself to death.

Here’s the thing that I’ve learned. No matter what I believe or choose to do, someone will think that I’m wrong, and somebody will be disappointed. This part sucks. Some people are going to tell me that I need to slow down, to relax, to rest more, and let myself heal, but others are going to tell me that I’m a lazy bum and that’s why I’m poor. What I’ve learned the hard way is that no matter what you do, someone is going to think that you’re wrong. This is always true. However, this is why Kipling encouraged us to trust ourselves even when everyone doubts us. The key is to not simply trust ourselves, but to be willing to listen seriously to the doubts of others. When it comes to rest, jobs, marriage… anything really, we have to be willing to listen to the advice of others, and then make our own decisions. If I simply do what everyone else tells me to do (which is all to often the case with me when it comes to women), then I will be lost in a maze of conflicting opinions and advice from which there is no escape.

I have to trust myself, and really I can only trust myself if I am willing to trust God. My goal, my quest, my responsibility, is to seek God in everything, and rely on him to guide me through my life. So, what I have to do is discern, trust, and follow. Which winds up being a whole lot harder than it sounds. Still, I think it’s worth the effort.