When Your Kid Googles You (Take care. Someone’s listening.)

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. Words to live by. (photo from Pexels free images)

“I looked you up on google,” my daughter said a few weeks ago. I froze, arranging my face as nonchalantly as I could: “Oh really? What did you find?” “You’ve written a LOT of articles,” she observed, and paused a beat: “..and a LOOOTTT of articles about parenting.” She looked at me pointedly.

Yes. Yes, I’ve written a lot about parenting – it’s been a searingly sharp tool of character chiseling in the hands of God at times, and I feel the burden of raising kids of character and the Kingdom keenly. But my kids are not object lessons, and I don’t ever want them to feel that. “Did you read any of them?” I asked, “and if so, how did you feel about them?”

She felt fine. Good. Just kinda interesting to her that her mom–whom she knows from early morning under-cover snuggles and cooking in our pajamas and wrestling over homework—is also a mom on the internet, and was there continuity between those two? She seemed satisfied that there was, and I was relieved.

But I was also sobered. Knowing that my kids have moved into the realm of being actual readers of what I’m writing has heightened my awareness as a writer. The possibility of being overheard is always a good editor for our words, though: that’s why anonymous comments on the internet are so much meaner than things people would put their name to, or say in person. Ecclesiastes 7:21-22 offers this gem (in a chapter filled with truth bombs – seriously,  I think Ecclesiastes 7 might be the most nutrient rich life advice chapter in Scripture):

Don’t eavesdrop on others — you may hear your servant curse you. For you know how often you yourself have cursed others.

How we talk about others can and will be overheard – we’d do well to be aware of that, and show charity and kindness regardless of the size or secrecy of our audience.

This, of course, turns the spotlight directly on the issue of how we tailor our conversations to our audience. There’s wisdom in doing this: we edit adult themes and concerns out of conversation when we’re within earshot of children, we understand that there are times and places and context for certain conversations  (let’s not get into the depths of our marital spat on the bleachers while watching kids play basketball, for example.) We know that there are some situations where we can make a joke to connect with a crowd which would go down like a lead balloon (or worse, strike like a bullet) with others.

I became aware of this again recently attending a conference attended by thousands of women, and a handful of men. It was girl-time, and it was good, but I did pause a couple times just noticing the weirdness of men being in the room while we laughed and cried about girl stuff: hormones and mothering and how we women all like to go to the bathroom in groups. There was nothing dangerous or distasteful at all – but some of it definitely wouldn’t have been said if it was a mixed audience, and it made me think. The men in the room were gracious and supportive —their demeanor acknowledging this was a women’s conference and they were guests — but I wondered if they might feel a little out.

I wondered, too, about how this was a picture of what it’s been like as women are breaking the glass ceiling and entering into spaces and roles that traditionally were all male (or predominantly male) in culture: government and C-suite boards and directorships. Was part of the “banter” of the room just guy-talk about golf and the stresses of family life or whatever that helped everyone bond before they got down to business (just as the “we all pee together” joke was bonding banter before we considered the serious stuff of Scripture and calling?) Is the discomfort felt at having women join those spaces and realizing the audience is now different so the conversation needs to change similar to the awareness I felt at having men in the room at a women’s conference? Maybe. The parallels are imperfect, but it made me think:

When we realise our audience is wider, we have to select out words that much more carefully. Our jokes can’t have a target (or if they do, it’s probably best if it’s ourselves). We need to think wisely about what we draw in terms of social currency (we can’t continually find common ground about the stresses of raising small children in a room where many don’t have kids, for example). In many ways, thinking about who might be listening means I need to be more circumspect, more creative, more generous than my default settings may have been. If we realize men might be listening, we need to think about every joke we tell in an all-female book club. No cheap shots. Ditto with men talking among themselves. If we realize people with different political convictions might see any comment we make on social media, it should curb us from making broad generalizations or damning others as dummies.

It is, in short, a really great exercise in thinking about how to LOVE people. To love anyone who might be listening. “Let everything you say be good and helpful,” says Ephesians 4:29, “so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” Let people overhear us praising them. Let our friends overhear us saying upbuilding things about their choices and their character. Let our neighbors overhear us speaking graciously about people we disagree with. And let my children, should they google me, find words about parenting which bless them.

 

 

 

High Dive, Deep Dive (a meditation on love and surprises)


It’s been twenty—maybe thirty—years since I jumped off a diving board.

I’m not sure whether it was the sun or the extra shot of caffeine that morning, or just the end-of-summer joy of being at the pool with the kids, but this time when my kid asked if I’d jump off the diving board with her (and bless her for faith and hope in asking since I have never, not once in her life, ever said yes to this before), this time, I said yes.

I nearly chickened out a dozen times standing in the line. I was the only one more than five feet tall among the half dozen of us in the queue, all the others wet and giggling from the multiple jumps they’d already taken. I was conspicuously dry, standing there in all my adult angst, trying to visualize it all. Surely I could iron out my worries by mentally going over and over the details? I pictured climbing the rungs, the non-slip tread on the board, sucking my stomach in (this is a public pool, after all.) Would I go in feet first, or would I dive? Diving would look way cooler. What would I see as I fell? Would it seem a long way down? Or a blink? Hopefully my bikini bottom wouldn’t scroll itself off in the plunge. Would I belly flop? Would I smile? I planned it all: mentally maximizing my Mom-zen-moment.

And then all of a sudden I was at the front of the line and edging my way to the front of the diving board. “Jump, Mom!” yelled my daughter, beaming at me. I don’t know if I remembered to smile. I certainly didn’t think about my stomach.

I dived.

I was suddenly deep. So deep. A thunderclap of pressure over my ears as the water closed in and my lungs protesting like two whoopee cushions in my chest. My inner mermaid panicked a little and I tilted my head up, trying to guess how much distance there was between me and the dappled light from the world above. It was probably only a second or two before my head broke the surface, but it was long enough for me to realize in shock: I’d only imagined how high the dive would be. I hadn’t thought to visualize how deep it might be. I’d mentally prepared for the jump, without any concern for the fall.

It’s often like this for me: all my emotional energy expended on the run-up, or the introduction… when the real experience actually comes after. Like spending hours and hours imagining what my wedding would be like, and being surprised at how little I’d thought about the deep, immersive dive into marriage. I’d thought about labor and delivery, but not much about what it would be like to bring a newborn home. Or imagining job interviews and first introductions at school… with little imagination for what the work and rhythms to follow would be like. I’ve imagined the airport and the getting there, but often not the trip and the being there.

I don’t know that my imagination is good enough (nor that it would be helpful) to try and visualize a little further along the journey. Even if I had given a lot of time and attention to thinking about the pressure of being deep underwater (or thrown deep into marriage for the first time), no amount of thinking is the same as the All-Systems-Go shock of living the experience. I’d read about new parents being sleep deprived, but book knowledge is NOT THE SAME as the wild wide-eyed delirium of life with a newborn. No, ma’am. I thought I knew what I was agreeing to when I first said Yes to Jesus’ invitation to trust him, but I had no idea how beautiful and scary and rich and wonderful life with him would be. Truly.

But maybe the thing for me to remember is this: beyond the Big Thing I’m gearing up for, is a next experience and a next step. There’s a Beyond beyond the thing I’m scared of. After the shock of the first day, there will be a second day and a third day when things are not so new and disorienting: open spaces for life and loving and learning. After the tumult and tension of the high dive, comes a deep dive into life. Its pressures may be unexpected, but there’s surprise and joy in the depths.

God, the Paraeducator

This month we made a big deal out of Teacher Appreciation Day at our schools, and rightly so. Teachers are amazing and deserve every bit of support and encouragement we can offer. There is also a Secretaries’ Day on our Hallmark calendar, and we show our gratitude then. But there is no day for the paraeducators at our school, and this month as I saw gift cards and flowers go home with teachers, I also saw a half dozen paraeducators go home empty handed, and it made me think.

We are the grateful recipients of the care of paraeducator support in schools: trained, patient staff who work alongside special needs students to offer support, redirection, and supervision so that our kiddo can participate in school meaningfully. Ours is an inclusion school district, which means that kids with special needs are not siphoned off into special classrooms or schools: they’re kept in the mainstream classroom and additional support is provided for that student there. I think it’s a beautiful thing: both for special needs kids who need to belong to the community at large, and for the able-bodied and neuro-typical kids, whose borders are enlarged by interaction with all types of people. Special needs kids have something to give, too, as this months’ feature article at Christianity  Today so wonderfully demonstrates.

Yoko Fines, a paraeducator in MD, at work with one of her students. (http://www.hcpss.org/news-posts/2017/06/yoko-fines-paraeducator-cedar-lane-school/)

But to get back to the paraeducators: one of the signs of a really effective, excellent paraeducator is how invisible their work becomes in the classroom. When things are going really well, you hardly notice that they are there, because the child is able to engage seamlessly with the classroom. The metrics of success are somewhat counter-intuitive: peace, and a remarkable absence of “issues”. In a way, it reminded me of the work of the Holy Spirit, whom I remember someone once describing to me as the “shy member of the trinity”: the Holy Spirit is always directing our attention towards the Father and the Son. When our love and actions are focused on God and others, that’s a sign that the Holy Spirit is really at work. The evidence of His presence is, in similar ways, quiet and beautiful. Love, peace, patience, gentleness, self-control. Jesus described the Spirit’s work like the wind: you see its effects, even if you don’t see the wind itself.

Which of us learned to ride a bike without the skill, support, and encouragement of a seconder?

We have a family friend who has been a career paraeducator and has served students with all sorts of disabilities through her school career. I have long known she is a woman who embodies a quiet strength, and the students she has worked with may never know how much thought and prayer she put into their flourishing.

But this disposition of hers—to become the most skilled supporter she can—runs into many areas of her life beyond her profession. In her personal life, she has taken in many frazzled young moms and offered seasons of support, prayer, welcome, and volunteered childcare. She and her husband loved our young family this way for a while, and it was the most beautiful, invisible gift to entrust our children to capable, kid-loving, safe people in a season where we desperately needed some respite care.

Among her long list of quiet gifts, she had a bus-driving license for some time, so that she could drive a 15 person passenger van for church outings if needed. She is credentialed and has a master’s degree, and so can support in multiple staffing ways in a school (the library, for example), in seasons when there are needs. She loves to exercise, and has completed training to be a coach and seconder for athletes at competition level. Professional athletes need someone to help them know when to rest, when to warm out, and how to train if they will be their best. These are just a few of her skills… In all these things—professionally, spiritually, physically—she is not in the limelight. But because of her skill and proximity, she is able to offer support and guidance in ways that few can.

Which brings me back to thinking about the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and God as a paraeducator. For a truly excellent paraeducator is not just a “supervising adult”, or an extra set of hands when needed. A truly excellent paraeducator is a specialist in the support that that person or situation uniquely needs, with eyes focused on providing just enough support, correction, and encouragement to enable the person to grow, learn, participate, and flourish as only they can. They are nearby. They are focused. They are FOR YOU in a way that no-one else can be. In the race of life, they are the ultimate seconder.

I confess I have long had a fairly mushy idea about the work of the Spirit. Like a gentle presence. Or a light current in the water. But thinking about the strength of the best paraeducators: their attention and presence, their skills, the prayer and resourcefulness and intentionality they bring: this reminds me that when Jesus said he’d send a counselor and a helper – a paraclete, in Greek – he was sending us the most skilled paraeducator of all. Each of us has a full time aide at our side, specifically trained to help us make it through the day.

And just like I realized on Teacher Appreciation Day, I don’t often notice it. But our Paraeducator is present, hard at work, a Specialist par excellence. And he is WITH us, every step of the way.

Help: How do I stop liking someone?

Dear Bronwyn,

How do you stop liking a man? I’m in college and I met a guy who has fantastic personality and character, and I find incredibly attractive. BUT, he doesn’t have a relationship with Jesus – which is a deal breaker for dating (which I’d like to be with the intent of marriage).

We went on three dates before I discovered he was missing the most important thing, and I can’t continue a romantic relationship with him. I’ve been praying for these feelings to be taken away for weeks – and despite the fact that I am literally surrendering our relationship EVERY morning, I can’t stop thinking about him or liking him.

What do I do? Signed,

Too-Many-Feelings

Dear TMF,

I have very bad news for you: I don’t know of a single way to just get rid of a crush we wish we weren’t feeling. In my early twenties I liked a guy for well over a year and WISHED and prayed I didn’t wouldn’t feel the way I did… but I couldn’t make it go away no matter how hard I tried.

So what would I say to you that might be of comfort or help?

Maybe this thing first: relationships can bring a WHIRL of passions and thoughts that can feel overwhelming. That we can feel that spark and depth is part of what makes life exciting and wonderful: it’s a sign that we’re alive and we care and that we are responding to people and the world. Having big feelings doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong, even if those feelings are unwelcome. You’re alive and the feeling/wanting/desiring/loving part of you WORKS. I think part of the work of adulthood is learning how to attend to our feelings: to notice them, listen to them, learn from them. What do those feelings tell us about who we are and what we want in life?  How do they reveal how God has made us? How do they reveal our gifts and talents, or our vices?

We are children of a culture which really values THINKING but hasn’t paid a huge amount of attention to the messages that our emotions or our bodies give us about the world. And so, I just want to put a little oar into the water against the relentless thought-driven cultural currents we live in and say: there’s an invitation to attend to your feelings here. Note what you like about this guy. What is it about the conversation that made you feel good? What parts of YOU did you like in your relationship? What was exciting? What was scary? There are things to learn and grow in from this experience.

Attending to feelings is not the same as being a CAPTIVE to your feelings (the “go with your heart” message has its dangers, too), and it is not the same as ignoring or mastering your feelings. Growing in maturity brings a confidence that you will be able to handle, and indeed make good use of, your feelings.

Your feelings of attraction aren’t wrong, per se. They’re feelings. Feelings are facts. We can name them, listen to what they’re telling us, and then try to care for ourselves as well as possible in light of them. But feelings are (frustratingly! awfully!) disobedient. Not once ever have I managed to make myself not feel scared by saying “don’t be scared!” or not feel angry by saying “don’t be angry”. Learning to figure out why I’m scared or angry (or crushing) in a situation helps me develop some compassion on myself, and sometimes even – a game plan for coping.

Which brings me to my second thought—and maybe this is something that a trusted friend or mentor or a parent can help you talk through—which is to encourage you to figure out how you can best care for yourself while you are experiencing these feelings. You won’t always feel this way (“this, too, shall pass” could be something you write on a sticky note for yourself!), but while you do feel this way, what would help you to manage? Would it help to have less contact with him? Maybe not be friends on social media? Or maybe it would help to just see if you could cross paths in large group settings? (sometimes it isn’t helpful to quit seeing someone cold turkey because then we gild them in our imaginations) Would it help to journal through all the feelings? Would it help to figure out what times of the day or in what situations the thoughts and feelings are most difficult to cope with, and then think about how you can acknowledge the feelings (maybe a quick written prayer?) and then have a game plan for what you will do next (a craft project? A walk? calling a friend to talk about the netflix show you’re binge watching?)

Time will pass and these feelings will change – but I don’t think that just waiting for time to pass is what does the trick. Learning a little more about yourself from the experience, paying attention to the messages your heart is giving you about who you are and what makes you tick, and learning how to care for your whole self in this season is the work you get to do during this time. And it’s work that will serve you well the rest of your years.

Wish I could give you a cup of tea as you read this.

Grace and peace to you,

Bronwyn

 

Got a question you’d love to ask? You can ask me anything – drop me a note here.

 

 

I love you, friend, but I don’t want your essential oils (or leggings, or mascara…)

If you’ve been around church women for any length of time, chances are you’ve been invited to some kind of product party: a “no pressure, just-a-bunch-of-girls get together” with food and a presentation of jewelry, essential oils, makeup, leggings, cleaning products, accessories, nutritional supplements, skin care miracles, or (fill in the blank) on display.

Or, you’ve been invited to an online shopping party to buy books or mascara that will Change your Life.

Or, (and this might be my least favorite), you’ve been added to some FB group you did not ask to join and now have live videos appearing in your feed of someone applying their makeup.

Church life, it seems, is a hotspot for business. Multi level marketing (the I-sell-to-you, you-sell-to-your-friends, your-friends-sell-to-their friends model) is a 34 billion dollar a year industry, according to Christianity Today’s feature article on the topic… and a vast proportion of those sales are by and to women, and church ladies are at the forefront of the salesforce. There’s a reason your facebook feed is filled with church contacts selling stuff.

I used to think it was just me who got an icky feeling every time I got one of these party invites. I don’t like shopping at the best of times (I can feel my soul leaching out of me with every step I take deeper into the mall), but I’ve been wrestling for months on what it is about this particular type of shopping that makes me so antsy, and more and more I’m realizing it’s not just me… and getting closer to articulating what it is that bugs me.

So let me start out by acknowledging the good things about this trend. Targeted primarily at women who cannot engage in the workforce full time (because they’re caring for kids or parents) and women who need additional income because they’re in lower-paying jobs (I know multiple teachers and medical assistants who are keep ‘consulting’ businesses on the side for this reason) – these businesses do something wonderful: they acknowledge the talent and leadership potential of women, and give them opportunities to use their gifts in a significant way. The trainers invest time in developing women’s gifts, and they encourage them and build community among their participants.

Let me say from the get-go that I FULLY believe in acknowledging, developing, and encouraging women as able and ready world-changers. The world has come a long way in the last fifty years, but office space and church life still remain places where women sometimes aren’t fully welcomed as adding significant value. These companies SEE the incredible power and potential of women in the pews in a way we could learn from.

I also want to acknowledge that for a handful of women, these stay-at-home businesses have provided significant income opportunities, allowing women to help put their kids through college, or pay off student debt. That’s a wonderful thing. They work hard. I’m thrilled for them. And yet, I know a much bigger number of women who landed up investing more than they earned, and for whom the hours invested and nights away from home hosting parties have yielded very little. So, there’s that.

So why do I feel icky about it? Is it that I loathe the free market so much that I can’t bear to see people sell stuff? Nope, that’s not it. Is it that I am jealous of others’ success? Nope, that’s not it either (I wrestled long and hard about this.) I think, when all is said and done, the unease I feel about this phenomenon is for two main reasons:

First, it muddies the waters of friendship. True friends are one of my chief life lines as I cope with the stresses of this life stage (I wrote about it for Christianity Today this month here, if you’re curious.) Knowing that there are people whose care for me is genuine makes the world of difference, and it feels yucky to doubt overtures of friendship from other Christian women: am I a friend to them? Or just a potential customer they’re being friendly to? When someone who’s never been active on social media all of a sudden becomes highly active, liking all my posts, and posting highly hashtagged pictures of herself “living the dream” after years of never posting a thing…. I smell a rat. If the first time you message me after ten years is to “connect” and ask me about what’s up in my life and oh-just-breezy-sharing that one of the things you’ve been up to is starting this or that business… it doesn’t feel like friendship to me. 

And I hate feeling like a bad Debbie-Downer-Doubting-Thomas mashup about friendship. I think one of the most precious resources we have is our friendships, and I cannot shake the feeling that these billion dollar industries are muscling their way into sacred spaces they have no right being in. Especially when the language of the company is such that purchasing their product is seen as “supporting your friend’s business”. I don’t want a price tag imposed by some third party on how well I support my friend. I don’t want the first time I’m invited to your house to be for a sales/pampering/shopping party… that doesn’t feel like friendship, either. I love and believe in girl’s time, but I don’t want to be on my guard when someone invites me to spend time with them: will I have to resist a sales pitch? do I have to rehearse my awkward excuse? How many polite refusals can a friendship endure?

I feel some real grief for women wanting to build a business in these models: they are gifted and talented and I know they are trying to make an honest living in a way that supports their family… but the relational cost to have to look at a significant part of emotional support base all as potential clients has to be something that weighs heavily on them. It is no small wonder that I see friends engaged in these businesses bonding more and more closely with other women in the same business: new communities beyond the church where no-one has a before/after comparison on how their friendships are now.

My second big concern is this: these companies make us spend our invitations on a product instead of on Jesus. The model for sales is actually eerily evangelistic: consider the way we are encouraged to share our faith..

Be such a great friend, and live such a good and flourishing life among people that they will be drawn to you. Pictures of radiant smiles, testimonies of how your life is different, celebration of community and change all help show this.

Invite others to share in the joy of what you’ve found.

But do so with gentleness and grace.

And if anyone asks you for a reason for your hope, do so with gladness. 

Invite others to join the “family”, and hope that their joy will be contagious, too.

But what’s the source of the joy? My feeling is you can’t say “It’s Jesus. Oh, and also my amazing product,” in the same breath.

The evangelism model above works for the gospel… and remarkably well also for Tupperware, Young Living, Pampered Chef, 31 Bits, Doterra, Arbonne, LulaRoe, YouNique, NorWex, Beach Body, Premier Jewelry, Rodan+Fields, Urborne Books, and fill in the blank. Perhaps I also need to add here that the quality of the products that are being sold is often really great (such cute leggings! and necklaces! And your skin really does glow!) But the question remains: what do people associate with you, when they imagine you completing the sentence, “__________ has made all the difference in my life.”

Often we only get one chance to invite people into our lives, and one chance to share the story of what’s made the difference. My deep concern is that person-to-person sales leverage relationships for the wrong purpose: it uses our opportunities to build relationship in service of a product and not the Person.

I don’t ever want to be a person who has their overtures of friendship met with suspicion. No-one wants to be friends with the person who “just wants to evangelize them”. Whether for God, or their product. I think I have a way to go (we have a way to go, really) in learning how to develop and believe in women. I believe women can lead. I believe there are ways of developing and supporting income-generating projects. But I don’t believe the model we have on offer from companies that make their billions by exploiting my friendship-list is a healthy one. I know a handful of women who manage to walk this line of friendship and business remarkably well (and I should say, most of these are involved in justice-motivated ventures to support entrepreneurial women in developing countries)… but these women are exceptional in more way than one.

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to buy your product. But I really, really do want to be your friend.

 

 

 

Is it okay to watch Game of Thrones? (some thoughts on freedom, fear, and viewer discretion)

 

“Dear Bronwyn,

 

Is it okay to watch Game of Thrones? I have Christian friends who want to get together and watch it, and other Christian friends who think it’s the Show Satan Made. Any thoughts?

 

Thanks,

HBgO or HBnO?”

 

Dear HBOer,

I don’t know if it’s okay for you to watch Game of Thrones (or any other show, for that matter). I’ve only watched the first episode, and I know it’s not for me. Here are some of my thoughts in trying to figure that out, though.

We like binary answers: black or white. Yes or no. Wrong or right. And for sure, there are things that are absolutely black or white: it is ALWAYS wrong to murder. it is ALWAYS wrong to steal (and that includes pirating movies, BTW).

But the Bible also has all sorts of things where the answer is neither black nor white. Rather, the situation calls for discernment. Take this frustrating pair of verses from Proverbs, for example:

When arguing with fools, don’t answer their foolish arguments, or you will become as foolish as they are.” (Proverbs 26:4)

followed by,

When arguing with fools, be sure to answer their foolish arguments, or they will become wise in their own estimation.” (Proverbs 26:5)

Huh??

And then there are the passages in the new Testament that talk about how for some, eating a certain diet and neglecting certain religious days is sinful, while for others it is fine (Colossians 2:16, Romans 14). So in other words: sometimes the answer to whether something is right or wrong is IT DEPENDS.

It depends on the context. It depends on your community. It depends on who you are and where you are at in life.

We are coming out of a generation in Christianity that has been bounded up with lots of rules, well intentioned (I think) to try and keep us from sin. Rules about clothing, dating, dancing, modesty, music etc have abounded in church culture, and I do believe for the most part this has in an effort to pursue holiness. But often it’s gone the way of LEGALISM.

In response, I’ve seen so much about Christian freedom: critique of purity culture and some very fundamentalist ways of doing church/discipline etc. But often it’s gone the way of LICENSE.

I think neither legalism nor license help us navigate the complexity of living well in our world. We need DISCERNMENT for the vast area between the “I don’t watch any TV at all!” and the “I can watch ANYTHING AT ALL!” extremes. I don’t know that we talk about (or teach) discernment enough.

Discernment has to mean more than a “do what works for you” policy. I think we do need to have better, wiser conversation on helping one another gauge these things. In between legalism and license, we need WISDOM. “Everything is permissible,” said Paul, “but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 6). So the question is: how do you figure out what is beneficial?

One of the hallmarks of growing in maturity is learning to pay attention to your own sweet self. Listening to your body, being aware of your emotions and thought patterns etc are all part of our journey in discipleship. We are not good at this. We need to be better at this. Rest (and with it, reflection and self-examination) are important parts in us helping live meaningful, intentional lives. We need to pause and take stock on how things are affecting us, what we’re learning, how we’re growing or being shaped by the choices we make… in order to make better and wiser choices.

It is simply NOT TRUE that what we can watch/listen/engage in whatever and remain neutral and unaffected. We absolutely ARE shaped by the stories we expose ourself to. In books, TV, movies, pictures and real life – each story we expose to leaves its mark in our formation. The stories in our lives shape the way we approach the world: they sculpt our vision of the “good life”, they spark our imagination, they make us want certain things and hate other things… and if we are not paying attention to what is being sparked, nurtured, or drowned in our desires, we can land up in serious trouble. Like Rom Coms with the underlying message that it’s the “proposal moment” (or the dramatic chase to the airport departure chase) that brings the moment of clarity that you’ve met “the one”. Or like porn giving us really messed up scripts for what to expect in sexual intimacy.

 

I think it’s a healthy practice to talk through our show choices with friends or family and think through questions about what the underlying messages and values of a show are, and how they are affecting you. Naming the issues is a big first step in being aware of the impression they might have. A deeper level of conversation needs to happen in then considering what impact those messages are having on you: how do you feel after watching the show? Turned on? Angry? Riled up? Triggered? Numb? Disappointed and disillusioned with your own life?

 

Here is how this has worked out with me in considering a couple of shows:

  • We started watching New Girl and stopped a couple seasons in – the room mate drama and sex were getting too much for me. I have a high view of sex and I was just getting tired of how often (and how poorly) it was addressed in the show. Sex shouldn’t be the butt end of most of a show’s jokes, and I don’t want to curate a jaded view of sex.
  • We watched 24. I couldn’t cope after season 2, but my husband was okay watching through the end. I think the show really showed how ALL of us are corruptible, but I just so desperately needed someone honest and reliable (a redeemer!) in that storyline. Also, I was continually frustrated that no-one ever seemed to need to use the bathroom or eat.
  • The Good Place has received critical acclaim, but I chose not to watch (and wrote about it) … matters of eternity are close to my heart.
  • I loved season 1 of Crazy Ex Girlfriend: so clever and funny. But when I realized she wasn’t just kooky, but that there were actual mental health issues at stake, somehow it just wasn’t funny to me anymore. I think I’ve just met too many people really hurting from mental health issues to engage that way anymore. I know, I’m a real party pooper. But I’m trying to care for people with these issues and a show which makes fun of them (and where no-one knows the problem is a problem) was a problem for me.
  • I watched all the Friends seasons, and felt aware of (and distant enough from) the very different relationship values in them. My husband, on the other hand, was perpetually frustrated by how the friends lie to each other (or conceal things from one another) as the center point of every episode’s drama. I hadn’t noticed it before, but he’s right. They really do hide things from each other. He didn’t watch.
  • We watched Parenthood. I thought it was excellent. He thought the family arguments had too many people talking at the same time (and shouting at each other) – it stressed him out. He was paying attention.
  • He watched Lost. I can’t. I know my imagination cannot handle the paranormal or big suspense stuff. It makes me anxious and weepy…
  • I didn’t watch (or read) 50 Shades of Gray. Jamie the Very Worst Missionary did watch it and she was fine. Her post makes exactly this point: you need to know what you can handle. And ask questions about what’s drawing you into the story again and again.
  • I watched Outlander, which has plenty of sex. I don’t think this would have been helpful for me to watch in my early 20s (age matters), or maybe if I was single (“don’t awake love before it desires”, is Song of Songs’ advice to young women). But as a now older, married person – it was okay. except for the violence parts, which I absolutely cannot handle. I skipped those parts in the book and the movie.

Which brings me to your question: what about Game of Thrones?

It depends. From the brief part I saw, and from the bulk of what I’ve heard, this is a show with PLENTY of graphic (and unhealthy) sex, and PLENTY of violence. I think we are, in general, overexposed to those things, and thus in danger of being numb to the power of those stories’ shaping power. So there’s a caveat, and there’s a LOT of wisdom in erring on the side of caution in these things. One of the big dangers in movie and TV watching is that you can’t unsee things. So if it’s likely that you will see things you might wish you hadn’t (if you don’t want them turning up in your dreams or your fantasies), then maybe rather not.

But that doesn’t make for an automatic no. My questions for your consideration are: what impact is that show having on you? How do you feel afterwards? What does it make you want more of in life? If you think of God being present in the room with you as you watch, how does that change your awareness regarding the content of what you’re watching? What if you were watching with your parents?

 

As disclosed above, I’ve watched some TV that for others, is dangerous or damaging. I think in general GoT has a very high risk of being dangerous and damaging in how it kindles our imaginations. But that’s for you, the Holy Spirit, and wise counselors to wade through. I find the “it may be permissible, but is it beneficial?” grid to be really helpful for me to think this stuff through. I hope it is for you, too.

 

Best,

Bronwyn

 

Got a question you want to send my way? Find the Ask Me page… I’d love to hear from you 🙂

Feelings are our Friends

I spent some time recently talking with a friend who was a hot mess over a situation. I recognized the symptoms of hotmessery fairly quickly, having been there myself just days before: the big feelings, the confusion about what to think and what to do, the desire to make sense of the bits of the story and respond well, the feeling-stuckness in the complexity of it all. And perhaps worst of all, the sense of disorientation about why this issue, which was admittedly not a big deal, loomed at the forefront of their mind all day. “I feel bad that I can’t get over this,” my friend said, “I know that my reactions here are much bigger than the situation warrants but I just can’t figure it out.”

Yep.

Me too.

As we talked, a couple of things began to crystallize for me: fragments of books I’d been reading and random notes in my prayer journal came together to form something of an 3-D picture, and I finally found the words I’d been scrambling for for a couple weeks:

Feelings are our friends.

There are times when we feel swamped and confused by a swirling mass of thoughts and feelings, and in times like that, it’s helpful to remember that these feelings can be our friends. Perhaps this is obvious to you, but it hasn’t always been obvious to me. For much of my life I’ve thought of feelings as powerful, but unreliable bandits: things to be quashed or, at the very least, treated with deep suspicion. But the idea that feelings could be friends and allies (rather than foes) in figuring out life and truth is something relatively new to me.

Feelings make frighteningly terrible masters: it is a terrifying thing to be at the mercy of one’s emotions (friends with anxiety and depression, I hear you). Feelings also make frustratingly terrible servants: which of us was ever able to stop feeling worried simply because we told ourselves to do so? But feelings—like our bodies—sometimes can give us information and tell us the truth about a situation which our rational minds cannot (or will not) attend to.

For example, we might be walking down a dark road and tell ourselves that we’re not scared and there’s nothing at all to be scared of… but our pounding heart and clammy hands tell the truth that we are, in fact, terrified.

Or, as happened with my friend and I, we might be sitting in a coffee shop and telling a story and saying “it’s fine, it’s no big deal,” but our churning emotions and the lurking sense of anger or shame tell us that there’s more at work here than we’ve admitted.

This is what Brene Brown so compellingly invites us to do in her (incredibly helpful) book Rising Strong: to notice our feelings and get curious about them. What is this feeling we’re feeling? Is it anger? Is it fear? Is it disappointment? Is it envy? And then she encourages us to get curious about those emotions themselves without rushing to judgement: what is it about this situation that is making me angry, and what does that tell me? She writes:

“The opposite of recognizing that we’re feeling something is denying our emotions. The opposite of being curious is disengaging. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us. Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.”
Brené Brown, Rising Strong

I have a couple friends who are reliable mirrors to me as I share stories about my life: they reflect what they’re seeing back to me, and it helps me to be curious about what’s really going on beneath my emotions. They say things like “you seem angry about that” when I’m telling a story, and then will sometimes gently ask whether I’ve done any thinking about why I might be angry about that. If, instead of just telling myself to “not be angry” about a thing, I can take the time to be curious about why I got so angry, it can give so much good information about the desires and beliefs that simmer so much deeper in my soul.

I may say, for example, that I don’t care about a promotion or a salary increase… but if I’m incredibly angry that Joe Bloggs over there got a raise, that anger might be a clue that I care more about money, or being recognized, or knowing that I’ve made a contribution (or whatever) than I recognized. My wise friend Jen calls this “sifting our desires”, and she’s right: I can do a devilishly good job of deceiving myself that I don’t care about certain things and do care about others – but my feelings (of gloating, envy, schadenfreude etc) will sometimes tell the truth despite me, and a little bit of courageous digging can reveal hurts or deep longings or idols or dreams that I hadn’t faced squarely before.

I re-read Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel Gilead this month, and fell in love once again with the tender and wise heart of John Ames, the elderly pastor whose voice tells the story. Writing of how he came to process grief and disappointment, he says this:

“I have never found another way to be as honest with myself as I can be by consulting with these miseries of mine, these accusers and rebukers, God bless them all. So long as they do not kill me outright.”  

He was a man who had befriended his feelings, even the miserable ones. Especially the miserable ones – for by consulting with them he learned to be honest with himself, just as I’m learning to be honest, too. I want to be a joyful, gracious, generous person; but then I have days when I’m grouchy and angry and irrationally mean-spirited. To dismiss those feelings and say to myself: “that was a bad day, I’ll try again with kindness tomorrow” is not a terrible route to walk; but there’s a better route still: to hold my grouchy, angry, irrationally mean-spirited feelings in my hand and look on them as allies: “well, hello there, little feelings – what has got you so upset? and how can we learn from this together?”

It’s messy, brutal, humbling work. But its truthful, and good, and the journey all the richer for the companionship of my hotmessery of feelings.