Thursday, November 30, 2017

Ask An Atheist: Managing Relationships With Religious Loved Ones

A couple of days ago, I received this private message from a friend:
Remember the part of your blog "Ask an Atheist"? We have a question. [My husband] and I are skeptical, but my daughter is a full blown atheist. How did you keep your deeply religious parents from torturing you? My mother is relentless and cruel! Help!
Not an easy question to tackle sensitively. Immediately three or four ways to respond popped into my head, and I asked if I could answer her question via blog post, since there was no way I'd be able to squeeze it all into a text. It's not officially National Ask An Atheist Day, but I'll answer the question regardless.

Finding a photo for this topic was tough, so here's a religious family.
The first thing I have to do is set an understanding. I did not come from a secular background. I wasn't raised to be an atheist. I was raised in the church, and I devoted the vast majority of my life to faith in Christ. For anyone reading this, it's important to know that I intimately understand the perspective of our religious family members. As a devout believer myself, I used to lie in bed at night and plead to God with all my strength that all three of my children would be saved. The possibility that any one of them might grow up to reject our faith was so overwhelming and terrifying to me, that those prayers were often wet with tears. The threat of hell was so real that I simply could not bear imagining it for my children. In fact, just the thought that any of them might not be saved was sheer agony; it made my chest ache with anguish and fear.

So understand that everything I say from here on comes from a place of personally knowing how some religious parents feel.

Notice I said "some parents", because this is not necessarily the sole reason parents (and other loved ones) can be so upset when children or grandchildren question or even reject the family faith. There are other reasons for negative reactions from religious family members, such as bringing shame on the family, feeling their "tribe" has been rejected, feeling they are being rebelled against, or even feeling judged for their beliefs by the unbelieving individual. I don't want to go too deeply into all the reasons believing family members might be so bothered by unbelieving ones, but if you want to analyze this topic more deeply, there are others who have explored this subject in greater depth.

Let me also add a disclaimer - not all believers hound unbelieving loved ones. Many are live-and-let-live or simply keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves. Some do not stress about hell or care about family pride or feel a person's rejection of their faith is a rejection of them. So for those people, this post isn't about them. They're doing it right already. Thank you.

So assuming that the push back we atheists, agnostics and skeptics receive is based on any of those reasons above, we automatically are at a disadvantage. If it comes from a place of fear for our souls, there is nothing we can do to take that fear away. If it comes from a place of shaming the family by not towing the line, we cannot take that embarrassment away. In a society where religion (particularly Christianity) is not just the norm but the expectation, the onus ends up being on us to manage and mitigate these negative feelings that our unbelief produces in our loved ones, because somehow we are the ones who have done something "wrong".

For me personally, my parents are deeply religious, but I'd never say they "torture" me or are "cruel" to me. They can, however, feel relentless. My parents genuinely believe I'm going to hell, and this is a source of extreme anguish for them. Once again, let me reiterate that I really do get it. Yet, as firmly as they know I'm going to hell, I just as firmly know that there is no such place. Therefore it feels like the responsibility of managing their emotions always falls on me, because I'm the one who isn't emotionally distressed. Having been on both sides of the matter, I can see it from their perspective. They, however, cannot see it from mine. In fact, never at all does it seem they stop to think how their relentless proselytizing might affect my emotions or our relationship, because they cannot see that far. They see only my eternity in hell, and that clouds out every other possible perspective. Therefore, it's up to me, who has been on both sides, to respond in one of two ways - I can either scoff at their constant attempts at drawing me back in or I can empathize with them. I always choose the latter, but believe me, it's not fun and it's not fair.

It's not fair, because it drives a wedge between us, every single time, and they can't see it. They can't see that every comment, every dig, every attempt at making me see it their way is another brick laid in the wall that separates us. Christians (and others) in general don't seem to see how much we nonbelievers are expected to consider their feelings first, show respect for their beliefs and walk on eggshells to avoid hurting or offending them, when none of that consideration or respect is given to us. For family members who are embarrassed by what we've done to their reputation, it might be even more difficult. It's one thing for me to empathize with their fear of my going to hell, but it's a lot harder to empathize with those who just wish we'd shut up and stop bruising the family pride. Every time we sense that their disapproval of us is based on the disapproval they receive (or perceive to receive) from others, another brick is laid in that wall between us.

Nevertheless, that's where most of us are, so what can we do to handle it?

I can only speak from experience, and my answers aren't great. They aren't all what I'd call healthy solutions, but in the lose-lose situation that many of us find ourselves in, we sometimes can only make do with the best options we have.

First, I avoid the subject like the plague. Normally, avoidance is not what I'd recommend, but in this case, if it's necessary to keep that wall from getting too tall or wide, I will hold my tongue. It pains me to keep feelings to myself and avoid honest discussions, but it pains me more to feel rejection, especially from the people I love the most. I hate superficiality, but I hate disapproval more. For in every "you need to come back to the Lord" or "God is trying to get your attention" or "you know, if you just turned to Jesus ...", what I hear is rejection and disapproval. I have to sort through those feelings each time to remember they are being said with some kind of good intentions (usually). That these kinds of comments inadvertently (or deliberately) imply a dismissal of my well-thought and hard-fought conclusions about the world is never, seemingly, a concern for the other party. But that's what they are, so to avoid facing their disapproval of my (lack of) beliefs, I resort to steering clear of the subject at all costs.

However, there are times when I have to put my foot down and ask them to stop. At the end of the day, I'm a grown-ass woman, and I do not have to be put down for what I believe or don't believe. (And neither should they, for that matter). There have been a small handful of times when the attacks have been out of order and beyond what I am willing to tolerate, and I've had to tell people to stop. If your religious family members are taking it to a level that you do not feel you (or your child) ought to be subjected to, then put your foot down and don't tolerate it anymore. If people are truly being relentless and cruel, you have every right to draw the line and set some boundaries. And you have every right to demand that the boundaries be respected. Trust me, this is also something I don't like to do. Talk about building a wall! But if a wall is needed to protect yourself, then build it.

If you're in a situation where open conversation is encouraged and you don't need to avoid the subject, then you are in an enviable situation. Where appropriate, openly discuss your differences in beliefs. Trying to get them to see things from your perspective might do wonders. A thought experiment I used to practice as a Christian was to put myself in the shoes of someone who believed something completely opposite to my beliefs in order to empathize with them as people who believed just as strongly in their faith as I believed in mine. I had ulterior motives of course; this is how I imagined trying to save the souls of people in other countries where I went on mission trips to. It was a good experiment though; to fully understand how to relate to people with different beliefs, I had to first understand that undervaluing, diminishing or dismissing their beliefs would only drive a wedge between us. If Christians and members of other faiths could first recognize that by dismissing or mischaracterizing atheists, agnostics and skeptics they are driving a wedge further between us, the lines of communication would open up so much wider and our relationships would be much more satisfying and meaningful.

I'll say it again though - it's almost always been my experience that in handling religious family members' feelings and remarks, it's up to us to be the relationship managers. Though we're put at a disadvantage, though we're the ones who have to defend our positions, though the burden of proof is placed on us, though our feelings aren't part of the equation, we are the ones who have to manage the conversations and relationships to keep them on a level we are comfortable and satisfied with. We have to decide when to speak and when to be silent, when to defend and when to ignore, and when and where we draw the lines. We have to decide how much empathy we extend and how much criticism we tolerate, and conversely, we have to decide when enough's enough and what we will not put up with.

I hate the way that previous paragraph sounds. It may come across as egregiously pompous and self-righteous to say that, but it is the truth. (Unless, of course, you are the one putting them on the defensive all the time, telling them that they are wrong and foolish, in which case stop or at least change tactics, because that's exactly what we don't want others doing to us.)

*To my friend specifically*

If your parents are being cruel to your daughter, then put a stop to it. If it comes to it, give them an ultimatum. Let them know that she has a right to her own beliefs and that you both as her parents will defend her autonomy. Furthermore, remind them that you have the right to question things also and they need to respect your autonomy as well. If their concerns come from a place of good intentions, acknowledge that you realize this and that you appreciate their concern but that hounding you or your daughter will only drive a wedge between you and hinder your relationship. If they truly want to see her or you return to their brand of the faith, they need to lay off and simply love you both unconditionally. If what they believe is true in the end, then it would be God, not them, that would convince you of it. The nagging, the condescension, the disapproval, even the well-intended remarks will not do it. They only strain the relationship, and I'm willing to assume that that is not what any of you want. Stay strong, my friend. And tell that daughter of yours I'm always looking for a babysitter.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

This Too Is Gonna Pass

"If you can keep it together, just keep it together, you're fine, 
because one way or another, for better or for worse, this too is gonna pass."
-Quiet Company "On Ex-Husbands & Wives"

I love holidays, all holidays. Despite how commercialized they've all become, they all give me a thrill, and I love celebrating them. All year long - Valentine's Day, Easter, Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hogmanay (New Year's Eve) - I look forward to participating in whatever traditional, cheesy festivities accompany each upcoming holiday.

This year, however, has been a year full of really hard holidays, for it was the first year of celebrating each holiday without a husband. 

I haven't talked much about my divorce here. For nearly the entirety of this blog's existence, it was Scott-and-Lori. Scott and I started dating only months after I started blogging in 2003, and he's been a main character ever since. Moving it away from was a weird transition, and I haven't really known where to go with it since. (Thus the "in flux" bit.) A lot has happened in our lives this year that didn't feel appropriate to share publicly, and especially not here, where our relationship has been hosted for its entire existence.

But it's been almost a year (in fact, it's been pretty much exactly a year since the break-up started, though it wasn't made public until a few months later) and at some point me and my blog have to move on.

Last year, Scott and I celebrated Christmas and New Year together, but by the end of January, Scott had moved out, and come February I was faced with my first annual holiday without him. 

This was my first Valentine's Day as a single woman in thirteen years. I tried to act grossed out by all the pink and red hearts and balloons and flowers splattered across every shopping center like a murdered cupid, but deep down it was a deeply painful season. Scott, knowing how much I love holidays, especially Valentine's, brought me flowers that afternoon, despite the rawness and ugliness of everything going on at the time. It was a gesture that foreshadowed the sensitivity and graciousness with which we would strive to handle this whole separation and divorce thing in the months (and presumably years) to come. 

We decided around Memorial Day that until further notice, we would just celebrate holidays together as a family, and that's how we've done it since. Fourth of July, Labor Day, Halloween, and most recently Thanksgiving have all been shared with the kids and with each other. It's been the single most important thing for us that the kids feel secure and safe, and while there's always the risk of the kids harboring hope that we'll get back together, we feel keeping a close co-parenting, family-of-a-different-kind relationship has got to be better for them than separating our entire lives and never crossing paths with each other. We're still a family and always will be one. Just a different kind of family.

But of all the holidays we've survived this year, Christmas is without a doubt going to be the hardest. It's a time of year oozing with memories, mostly wonderful but now bittersweet at best. As has always been the tradition, I put up our Christmas tree yesterday, the day after Thanksgiving, and not surprisingly, it produced a lot of emotions.

We don't have a "pretty" Christmas tree. We don't have matching baubles or sprigs of holly or fancy bows. We have a vast array of mismatched ornaments that each carry with them some kind of sentimental value. We have ornaments from our very first Christmas together, multiple "baby's first" ornaments, ornaments that were gifts from various loved ones, Lolly's birthday ornaments (with a birthday a week before Christmas, it became a tradition early on to give out ornaments as party favors every year) and the annual selections for each member of the family that we choose every year based on what the kids (and sometimes the grown-ups) are interested in. There are memories attached to just about every single thing we hang on the tree.

I knew decorating the tree this year was going to be difficult, so I braced myself for an onslaught of emotions when I opened the red plastic Christmas decorations tub. Even still, there was no way to be totally prepared for the intensity of feels that came with handling each ornament and recalling the associated memories. Perhaps the saddest one was the ornament labeled "McFarlanes 2016" - a gingerbread family with all of our names etched on them.

I remember receiving that gift last year (from my mother, I believe) and feeling a rush of regret - no one really knew what we were going through yet, and as I looked at this ornament, I recalled thinking how sad it was that quite possibly by next year we wouldn't be that family anymore. And sure enough, we aren't.

It's hard to explain the feelings that all of this year's holidays have brought, especially this season. How do I adequately explain all the mixed emotions that I've felt, especially when I barely understand them myself? 

It would be natural for one to assume that I wish my marriage hadn't fallen apart, but the truth is I don't feel our decision to end our marriage was wrong. I don't think Scott thinks so either. We don't long to be back together, but there is still this feeling of ... regret? failure? a dream lost? grief? 

We never intended our marriage to end this way. We thought we'd be together forever. We believed in marriage, we believed in everlasting love. To not achieve that goal feels like a massive failure. Furthermore, we have a family that we never intended to split up. Breaking up our family is the biggest failure I can conceive of committing. I look back on everything we did wrong and wonder if we could've done something sooner to salvage the relationship. But the reality is, people change. Neither of us are the same people we were when we said I Do. We did a good job of trying to grow together and change together, but in the end it wasn't enough. Calling it quits when we did meant we could go on as co-parents and friends, but it still feels like we failed. Honestly, it mostly feels like *I* failed. For the truth of the matter is, it was me that messed everything up and brought the marriage to its end. 

Yet for all the regrets and mistakes, I still believe we've made the right choice. I try not to speak for Scott anymore, but I think it's safe to say we're both happier now, even though there's still a lot of sadness too. Divorce causes a slough of emotions, both sad and happy. It would be an incomplete picture to only paint one part of that. So yes, this year has been a hard one for me. But the year has also been a good one. A really good one in many ways, while also being extremely painful in others. Blue skies and gray skies. How do you explain those mixed emotions and mixed experiences coherently? I'm still not sure I understand it myself.

Writing about it has been rather off-limits, even though the limits are mostly self-imposed. It's still raw sometimes, and I haven't felt comfortable publicly sharing things so deeply personal. Yet I love blogging, and while I've written many things for my own eyes only, not blogging about about the things that are most real in my life has felt like cutting off an appendage. So this coming year, while I will still probably keep many things to myself, I've decided it's time to allow myself to blog about my life again. It'll be difficult to sort through what is shareable and what is not, but at some point I've got to be able to move on and write again.

In the meantime, I've got one last holiday season to get through as a first time single woman and mother. With it will come tears and regrets just like with the other holidays, but this particular time of year will be harder than all the rest. What's comforting though is I'm not going through it alone. Scott and I may not be a couple anymore, but we are still a family, and we've committed to continue doing this life thing as friends. With the support of our families and friends, we will do just fine, even when life is at its hardest. 

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

What Does Diversity Bring to the Table?

I hate getting into arguments. As a middle child and a people pleaser, I try to steer conversations away from controversial topics if I sense they will get heated. I don't like offending people, and my empathy easily extends to those I both agree and disagree with. I will happily engage in lighthearted debate with friends, and with some people I'll even engage in earnest debates, if I know them well enough to be confident there will be no hard feelings. But with strangers or people who might get easily upset, I avoid hot topics like the plague.

This isn't always a positive thing. Sometimes it means I let things slide that I shouldn't. I often hear mildly racist, sexist or homophobic comments, and to avoid conflict, I perhaps keep my mouth shut too often. Especially in polite company, where I don't want to come off as argumentative. But the other night, after hearing someone (a rich white male) rhetorically and contemptuously ask, "What's the point of diversity? What does it bring to the table?", I couldn't keep my mouth shut. I launched into all the reasons why diversity is necessary, especially in my work with the Red Cross, where it is imperative that all communities are represented and no one is forgotten or overlooked. Surprisingly, but not so surprisingly, the conversation took an ugly turn at that point, and some of the most egregious racist and white privilege rhetoric was spewed, and needless to say the conversation did not end well. No regrets though. Sometimes arguments just can't and shouldn't be avoided.

So why is diversity important? For what I do, diversity is of utmost importance if we want to be sure we are accomplishing our mission to serve all people regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, income or geography.* That point was driven home to me in an illuminating way this morning in a meeting with the Arkansas State Independent Living Council (ARSILC).

The meeting had actually been arranged to discuss diversity and inclusion days before the aforementioned interaction. My goal for this meeting was, in retrospect, very narrow though. I wanted to talk about how to include more people with functional and access needs in workplace employment and volunteerism. But before my volunteer counterpart and I could even start talking about hiring practices, the executive director for ARSILC dove into the importance of creating an emergency preparedness action plan for people with disabilities. She began talking about all kinds of disabilities, from mobility needs to hearing and seeing impairment to developmental delays and autism. As she continued detailing all the ways in which existing disaster preparedness education could be developed to include those with disabilities, I became increasingly aware how narrow my perspective on people with "functional and access needs" really was.

For all my talk about diversity and inclusion - making sure diverse populations are being represented "at the table" so we can better serve all people - the thought of how we are serving those with disabilities never really came to my mind. Sure I'd gone so far as to consider and evaluate our hiring practices, but I hadn't actually thought about the people we serve during times of disaster - the adult with Down Syndrome who lives independently with the assistance of caregivers during a tornado or the children in wheelchairs or with hearing impairment when a smoke alarm goes off in the middle of the night due to a house fire. How are we including those people in our plans and preparedness outreach? Have we brought The Pillowcase Project to the schools for the deaf and blind? What about Pathfinders? We do provide special smoke alarms for the hearing impaired, but have we made a targeted effort to make sure those who are deaf or hearing impaired know of this free service? Should we get hit with a huge disaster of Hurricane Harvey proportions (an earthquake along the New Madrid fault line, for instance), have we considered how people with disabilities fit into our emergency action plans? When food is air dropped into a disaster zone, have we thought about how the elderly or other people with mobility issues are going to get to access that food?

I am ashamed to admit that these thoughts had never crossed my mind. Surely they have crossed the minds of others within the organization, but from our every day practices locally, this has certainly not been a priority as far as I can tell.

And this is just one example of what diversity brings to the table. Having representatives from communities and populations that I and others like me have limited or no access to means we can make sure no one is being forgotten. A few months ago, I had a similar conversation with the owner of Hola! Arkansas on how we can better reach Hispanic and Spanish-speaking populations to make them more aware of our services and provide better disaster preparedness education to them. During my recent deployment in Florida, I worked with Spanish- and Creole-speaking populations where the need for bilingual volunteers became vividly apparent. Without exposure to and representation from people unlike ourselves, we can easily become entrenched in our own perspectives only. And in some industries more than others, that entrenchment can be detrimental and have very real life-altering consequences.

The most shocking thing that was said to me during that argument the other night was "And why do you care?" Being that I'd shaped the context of the argument around the mission of the Red Cross - providing humanitarian services, something surely everyone would agree upon - I was dumbfounded that this was even asked. I could barely conceive of an answer more basic than to reply, "Because they're people!" Diversity and inclusion aren't just trendy buzzwords. In my line of work especially, they don't just refer to hiring x number of black people, LGBT people and people of various religions (which by the way is a faulty understanding of affirmative action, which is not about "quotas", but that's another topic for another day). They refer to making sure all people have the same access to the life-saving preparedness education and disaster response services we provide. It's about caring for all human beings, no matter what they look like, where they come from or how they act. It's about basic humanitarianism, plain and simple.

Placing a focus on diversity and inclusion isn't about checking a politically correct box for us at the Red Cross; it's about literally saving lives. Even if there were nothing else diversity could "bring to the table", that alone would be enough. (Of course, that's not all that it brings - pulling together varied and colorful people from all walks of life and all backgrounds makes every company, organization and individual better and more successful, not to mention how profoundly it can enrich the lives of everyone involved.) I'm thankful that more and more people are starting to understand all the brilliant and illuminating things diversity brings to the table. And with those that don't see that yet, I guess I'll be engaging in more awkward conversations.

*The seven fundamental principles of the American Red Cross (and the International Committee of the Red Cross - ICRC) are perhaps what make me most proud of the organization I work for and how we pursue our mission to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies. As an atheist in the Bible belt, I'm very passionate about impartiality and neutrality in particular! Maybe those are a subject of another blog post. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

#ODP17: October Dress Project 2017

Since 2012, I've participated in the October Dress Project, with the exception of last year. (I was starting a new job and didn't think wearing the same day for my first 30 days would make the right impression.)

The October Dress Project (ODP) motto is "anti-consumerism, pro-simplicity, anti-conformity, pro-imagination." For 31 straight days, one wears the same dress (washing it often, yes), using imagination to keep it looking different each day. I've always enjoyed the challenge, but this year it was a lot harder. It was fun, but my heart just wasn't in it, and I don't know if I'll do it again after this. I skipped a few weekend days this month for various reasons, though I diligently wore it to work every day. Still, I want to recap my month of anti-materialism and think on any lessons I learned.

In all the other years, I felt I really learned something new during ODP. I think some of that came out of blogging every day or so; I would post a picture of the outfit then find something to write about to go along with it. I think the regular writing helped develop some lessons throughout the month. This year, however, other than posting daily in the ODP Facebook group, I didn't really want to post selfies every day for a month, so I didn't blog daily either.

Even still, I feel like this year, more than any other year, I really grasped the idea of anti-consumerism with this project. Most years, I've bought a dress specifically for ODP. This year, I realized how much that went against the whole idea of anti-consumerism in the first place, so I went closet shopping instead. I chose a gray dress from the back of my closet that I love but didn't wear often. It's a great dress to make The Dress - it's the right length, it fits nicely. (It's also very thick, I discovered, making it difficult to tuck into trousers and wear as a shirt.) Furthermore, I decided not to spend money on accessories for The Dress. I don't think I bought any all month, except a scarf that was in the $2 bin at Walmart. I just wore what I already had and made the most of it. Wasn't that supposed to be the point all along?

(I did take most of the weekends off. One weekend I was backpacking. Another I was cleaning a lot. I can't really account for every excuse I had over the four weekends of October, but I had them, and they generally weren't that good. But as for work days, I was pretty diligent.)

Besides some small lessons in anti-consumerism, did I learn anything else this time around? In past years, my new "theme" for the upcoming year generally emerged from ODP - simplicity, satisfaction, balance, etc. Did a theme emerge this year?

Maybe not directly due to ODP, I think a theme I've found myself revisiting lately is satisfaction. Being satisfied not so much with what I have which is how I approached it last time, but by what I am. And where I am. Too often I feel unsatisfied with who I am, how I am, what I am, where I am. I'm always striving to be something bigger, something better - to be somewhere bigger and better. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, but when that means I'm never actually satisfied in the moment with myself, then I'm never going to enjoy the journey I'm taking as I move towards achieving those goals.

Live in the moments, I guess. Be satisfied with the now. Love myself for who I am today as well as who I'm hoping to become tomorrow. Love where I'm at today, and stop living only for the future. Perhaps there's even a little lesson in patience waiting there for me.

Satisfaction and patience. I think those sound like themes I could strive to live by for the next 12 months!

And who knows, maybe by the time next October rolls around, I'll be up for doing this project a 6th time. We'll see.

For those of you interested, enjoy the photos below!

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Affecting Eternity: World Teachers' Day

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. - Henry Adams

Today is World Teachers' Day, and having had a lot of teachers myself, having teachers teach my kids, and being friends with a number of teachers, I want to give some shout outs to those teachers who have made the biggest impact on my life, my kids' lives and others.

The first teacher who truly made a significant impact on me was my third grade teacher, Mrs Hayden. I *loved* Mrs Hayden. When I entered third grade, I was already starting to enjoy reading, but Mrs Hayden cultivated in me an insatiable appetite for books that has persisted to this day. She would have special reading days planned, where we'd bring in sleeping bags, pillows and our favorite books, and spend half the day just reading on the floor, cozied up in our pallets. She also read to us - books that I've never forgotten like Maniac Magee, Snot Stew, and some book about a boy climbing a mountain and all the horrific things that happened to him and his fellow travelers. (I've got to ask her what the name of that book was.) She would sometimes let us bring in a book for her to read aloud to us, and she graciously tolerated my Babysitters Club books far more than she needed to. With her love of reading, can you see what an impact she made on me?!

Then there was Mrs Davis in 9th grade, affectionately referred to then and forever after as the Divine Mrs Lynn Davis by many of us AP English students. She had a passion for literature that was infectious, and my love of reading expanded to the classics, thanks to her. She made books like Tess of the d'Ubervilles and Jane Eyre come alive. She made grammar a priority and would not let anything slide. She pushed us to write better essays, and instilled in me the importance of a strong opening paragraph and an even stronger conclusion. To this day, I think of Mrs Davis every time I write. That opening line (while I don't always put the effort into it that I should - such as the extremely weak one in this post, "Today is World Teachers' Day") is always something I think about, and I remember her insistence that the opening paragraph capture the reader in a creative and magical way. The Divine Mrs Lynn Davis passed away several years ago, and I can speak for all of us who loved her so much that she will never be forgotten.

The Divine Mrs Lynn Davis

Mrs Balgavy, now known as simply "Jane" to her former students was our GT teacher in junior high and our forensics and debate coach in high school. Mrs Balgavy took public speaking, acting and the theater extremely seriously, teaching us never to break character, never break the fourth wall, and to always be sure we know our shit.  She taught us the proper attire to wear to a theater production. She also had a zero tolerance policy on alcohol, drugs and smoking, putting the fear of God in us if ever we should step out. She taught us to fake-it-til-you-make-it, a skill that I honed and practiced for five years under her guidance. All those skills I learned from her, including how to overcome stage fright, how to speak extemporaneously, and how to convince anyone of anything you are passionate about, are skills I use every single day of my adult life.

Forensics coaches Jane Balgavy and Ashley Wyatt

In college, I had a series of professors who also shaped my writing skills and love of literature and reading. Dr Candido made me fall in love with Shakespeare. The way he read passages aloud to us with such conviction and passion made Shakespeare waltz into the twenty-first century and capture our attention. (Not to mention, Dr Candido was ridiculously sexy to me, with his bowties and bald head, and the way he propped his foot up on a chair as he leaned in on his knee towards us to really emphasize a beautiful line or a significant point... ahhh. I loved him.)  My creative writing professors, Skip Hays, Davis McCombs and Michael Heffernan all taught me to be a better writer in so many ways. While I still think I graduated college with a very pretentious writing style, the lessons they each taught with me have never left, and I continue to learn from them even now. Avoiding cliches, imagining creative metaphors, and incorporating intelligent allusions are things I consider every time I write. Again, I don't always adhere to those standards in blogging, but they are on my mind every single time!

I know I've left out a number of other teachers who impacted me in significant ways. Mrs Hirsch who I had for math at least three times and who tried her damnedest to teach me pre-algebra, algebra and geometry with all her might, Ms Ursery who tried her damnedest to teach me chemistry, Dr MacRae who was a crazy lady with an obsession for all things Scottish and took me to my first Burns Supper, and Dr Cochran who taught the most interesting college class I ever took: Folk & Popular Music Traditions. These are just a few of the teachers I had in my life who have shaped me into who I am today.

Fifi, Mrs McArthur & Lolly
Mrs Campbell & Lolly
My kids now have teachers who are shaping them too. They will learn something from all of them but, like me, will remember some of them more acutely and more fondly than others. For me, I'll never forget Fifi and Lolly's Gaelic teachers at Highlanders Academy and Whinhill Primary, Mrs MacLeod, Mrs Campbell and Mrs McArthur. Mrs MacLeod had my five year old Fifi speaking fluent Gaelic by the end of P1; how amazing is that? She taught with a firm yet motherly approach, and every child in her class adored her. Leaving Scotland and the Gaelic unit was one of the hardest decisions we ever had to make. A part of me will always feel a small pang of regret that our kids didn't get to finish Gaelic medium education. Mrs MacLeod has now retired, and I cannot thank her enough for the amazing start she gave to my daughter's education.

Jaguar & his kindergarten teacher Ms Wilson

Through the years, my kids have already had some awesome teachers, and this year is no different. They are patient, firm, encouraging and challenging to our three children. How can I ever express my deepest gratitude for what they do every single day to educate my kids?

And finally, I can't forget my friends who have chosen education as their careers. It's not the most lucrative career they could've chosen. It can certainly be thankless, and I imagine there are days (weeks? months?) where the pressure and stress is overwhelming. But for whatever their own personal reasons, they keep doing it, they choose year after year to spend their days educating the next generation and future leaders of our society, hoping that something will stick and they will make some kind of impact on some student's life. It's one of the most selfless and most difficult jobs in the world, and probably one of the most underappreciated.

So today, on this 5th of October, World Teachers' Day, I offer my appreciation to my own past teachers, my children's past, present and future teachers, and my friends who have made teaching their chosen professions. You are all amazing and deserve every bit of gratitude, support and appreciation there is to offer. You also all deserve raises. And longer planning periods. And smaller classes. And more resources and materials that don't come out of your own pockets. You deserve pencils, for heaven's sake. And wine. Lots and lots of wine.

(I can't help with most of those things, but can probably help with the pencils and wine. Just let me know what you need, guys.)

So to educators everywhere - Happy World Teachers' Day. You are the best of the best.

Most of us end up with no more than five or six people 
who remember us. Teachers have thousands of people 
who remember them for the rest of their lives. - Andy Rooney

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

What Red Cross Stats Don't Show

"Help is here!"
[Full disclosure: I am employed by the American Red Cross.] 

I’m not a numbers person. Once you get past totals I can visualize – 20 or 50 – I stop comprehending the scope of what large numbers are meant to represent. So when I report that to date the American Red Cross has served over 3.8 million meals and snacks to victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria*, all I know is that’s a lot. But I can’t really process what that looks like. I don’t think any of us can.

Last week I spent 9 days in Ft Myers, supporting the Red Cross relief efforts in Southwest Florida after Hurricane Irma made landfall on September 10th. I spent a lot of time tracking down daily stats like “over 1 million overnight stays in shelters” and “provided more than 118,000 mental health and health services”. I knew our 4 large-scale outdoor kitchens that we run in partnership with the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief were turning out “tens of thousands of meals a day”. I could see the enormous ovens cooking giant vats of mashed potatoes and green beans, and I could certainly smell the tantalizing scent of roast beef from the McGregor Baptist Church parking lot, where Kitchen 2 was set up. Kitchen 2 had the capacity to produce 20,000 meals per day. That sounds like a lot! But even seeing the hundreds of red cambros, the insulated boxes that keep the food hot for hours at a time, lined up on pallets in front of multiple emergency response vehicles (ERVs), I still couldn’t visualize what kind of number we were really talking about.

While in Ft Myers, I ran into another volunteer from my home region, Oklahoma-Arkansas. Rick Umstead had deployed to Ft Myers as an ERV driver. His job was to serve lunch and dinner to neighborhoods that were significantly affected by Hurricane Irma. He and his partner Dave from Colorado would arrive at Kitchen 2 around 8am and give ERV 2121 a good clean – mopping, disinfecting, tidying and restocking supplies like plastic cutlery and “clamshells”, the Styrofoam boxes used for handing out meals. Around 10am, the ERV drivers would begin loading their trucks with cambros for lunch, enough food for about 500 meals per ERV. They would then drive off on their respective routes, whether to neighborhoods identified as needing assistance or to one of the many Red Cross shelters being managed in Southwest Florida. Rick and Dave would deliver their 500 meals and would not return to the kitchen until their cambros were empty.

By the time Rick and Dave returned from the lunch run, usually around 3-3:30pm, it was time to unload the empty cambros and reload the truck for dinner. By 4 or so they’d be back on their way again, serving another 500 meals, often not returning until 10 at night. Upon return, they unloaded the empty cambros again, cleared out the ERV, and headed off to bed, knowing the next day they’d be back at the kitchen at 8am, ready to do the same thing all over again. Kitchen 2 had at least 6 or more ERVs in operation every day, with at least two volunteers per vehicle. Rick and Dave, like many other ERV drivers, had committed to spending two weeks in Ft Myers doing this work. Some volunteers committed more.

To me, 500 meals twice a day per ERV sounded like a lot, but how many meals is that really? I got to find out on Thursday, when I asked them if I could join them for their dinner routes. “If you ride with us, we’re putting you to work!” they said. And that’s exactly what I intended to do!

I rode in the back of the ERV in the seat by the serving window. (It has a seatbelt, in case you’re wondering.) We drove about half an hour away into a neighborhood in Lehigh, where we began our slow progression through the neighborhoods, beeping the horn and calling out over the loudspeaker, “Red Cross, food and water! ¡Comida y agua!” I put on a pair of clean plastic food handling gloves to serve the clamshells and bottles of water out the window, while Rick filled each compartment with food and handed the clamshell to me to finish and close. After a short while, we got a system going – he’d spoon out the main meal items, pass the clamshell to me, and I’d add the condiment packets, cutlery packets and dessert, then pass out through the window to families who came out of their homes – most still without power and many damaged by fallen trees and hurricane-force wind – to get a free, hot meal and a cold(ish) bottle of water.

I was struck by the various reactions of the people we served. Some were hesitant to accept a free meal, as if not sure it was really free. A few people shared their stories with me, and a few even cried as they thanked us. Many were modest and only requested meals for their children, not themselves. Some thought they had to pay us. Many families only spoke Spanish in this neighborhood (while in other neighborhoods, there would have been many Creole speakers too), so I learned to say things like “¿Cuรกntos?” (“How many”?), “Es gratis” (“It’s free”) and “Tenemos mucha comida” (“We have lots of food”) to explain that there was plenty for the adults in the household too. I quickly learned to trust my instincts and insist sometimes on handing out the extra meals and waters to those who would rather go without than appear greedy. Some felt they needed to explain why they were needing more meals than it appeared they should. I told them we’d give them whatever they needed. All were grateful.

After handing out what felt like at least a hundred meals, I looked at the clock. We’d only been at it for an hour. There were still five cambros of food left, and we were nowhere near done. We had only hit less than half the neighborhood, and it wasn’t the only neighborhood on our route. I continued to add the condiments, cutlery and desserts to clamshells and hand them out the window for another hour or so. Then we swapped jobs, and I began ladling out the food. Trying to get the proportions right ended up more an art than a science. I wanted to make sure we had enough to complete all 500 meals but not be so conservative that the meals were skimpy and we’d end up with anything left over. I filled clamshell after clamshell, each time trying to get it just right. It was tiring work!

Though it was getting dark, we didn’t want to leave any neighborhood until we were sure everyone had been served. We ended up finishing our routes a little earlier than Dave and Rick had the previous nights; having an extra pair of hands seemed to help move the process along a little faster. We finally returned to Kitchen 2 a little before 9pm to unload the empty cambros, clean the serving utensils, through away the trash and get ERV 2121 ready to do the same thing again the next morning.

500 meals suddenly had real meaning to me. It’s a lot. And that was only dinner; Dave and Rick had already served another 500 lunches only hours before I joined them and had been at this already for seven days straight. Their next day was to be their first day off since arriving in Ft Myers.

Like so much in disaster relief, nothing is as simple as it appears from the outside. “Tens of thousands of meals a day” is a lot, but what gets lost in those grandiose numbers is the individuality of where each of those meals went. Did seven meals go to a family of migrant workers in Bonita Springs who had been without air conditioning or refrigeration for almost two weeks? Did four meals go to a single mother and her three small children sleeping in a shelter in Immokalee after their home flooded? Did one meal go to the lady who was scheduled for a lung bypass surgery just days after the hurricane hit and now had no power in her home? Did three meals go to three children while the parents watched hungrily on, afraid to ask for the extra two meals to avoid taking too much?

And what about the volunteers? When we say there are more than 2,380 volunteers responding right now to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, we lose the individuality of each volunteer and what they gave up to be there. Some are retired and have left their spouses, grandchildren and perhaps ailing parents for two weeks. Some requested PTO from their employers to spend their vacation time volunteering. Some, like me, left small children at home with the other parent or with another caregiver to spend time serving in the disaster zone. One man I met runs his own business and turns down contracts during hurricane season so he can spend most of the late summer and fall months responding to disasters. Each volunteer that deploys to work on a disaster relief operation works late hours for days on end fulfilling their small part of the bigger Red Cross mission to alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies. Sometimes those jobs are tedious; sometimes they are frustrating; sometimes they don’t go as smoothly as we’d like them to. Sometimes, those jobs are emotionally overwhelming, seeing from the ground level just how enormous the needs are. For me, seeing the flooded and storm damaged homes in person, talking to the mother whose young family has suddenly become homeless, holding the hand of the elderly lady as tears fall down her cheeks, or handing the bottle of cold water to the child whose eyes glitter with gratitude made very real and personal the disaster I’d only experienced through segments and soundbites on the evening news.

Big numbers serve a purpose. They illustrate to donors where their money is being spent. They quantify the work being done on a large scale. But they miss individuality of each person served, each person who received one of those 3.8 million meals or who slept in a cot during one of those 1 million overnight shelter stays. Disaster relief is complex, much more so than I’d ever realized before, and sometimes the response feels like more of an art than a science. Focusing on statistics with big numbers makes it easy to ignore the complexity or forget each individual who receives one of our services. But what I realized during my short time in Ft Myers is that what matters most to the people we serve is that someone showed up during their darkest hour and provided that meal or that shelter to sleep in or a hand to hold, and that is something that the Red Cross can’t measure in numbers.

*All stats referenced are actual Red Cross service delivery stats as of 9/24/17.

This story is cross posted on the Arkansas Red Alert and Oklahoma Red Alert blogs.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Choose Your Own Title

There were numerous things I could've titled this blog post.

The $25k Nose Ring
The Post That Poses the Risk of My Parents Not Talking to Me For the Next Six Months
Nothing Good Happens After Midnight
My Cosmic Boyfriend

I feel like I should take a vote on which title works best.

Twenty-two year old Lori wearing a really expensive nose ring

Tonight, I'd like to start with a little story. Follow me on this journey back to 1997, when I was 15 years old.

I wanted a nose ring so bad, but I was 15 so my parents justifiably said Not A Chance, You Have Enough Holes In Your Head, that sort of thing. So I bought myself a little magnetic nose ring that looked like a stud on the outside and had a magnetic backing that went inside the nostril. I looked hip AF, y'all.

Until that fateful afternoon, while taking a test in Mrs Norman's AP English class, when I sniffed too hard and sucked the magnetic backing all the way up my nostril. I began to snort and sputter in the middle of a silent testing classroom atmosphere and became the sudden object of everyone's delighted interest. It was certainly more interesting to watch me hyperventilate than to answer essay question's about Young Goodman Brown, but I did not look very hip that day.

I still wanted a nose ring though. I went away to college and met the coolest girl ever one Sunday at church. Her name was (and still is, presumably) Kanyon. She was a year or two older than me and had the most adorable silver hoop in her nose. I knew then that it wasn't a stud I wanted in my nose but a hoop like Kanyon's. (I'm willing to bet Kanyon is probably still one of the coolest girls alive, wherever she is.)

But I was 18 or 19, and my parents said No Way, You'll Look Like a Bull, And Besides, If You Pierce Your Nose We'll Stop Paying For Your College, that sort of thing.

But I still wanted that nose ring. One afternoon, my college BFF Amanda and my roommate Jonathan decided they were going to get pierced. Amanda wanted an eyebrow ring and Jonathan wanted a double helix. I accompanied them to get their piercings and was green with envy. I wanted my nose done so badly!

A few days later, just around my 20th birthday, I got to chatting about wanting a nose ring with my friend Amber after our poetry class. (I'll always remember her beautiful poem about artichoke hearts. No seriously, it was beautiful.) She was like, "Let's go do it for your birthday!" and I was like, "Okay let's go do it!" So Amber and I went to get my nose pierced.


Guess who didn't love it though? My parents. They said You Look Like a You Got A Fish Hook Stuck In Your Nose and By the Way We Are Going To Stop Paying For Your College Because We Warned You And Now We Have To Be Consistent Because That's What Good Parents Do.

And y'all, they did.

(Are you starting to catch on to some of my potential titles now? The $25k Nose Ring.)

That was my sophomore year of college. The following two years were suddenly entirely up to me to finance. So I did. I increased my student loans to the max. I got two jobs, one working at JR's Lightbulb Club and Dickson Theater as the door girl and one working for the University of Arkansas Development Office.  (It was while working in development that I had my first experience with the professional implications of having a body piercing. I was originally asked to take it out since I'd be interfacing with major gift donors, but after sharing my story with the Vice Chancellor of Development, she agreed that it was indeed a pricey piece of jewelry and settled with me changing it out for a stud.)

Let's journey through the remainder of my 20s and into my mid 30s, back to the present. I've been paying off these student loans for fifteen years, which by the way, is nothing compared to what students only five or so years after me began looking at. The kids who came up behind me have gotten royally screwed on college tuition. Anyway, here I am, 35 years old, still wearing my nose ring and still paying off my student debt.  But there's a happy ending to this story. I looked up my loan repayment plan a few weeks ago and discovered that I only have THREE months left before my student loan is entirely paid off!

By the end of 2017, I will have officially paid off this nose ring. And you know what? I'm still going to wear it. Because I LOVE it. Even if I do Look Like a Bull or a Hooked Fish or a Jezebel or Oh I Don't Know, Rebekah By the Well?

Thirty-five year old Lori still wearing a really expensive nose ring

Okay now. I'm going to get a little more serious now. In telling that nose ring story I had another purpose. One less jovial.

I'll tell another story briefly. Journey with me back to the end of August 2017. (Yeah, like two weeks ago.) On August 29th, I got in a car accident, a hit and run, and my brand new car, only purchased two weeks prior, got smashed on the driver's side, and though I was mostly uninjured, it has caused me a lot of pain and angst over the past week. Meanwhile, Hurricane Harvey was in the process of devastating Houston, Beaumont and many other parts of Texas. I was in the process of raising money for the Red Cross's response to the hurricane, which was the worst hurricane to hit landfall in over a decade, and the largest natural disaster the Red Cross has ever responded to. The car accident was really bad timing, meaning for the week that followed, I was unable to do my job effectively during an extremely crucial time. Yesterday was the first day I felt fairly normal again, despite the pain.

Today, barely a month later, Hurricane Irma swirls and heads for the continental US (and has already decimated small Caribbean islands in its path), and many of us at the Red Cross are gearing up for more disaster deployments, including myself. I've been doing everything possible to get my pain under control and get my work taken care of so I can be ready to go if or when they give me my 24 hour notice. Being a single mom now, that's no easy uncertainty to plan for. (Giving a shout out to Scott and my mom right now for both being extremely flexible with me right now regarding the children!) Amidst all of this though, and after an extremely draining day of work, I witnessed a car accident on my way home this evening right in front of me on the same freeway my accident occurred on just last week. I was one car behind the accident, and the thought of almost being in a second accident within ten days of each other has left me terrified to get behind the wheel again. What is this, Final Destination? Is death following me now?

That's the joke I made to my mom on the phone tonight. But her response wasn't so flippant. "No, this is God trying to get your attention. He's saying, 'I've been wrapping on your door for a long time, and you haven't been listening!'"

Of course I know where she's coming from, and I know she made this comment with the purest of intentions. I know she's only concerned for my eternal security. (And let me say again, she's being so helpful with childcare! This is The Post That Poses the Risk of My Parents Not Talking to Me For Six Months. I'm treading on thin ice here by posting this. I'm cruisin' for a bruisin', I'm itchin' for a switchin'.) But if she's right, does God really have such terrible timing? I mean, car accidents and deployments and devastating natural disasters, oh my! Is all of this necessary to just get my attention?

I mean, I guess he could he have just revealed himself to me six years ago when I begged and pleaded and cried out to him for faith. But maybe that wasn't part of his divine plan.

It's past 1pm now. Hence Nothing Good Happens After Midnight. I have this theory that nothing good happens after midnight, and that goes for blogging. I tend to lose my filter after midnight, tend to make less than prudent decisions, sometimes say or do things I wouldn't do before midnight. So I need to be careful what I say here. I used to feel more free to talk about my lack of faith in any religion or gods, but that was before I realized just how badly being an atheist can damage my credibility or even my career. (However, I continue to be open about my beliefs, or lack thereof, because I just don't see why anyone should have to hide who they are, particularly because of what religion they are or aren't. If other people are allowed to speak freely about their faith, surely the faithless should have the same opportunity to speak freely? But now I've just chased a squirrel. Coming back now.)

Back to the divine plan. I just don't understand this logic at all, of why God would need to send bad things my way in order to get my attention. I don't think I really understood it as a Christian either. Why would God need to use grandiose overtures to entice me back into the fold? Can't he just do it the normal way? I spent three years begging him to restore my faith. Was there any reason he couldn't have done it back then? Maybe there is some kind of super special glory he'll get from refusing to answer my cries for three years, leave me to become an atheist for three years, then suddenly hit me with a car accident (and the threat of another) in order to bring me back to him. In the midst of hurricanes, no less.

I just don't get it. This accident kept me from being able to really do my job well during the most critical week of my professional career thus far, and more importantly, during a time when thousands of people are hurting and really need as much relief and support as possible and would benefit from me and all the rest of the Red Cross family being at our best for them. Just seems kind of --- mean.

So I'll assume for a moment the existence of God - the Christian God - is a given. And that he is trying to get my attention so he can save my soul. Because he loves me, right?

But wait, did he not love me six years ago? When I was in a place of being open and receptive to his existence and influence? Why wait until now? For whatever reason though, he loves me now and only wants to save my soul from eternal damnation.

Which he designed.

As punishment for not having faith in him.

Faith which he alone gives or withholds.

He wants to put me in dangerous and precarious situations in order to scare me into faith so he can save me from the punishment he designed for me should I not get scared enough to find faith in him that only he can give anyway. I just don't get it.

Let me take you on one last journey. This is into a hypothetical, nonexistent time in my past. Maybe it's an alternate reality. Anyway, in this parallel, not-real universe, I was dating this guy who really, really loved me. But he had this propensity for constantly testing my love for him in return. He would tell me bad things about myself but remind me that he loved me so much, he could fix those bad things and make me better. I knew he was right; I was pretty shitty, but wow, the way he could fix all those shitty things about me was inspiring! He would also sometimes put me in danger - but never real danger, because he was looking after me the whole time - to see if I could really trust him enough to take care of me. And every time he did that, I really did come out safe in the end, and he really did use that to prove how much he loved me and would always save me from harm.  I was so in love with this guy, and he was so in love with me back.

There were some hard times. He often gave me the silent treatment. I was never entirely sure if it was because of something I'd done wrong or if he was just trying to test my love again. Most of the time he'd eventually break the silence, but not until after I'd begged and cried and pleaded with him with all my might. Then he would soften, lift me up off my knees, and hold me. It made everything okay again when he did that. I knew he loved me. This guy, y'all, was the most loving, perfect boyfriend I've ever had. His name was Jesus, and he was My Cosmic Boyfriend.

Oh, did I say this was a nonexistent, hypothetical scenario? I apologize. It wasn't.

My Cosmic Boyfriend ultimately wanted to save me from eternal ruin. He always knew what was best for me, despite my own petty desires. Kind of like when I was 15, and my parents understandably felt that getting a nose ring was not appropriate for me at that time. My Cosmic Boyfriend threatened me with hell if I didn't obey him. My parents threatened me with no more college tuition. My Cosmic Boyfriend needed to be consistent with his word, just like my good old mom and dad. He had threatened me with hell, so he kind of had to go through with it at that point, since he'd already said it and all. Consistency is key.

The story of my nose ring and my parents is kind of funny to me, in a OMG I Still Can't Believe They Actually Went Through With It kind of way. It's funny to me in a This Is A Great Story To Tell At Parties kind of way. And though it had some long-standing, less than humorous ramifications - fifteen years of student loan repayment during the brokest years of this millennial's life - it's really in the grand scheme of things not the worst a child should have to endure. A punishment, yes, but nothing serious.

Not like the eternal punishment of hell for not being able to force myself to believe in something I simply could no longer believe in, no matter how hard I tried. We aren't talking fifteen years of faith repayment, but an eternity. In hell of all places.

For all the joking about my parents and the nose ring, I know how much my parents love me. They have always protected me and wanted what's best for me. They went over and above to make things happen for me all through my childhood that they certainly were not required to do, just because they loved me. They provided for me, they kept me out of danger, they played the tricky tightrope of letting me learn from my own mistakes while always being ready to catch my fall. They never tested my love for them, because that would never have even occurred to them. They loved me unconditionally. They have always loved me without reserve, even now, as the atheist daughter, the One That Turned Away, the one that breaks their hearts daily as they fear for my soul. I don't fault my mom at all for how she perceives the events of the past few weeks; she loves me and wants me to see the God she sees and at the end of the day, she only wants to see me there.

My earthly parents get what love is. My Cosmic Boyfriend, not so much. If My Cosmic Boyfriend was a regular human boyfriend, everyone I know would be begging me to leave him and escape our abusive relationship. But since he's Cosmic, his ways are higher than my ways, and trying to get my attention with car accidents and hurricanes is no different than pulling my ponytail and tying my shoe laces together. Harmless boys-will-be-boys pranks. It's all just meant to show me he likes me after all. And it's all just meant to save me from the eternal ruin he has planned for me if I don't return his phone calls or agree to wear his ring. True love, right? The stuff of Disney princesses.

I just don't think that's the kind of love I deserve. I think I deserve better. If my parents know it would be cruel to orchestrate a car accident or a hurricane in order to get me to answer the door, surely an omnipotent, loving God would see the cruelty in that too. It might have been a cute story if he just made me take out a few loans to pay for the sin of disobedience, but the story becomes not quite so cute when you realize the wages of sin is death and his punishment of choice is eternal damnation.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Self-Esteem: The S Word

I remember hearing once when I was a child - in a sermon or a Sunday school lesson or maybe a home group Bible study - that self-esteem should never be a focus in raising children. Making a point to raise a child's self-esteem was teaching them to look inside themselves for worth instead of finding it the Lord. Teach children to find their worth in Jesus, and they will instead develop a sense of value far greater than any "self-esteem" or "self help" book ever could.

I don't think this a mainstream Christian teaching, but that message stuck with me for a very long time. It's incredible how one little message, as off base as it may be, can shape the way you view yourself. The term "self-esteem" was a bit of a dirty word to me growing up, and I avoided it. In fact, any "self" word, unless it was self-denial or self-control, carried bad connotations for me. In all my formative years, I shunned the concept of self-esteem as New Age hocus pocus. As I grew older, I rarely talked about my self-esteem but couched the concept in euphemisms like "worth" or "significance" found in Christ. Mentioning any problems with my self-esteem felt too focused on me and not focused enough on the Savior in whom my worth was found. If I had a "self-esteem" problem, it was more likely that what I really had was a pride and sin problem.

I think even the healthiest of us struggle with self-esteem. We have all received messages through our lives that have told us we are not good enough at this or not important enough for that. Too fat, too skinny, too stupid, too nerdy, too bossy, too sensitive. How can anyone deflect all the messages that are thrown at us all the time by everyone and everything around us? But even more so, when the very foundation of your belief system is based on the message that you are inherently wicked, how can you possibly develop any kind of self-love? 

For years, I believed my worth was entirely found in Christ. Without Christ, I was worthless and depraved, my good deeds were like filthy rags. These were the more sophisticated messages I absorbed as I grew into an adult. As a child, I just knew I was a sinner that needed to be saved. As I grew in my faith and in my study of Scripture, I internalized these foundational messages about my origins to immunize myself against pride and any truly self-centered esteem I may have for myself. The term "self-esteem" no longer seemed a dirty word, just a very worldly way of trying to fill the hole of depravity in ourselves that only Christ could fill.

My "self" esteem was actually "salvation" esteem. So when I lost my faith, I also lost my source of value. 

When your self-esteem is built upon a strong foundation of self-denial, self-deprecation, or even self-loathing, and is designed by materials that come from a source outside yourself, you are at risk of collapse. If your self-worth is built from someone else's view of you - a significant other, a parent, a deity - and that external source of worth falters or disappears from your life, you will be lost. When I my source of esteem disintegrated, I had no idea who I was or where my value came from. Without Christ, I believed I was nothing! I went through a period of time feeling very lost and purposeless. I had faced the fact that I didn't believe in God anymore, but even though I could see my past worth had been based on something unreal, I was still left with an emptiness I could not fill. It still seemed so self-centered and arrogant to assume I could find worth from within myself, but if it wasn't in God either, could I possibly be worth anything at all?

I no longer found worth in Christ but still saw myself as intensely wicked. I wanted to explore aspects of myself that had always been deemed sinful and displeasing to God, but I couldn't do so without hating myself for having those feelings or questions. Without the Bible telling me these things were wrong, I was able to evaluate so many things through a different, more objective lens, but not without guilt and shame. 

I've talked about it before, because it was such a liberating moment, but things began to change with the simple lyrics to a song* I had been listening to:

But luckily I held out long enough to see
everybody really makes their own destiny.
It's a beautiful thing.
It's just you and me, exactly where we belong,
and there's nothing inherently wrong with us.

Suddenly it all fell into place. Not only could I put away the judgment and guilt I'd heaped upon myself for all those years, but I could put away the very notion that I was born depraved and sinful. I had the capacity to make decisions for myself, good or bad. I had the sense to figure out what made something good or bad. I began to redefine all "good and evil" in very basic terms - is it harmful to others or myself? Are there negative consequences that will outweight the benefits? Realizing that I was capable in and of myself to make good choices and be a good human being were the first seeds of true self-esteem building for me.

I look at my children now. I see myself in them, different parts of me in different ones. I see the lack of self-esteem in one child in particular. How could I look at this little human being that I've brought into a harsh world full of harsh messages that will tear her down and try to destroy her and not put intense focus on building her self-esteem? I see the seeds of self-loathing already sprouting, and there's nothing I want more than to choke those seeds out and plant new seeds of self-love in their place. I want to teach my kids to take care of themselves, something I struggle to do myself. I can't imagine anything more important to focus on than a healthy self-esteem that comes from believing they are inherently good and are the masters of the decisions they make. They may make bad choices and do bad things, but that does not make them bad people. 

Not all people of faith believe themselves to be so inherently wicked, but that is the message of the Bible - that the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. That's the bad news that has to be accepted before the good news of Jesus on the cross can be needed. Some people are far better at not internalizing that message as deeply as I did, but I can't take that chance with my own kids. I can see which ones would internalize that message and define themselves by it, the way I did. So I must - it's my responsibility as a parent - fight against not only the messages the world will send my children that they are too much of this or not enough of that, but also the message they are not inherently good. I must put positive self-esteem at the top of things to develop in them, so that they can easily tap into the good they recognize in themselves when choosing between right and wrong. And when they inevitably must forgive themselves for taking the wrong path, their genuine sense of self-worth must be intact. 

*The Black Sheep & the Shepherd by Quiet Company