I’m Wearing Braces for Lent

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Photo Credit

The timing couldn’t have been better. I was having trouble thinking of what to give up for Lent this year. I’m not huge into fasting as a beneficial thing, as I’ve practiced enough self-flagellation in my lifetime that it doesn’t help me all that much. Once when I was younger, I tried fasting from food for twenty-four hours. In reality, I only skipped an additional snack or two, since it was normal for me to avoid cooking and eating in order to get on with my writing and reading. Cooking and eating three square meals a day would’ve put my feet to the spiritual fire. Intentionally nourishing my body and soul — that’s often the truer sacrifice for me.

I’m not a fan of giving up what’s good or needed (like food) for some ethereal higher purpose. Theologically, I think asceticism is anti-Christian. It introduces a dichotomy between body and spirit that’s confusing at best. We do not become more like Christ by abandoning our body and its needs. Christ became man so that our path to God could be distinctly human — not body-less.

But I do appreciate the practice of Lent when approached as giving up what’s easy for what’s good and necessary. Last year I gave up social media. The initial day or two was a bit hard, but once I was freed from the fear of missing out — it was, after all, only for forty days — I was free, indeed. I tapped into something my body and soul desperately needed: the headspace and time to do other nourishing things, headspace and time that Facebook had monopolized.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling led to give up social media this year. So what would I give up?

Enter adult braces.

Yes, folks, I am a twenty-four-year-old in need of braces. Two days before Ash Wednesday, the orthodontist glued the brackets onto my teeth, strung them up with wire, and sent me off with a goody bag full of strange cleaning tools.

Braces are insanely primitive — a whole bunch of METAL and WIRE, GLUED (yes, GLUED) to your teeth, in order to wrench bone through gums. And your body responds to them as the primitive contraptions that they are: it salivates over them as it does any foreign object. Your poor teeth ache from the pressure. Your even poorer lips and cheeks get shredded and sore until they literally callous over from the braces rubbing up against them.

P.S. The only real way to circumvent your mouth’s inner suffering is sticking wads of wax all over the brackets. Attractive.

And actually functioning with braces? Well, it’s about as gainly as walking with your shoelaces tied together. There I was on Ash Wednesday, the alto section leader, trying desperately to swallow excess saliva at every breath mark, my lips getting stuck on the brackets, my soft consonants going tacky.

It’s a great way to remember one’s mortality, in a reverse fashion — your once normal adult mouth getting reduced to a goulish metallic grin that cancels out all the maturity you worked so hard to project in your already youthful body. And by youthful, I don’t mean the sexy kind. I mean the kind where someone asks what high school you attend, even though you’re married, with a child, six years out from your last high school experience.

I haven’t even kissed my husband yet. Mostly because it hurts, but also because I feel thirteen again.

That’s really the worst part of adult braces. You’re supposed to have your teeth together by now — you’re married with a child six years out of high school, for Pete’s sake. You’re supposed to have your teeth together, and you don’t, and everyone knows it.

It’s my worst nightmare: everyone, from total strangers to my in laws to my coworkers to my beloved husband, everyone, everyone, everyone knows something weird and unattractive about myself, and I can’t do a thing about them knowing.

It’s one of those things that are private enough (or gross enough?) that nobody feels comfortable acknowledging, so it becomes the elephant in the room. You know they know about your mouth full of metal and wire, but they’re too polite to say anything, and it’s silly for you to pretend your entire mouth isn’t radically altered, but you’re too polite to weird them out with your dental sob story.

I’ve never felt much insecurity about my body, but now I feel all of it. I try not to smile too big or talk too much — mostly because, again, it hurts, but also because I’m desperately trying to cling on to control over how I appear to people. I want to be that put-together adult woman with all her teeth in a straight row, and now I look like a thirteen-year-old with obvious dental problems.

That’s what I’m giving up for Lent: my carefully curated self-image of perfection — an image that’s as unobtrusive, benign, normal, and put-together as possible. An image all can love. An image that doesn’t shock or confuse or weird anyone out. An image that invites affection and admiration. An image that doesn’t let out all the crazy and gross and problematic unless it’s on my terms.

And with that carefully curated self-image, I fostered a belief that I could only be loved and appreciated if I was lovable and appreciable in every minute way; if I was normal and benign and mature and put-together, not quirky and flawed and needing a couple more years to mature. And along with that was a belief that by being normal and benign and mature and put-together and not quirky and flawed and needing a couple more years to mature, I could ensure that people would love me.

Well, my adult braces have blown that smokescreen right up.

Being forced to give up control over a very noticeable part of my body — I am forced to realize a few facts of life that were true before I had braces, are true now that I have them, and will continue to be true when I get them off: I am flawed, and I am loved, and I can’t control either of those things.

The response to my monstrosity of metal and wire has been nothing but gracious. My preschool students didn’t notice at first, and when one did, they all demanded to see them, open-mouthed, studious — and then they moved on without a word of praise or censure. My husband asked to see them, and I said no, and he said okay, and didn’t indulge me my wild fantasies of him either having a thing for metal-mouthed women or filing for divorce at the sight of me. Nobody has done the no-you-look-good! protest that we all know is fake. They’ve just noticed and been kind. No admiration, no pity, no revulsion.

Because really, adult braces — and adults with obvious flaws — are incredibly normal.

For Lent, I’m letting myself receive grace, love, and normalcy despite those obvious flaws, dental and otherwise.

And I’m obsessively brushing my teeth.

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Am I Depressed Enough to Need Help?

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I remember constantly wishing that I was depressed enough to warrant help. My struggles were just okay enough to make me wonder whether it was all in my head — or worse, all in my depraved heart. They were just okay enough that people (myself included) dismissed them as a bad day, or a bad mood, or a bad cry for attention. They were just okay enough that I could manage on my own, and since I could do it, I thought I should, no matter how much it cost me in mental space, energy, or happiness.

I’ve been torn for years about this: Am I struggling because my problems are too heavy to bear, or am I struggling because I am too weak to bear them? Is it an external problem or an internal problem? Is it a mental issue or a character issue?

My so-called depression morphed along with me. I really can get myself out of slumps now, unlike at other times in my life. I don’t experience bouts of depression that knock me out of commission for months at a time. I’d learned coping skills. I’d learned grace. I’d learned to wait out the insomnia and the negativity. I’d learned that I always felt better after a good night’s sleep, that I could accomplish more if I didn’t kick myself when I was down.

Instead of calling it depression (the shame of which started when a kind, cool girl told me, “I don’t like that word”), I started calling it “bad days.” I’d wake up, and I’d have a bad day. I’d sleep poorly, and have a bad day. I’d bump into anxiety, and I knew I was in for a bad day…followed by a bad night, followed by more bad days, and more poor sleep, and on and on until the anxiety worked itself out in a week or two. If I could just make it to a good night’s sleep, I knew things would be okay again. That wasn’t depression, I didn’t think. I don’t like that word. Too melodramatic.

You should see your doctor, my marriage counselor suggested (multiple times). Sometimes a low dose of medication was all you needed.

You should see if medication might help you out, my friend told me.

I’d support you in getting medication, my medication-suspicious husband repeated.

Yeah, of course; they were right; I agreed; and man, did I feel relieved at the thought of medication doing some heavy lifting for me. But that’s what held me back, I suppose: It seemed like the logical fix…but also the easy fix. The too easy fix.

I don’t know what it is about me, but even though I’m scared of pain and hardship — no, really, everyone who knows me knows I’m a wimp about it — I stupidly soldier through. No epidural for me! No ibuprofen for that headache! No medication for my mental health problems! Even though I know, deep down, that I’m going to end up getting the epidural and popping the pills, I fight it.

That’s the only way I know how to feel strong when I feel so weak: putting up a fight against the inevitable.

It’s insurance for when the critical voices in my head or in my life make a dig about me having “depression”: the suffering proves that I’m not a wimp. The suffering proves that I tried the DIY way first. The suffering proves just how deserving I am of relief because now it’s become demonstrably, unequivocally Not Okay.

It’s difficult for me to believe, but I believe it now: It’s impossible to convince someone to view your suffering with compassion and grace. It’s impossible to prove the legitimacy of your mental health issues — even to yourself.

Having depression is wanting someone to see that you are worth enough on your own to warrant help, but you are not enough on your own. That’s what I wanted, at least: not for someone to see me as strong, but to see me as weak; not for someone to see me as mentally stable, but to see me as all wrapped up in my head; not for someone to see me as capable on my own, but as someone desperately needing help; not for someone to point out all these things and mock about how I should deal with it all on my own since I’m just all wrapped up in my head and too wimpy to admit that, but to notice all these things as evidence that they should do something about it too.

That’s why I didn’t go to the doctor. I didn’t want to hear that mixed message: “This isn’t a big deal, you wimp. You’re strong enough on your own. Get a grip.”

About eight years after my first bout with depression, I went to a doctor. I hedged my problems for fear of exaggerating them like the drama queen I worried I was: things were good, I could go a week or two without any anxiety or insomnia or bad feelings, but it was torturous, difficult, hard during the bad days.

I braced myself for the diagnosis: “Sorry, kiddo, that’s just life you’re experiencing.”

Instead she diagnosed me with moderate depression and put me on a low dose of an antidepressant. The depression, she figured, was created from a genetic predisposition toward low serotonin. All my anxiety ate up the serotonin I needed for sleep, and when I didn’t sleep, the trap door of depression gaped open, and I fell. The antidepressant would close that trap door, so even if I stumbled into a tunnel of negative feelings, I wouldn’t plummet through the floor.

That’s how I viewed depression, especially after I got on medication: as a trap door at the bottom of a tunnel of negative feelings. There’s rock bottom — the sadness and worry and anger and hopelessness that everybody experiences — and then there’s the trap door, the blackness, the free fall of despair. There’s nothing to grasp onto, nothing to orient me, nothing that moves me, and nothing that I can move. I just want the fall to end. I don’t care how it ends — in my death or in my rescue. It just needs to end.

Fortunately, I always feel the jerk of a safety line before I hit whatever comes at the end of the fall. It’s different at different times — the fear of hell when I was younger, knowing I’m loved, being responsible for the child who’s demanding a snack right now. It snaps me back into reality, back into an orientation and a motivation and a direction. I climb hand over hand to the top.

I’d gotten strong from that climb. I could climb out faster now. I could sometimes grab the safety line as I fell, halving the plummet. But I hadn’t ever succeeded in slamming the trap door shut.

Was it the trap door that was the problem? Or was that just life as everybody experienced it, and I was too prone to fall in, and too slow to climb out, and too wrapped up in my own head to grab onto the safety line?

Like everything I’ve firmly believed and devoutly doubted, I wished I’d gone to the doctor sooner. The antidepressant doesn’t stop me from wandering into the tunnel of negative feelings, or shield me from the consequences of going to bed late, or replace the necessity of mindfulness. It doesn’t stop me from tripping. It doesn’t stop me from overthinking or worrying. It just closes the trap door. When I fall, I’m still in the light, on the ground, in a discernible, orienting space. I can think — a totally different phenomenon from anxiety’s frantic, jumbled “logic” that, in the disoriented free fall, lacks half the pertinent information and all perspective.

Medication is not an “easy fix” to depression and anxiety. It’s a necessary step that enables me to work on my anxiety in a productive way — without a fall risk.

Looking back, I realize that the reason I was “just okay enough” was not because my depression was so minor, but because my safety line was so firmly anchored (thanks, my beautiful loved ones) and because I was strong too. And the reason I wasn’t fully okay on my own was not because I was a wimp, but because, unlike non-depressed people, I had an open trap door at the bottom of my negative feelings.

I write this for all of you with open trap doors. It’s scary and liberating to hear: you are not okay enough to do it on your own, and you’re not supposed to do it on your own. You are not making up your depression or bad days or whatever euphemism you use to mask how not okay you suspect you really are. Please get the help you need and deserve.

It’s Not Right That You Got Screamed At, but It’s Good

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I write a lot about the importance of civility when discussing and debating beliefs and experiences (even though I personally want to throttle some people with certain disgusting, ignorant views). It’s a matter of pragmatism, if not principle: People can’t think when you’re yelling at them. People are less inclined to hear you when you hurl insults at them. Plus, it’s unkind and unloving and all that.

That is true. I believe that. I believe we all need to take that to heart — victims, minorities, the oppressed, everyone. Everyone needs to extend grace and understanding. Love begets love, hate begets hate, ignorance begets ignorance, understanding begets understanding, and so on.

But, on another pragmatic note, I’m realizing that not everyone can, will, or wants to extend grace, understanding, or even the pretense of civility. Trauma, oppression, stress — it impairs people’s ability to self-regulate, just as being cussed out for your opposing viewpoint impairs your ability to listen and extend sympathy. As a person of privilege, it’s my job to hang in with what I perceive as tough conversations or unfair treatment or misunderstandings that make me, for that moment in time, feel dismissed or unheard.

It’s not because I think that my hurt is less valuable. It’s that I usually have less to lose if I’m unheard and misunderstood than disadvantaged people are. Hurt feelings and harsh encounters are no fun, but at least my way of life doesn’t ride on me persuading others to hear, understand, or accept me.

I think it’s important to sit with the hard conversations where I feel attacked and misunderstood, if only for this pragmatic reason: oftentimes I don’t truly understand a minority person’s lived experience unless they are speaking without any limitations or fear of repercussions at all — especially the limitation of civility or the fear of being “not nice.”

In my ongoing journey of becoming a foster parent, I joined a Facebook group that sought to give adoptive parents and hopeful adoptive parents the honest-to-God truth about adoption from adoptees’ perspectives. One of their rules was absolutely zero tone policing of adoptees. None. There were no protections for adoptive parents or hopeful adoptive parents. Adoptees could say exactly how they felt in whatever way they felt like it.

It was a brutal experience. Unsuspecting new members left in droves, unable to withstand the cursing out, the taking to task, and the rude, unsympathetic treatment of their questions or experiences. I almost left myself. Like I said, I value civility and nuance, and I didn’t feel like that this group provided that. I felt unsafe. I struggled to learn. I didn’t experience any grace. I was afraid to ask questions or say anything for fear of evisceration.

But I hung in there, and finally, slowly began to understand this group’s perspective — and even value the space’s no tone policing rule as critical to my learning process. Adoptees cannot share their honest opinions about adoption or their adoptive families because they’re out on the street (emotionally or literally) if they can’t figure out how to appease their adoptive families and fit in. Plus, there is such an entrenched narrative about how amazing adoption is and how lucky adoptees are, such a strong parent-centric focus, that any dissenting voices in the conversation get brushed away. There are so few places for adoptees to speak candidly about their experience that nobody is listening. Nobody is sitting with their full experience — especially not their pain, anger, and powerlessness.

As a person privileged enough to be unattached to adoption issues, I am not going to have a chance at understanding their life experience if I want to deal with only the civilized, sanitized version — a version they didn’t experience.

It’s a frustrating reality for everyone on all sides of conversations where disadvantage and privilege exist: it’s difficult to learn about another person’s pain when it’s coming at you no holds barred — and it’s difficult to learn about another person’s pain when it’s presented tactfully, civilly, and graciously. It’s difficult to be humble and compassionate towards someone when she’s lambasting you for a microaggression — but it’s difficult to be humble and compassionate enough to recognize just how much of a negative impact your well-meaning action had when someone calmly explains your mistake.

If I’m remembering this anecdote correctly, Ta-Nehisi Coates heard a white student share about experiencing prejudice on an historically black campus — something along the lines of others openly looking at him as if he didn’t belong and wasn’t welcome. Coates commented (paraphrased), “It wasn’t right, but it was good.” It wasn’t right that the student experienced such a shunning and an unwelcoming, but it was good for him to understand that this is the black experience in predominantly white America. Perhaps that was the only way he could understand.

It’s never right to treat another human unkindly, and it’s not right to codify unkindness as a communication method. We all carry our pain that deserves sensitivity; we all deserve dignity and respect, regardless of what privileges or disadvantages we posses. (And we all are a mosaic of privileges and disadvantages.)

But there are many not right things in this world, so many that it would require an impossible measure of strength from people who are already laid flat to accurately but civilly convey their experience to people who mean well but don’t get it. Since there are so many flaws both in delivery and reception of hard-to-fathom experiences between the privileged and the under-privileged, it is always good to listen and learn from all people — even the ones uncivilly screaming in your face. Everyone matters, but when we triage for justice, we must prioritize those facing oppression, discrimination, and prejudice over our own hurt feelings.

(P.S. I’m extremely bad at this.)

The Importance of Blast-Ended Skrewts and Other Harmful, Useless, and Annoying Creatures

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Via Pottermore

One of the things I love about J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World is the presence of all kinds of humans, magical creatures, and different mixes and sub-categories of the two. There are quite literally different kinds of beings — house elves, centaurs, giants, blast-ended skrewts. They all operate under their own laws, in their own communities, in their own ways. And a good many sub-plots deal with the inter-mingling of these different kinds of creatures — particularly, how to treat them as equals without necessarily treating them as human (as if humanness were the ultimate standard of being, as the centaurs scoff in The Order of the Phoenix).

It’s a big but sometimes subtle theme running through the series: peace between different worlds, communities, and kinds of creatures requires an appreciation of individuals and kinds for who they are. Hagrid admires and cares for the worst of the magical creatures, finding joy in dangerous and ugly things that aren’t tamed or meant for human companionship or service. Mr. Weasley, despite being a pure-blood wizard, is fascinated with the Muggles and their way of life, not only protecting Muggles from regurgitating toilets and biting doorknobs but allowing Muggle influence into his own life (like trying out medical stitches as an alternative treatment). And in Hogwarts itself, Dumbledore shelters, employs, and trusts a whole host of characters who are incompetent, useless, and sometimes evil — the emotionally abusive Snape, all the Slytherins with Death Eater ties, phony Professor Trelawney, crotchety Filch whose idea of justice is stringing up students who track mud through his halls, and the mischievous Peeves who exists solely to wreak havoc in the castle.

We learn throughout the series of these characters’ hurts, back stories, and vulnerabilities. While Dumbledore is aware of these shortcomings and their effects on pupils, he extends patience, respect, and understanding to them, and expects students to do the same. They are inconvenient, annoying, and even harmful, but that, it seems, isn’t the litmus test for acceptance in the Hogwarts community.

This is what fascinates me about Dumbledore’s accepting community: He includes people we in the Muggle world are busy trying to oust from our communities. Only when people arise with the true power to harm students through taking away their agency (Professor Umbrage, ahem) or destroying who they are altogether (Voldemort) does he oppose and remove them from Hogwarts. The racist Slytherins remain at Hogwarts, but the racist Umbrage is removed from control of the community. The authoritarian Filch remains, but Dumbledore never allows him to act out his authoritarian wishes. Flawed — even horrible — people remain in the community as long as they cooperate with or are able to be kept in check by Dumbledore’s restrictions.

Otherwise, the message is clear: Since you’ve got the freedom to be who you are, stand up for yourself, switch classes, and appeal to sympathetic authorities, you’re expected to live at peace with everyone.

(This, I think, is where the Christian message of love and grace breaks down: too often Christians teach a radical personal love without trying to set up a community or a concept of self that protects everyone. All churches, countries, families, marriages, and other relationships must ensure the above freedoms and agencies, or people will not be safe enough or empowered enough to love their enemies or their obnoxious neighbors.)

Everybody in the series has their own struggles with this expectation. For instance, Hagrid’s love and respect of all creatures leads him to try to capture, tame, or interact with dangerous creatures best left at a distance. (See the disastrous blast-ended skrewt lesson pictured above.) Hermione tries to figure out how to respect the house elves’ dignity on their own terms while challenging their unfair treatment. And then there’s the obvious problem of racist pure-blood wizards who harm or look down upon Squibs, Muggles, and Muggle-born wizards — or otherwise good-hearted people with prejudice, like Sirius, who treats Snape and Kreacher in horrible ways for understandable, if close-minded, reasons.

I’ve been thinking about how badly we in the Muggle world need to understand these things: There are truly different kinds of people and different kinds of communities who thrive best when allowed to live according to their own internal standards. Often when we do see different kinds of humans, we categorize them wrongly — either along the wrong differences (race, ethnicity, sex) or in the wrong way (through power hierarchies or through division, separation, and restriction). We judge and value different kinds of people by how similar or how innocuous or how useful they are to our ways of being human.

In my marriage, in my raising of kids, and in my interactions with other people, I’ve become aware of just how different my husband and my son and other individuals are. They are interested in different things. They prioritize different things. They struggle with different things. And it’s tempting to try to shape them into ways of being that minimize all annoyance, inconvenience, and hurt for me.

Of course, where people have true power to harm others or to restrict their being in Umbrage-like fashion, they must be opposed, and they must change. Where people aren’t growing well in the ways of their own kind, or in ways that aren’t conducive to peace, I must support them in changing and growing (if they’re willing) and/or set appropriate boundaries (if they’re unwilling). But where there are simply inter-species, inter-house, inter-kind differences, it’s my job to love them, appreciate them, and encourage them to be as they are — just as I want them to love, appreciate, and encourage me to be as I am.

This doesn’t mean ignoring my limitations and weaknesses or their potential to harm me. In fact, it’s imperative that I understand my vulnerabilities, their triggers (which are often their own vulnerabilities too), and what happens when you mix the two. We instinctively understand this when we humans interact with animals (or magical creatures). We keep our distance, or wear protective gear, or move more slowly, or interact in ways the animal recognizes as peaceable — bowing to the hippogriff, as it were, instead of looking it in the eye and basically asking for it to strike. We understand that hippogriffs aren’t dangerous unless blatantly provoked, that peaceable encounters between kinds rely a lot on education and respect.

I’m learning to do the same with the people I love…and the people who annoy me to no end, or even harm me in some ways. The Gottman Institute reports that 69% of marital conflicts are unsolvable — resolutely and immovably rooted in fundamental differences. The difference between happy and unhappy couples is not fewer differences or more compatibility in a sameness sort of way; it’s the ability to reframe, respect, and work around those issues.

It’s the same sort of situation (if not more so) with our children, or with our co-workers or with our fellow parishioners and countrymen or our enemies — with people we didn’t choose to spend a good amount of time and energy on.

It all comes back to this basic understanding of others’ inherent dignity and our duty by them: People exist to be respected and appreciated and living the lives God created them to live — not bent to my will, convenience, or way of life. They are important not because of what they can do for me or to me but simply because they are.

The world may not need all kinds in a way that makes sense to us, but the world involves all kinds — squibs and wizards, centaurs and humans, Slytherins and Gryffindors, and yes, even blast-ended skrewts, obnoxious ghosts, vindictive caretakers, children of Death Eaters and real world people with problems and prejudice. And since they exist, and they exist differently from us, and we’ve got to get along under a roof or a church or a school or a country, we must love, respect, and understand them as we want to be loved, respected, and understood.

But do stay away from their blasting-end.

Instead of Speaking the Truth in Love, Try This

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We Christians are in quite a pickle with this speaking-truth-in-love business.

We care deeply about the truth, and we care deeply about love, and since God’s truth leads to life, we thus conclude that the most loving thing we can do is to share it. Everybody else, even our fellow Christians, has reported that they don’t find our truth-telling loving. People track their insecurity, anger, depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts back to the truth we so lovingly shared.

We think they’re just angry and bitter, lost in their sins, until someone lovingly drops a “truth” bomb on us — and then we see the shattering effects of speaking the truth in love.

How do we move on from there with the knowledge that no matter our intentions, our word choice, or our tone, our truth-telling offends more than it reconciles? We’re stuck: Silence seems like tacit agreement, which compromises truth. We can’t do that; we’re supposed to be holy and set apart. Speaking up rarely comes across as loving, which, obviously, compromises our call to love. We can’t do that; we’re supposed to be known by our love.

What’s an others-loving, righteousness-pursuing Christian to do?

I’m finding that the problem isn’t necessarily with believing in absolute truths or making judgment calls according to a God-given standard. We all have our beliefs. (Of course, some beliefs are antithetical to love, and many more beliefs make it difficult to love fully.) And the solution isn’t changing our minds, because, again, some beliefs aren’t truthful or good or beneficial and they need to be called out. Nor is the solution merely changing our motives to a more tactful tone. Poison with a spoonful of sugar is still poison.

I think we need to abandon the legalistic idea that (nicely) presenting people with the law is an effective, life-giving thing.

I grew up hearing people talk about God’s Word as life-giving and powerful in and of itself. That’s why people post combative Bible verses on billboards or leave Bibles in hotel drawers or shout about hell on the sidewalk. God’s Word is magical and always applicable in whatever form a person encounters.

This isn’t true. In fact, Jesus mentioned that the Pharisees’ strict adherence to the law set a stumblingblock to them and others. Paul talks about how the law brings death. Even though it’s perfect, even though it’s good, even though it’s right and true, the law brings death.

Why? Because nobody is perfect. The Pharisees, the people waving signs, the church paying for the confrontational billboard, and all the people they want to toe the line — nobody is perfect. It’s not motivational to see how badly we fall short. It’s devastating. It makes us want to rebel or give up. The law cannot bring life, no matter how nicely it’s phrased.

The only reason many Christians see the law as life-giving is because (1) many Christians don’t realize how badly they transgress the law, not with the planks blinding their eyes; and (2), more charitably, the law comes to them at a time of receptiveness and growth.

If someone were to scream at you on the street that you’re going to hell, you’d be offended. If you already believe you’re worthy of hellfire and that’s why you’re in a Southern Baptist Church this morning, the spittle-flecked rant against sin is meeting you where you’re at.

The thing is, Christianity isn’t about keeping the law. It’s about development and life. It’s about bearing with the weaker Christians and holding back condemnation from stronger ones. It’s about judging rightly. It’s about wisdom. Because Christianity understands that nobody can keep the law. That’s why there’s Jesus and grace and forgiveness.

It’s exactly like childhood development.

When a baby is born, he is utterly incapable of walking. It doesn’t matter how nicely or persuasively you explain how mature people must walk. He can’t do it. There’s a whole process of development before he can walk. And for some infants, disability prevents them from walking at all, ever. Reasonable parents support their infant in his development, knowing that working on holding up his head and rolling over all develop into the skills that allow him to walk later on. They don’t even mention walking. It’s pointless, and if their unrealistic expectations start coming out in anger or disappointment, children can even regress in development. Holding up walking as the standard a child must meet even when he’s unable to do so is shaming and damaging.

But there is still a standard. While reasonable parents aren’t even discussing that standard with their crawling baby, it’s important that they know there’s a general developmental milestone children should be meeting within a certain time frame. Without knowing those benchmarks, they could miss warning signs that set their child up for struggles later on. It’d be insane for a parent to ignore the fact that their three-year-old child isn’t walking yet, insisting that it’s fine, that there’s nothing wrong, that it’s just the way she is.

Those developmental milestones are in place not to shame kids unable to reach them but to alert parents to something else that’s wrong.

That’s what the law does for us. It alerts us to what’s wrong. And grace allows us to be wrong, weak, and imperfect, trusting that God will complete the good work he started in us. Grace acknowledges that we start from a place of helplessness and sickness, even death. It allows for a process of salvation. It allows for the celebration of who we are in Christ — competent, wonderful, beloved creations — knowing that we’re going through the natural bumps and setbacks and limitations of immature people growing up.

Just as I delight in my son’s crawling, unfazed that he’s not walking (even though I of course want him to be walking eventually), God delights in who we are now, even if we fall short of the perfect and the mature. (And we do.)

We ought to take God’s perspective — the loving parental perspective — when approaching the weaknesses and imperfections in ourselves and others. This is the way of love: viewing everybody not in terms of how badly they fall short of the law but in terms of which stage of development they’re in. This is the way of grace: celebrating the progress, meeting the needs, and strengthening the capabilities people currently have as a way of paving the way to more growth.

I absolutely do not believe that salvation is a one and done deal that unlocks instant, attainable perfection. That is, I don’t think that making an initial profession of faith enables you to perfectly keep the law just like that.

No, faith rescues us from a legal, accusatory way of perfectionism that holds weak, hurting, broken people accountable to an impossible standard. Faith changes the dynamic between us and God — now we understand that he is not our accuser, but our defender, our lover, our parent, the one who knows us best, celebrates us as we are, and loves us no matter what.

Faith also changes the dynamic between us and the law. Under Christ, it is a beneficial schoolteacher rather than the revelation of our doom. We look to it like a child glancing up to the alphabet chart to remember which way lowercase b goes. We strive toward the goal, we might get frustrated that our handwriting still isn’t where we want, but our eternal salvation isn’t bound up on getting it right then or tomorrow or even several grades later. We’re still learning and growing. We’re still immature. Maturity comes after a long process of development involving lots of failure and imperfection.

How does all of this apply to speaking the truth in love?

Now that the law is more like an elementary spelling book or a developmental guideline than federal law, we need to approach our application of it with wisdom.

My precocious teenage self once theorized that knowledge is knowing things, understanding is knowing how to apply things, and wisdom is knowing when to apply things. I still stand by those distinctions.

We need to speak the truth with wisdom as well as love. Wisdom involves three steps: knowing what’s right and wrong; knowing how to communicate that knowledge of right and wrong in a helpful, loving way; and knowing whether that particular moment is the time to share that knowledge.

Whether it’s beneficial or not to the other person depends not only on the truthful content of your beliefs or your kindhearted motives; it depends on whether it’s what the person needs to hear at that time. Are you, metaphorically, suggesting that they walk when they’re just learning to crawl? Are you asking a pig to fly? Are you throwing pearls before swine or answering a fool according to his folly?

We can all look back on a time when someone said something that stuck with us and changed us for the better. It hurt like heck at the time, but it was true, and it was needed — not only in the sense that we were wrong, but in the sense that we were ready to hear it even if we didn’t want to hear it. We were capable of understanding and processing what was said in a way that was helpful, just like a parent encouraging her one-year-old to take her first steps. It was fifth-grade material given to a fifth-grade student, not a death sentence. It was frustrating and hard, but we could handle it.

That’s why Paul emphasizes showing patience with the weaker brothers and understanding with the stronger. That’s why there’s no condemnation in Christ: we can struggle and flail at our own pace. We can go through the grieving process and recover from trauma and be ignorant and mess up all the time. We can rejoice with those who rejoice instead of reminding them that kids in Africa are starving. We can weep with those who weep without cautioning them to give thanks always. We can meet people where they’re at without worrying that our love will enable them to live sinful lives. 

If that all seems complicated, it is. If it seems like we all need to take classes on human psychology, it’s true. If you feel like maybe you’ve said a lot more than you should, you’re probably right.

Tellingly, when we approach truth-telling with wisdom, we likely won’t speak much at all: “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19).

After all, most of us are still learning to walk.

What Kind of Books Do You Love?

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I recently discovered the only podcast I ever get excited about: “What Should I Read Next?” with Anne Bogel. It’s a literary matchmaking show with lots of fun bookish conversation on the side. Anne asks her guests about three books they love, one book they don’t love, and what they’re currently reading, then makes suggestions on what they should pick up next.

It makes for fascinating literary discussions, and it’s such a great conversation starter in real life. My husband and I have discussed this about our adult reading lives and our childhood reading lives (our picks were somewhat different at different ages and stages). These have been some of my favorite conversations in our relationship to date.

I learned so much about what my husband looks for in a good read. He loves the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb, Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and a nonfiction work entitled, The Troubador’s Song: The Capture and Ransom of Richard the Lionheart. For him, he likes involved narratives that develop over the years between familiar characters within a richly-imagined culture.

Why on earth he listed Harry Potter as his book he didn’t love, I have no idea, as that series falls perfectly within those parameters. I’m still going after him to read Harry Potter. He stopped at the first book, a few chapters in, after scoffing at chocolate frogs and Bertie’s Every Flavor Beans — an absolutely ridiculous reason to quit a book, if you ask me.

But I’m biased, because the Harry Potter series definitely makes it into the “books I love” category. (I’m re-reading them this summer. They’re even better the second time around!) I adore The Help, by Kathryn Stockett — another perennial re-read. And the latest book that got me excited (and my husband teary) is The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole, by Miranda Cuevas. A book I absolutely hated: Dietland, by Sarai Walker.

The common threads between all of these?

(1) They involve character development within a community — and by that, I don’t just mean that the characters are multi-faceted and grow as the story progresses. They learn about themselves and others through relationship — their biases, their strengths, their passions, their purpose — and we, the reader, learn about both the characters and the world by seeing different perspectives about the same events.

Though I’ve enjoyed plenty well-written novels in the first person tense, I generally don’t fall over myself to read books told in that way, especially if they focus too much on the interior life. The self is just too isolated of a viewpoint to truly understand the world. I’m too much of an interior person myself; exclusively reading another person’s interior thoughts gives me anxiety about human beings. But the self and the individual’s perspective make up part of the world, which is why I love books that combine different first person accounts (like The Help) or have a more omniscient narrator (as in Harry Potter).

(2) The authors slip in crucial plot points without fanfare. It drives me nuts when authors dramatize, over-describe, or frantically signal to pay attention to key moments. Books that do that often have underdeveloped villains and protagonists, as the villains are clearly marked as villains and the protagonists clearly aren’t villains, in a black-and-white sort of way.

I’m outgrowing the mystery genre itself, but I still appreciate plots that have you thinking you’ve figured it out and then dash your confidence in your judgment. J. K. Rowling does this exceptionally well. Re-reading her series, I find more and more information that seems like random fun facts at the moment but turn out to be critical points of information or key turning points in the series.

(3) These books are self-aware, even if their characters are not. I don’t mind reading about experiences and perspectives different from my own, or encountering dark or immoral elements, but I won’t get excited about any book lacking a strong moral core. The book needs to show awareness that the character’s perspective or actions are at least questionable or nuanced, if not downright destructive. Dietland failed on this account for me: it praised a violent feminist revolution and the protagonist’s hardening toward others, things I cannot get behind, things that weren’t exposed as destructive and wrong.

This is another reason why I dislike many first person accounts: I really have to like the narrator to stick with them for a whole book, and in order for me to like the narrator, she needs to be self-aware of her faults. If one of her flaws is that she isn’t self-aware, I won’t enjoy the narrative, no matter how accurate a reflection on the interior life it is. Books that drop hints that it’s okay to laugh at, dislike, be mad at, and get frustrated with even the main characters are my jam.

(4) There’s a foreign piece to the stories that initially peaks my interest — whether that’s a fantastical element, a well-described historical time period (like 1960’s Mississippi), another culture, or a character with a life experience completely different from my own.

(5) These books are wholistic. I was going to say realistic, but that often signals to people “dark, gritty, and hopeless.” While many perspectives fall within that depressing category, I think a wholistic view of life involves the dark, the gritty, the hopeless, and the humorous, the hopeful, and the quirky. Humans are weird and lovable and aggravating all at the same time. I love how Harry Potter, The Help, and The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole all deal with deep, difficult subjects but still make me laugh and inspire me to keep living.

But these aren’t cheap laughs — they have heart and substance, which is why I have a difficult time getting through books by Roald Dahl or Lemony Snickett or the Eddie Dickens trilogy — dark humor and ridiculousness alone give me a literal headache. I need to cry and rejoice and believe as well as laugh.

To clarify, these are the kinds of books that I most often get excited about — that I re-read — that I rip through and then beg all my friends to read them. There are many, many other books that are exciting, well-written, and worth reading — that have changed my life, even — that don’t meet all these criteria. (The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas is an example.) But when I’m looking for a book that I know I’ll enjoy, these are the kinds of books I turn to.

I no longer think in terms of “good” or “bad” books. (Okay, I do think some books are objectively awful.) That’s one thing Anne Bogel talks about often: just because a book isn’t for you doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. This changes throughout life, too. There are books I adored as a kid (and still do for nostalgia’s sake) that wouldn’t exactly fit every criterion above.

And it’s fascinating how two people can love the same book for different reasons. Many people love Harry Potter, for instance, but wouldn’t be remotely interested in reading the other two books I love. Myself, I don’t love Harry Potter for the fantasy genre, per se; there are many fantasy books that aren’t for me because they fail to meet the criteria I listed above.

If you enjoy the same kinds of books I do, check out some of my other recent favorites:

Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Wizards of Once, by Cressida Cowell

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

The Inquisitor’s Tale, by Adam Gidwitz

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

Emma, by Jane Austen

What are three books you love and one you don’t? Have you identified the common threads between them? Do you have any suggestions for what I should read next?

P.S. Two of my favorite WSIRN episodes: an interview with Jen Hatmaker on “When your reading life is nothing like people expect” and a chat with Patience Randle about “The quest for the perfect coffeeshop read.”

A Pragmatic Defense of Civility

nina-strehl-140734-unsplashCivility is a dirty word in social justice circles right now.

I understand why. It’s ridiculous to care more about being polite than about babies being torn away from their mothers. It’s backwards to worry about niceties when human lives and human dignity are at stake. And often “they” interpret passion as incivility, anyway. “They” don’t like how it makes them feel, so “they” call it incivility to no longer feel responsible for their uncomfortable feelings. To “them,” no form of protest, no matter how respectful, peaceful, or carefully thought out, will ever be seen as civil simply because the act of protesting, resisting, and making “them” uncomfortable is uncivil.

But let’s be honest: sometimes, many times, people in social justice circles are uncivil, out of control, and just plain rude. They attack people outside of their circles; they attack people within their circles. Say the wrong word, the wrong opinion, and you’ve unleashed your doom.

I understand that too. I want to scream when I see dismissive memes. I want to shoot back sarcastic and mean-spirited zingers when I hear callous and ill-informed opinions. I want to spew obscenities at the people doing disgusting and dehumanizing things. I often feel that rude people deserve rude responses, that jerks get what’s coming to them, that people who don’t care about others don’t require my care, either. An eye for an eye. Anger with anger. Hate with hate.

I could ramble a lot about my conflicting feelings regarding justice and mercy within the Christian tradition. Regardless of my philosophical and theological beliefs, when it comes to altercations with stupid, rude, and/or callous people, when it comes to trying to change people’s minds, I still cherish civility as a virtue.

People may deserve a good chewing out when they fail to live up to basic human decency. Maybe a good, loud, simplistic, angry rant fulfills some sort of cosmic justice. Maybe I shouldn’t have to police my tone due to all the unfair things I’ve put up with; maybe I should get to be as angry as I want and speak out of that anger as much as I want.

I mean this sincerely: maybe that truly is justice. It doesn’t seem fair to me that people who have already put up with so much hatred and discrimination, sometimes against their very personhood, should even have to think about their tone in voicing legitimate complaints. I support understanding where people are coming from and letting them speak unfiltered, hearing what they say even if the way they say it is offensive.

But my defense of civility is almost purely pragmatic. Basic human biology prevents anger, hate, rudeness, and anything of that nature from being an effective tool of persuasion. That’s not to say that love, kindness, and civility will change any minds either (see the second paragraph), but hate, rudeness, and incivility definitely won’t — or they’ll at least make it more difficult.

When we say whatever we want to say however we want to say it, we trigger fight or flight responses. It is nearly impossible for someone in a fight or flight state to meaningfully absorb information, much less change their mind and make necessary changes. Some particularly gracious, patient, or obtuse people can struggle against the fight or flight state to engage with and process what you’re yelling at them. But that’s a difficult thing to do.

It’s inevitable that saying uncomfortable things will make people feel uncomfortable. Showing emotion of any kind, even if not directed toward another person, may trigger offense or anxiety. Even saying uncomfortable things civilly may trigger fight or flight responses, especially if that person has had those uncomfortable things screamed at them before.

That’s not on you. That’s on them.

And honestly, you might need a space or a moment to just speak your unfiltered mind, civility be damned. You might need catharsis. That’s fine too.

But if you want the best shot at having the other person hear you, understand you, and change her mind, then it is on you to speak the truth in a way that circumvents that fight or flight response as much as possible. It’s not fair, but it’s reality. For this purpose, I defend civility as a virtue.

 

Some Pro-Life Considerations on Hormonal Birth Control, For and Against

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There is so much misinformation and so many half-truths circulating about hormonal birth control. Many pro-life women I know refuse to use hormonal birth control because of its alleged abortifacient effects. I’m pro-life too, but natural family planning and barrier methods weren’t working for me for various personal reasons. I took a good hard look into the science and ethics of using hormonal birth control. Here are some facts and thoughts that shaped my final decision.

Note: My research primarily involved oral contraceptives. I have not extensively researched the exact mechanisms of other contraceptives like implants, patches, or IUDs. Further, much of the secondary literature I’m seeing conflates the effects of emergency contraceptives with the effects of daily birth control, even though they may differ. Please keep these limitations in mind as you read.

The main pro-life argument against hormonal birth control is that it affects (or could affect) the implantation of an embryo in its blastocyst stage. All forms of hormonal birth control thin the endometrium, the lining of the uterus in which the blastocyst must implant. According to many who believe life begins at conception, birth control prevents implantation by depriving the blastocyst of a thick, receptive endometrium, and is thus an abortifacient.

This is actually a big if. Despite pro-life arguments and even current pill literature, there is no conclusive evidence that hormonal birth control affects the endometrium in a way that prevents implantation. It could, but it’s unlikely to. That’s where current research stands, but that’s not the final word on whether pro-life women should use hormonal birth control.

How Hormonal Birth Control Works

At the beginning of the menstrual cycle, the endometrium starts out quite thin. During the follicular phase, follicles begin putting out increasing levels of estrogen that thicken and enrich the uterine lining (or endometrium). High levels of estrogen trigger luteinizing hormones (LH) to release an egg from the follicle — the process known as ovulation. The follicle then continues to produce the hormone progesterone, which also thickens and enriches the endometrium. This is the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. If implantation fails, the lining is shed, and menstruation begins.

Birth control’s primary contraceptive mechanism is preventing ovulation in the first place, not preventing implantation. When a woman is on hormonal birth control, the amount of artificial progestin and estrogen mimic the elevated hormonal levels during pregnancy, tricking the pituitary gland into preventing ovulation.

How does this potentially affect implantation? Because ovulation is suppressed, the endometrium does not thicken very much, which is why women on birth control have lighter or nonexistent periods.

Occasionally, breakthrough ovulation will occur in women taking contraceptives (particularly if they fail to take them regularly). If ovulation occurs, the endometrium will begin thickening again. This is why it’s possible for women to get pregnant on contraceptives if breakthrough ovulation occurs.

The question is whether the endometrium can thicken enough to give the blastocyst a fighting chance at implantation. Many pro-lifers say absolutely not, pointing out the obvious that the endometrium affected by birth control is observably thinner. This is the “hostile endometrium” theory. Studies show that a thicker, more nutrient-rich endometrium increases the likelihood of blastocysts implanting during in vitro fertilization, bolstering the argument that thinning the endometrium would undoubtedly have a negative effect on implantation.

That makes sense, but here’s where it gets tricky. Naturally, many embryos (even up to two-thirds, some experts surmise) will not implant in even a receptive lining, or will spontaneously abort. And naturally, some blastocysts will implant in what we might think of as a “hostile” endometrium. Were a blastocyst to fail to implant, it would be impossible to name birth control as the culprit — or even claim the nature of the endometrium as a major factor, as new studies show that the quality of the embryo itself plays a role in its implantation.

Even pro-life voices are questioning the very idea of a “hostile endometrium.” According to a 1998 statement by pro-life OBGYNs, blastocysts are by nature invasive. They will implant even in areas more unfriendly than a thin endometrium, like the fallopian tube. They reiterate that current research does not show that birth control affects implantation.

Again, others point out that just because a blastocyst can implant in a thin endometrium or even a fallopian tube does not mean that the quality of the endometrium has no effect on implantation.

So it’s absolutely true that birth control affects the thickness of the endometrium. Many pro-life women are under the impression that only some kinds of birth control affect the endometrium, but this is incorrect. All birth control that hormonally suppresses ovulation affect the thickness of the endometrium (including breastfeeding). The contraceptive mechanism — preventing ovulation — is the same in all hormonal birth control, even in the morning after pills like Ella and Plan B.

(It’s important to note that the morning after pills employ a different contraceptive mechanism than the abortion pill known as RU-486 or mifepristone. The abortion pill blocks the hormones needed to sustain a pregnancy and is not approved for use as emergency contraception to prevent ovulation. The morning after pills do not interfere with an established pregnancy; the abortion pill obviously does. Further, emergency conception may be even less likely to affect implantation than everyday birth control, as there may not be enough time for an emergency dose to alter the endometrium.)

The true debate, then, is not “which kinds” of hormonal contraceptives are abortifacient. The debate is whether hormonal contraceptives prevent implantation, thus causing an abortion.

According to the most recent research, there is no evidence that hormonal contraceptives prevent implantation.

Confusingly, much of pill literature today still lists preventing implantation as a contraceptive mechanism in hormonal birth control. When birth control first came onto the scene, its contraceptive mechanisms were unknown. Many in the medical community thought that preventing implantation was a primary contraceptive mechanism, but as already stated, later research is debunking that theory. (Note: While secondary resources cite this as relevant to daily hormonal birth control, I’m only finding primary sources about the FDA mislabeling emergency contraceptives.)

Even with this research, however, it’s impossible at this time to conduct an ethical experiment to determine the exact effects of birth control on implantation. It is unlikely and unproven that birth control affects implantation, but it’s impossible to prove a negative. For many pro-lifers, this isn’t strong enough research to support hormonal contraceptives.

In light of this research and counter-research, it seems fair to both sides to say that there is at least a risk of hormonal birth control preventing implantation.

Our Ethical Responsibility

How ethically responsible is a woman for making her endometrium as hospitable as possible?

In other words, is it ever justifiable to put a life at risk?

It’s a kind of question we face every day as mothers in a world full of risk, from deciding to drive our child to the library at the risk of a car crash to eating deli meat while pregnant at the risk of contracting listeriosis. Just as driving and eating deli meat don’t cause a child’s death, taking hormonal birth control is not demonstrated to cause failed implantation, but just like driving and deli meat during pregnancy, it at least opens the possibility of that risk.

For many women, it’s quite simple: they refuse to take the risk of impairing implantation, and use natural family planning, barrier methods, or no prevention at all. They feel it is unethical to do anything that would potentially impair implantation or would at the very least not aid in implantation. Why would a mother do anything to risk her child’s life?

But for many women, the issue isn’t so straightforward. In life, we are often forced to take avoidable risks in order to fulfill another or a greater moral obligation or good. Why do we take risks? Because there are numerous good things that are harder or impossible to get without taking a risk. These goods outweigh the small chance of risk to our children.

To many, birth control obtains a good which outweighs the small risk of affecting implantation. The “good” of birth control varies from woman to woman: some take it for medical reasons; some for sexual enhancement in marriage; some for an even stronger protection against pregnancy; some as part of responsible sexuality; most for a combination of reasons. Each circumstance and each need varies so greatly from woman to woman, which is why it is important to have accurate contraceptive information so that couples can weigh the risks and benefits according to their unique circumstances.

Regardless of our particular stance on birth control, we women make decisions all the time that potentially affect new life. How far does our ethical responsibility go? A tongue-in-cheek article proposes that we campaign against breastfeeding, refuse to give caffeine to women of child-bearing age, and discourage women from exercising due to the increased risk of early miscarriage that breastfeeding, caffeine, and exercise pose.

“Well, that’s silly!” some would argue. “Unlike birth control, breastfeeding, coffee, and exercise aren’t intended to prevent implantation.”

Neither is birth control. Besides, the risk of breastfeeding, coffee, and exercise still exist regardless of our intentions.

How much do our intentions matter in taking this risk, anyway? Birth control is designed to prevent ovulation and fertilization. If a woman takes birth control for those reasons alone, not to cause an abortion, do her good intentions justify taking the risk birth control might pose to an embryo? Is breastfeeding okay, despite its risk of negatively altering the endometrium, as long as a woman isn’t consciously using it as a birth control method? If we’re ultimately responsible for ensuring the very best endometrium for an embryo, should we not abstain from sex until our baby is weaned? Surely the life of an embryo outweighs our newborn’s need for breastmilk, much less our desire for coffee and exercise!

This might seem like splitting hairs, but my point is that when it comes to taking risks in an area as personal and opaque as this, there are numerous moral factors at play, and many inconsistencies and contingencies in our beliefs.

When it comes to birth control, many pro-life Christians want to pretend that this is an area entirely separate from the complexities of life, that it is a black-and-white issue unaffected by any other ethical considerations. On the other hand, many pro-life women are not factoring in all of the risks birth control can have on an embryo.

This is why I support the dissemination of nuanced, factual information regarding birth control from medical, philosophical, and theological perspectives, and agree with the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists that we are free and obligated to follow our consciences in this area.

If You Want to Pursue the Truth, You’ll Never Fit In

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You know the proverbial pendulum swing — the tendency for people to go from one extreme to the next? Or the slippery slope, where if you believe or disbelieve one thing, you’ll inevitably end up believing or disbelieving a whole host of other things? They’re often used as scare tactics to keep the faithful walking in lockstep intellectual agreement. Dabble in feminism and you’ll end up a pro-baby killing atheist with an STD and a PhD in evolutionary biology. (So don’t dabble in feminism.)

There is, of course, some truth to these metaphors. Certain trains of thought, once abandoned or taken up, do connect well to certain other trains of thought. This is why, for instance, most of the egalitarians I know are more sympathetic toward social justice, and most of the complementarians I know gravitate more toward conservatism’s emphasis on order and authority. A strong emphasis on equality for women fits well with advocacy for racial and LGBTQ+ minorities. A strong belief that order and hierarchy does not undermine equality suits a conservative outlook that highly values respect for authority (e.g., the police, or the sitting Republican president). It makes sense that our beliefs about the structure of home life would spill into the structure of political life, and vice versa.

Hence it’s true that if you change your mind on complementarianism or egalitarianism, you’re liable to change your mind on an avalanche of other things, as we’ve all noted in people who switch ideological affiliations.

But I’ve made a recent breakthrough. I’ve found that even with the obvious fact that certain beliefs complement others well, the biggest reason people tend to jump on the pendulum or slide down a slippery slope is not intellectual consistency. It’s regular old peer pressure. 

When I left fundamentalism for unfundamentalism (whatever that meant), I vowed not to repeat the same mistakes I made in my past. I would not buy into a group, a person, or an ideology hook, line, and sinker — at least not so much that it prohibited me from examining them with an impartial and critical eye. I would not shut up that gut feeling that asked me to question. I would not parrot party lines before researching them myself. I would not demonize those who disagreed with me. I would not be a bigot. I would not get caught up in promoting my group’s agenda over the truth. 

In fact, I wouldn’t even join a group or adopt a label without thinking it over for a very, very long time.

So I was shocked when I found myself repeating some of my past fundamentalist mistakes — even though no one was threatening me with hellfire, and even though I technically didn’t even have a group to pressure me.

I would tweetstorm about what my Twitter tribe hated. I struggled to listen to that inner voice that warned me when I was giving up a deeply held belief just because that deeply held belief would cause conflict with my new friends. I found it was extremely hard to hold to any belief strongly without falling into somebody’s category of a bigot, no matter how tolerant and nuanced I strove to be. Even thoughtful, respectful groups had a point of no return — they wouldn’t damn me to hell, but they certainly wouldn’t like my comment on Facebook, and I would definitely get kicked out if I spoke up for my taboo beliefs.

My courage, my feeling of freedom to question and seek the truth, my desire to speak out, waned when I knew that the majority of my group would disagree with me. Oh, I didn’t always mind ticking off fundamentalists with my bold tweets and courageous blog posts. But I was honest enough to know that that wasn’t really bravery at all. There was always a safety net of people there to listen to me complain about the backlash and rev me up to fight the good fight again.

Bravery, I knew from experience, was speaking the truth even when you have everything to lose. I’d just risked losing my faith, my family, and my friends when I let go of fundamentalism. It was devastating, and I wasn’t eager to do anything like it so soon after finding a community that understood me.

What was wrong with me? Where was this fear, cowardice, and groupie-ism coming from? I had sworn off the echo chamber! I knew better!

According to Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, I was suffering from a condition called being human. In his research, he discovered that the human mind is designed not for impartially seeking the truth but for selectively filtering reality in order to bolster our social group. We naturally take an us vs. them posture, and we naturally feel our group is better, even if our group is nothing more consequential than being a Packers fan.

I was unconsciously participating in the kind of “truth-seeking” for which my brain was designed: the kind that knits me together with a group to parry outside blows, the kind that makes life certain and easy, that makes me feel accepted and stable.

It would be social suicide to rewire my brain to seek the pure, unadulterated truth apart from what my social group felt. That sort of truth-seeking — the actual kind, where fitting in doesn’t matter — is incredibly unnatural to human brains. The ability to be impartial, nuanced, and thorough — there’s a reason it’s so rare, and a reason people who possess it come across as “highly functioning sociopaths,” as Sherlock Holmes would say.

While I wouldn’t say I’ve got that gift, I am cursed with the two least compatible traits: the intense desire to know the truth at all costs and the intense desire to be approved, understood, and included. 

I didn’t find my journey after fundamentalism to be a slippery slope at all. It was a tug of war between these two desires — truth and social approval. Just when I wanted to settle in for a long slide, the desire for truth would start rapping at my conscience. There’s hypocrisy here. Why are you afraid to call it out? This doesn’t make sense no matter how long you’ve researched it. Why are you still trying to believe it? You don’t actually agree with this. Why are you pretending to celebrate it?

The answer was always fear — fear of losing my place in a group.

For the first time, I understood what Jesus meant when he said that the world would hate you, but pick up your cross. Being true to what I believed was good and right was a series of little deaths, little devastations, little ostracizations every single day. The whole truth didn’t lie in any one organization, person, book, movement, or ideology, so I could never check my brain and silence my conscience.

I can’t be a feminist, I’m told, because I have a  pro-life ethic from conception to death, and I can’t be truly pro-life because I’m a feminist. I’m not sex-positive, they say, because I take a negative stance on pornography, polyamory, and sex outside of committed relationships, but I’m still immoral for being sex-positive. The Pew Research Center categorizes me as a the right-leaning “Young Outsider” on politics, even though I’m regularly called a liberal. My gentle parenting group refuses to even entertain my belief that there’s a way to do gentle, child-led sleep coaching, but I’d get kicked out of regular parenting forums for my strident opposition to spanking.

And I didn’t enjoy Wonder Woman as much as I was supposed to. Where am I to go if we can’t even agree on Wonder Woman?!

I would ask you to pity me, except that I have always found someone to agree with me on a particular topic (even Wonder Woman). But the problem with having opinions is that it’s hard, if not impossible, to find someone who agrees with me on every topic, much less a whole group of people.

Instead of fighting this social reality, I’m working toward accepting it. As long as I care deeply about the beliefs I hold, I will never fully fit in, I won’t always be popular, and I won’t go through life without trodding on some toes, no matter how gracious and nuanced I try to be. (And I refuse to use the fact that I might get namecalled and misunderstood to purposefully offend and misunderstand others.) That makes being a social creature hard, if not impossible. But that’s the nature of truth-seeking with a human brain designed for social acceptance.

We Can’t Even Agree on Science!

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I had the great (mis)fortune of deconstructing during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Not only was my spiritual epistemology falling apart, but the whole country’s ability to discern basic fact from fiction was too. Politics was just one giant gaslight — I couldn’t trust my eyeballs and subitizing skills when it came to crowd sizes; I couldn’t trust my basic instincts to identify a bully and a narcissist and an affront to morality; I couldn’t trust anyone in the media, even the people saying I couldn’t trust anyone in the media.

And on top of the spiritual and the political fake news, anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, and Plexus advocates kept popping up around me like epistemological whack-a-moles.

There is no truth and nothing makes sense and if we can’t even agree on if the earth is round, how can we know anything?!

It was quite the dramatic time.

But dramatics aside, I really did and do feel frustration about how hard it is to figure out allegedly objective, empirical things such as science, medicine, and crowd sizes — much less more complex ideas like politics, theology, and sociology.

How do you even begin to navigate the complex when the obvious is just as confusing?

As I dug into issues in more detail, I began to see some helpful patterns for untangling science, medicine, statistics, and, well, truth in general.

1. People have different senses of reality. Well, obviously. But my young earth creationist upbringing was right: we all interpret reality according to who or what we trust — or perhaps more accurately, who or what we fear.

For example: there are Christians who see the Bible as so authoritative on every area of life, that they deny the earth’s old age or its roundness, and even that the sun is a star — because, as the Bible says, God created the sun, moon, and stars.

It makes more sense to them that all of the governments and scientific institutions of the world are perpetrating a huge conspiracy about basic scientific facts than that the Bible is, perhaps, not interested in discussing details in accordance with the modern scientific method foreign to ancient Hebrew writers.

Which came first — a devotion to Scripture, or a fear of government and the elite? Who knows, but both their trust in the Bible and their conspiratorial fears make these people impossible to engage. When they’ve got even Ken Ham pegged as a brainwashed liberal, you know they’re too far gone.

Along these same lines, there is an incredible paranoia of the establishment or the elite. Alternative medicine and alternative facts alike, people feel duped and distrustful of organizations and triple PhDs.

As I deconstructed, I realized I had internalized a deepset fear of experts. The more educated and researched a person was on a certain topic, the more I doubted their claims to be true or unbiased. Instead, I sought the refuge of the internet, where the uneducated and the less educated can sound just as convincing as the Top Professor at Pompous-Sounding Institution (especially if they’re validating what I want to believe).

And of course, the picture is never as simple as “trust the elites.” The medical community at large mocked Ignaz Semmelweis for washing his hands before operating. Galileo was a lone voice advocating for a heliocentric universe. Sociology of the day deemed women’s brains unfit for any work other than housekeeping. Popular theology and science argued that black people were inherently subservient to whites.

Where would our society be without the mavericks who dared stand up to the elite, the frustrated prophets speaking out against the immoral majority?

There’s sometimes a whopping grain of truth in listening to the outsiders over the insiders.

All that to say, “facts” get circulated and believed based on people’s fears and trusts. I’ve got a good nose for sniffing out fake news because I’ve learned a healthy skepticism of clickbait titles, obscure websites, and sensational headlines THAT THE MEDIA WILL NEVER TELL YOU ABOUT. That’s because I don’t inherently distrust mainstream organizations or experts. Others find the mainstream so deceitful that the Sandy Hook shooting becomes a government conspiracy and Donald Trump transforms into a godly man.

Amidst this insanity, it’s enlightening to ask, “Who or what do they trust, and who or what do they fear?”

2. The truth is often in what’s left unsaid. Mystery and crime aficionados know this well. All of the evidence points to this obvious conclusion, and then one, solitary bit of information pops up and radically changes everything. Even the smallest new fact can alter one’s perspective.

This is why we look for the whole story. Individual facts can be true but situated or arranged in a certain way that obscures the bigger picture.

As a fiscal conservative, I was surprised to find out that many of the government bailouts during the 2008 recession were not only repaid but repaid with interest. The government made money off the bailouts. By the time the government got its returns, however, the news cycle had turned its eye on something else, and fiscal conservatives grumble against Obama to this day.

It’s a fact that bailing out banks and the Mexican economy put us into massive debt. It’s a fact that it was a huge risk. But the whole story involves a fiscally happily ever after. (And as I’m no economic expert, there’s probably more to the whole story than this brief bit of information my husband shared with me when he looked up from his book.)

It’s not only pieces of information that get left out — unclear definitions can either obscure or clarify the facts. What does “sexual assault” mean in any particular study, for instance, and is it the same for every study on sexual violence? Perhaps it might make a difference to pro-life anti-vaxxers that regarding the cell cultures gathered from an aborted infant, the infant was aborted or miscarried in the 1970’s for purposes unrelated to vaccine development.

3. Even statistics have contexts. My husband and I recently looked into the circumcision debate. It was fascinating how many websites — good, neutral, factual websites — failed to put statistics into context. For instance, many of the websites framed statistics like, “Circumcised infants are less at risk for a rare penile cancer,” “Circumcised men are at a lower risk for HIV infection,” and “Uncircumcised infants are at a higher risk for UTIs.”

Convincing, no?

The full context is that this penile cancer is too incredibly rare among both circumcised and uncircumcised males to warrant circumcision; the study on HIV was conducted with African men with unclear conclusions for American males; and the risk of UTIs for all male infants is only 0.5%-1% to begin with.

Not very convincing evidence, after all.

I encountered this same thing when a loved one sent out a group message warning against the cancerous properties of red dye. Being married to a chemist who once spent a whole afternoon opining on the LD50 table (lethal dose, for all you humanities people not married to chemists), I pointed out that red dye in Skittles is only poisonous if you consume an impossible amount of them in one sitting.

I don’t normally try to sound like a know-it-all, but forgive me — Skittles were on the line.

The popular documentary What the Health? that’s turning all my friends into vegans also makes these statistical mistakes. It claims that eating processed meats will increase your risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. That’s technically true — but only if you eat processed meats every single day. And even then, your risk of colorectal cancer is only 5% to begin with. Eating processed meats every day for your entire life boosts your 5% chance of that cancer by 1%, which means a 6% risk, which is 18% of the original 5% risk.

I’ll take a chance and eat my occasional Subway sandwich, thank you very much.

4. Not everybody knows what they’re talking about. We all receive a massive influx of information every day about all kinds of issues. And we all have the opportunity to send out a massive amount of information every day about all kinds of issues. Our social media platforms can become echo chambers, with the only people policing our facts being that one grumpy conservative posting memes or that flaming liberal you befriended at drama camp sharing Huffington Post articles.

It’s like a giant game of Telephone — except there’s nobody to clarify what exactly was said.

And our go-to method of fact-checking is finding whatever website we trust the most and seeing what they have to say about it.

It is so easy for uneducated or undereducated people (whether in general or in a particular subject) to grab onto these rumors and misreported statistics and pass them on to others with their own wrong understanding or failure to catch errors. When people or sites we love, trust, and respect start circulating this misinformation as confident fact — especially when it appeals to who or what we trust or fear — we buy it uncritically. We absorb it into our system of beliefs and values. We then become immune to rethinking facts and opinions, because those things shape our sense of reality.

We’ve got a crap ton of information coming in, we’re not even equipped in the 101 of that field, and we all feel like we or our belief system must have an opinion on everything.

No wonder we can’t agree on anything.

5. If you’re stumped, read books, take classes, and talk to people in the field to get the lay of the land. These are more surefire ways of understanding what’s left unsaid and the context for tricky statistics. And let me clarify — I’m not talking about your favorite blogger giving a summary of the scientific evidence from your pet perspective. I’m talking about reading firsthand accounts, watching serious debates between multiple different professionals, and talking to somebody who actually studied the issue in a peer-reviewed setting with an open mind.

Then again, I just showed who I really trust, didn’t I?

This post was inspired by all the medical decisions I have to make as a parent and Pete Enns’ excellent article, “11 Recurring Mistakes Evangelicals Make in the Evolution Debate”

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash