Learning to Lament, With Toddlers

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My #firsttimeparent moment came when two-month-old e.e. started crying more than his usual contented self. After all the kinds and lengths of cries and screams we’ve witnessed in two years of parenting, it’s utterly laughable that we were even concerned about this particular cry — much less concerned enough that we felt it best to take him to the pediatrician ASAP. He was fine. Apparently we weren’t the first new parents to worry over newborn cries, and our pediatrician assured us that the worst was yet to come.

Toddlers cry. A lot. They scream. They tantrum. They wail. They sob. They reach humanly impossible pitches and intensities. It’s just a thing that they do, even if you check off all the Basic Needs boxes: fed, changed, rested, warm, entertained, attended to. Consistent routines and nap/meal schedules help to stave of hunger- and exhaustion-related meltdowns, but I still cook many a lunch with toddlers screaming, “MAHHHHHHH!” at me, as if I’ve never given them any food in their lives.

It’s my favorite part of parenting, for sure.

Before crying underscored my existence, I resolved never to do that horribly dismissive things parents do — telling their kids to stop crying!, as if they’re miserable because they’re crying instead of crying because they’re miserable. I’m still resolved, but my success rate is far from 100%. Sometimes, I just can’t take it anymore. The crying is so incessant, so loud, so intrusive, and from my adult perspective, so irrational. Nothing triggers compassion fatigue faster than a whiny scream over no discernible thing, with all offers of kindness, solutions, and juice refused.

It’s not irrational, not when I step away from the screaming and process what the heck just happened. Life just sucks sometimes, for all of us, toddlers and adults. It’s not about wanting Mama to get the cup of water instead of Daddy, not really. It’s about the fears we have of losing connection with someone we love, and how little control we have over people, and how much we need them, anyway, and how are we supposed to function, needing someone we cannot control? It’s not about tripping over their feet and falling on their butt (again) as they’re learning to walk. It’s about the frustration of wanting to get to a solid, steady place in life, but development and obstacles constantly hold us back, no matter how much we try. Some days, we wake up on the wrong side of the bed. The world looks bleak, we feel crappy, and it’s just too overwhelming to make it downstairs to breakfast.

Once, a parent tried soothing their daughter who had burst into inconsolable tears. “It’s okay,” they soothed. “You’re okay.”

“I’m not okay!” she snapped.

Toddlers aren’t irrational. Toddlers are honest. They’re honest about the jagged edges of reality that we try to smooth over with the lies we tell ourselves about being in control and everything having a meaning and life always working out in the end.

Toddlers know how to lament. 

The impulse is to calm the child, to make things better. But the scream comes back, “Don’t even try to calm me down!” whether in words or equivalent. Why is this so unnerving? Doesn’t it evoke all the fear, resentment, frustration, which hasn’t really changed at all since our own childhood? And isn’t the impulse to get the child calmed down, by any means possible, an impulse to stifle this Pandora’s box? It’s an enormous challenge to really be with the child in its inconsolable state.

That child is ourself. We want love, which is always going to turn out to be less dependable than the infinite we hoped for. We want psychological security and it will never be enough. We want physical security. We want to continue as me forever. Our wants, and perceived needs come up bang against the wall of aloneness which wanting and hoping and grasping creates. Then, can we be with the sadness this evokes? Can we feel it, the impulse to run away from it, the absoluteness of it, the non-negotiable nature of our predicament as a vulnerable, scared human being? Perhaps if we truly perceive the fact that there is nothing I can do, then the child/adult may for the first time be free from an enormous burden of managing the unmanageable. — Anonymous, quoted in “When a Child Is Inconsolable: Stay Near”

I think that’s why we’re often deeply uncomfortable with crying children: they’re lamenting an unfixable grief. Why else are we still trying to get our children to stop crying when it’s obvious they feel a need to cry about something? Sure, we often get flat out annoyed and overstimulated and just want the crying to stop for our own sanity. But in other moments, we can’t deal with the helpless position we find ourselves in when our babies are sobbing, and we’ve tried everything, and nothing will fix it. We feel helpless, we feel guilty for feeling helpless, and we feel reminded of a deeply uncomfortable truth…that sometimes nothing can fix the hurts in this life, not in the way we want, and certainly not on our own timetable.

Sitting with a screaming toddler, it’s the exact process of sympathy, discomfort, and then avoidance I feel with people who’ve experienced adult pain. They’re single and they don’t want to be. Their family’s a wreck. They hate their job. They want something more out of life. The first few times, I knit my brow and listen intently. Yes, this is a valid pain. I get it. I’ve felt it myself. The next few times, when it gets clearer and clearer how badly this pain is affecting them, I get nervous. I don’t know how to help. I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to be in this support position anymore. Why are they telling me all this? I’m not a counselor.

The few times after that, I want to throw up my hands and tell them to get a grip — as if there’s a timeline on grief.

I find myself thinking of the story of Job a lot, how he drew the short stick in life just for being a righteous man, and how all his friends came, lamented, and sat with him for seven days and seven nights, holding space for his unspeakable grief. They must have got compassion fatigue from seven days of lamenting, because after Job starts verbalizing his grief in long, melodramatic monologues, the friends lose their empathy. They start trying to fix things: Here’s what you did wrong, Job; here’s what you can do; here’s how you can move on.

Just like me. I do that. I’m the obnoxious fix-it personality who’s quicker to Google possible remedies and analyze everything to make sure this never happens again. I do it to everyone, including myself. I haven’t learned to lament. I haven’t learned to hold space. I don’t think many of us have, even those of us who aren’t obnoxious fix-it personalities. We don’t know how it feels to have someone sit with us and let us scream or cry or rant for as long as we need, without judgment, without fidgeting, without Googling nearest counselors who price services on a sliding income scale.

There are, of course, things we can do to help. Sometimes someone needs a nap or a hug or a cup of juice to get blood sugar back up. Sometimes advice, a game plan, and counseling is absolutely critical to resolving or avoiding the issue in the future. But sometimes, at the core of the grief is an unfixable thing that just needs space to be.

One of my toddlers woke up from a nap screaming. They didn’t want to be touched. They didn’t want to be spoken to. They flung themselves away from me at great risk to their physical safety whenever I moved toward them or opened my mouth. Finally I just sat there. They screamed full volume, full heart for thirty minutes. I timed it. My husband had to take over lamenting, because the other toddler needed me (which might have prolonged the screaming). After thirty minutes, the tears abated, I picked them up, gave them a kiss, nuzzled them, fed them a snack, and we went about our day relatively tear-free.

They just needed to lament, and they needed me to sit with them and let their feelings be unfixable.

If I’m honest, I need that. We all need that. We aren’t as free or in touch with our grief as toddlers are. We’re less egotistical; we’re more conscious of how perspective and time work; we’re more considerate of how our sorrow and pain affect others. But we still need to lament more than we’d like to admit. And we still need friends who will sit with our lament in silent acceptance for as many days and nights as it takes to feel okay again.

Passions & Vocation, Post-Deconstruction

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When I was younger, theology was my passion. That was the lens through which I saw and processed the world. That was my passion. That’s what I thought about, wrote about, lived for. I spent time and money on a Christian studies degree. I never had any set career plans with these interests (can you have a set career plan when you’re a woman with a degree in Christian studies?), but my life, I was sure, would involve at least an armchair, if not a platform, in theology.

I graduated with that Christian studies degree, deconstructed everything, and came out on the other side totally disinterested in theology proper. Do I care deeply about God, spirituality, and Christianity? Absolutely. Have I finished any of the theology books on my Goodreads list? Absolutely not. Have I revisited any of my old online haunts to ask or answer a theological question? Not at all. Do I have any interest in pursuing my teenage dream of writing bestselling theology books? Heck, no.

College taught me I wasn’t an academic — not like the true academics. It burned me out on books so badly that it took me a couple years to even pick up a light novel. I cannot fathom how anyone who valued their mental health went directly from graduation to graduate school.

So now I find myself looking back on a decade of my life and thinking, “Wow, self, we have nothing in common.”

Welcome to my quarter-life crisis!

I’ve been pondering for a while whether my enthusiasm for theology was a true passion, or more of a means of survival. If it was truly a passion, can it shift this drastically? Don’t true passions stick with you for life, don’t they make up the DNA of who you are, no matter what season you pass through or what other interests come and go? If so, me leaving theology on the bus after my last stop in deconstruction is proof that theology wasn’t really something I was passionate in. It took up so much room in my life, crowding out other things that I might be interested in, only because I felt that my eternal life depended on it.

It did. Theology was a matter of life and death. I genuinely thought that if I believed the wrong thing, God would burn me alive in hell forever for failing to follow his clear and obvious truth. That meant I had to be right, on every issue I was exposed to. It was a horrific catch-22: Someone who truly loved Jesus loved to study the Word. So I studied. The more I studied, the less margin of error I had, because someone as educated as I in the Word should know better.

When my beliefs became emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually impossible to hold onto, I had to start over. I started over with unconditional love at the foundation of everything I believe and do. I’m not afraid of God anymore. My faith doesn’t present itself as a mental illness. There is room to be who I am and follow the passions and vocation God gave me.

Theology and I parted ways when it became clear that our relationship was built mostly out of fear and necessity — a bond forged in a traumatic existence predicated on getting everything right, or else. That is what makes me question whether that decade of theological study was a true passion, much less a true (but temporary) calling.

Now my passions lie with something entirely different and entirely out of left field — children’s rights advocacy, particularly in the contexts of respectful, nonviolent, nonpunitive parenting, trauma-informed foster care, and — get this — play- and nature-based early childhood education. (Bailey and nature in the same sentence? Truth is stranger than fiction.) I see the world through a developmentalist perspective. I want to be an early childhood teacher in a needy area. I want to foster children. Whereas my brainspace was once taken up by minute, obscure, unwanted opinions on eschatology, now it’s crowded with minute, obscure, unwanted opinions on sleep training and baby-led weaning.

I want to say that this is my true passion. This is where I am called now that I am free to answer any call that God gives me. This is what I was born to do and what I choose to do out of love, not fear.

Interestingly, I’m only passionate about this ever since I landed a K5 job at a Christian charter school in the inner city (what else what I was supposed with that Christian studies degree?), got pregnant, and realized that I needed to get my act together before I passed on all my vices to the next generation. How much of this new passion is born out of necessity, circumstance, and, sure, a little (lot) of fear about screwing things up? Are those things the drive of passion and vocation? Will this passion last all the way through my kids’ childhoods? Even that long? Will I have to reboot and rebrand in another decade, in a new season?

And if I do, will that mean this passion wasn’t my calling and vocation? Or does it mean that calling and passion grows and changes organically with the whole person? Perhaps the person, her circumstances, her fears and her loves drive the passion and the calling just as much as the passion and the calling make up who that person is?

This is the gist of my quarter-life crisis. I haven’t quite figured out what to do with my past self and my past passions. I still want to write. I still ponder things about God and spirituality…just off-script from theology. Just the other day I was toying with the idea of writing about God and spirituality through the lens of motherhood, which is a very theologicky thing for someone disinterested in theology to consider. For Pete’s sake, I’m writing a whole article on how important it is for me to find out where the heck that Lost Decade of Theology fits into this new me who wants to write about behavior clip charts, eating healthy on a budget, and the best brand of diapers, all in one breath.

Living longer will answer those questions better than trying to puzzle it out now, I imagine. I’m not worried about it too much. I just like having an explicit, cohesive “point” to my existence.

For now, my friend suggested that my forte was speaking about the universal human experience from whatever vantage point I happened to be occupying at the moment…whether it’s from a nerdy, academic, snobbish place of fear or a page out of the life and times of a mom and preschool teacher passionate about children’s rights and a God of love.

There’s a lot of freedom and a lot of grounding in that vocation. I like it.

My Dear Brothers and Sisters, Not Many of You Should Be Tweeting

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Sharing the story of our hurt is healing. It’s healing to get it off our chests. It’s healing to take control of a narrative that ripped agency from us. It’s healing to be taken seriously and believed. It’s also healing to see how sharing our story impacts and empowers others.

The amazing thing about the internet is that this healing can extend beyond a couple in-person relationships. We can connect with others who’ve been through our struggles. We can start wide-reaching social media platforms without any middle-man policing our story. We can effect change and expose lies and abuse just through one viral tweet. That’s incredible. I’m eternally grateful for all the brave people who shared their stories publicly, forever changing my life.

The downside to this amazing phenomenon? There are a lot of injured, unprepared, easily triggered people thrust to the helm of important social movements and prominent platforms, and they are not healed enough to be there.

I’ve observed that there are many, many vocal people who subconsciously use their platform as a form of personal healing. They want the internet to hear them, believe them, and validate their experience, no questions asked. They fly off the handle at questions; they attack people’s character for using the wrong word or tone, even unintentionally; they want people to change their minds, but don’t want them to ask any questions. “There are tons of articles on that. Do your own research,” they snap.* They talk about how exhausted and done they are after one dissenting comment. Their patience and their skin is extremely thin.

I used to judge these people as mean and irrational, but now I understand that they’re just hurt and unhealed, and continued interaction with the insensitive and ignorant masses further compounds their pain. The stress of being questioned and not immediately believed, the frustration of hearing the same stupid questions over and over, the exposure of their deepest selves to a skeptical world — that’s a lot. They are burned out.

I’m convinced there’s absolutely nothing wrong with expecting people to accommodate our pain and adhere to our boundaries, but if we’re going to be speaking to people who don’t know us, who aren’t familiar with our type of experience, and who don’t agree, we’ve got to be aware of our needs and explicit about our boundaries. It’s essential for our own well-being and our movement as a whole to specify whether we’re looking to be heard and validated or seeking to educate others.

In my own online experience, I enjoy clearly-defined boundaries that set me up for what to expect as a participant. I don’t mind being in spaces where a particular marginalized voice is elevated or where I’m expected to listen and not talk. I appreciate when someone specifies which terms they do or don’t prefer so that I can discuss things sensitively. I’m okay with working around people’s sensitives and triggers. We all have them — even prominent, confident social media leaders. Just because someone is an internet celebrity doesn’t mean that their followers and detractors get to define or ignore the celebrity’s personal boundaries.

What does bother, frustrate, and confuse me is when people enter into spaces for open debate or set themselves up as a public, vocal advocate, and then not only refuse to accept questions, criticism, or the ignorance expected from beginners, but rage at others for daring to question their experience. Again, to be clear, there is nothing wrong or weak about admitting our triggers, acknowledging our areas that need healing, or setting up spaces and boundaries that are geared toward support and validation only. We just need to be clear about them. And we need to be realistic: it’s not fair to ourselves or others to set ourselves up as an expert, to start debates, or to attempt to change people’s minds if we’re not healed enough to patiently, kindly deal with the skeptics and the newbs.

This is where I see positive social media movements going off the rails. They start as primarily raising awareness about a problem, empowering people with similar experiences to speak up. It picks up steam as all the people needing the validation of being seen, heard, and believed hop onto the bandwagon.

Then, since it’s public and controversial, the dissenters start in with questions, comments, and criticisms — many outright trollish, meant to silence and intimidate; many genuine, meant to understand and to give a fair hearing, even if they cannot agree to agree beforehand. The movement, being designed more for awareness, not debate, and being comprised mostly of ordinary people who signed up for validation, not skepticism, who aren’t healed enough to hear a barrage of questions and a slew of the same old ignorant microaggressions about their very personal stories — the movement reacts as any hurt person punched in their wounds would: lashing out, withdrawing into itself, creating an insular echo chamber that demands unquestioning belief and perfect sensitivity, without any energy to educate even its own people on what that looks like.

This inability to engage with the public erodes the movement’s credibility with the crowd of reasonable but ignorant people willing to give it a fair shot. People get nervous or frustrated, unable to engage in a discussion without being told to sit down and shut up. Within the movement, people are too afraid of getting cancelled for unintentionally saying the wrong thing. People with valid concerns get kicked out for simply disagreeing. The movement fails to educate those trying to listen and learn, and it’s unable to handle the introspection needed to course correct or grow. All the leaders are off and on angry, burnt out, or unwilling to answer or tolerate questions, and finally, the movement implodes in on itself with infighting, because everybody’s sensitivities and hurts are unique, and nobody knows how to handle those differences in healthy ways.

All of this can be mitigated through self-awareness, self-care, and clear communication. We need to recognize with compassion and sensitivity that hurt people hurt people. They’re not irrational or mean or proving that their experience and their take on it is invalid. They’re just hurt. If someone is sharing something personal in a public sphere, we need to ask about their boundaries and respect those boundaries, offering validation if that’s what they want and we can offer, scrolling past if we can’t.

For those of us who put ourselves out there, let’s be real with ourselves. Are we looking for validation or for changing people’s minds? Are we sharing primarily for ourselves and our healing, for others’ healing, or for convincing dissenters? (All of which are valid reasons, in my opinion.) Are we sharing sensitive things only in safe places and checking in with ourselves before entering into potentially triggering debates? Are we aware of and clear about our boundaries — with ourselves and others? Are we setting ourselves up as an expert when what we really need is expert counseling? Are we setting ourselves up as an advocate when we’re still in need of advocacy? Are we setting ourselves up as an educator without any intention or ability to treat our students with respect, patience, and understanding?

There’s nothing wrong with being unable or unwilling to field questions or criticisms about our personal experiences, or to deal directly with those uneducated and unfamiliar with our movement. That’s a huge job for a specific skillset and level of healing. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to share our story for personal empowerment or the empowerment of others. That’s an important niche in truth-telling. But any decision to lead, educate, and advocate publicly needs to involve an honest, compassionate, realistic assessment of our wounds and our boundaries.

“Not many of you should become teachers,” James warns, “because you know that we who teach will be judged more so” (James 3).

I, as a teacher and a writer, used to freak out at this verse. Interpreted “judged” as divine retribution for getting something wrong. But that’s not what he means. He means it quite literally: the harsh, hypocritical, unrelenting scrutiny from followers and dissenters alike comes with the territory of teaching. People will judge teachers (or leaders or social media celebrities), whether we think that’s fair or not, and whether we can handle it or not.

Not many of you should becomes teachers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more so. For we all make mistakes in lots of things. (And the internet will let us know about it.)

Here’s a good check in for whether we’re ready to take on a public role: “Who is wise and knowledgeable among you? Let them show by their fine behavior that their actions are done gently, with wisdom. … [T]he wisdom from above is primarily holy, then peaceful, considerate, reasonable, full of mercy, unprejudiced, and without pretense. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”

And if our words don’t follow this pattern? Our words can set the world on fire — in an apocalyptic, dumpster fire sort of way that burns us and our movements to the ground, not the inspirational kind of fire that keeps our message going. “In the same way also, the tongue is a small body part and confidently says major things. Look how small the tongue is and how great a forest it sets on fire!”

Hence James’s advice that not many of us should be teachers — or tweeters or advocates or social media vigilantes, to put it in modern terms.

It’s okay — it’s totally okay and normal and necessary — if we’re not at a place to do any of those peaceful, holy, reasonable, unprejudiced things, if we still need to vent and rage and feel validated and tear down the dangerous beliefs of others in a safe, understanding place that doesn’t require us to watch our impact on those who don’t get it. I went through a two-year long process needing to do just that. I sometimes still need to do that for certain things, depending on where I’m at in my grieving and reconstructing.

But if we’re not in a place to be peaceful, considerate, reasonable, full of mercy, etc., we should be talking to those committed to our healing — a therapist, a support group, a loved one — and not the heartless, skeptical internet. Our souls and our movements’ reputations will be far better off if not many of us were to become vocal, public advocates before we’re ready.

*See Christian Janeway’s pointed remarks on this popular and frustrating dodge here. (Expletive alert, for those sensitive to that.) The gist: “I take issue with anyone who treats someone with honest questions or even honest ignorance about a ‘category of human’ as if the person with the question is a part of the problem for approaching a [expletive] public expert, who built a platform on that expertise. … If you have info that she didn’t have, it is your job to share it with kindness. That’s not oppression — that’s being a kind human being. … When I’m the expert, I fully expect and welcome people’s questions and mistakes. … People who are voluntarily giving up privilege because it’s the right thing to do are already deeply uncomfortable in a space they don’t know how to navigate, and will make mistakes. If you don’t have the patience and maturity to deal with someone making mistakes in a space they’re unfamiliar with, I truly don’t see why I should trust you to be any kind of representative for your group of humans.” Amen.

Am I Morally Obligated to Tweet That?

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The New Rules for Social Justice in the Age of the Internet

  • If you Tweet in support of any one group or issue, you are now required to give your opinion on every injustice, as it occurs in real time. If you exercise any discretion, hesitation, or preference for issues that you actually know about, you are heartless, hypocritical, and not a real member of whatever label you dared apply to yourself. Notice: This will be strictly enforced by an elite task force of users whose primary purpose is complaining about everything you don’t say when you don’t say something and questioning why on earth you chose to say something about that when you do.
  • Real change is retweeting inflammatory messages. Do you even care about anybody if you’re not on social media?
  • When people get upset at your insightful criticisms that you crafted after one interaction with an obnoxious troll at 2:07 AM, DON’T engage them directly. Pray another supporter will come along a defend your honor and your bad argument, and then do of of these two things: Start a fresh Facebook post to document how you once believed in the good of all humanity, but now that you’ve seen the opposition for what they are, you finally understand why your side has given up trying to accord them any basic human respect. OR (the courageous option) USE HAND CLAP EMOJIS. And shout louder for the people in the back. (Preferably only party lines that fail to capture the nuance of the opposing viewpoint.) This isn’t about changing minds. This is about moral posturing, damn it.
  • You don’t need to know anything about the issue at hand to have a tweetable emotional response. Lives are at stake. Tweet like it.
  • Listening to alternative, marginalized viewpoints means filling your social media feeds with liberal white women who yell at you to elevate the voices of people of color.

Ah, me. Such have been my errors in trying to fit in with the cool kids.

In all seriousness, I do struggle with my moral obligations on social media. It’s real life in the sense that it involves real people discussing real issues that often bring about real awareness, education, and change of hearts — but it can all go away with a single disabling of my social media accounts.

I often contemplate with envy and curiosity the strange creatures who resist the lure of social media altogether — creatures like my dad, who can’t be persuaded to get a Facebook account even by photos of his adorable grandkids. If I’m honest, I wonder if that’s an unfair cop-out. A delightful cop-out, to be sure, but a cop-out nonetheless. Now that we have the whole world at our fingertips, aren’t we obligated to participate in it?

Are we?

“Who is my neighbor?” the clever Law expert asked Jesus — and I find myself asking the same question. Who is my neighbor? Or more precisely, what are the boundaries of my neighborhood in a limitless world? These rules that governed my social justice warring life — they stem from these questions. Am I passing my neighbor by when I read an article about racism and do nothing? The least I can do is share it, right?

But is it truly meaningful care to pass along awareness of the tragedies of the world that I know little about — especially when the amount of misinformation and ignorance is mind-numbing and extremely problematic? Is it nothing but moral posturing, an act meant mostly to assure my worried ego that I am a good person and to alert my couple hundred followers that IN CASE ANYONE NOTICES, I AM NOT A HYPOCRITE?

You see my predicament. Add to that the excruciating and exhausting burden of being a highly sensitive person, and things get even more confusing. The tragedies of the world build up in my soul until they burst out in anxious pessimism, leaving me paralyzed in my flesh-and-blood relationships. This is especially true when feeding on a steady diet of short, upset, shame-inducing bites of information that are meant to motivate me to do something even though I don’t know what to do. Is that anxiety and shame just the cross we bear? Or is it a sign that I’m doing social justice advocacy all wrong?

I recognize that unplugging for self-care and unplugging for self-denial often look like the same thing — maybe they even go hand-in-hand sometimes. The last thing I want to do is stick my head in the sand — correction: I would gladly stick my head in the sand, but morally speaking I don’t support that option — but the harsh reality is that I am one person, with one life, with a limited capacity to understand complex issues, much less do anything about them.

Who is my neighbor? What are the boundaries of my neighborhood? Is it morally preferable to make small, barely understood differences on many issues all across the world or to make deep, informed issues on only a select few issues close to home? And where’s the role of social media in all of this? What issues am I obligated to tweet about? Am I even “obligated” at all as nobody writer with a few hundred followers and a Facebook account?

This is your cue to jump into the comments section and answer all these questions for me.

Here’s where I’m at in this thought process. I frankly don’t know what’s right or wrong when it comes to drawing the boundaries of my neighborhood — or if drawing firm boundaries is even an appropriate thing to do when it comes to matters of justice. I want to draw boundaries to focus myself on the people within my neighborhood, not to exclude or ignore the needs and insight of those outside my immediate neighborhood. That’s why intersectionality — the overlapping of distinct but related issues — is imperative.

Instead of coming up with an arbitrary list of shoulds, I am committing myself to intentionality — slowing down; figuring out my intention, weighing my impact; learning the difference between wisdom’s caution and peer pressure; discerning what’s valid criticism and what’s somebody’s prejudiced projection on my motives; making deliberate decisions about what I’m called to say and do and where I’m called to say and do it.

I’m committing myself to thoughtful, intentional education — reading books and long-form articles, listening to interviews and podcasts. I’m committing myself to sit under those whose alternative and minority viewpoints are combined with a pursuit of truth, understanding, community, and love — people whose character, thinking, and work I admire, even if I disagree with them. There are plenty of minority and alternative viewpoints that fall into this category. Usually they’re the ones who are out working face-to-face with people, not those who tweet from their armchair for a living. Don’t worry — their words are plenty uncomfortable even without the shame-y hand claps and shouting.

I ended up unfollowing groups who primarily complain about The Other Side, even though I technically agree with them. They weren’t helping me understand the issues any further, and they weren’t helping me love. I got off Twitter entirely.

I determined which social media platforms I want to use and what I want to use them for, and have been trying to match what I do and don’t write about to those intentions. (It’s a work in progress.) I also want to redouble efforts to create community and shared understanding with my words and platforms, not just speak controversy into an out-of-context void.

And the really hard, not-so-fun part: I’m committed to nonjudgmental but objective scrutiny of my motives. Am I disengaging because I need self-care or because I don’t want to face the facts? Am I unfollowing because this user doesn’t provide any new insight or because I don’t want to change my mind? Am I not speaking up because I’m scared of what someone will think of me or because I truly don’t have anything productive to add? I’m finding that I tend to shoot from the hip when I don’t know what I’m talking about, and hold back when I do.

Whether or not I keep or delete a platform, tweet or don’t tweet, unplug or plug in, I want to keep tabs on my fears, ignorance, strengths, and calling; I want to focus on whatever I’m doing with intentionality, courage, and wisdom; and I want to enter into careful learning under thoughtful teachers who challenge me to do the above without compromising on the hard things I need to hear from them.

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.

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.”