I burned the candle reading on the stoop outside our backdoor last night. The biblio-love with whom I communed, Mary Pipher’s The Shelter of Each Other, resonated as clearly as the song of the barn own which visits our backyard at least once a week, the barn owl whom I have come to believe is divided between a past which took place somewhere in the woods behind our yard and a present which resides down the street from us.
The social construction of reality and the idol of Progress
Pipher, like Wendell Berry, dismantles the idol of “Progress” to which so many mega-churches and self-help groups are now dedicated. Just because science advances to give us the atomic bomb does not mean that this technological progress makes the world a better place. Like many, I am in the thralls of this consumer myth in the places where I least expect it.
We are, after all, one of those crazy families that gave away their TV set this year. That’s right- we don’t have a TV. Our kids are clueless about the latest exploits of Dora the Explorer or the how the Bratz feel about halter tops.
“Choose your books as carefully as you choose your friends,” warns a grandmother in Pipher’s book. For a woman who treats her books like lovers, the admonition is clear- my neural pathways are constructed by the books and media to which I am exposed. Ultimately, as an adult, I am responsible for creating the architecture of my own brain. As a parent, I am responsible for protecting and encouraging only the best and least harmless materials in the construction of my children’s brains.
We all have our blind spots. Boys are one of them. Pipher writes about the challenges faced by boys in our mediated culture- the tension between messages given by the media and the voice of their conscience, as nourished in their homes. When a boy tells his parents, “You just don’t understand,” he is absolutely right. How can we understand what it’s like to grow up in a culture that sets a standard of “cool” for men in which scoring is always the goal, whether in sports or in human relationships? How can we honestly confront the mixed messages given by media that glorifies killing without remorse and consuming sex as if it were a supersized McValue meal? How can we unravel the unspoken double standard that tells boys to kill and screw without warning them of the cost, whether jail, pregnancy, or emotional detachment that leaves them lonely, lacking the very friendship and intimacy which led them to try and impress others in the first place?
To confront this mixed messages requires us to admit the ways in we are complicit in their formulation. We tell our boys what is right and wrong, then we hand over the remote or iPad that reminds them the extent to which right and wrong are glorified abstractions and unrealistic expectations. We pat them on the head and refuse to acknowledge the way in which their kindness and empathy will be held against them in peer groups.
“Gentle boys who respect girls are at best ignored and at worst brutalized,” writes Pipher. “To be accepted they must do things that are wrong and harmful”, things which their peer groups will encourage and reward yet fail to assist them in coping with the consequences. The problem is compounded by the way in which our culture discourages kids from looking to their parents for help with complicated emotions and needs.
This is tantamount to denying the deepest and most essentially human need of all- the need to be loved and nurtured, the need to find meaning in the way we relate to one another.
Encouraging fatalism and despair
“There is nothing is new under the sun,” we promise, when our children express despair over bullying or the images of dead civilians, mothers with children curled around them, on the television set. So our kids learn to keep quiet about the things that shock them. Rather than empower them with tools to make the world a better place, we establish a rationale for passivity. There is nothing you can do. Life sucks. So keep playing that video game. At least you have a chance of scoring.
Albert Einstein said that our theories determine what we are capable of observing. Rush Limbaugh doesn’t see struggling single mothers trying to juggle two jobs and parenting- he sees only evil, selfish women trying to steal taxpayer dollars. If you listen to Rush Limbaugh, chances are you will see things the same way. Like it or not, he educates you and creates your worldview. He tells you what to think and what to care about. He lights that fuse beneath your bottom that makes you angry every time you see a young man wearing a hoodie. Worst of all, he convinces you that the world is nasty place where the ballots are rigged against anyone who considers themselves an “honest American”.
I would argue that anyone who considers themself an “honest American” needs to take a step back and do some critical thinking and deconstructing of the phrase itself. The honest American is the one who admits what his lifestyle costs the world and all the children of developing countries. The honest American is one who repents of any “Americanisms” that allow him to justify the desecration of our natural world and its non-American residents.
To argue that change is inevitable is to say that planning and hoping is impossible. Its serves to deprive us of personal agency and identity, to sweep individuals into a dustpan where all are just undifferentiated dust flurries. Telling your kids that “that’s the way the world goes round” as if it were a truism rather than just a funny song equips them with a sense of helplessness in facing life’s challenges.
Offering a rather un-erotic sex education
Rather than provide our kids with a rich, compelling sex education, we skim over the technical details and allow the culture of porn to do “the dirty work” for us. Perhaps, deep down, many of us still believe that sex is dirty, something that contaminates those who speak of it. So children learn to have “McSex”, to just do it and get it over with and consume it as quickly as possible. The difference is not so much in the people with whom you do it, but in the presence of specific condiments- ketchup, onions, anal, etc.
Honestly, are you surprised to see teens discussing sex as if it were banal, blase, and possibly even boring? Pardon my excitement, but if the coolest experience in the world (namely, sex) has become run-of-the-mill, what on earth is left to words to like “yearning” and “longing” and “hope”? I like words that represent feelings based on delayed gratification; they give us something to anticipate; they add texture and richness to everyday life.
The poverty of consumerism- that feeling of never quite having enough- commodifies things that might otherwise be created, hand-made, seeded between people and allowed to bloom, grow, and blossom in unspeakably beautiful ways.
We’re stuff-rich but oh so very soul-poor.
We’re theory-laden and yet still desperate for love. All the books which punish people for living as if we truly loved others- for living our way through our loves- throw us back on the market in search of the next book or pill that might fill in the emptiness.
Cars before conscience
I admire the courage it takes for Pipher to say that character has more influence on our longterm happiness than the momentary notion of “self-esteem”. To define “will as the ability to act on the basis of one’s values”. To bemoan the extent to which “cynicism is king”. To point out that most teens see conscience- not a car- as a luxury they can’t quite afford.
I wonder how we got to a place where kids feel more comfortable raising money to help pets or animals than fellow human beings. Have we made human-kind as unspeakably dirty as sex? Have we made it easier to show affection for an animal than a fellow human being? Have we made it harder for young folks to determine what they, as individuals, want as opposed to what they have been programmed to want? Have we extolled human nature above and beyond the power of human nurture? And do we really want to live the sort of world that exists as a result of these choices?
These are important questions to ask- as individuals, as parents, and as families. Relieving kids of the opportunity to participate in discussions about the challenges posed by our culture only disempowers them. Many of us (myself included) are better at teaching our kids to be rebels than helping them understand precisely what they are rebelling against.
Prophet brings me a bowl of flowers. I put down my pencil for long enough to remember why those books I take as lovers must remain, somehow, as side shows to the real show that unfurls everyday in our home.
In a world that tells us it is “safer not to care”, the most daring thing we can possibly do is keep caring. And teaching our children to care, in spite of the cost to their “cool factor”. If life is worth living, it must be worth engaging. We must agree to fight battles we can’t possibly win just because it is the right thing to do. We must agree to be enthralled and delighted. Perhaps these are the best lesson to impart from our temporary, fragile nests.