In which I Muse on Things I Assume Every Parent Knows, but Apparently not.

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The English word “spoil” is ultimately derived from the Latin word spoliare and comes down to English via the Old French word espillier. What is interesting about all the different forms of the word throughout history is that one common theme emerges: violence. “Spoil” as a verb referred “to stripping someone (usually an enemy) of clothes; to strip, plunder, pillage.” As a noun, “spoil” referred to the results of what was taken by this act of violence.

Why do I begin here? Today we most commonly apply the word “spoil” to two categories: food and children. What is interesting to observe is that these two categories “spoil” in opposite ways: food by neglect, children by indulgence. When we ignore and “under-care” for food, it spoils. Contrariwise, when we mollycoddle and “over-care” for children, they spoil.

But what does it mean to “over-care” for or pamper a child and why does this lead to spoilage?  The answer rests in the nature of growth. We might, to continue the analogy, spoil food before it reaches maturity in a similar way. We might over-water it, over-feed it, over-expose it to sunlight, and so on. If we are poor gardeners we might lavish a plant with things that it legitimately needs to grow, but given to excess, kills it. We might even do this out of love. That is, we so love our green beans that we lavishly spread manure over them, but give them so much that we suffocate them. No one who did this to plants could be said “to love” his green beans; so too with children. Both plants and children need the right amount of nutrients to grow, but no more. Both plants and children must be worked on to grow—they must be weeded, they must be pruned. They must be cultivated, which might include activities that each find disagreeable.

It is quite understandable that parents would want to protect their child. But when that protection is aimed at the elimination of all suffering, the parent—in a serious way—does violence to the child (i.e., spoils the child). We live at a time when people view childhood as a time set aside for delight, for play, for the care-free life spent skipping amongst the daisies, and splashing in pools. We must not, so the thinking goes, impose upon the child discipline and training and force the child to “grow up too fast.” Children must not be made to suffer these things. We must not spoil their childhood.

It is certainly understandable why some parents have this point of view. When we’re children, all we want to do is grow up, right? We want to be older. We want to do what the grown-ups do. We want to sit at the grown-up’s table. Who likes to sit at the “kids table?” Yet, once we grow up, we find that it’s not all it promised to be. There are debts to pay, yards to mow, laundry to wash, meals to cook, careers to advance, spouses to please, neighbors to keep up with. And faced with such undesirable circumstances, we tell our children, “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May.” So, we want to protect our children from all this. Perhaps we don’t want them to grow up, because we don’t like what growing up looks like. So, we give our children everything they want to protect them from all these undesirables.

No one, however, who thinks this way about their children, can be said to love their children. For this approach merely keeps the child as a child, which is unnatural. The child’s desire to “grow up” is natural and must be nurtured, not impeded. To lavish the child with everything he or she wants is to keep the child in a state of perpetual youth. Is this not what we mean by a “spoiled brat?” And when the child is given everything he wants, he cultivates within the mindset of “I will do what I will do, and no one will tell me otherwise.” This seems to have become the mantra of a large portion of our culture, and it is the mantra of perpetual childhood. It is the mantra of a wealthy era. For only the child expects to get whatever they want, do whatever they, and say whatever they want without consequences. This is the false process of a shallow freedom defined only as “lack of restraint.”

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But true freedom is the ability to live according to one’s nature: to be able to live and act without a ruler and an overseer. But this requires great training, great discipline, great pain. The parents who truly love their children would be willing to see their children suffer so that those children might grow into healthy adults.

In our culture we often consider struggle as a sign that there is a problem. When a student is “struggling” with his or her homework, either the homework is too difficult or there is something wrong with the student—a learning disability perhaps. But why make this assumption? When I see a student struggling to understand, I rejoice. To me, this is a sign not that there is a problem, but that the student is thinking. Muscles must strain to grow. Iron must be hammered to be shaped. Friction must be achieved to sand wood. The mind must struggle with things it does not understand in order to come to an understanding. What really worries me are the students who aren’t struggling, because this is a sign either that the student already does understand (and so what is the point of the lesson) or that the student is indifferent and so no learning occurs.

Of course, we must do the right exercises too. Anyone who works in fitness and health will tell you that much damage can be done when exercises are done improperly. And much of what goes on in modern education would count as “damaging exercises.” But that’s not exactly my topic at the present. What is of more concern here is that we often find educators and even adults, avoiding tasks because they are “difficult.” For example, so many adults I meet refuse to read Shakespeare because it is “over their heads.” To this, philosopher Mortimer J. Adler answers:

Whoever passes by what is over his head condemns his head to its present low altitude; for nothing can elevate a mind except what is over its head; and that elevation is not accomplished by capillary attraction, but only by the hard work of climbing up the ropes, with sore hands and aching muscles.

We mustn’t give our children “what they can handle.” We must give them “more than they can handle” so that they can grow ever stronger and stronger. Adults who refuse to grow can never, without the charge of hypocrisy, expect children to grow.

We must be stronger than our children. We must be strong enough to say “no” to their desires because they are not yet strong enough. But to do this, we must be strong enough to say “no” to our own desires. And perhaps, as the Bard said, “there’s the rub.” Perhaps we give our children all they want because we ourselves are still children. Perhaps we are not yet strong enough to rule ourselves. Perhaps we are not willing to be exact and demanding with ourselves, so we cannot do so with our children.

So, will we? Will we ourselves “grow up” and stop spoiling ourselves and our children? Are we willing to see ourselves suffer and our children suffer that we might be something greater than we are now? Or will we continue to indulge ourselves like children and remain in a state of perpetual immaturity demanding to have the world bend to our wills?

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And by “suffer,” of course, I do not mean “abuse.” Clearly, that would go against all that I’ve stated here. Certainly there is an opposite error that some parents have made whereby they use abuse and punishment for the “good of the child.” Certainly not all discipline, training, and punishment is up-building; but neither is all discipline, training, and punishment harmful. As I’ve argued here, it can, in fact, be quite loving. Where is the line? Let that be the topic for another post.

For now, let us focus on not spoiling our children, on not plundering and pillaging them by lavishing them with all they want. Let us discipline them and help them grow. Let us cultivate them into the adults they are intended to be.

A Thought on Suffering and “Game of Thrones”

The internets are all abuzz about the latest episode of Game of Thrones. I am a latecomer to A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, I admit. The first book, Game of Thrones, was published in 1996 and has since risen to the heights of most “Best Fantasy” book lists. At some point I read one of those lists, bought the book, and it sat on my shelf for several years (always in the “to read” category). Then, when the HBO series came out I watched the first episode and quite frankly, couldn’t keep the characters straight (not to mention the tremendous backstory that sets up all the events!). So, I decided I would read the books since they had a nice index in the back with full family lines and this would get me more of the backstory necessary to fully appreciate the story.

Well, I was hooked. I stopped watching the TV series, bought the rest of the books, and was overwhelmed by Westeros and Essos for nearly 3 months. I then went back to the TV series and have been pleasantly entertained by the adaptation.

Now, back to Season 3, Episode 9. I have to admit that I was quite tickled by the reactions filmed by those who knew what was coming of those who did not. Martin is an author that seems to enjoy killing off characters you love and the Red Wedding (as it’s known) is a slaughterhouse for beloved heroes.

There is a part of me that is resentful of the reaction of those who have not read the books. “Read the books, they’re so much better, and you get so much more out of it.”

I had the exact same reaction to the Red Wedding when I read the books that TV fans had this week. And that’s what bothers me. It seems that everyone had an amazing shared experience of horror and disbelief that I suffered through alone. I remembering slamming the book down and charging outside for a breath of fresh air. Looking back now, I would have loved to commiserate with fellow readers, share my suffering with theirs. But I was all alone. No one to confide in, no one to vent to without sounding deranged. So when people had the same reaction this week, I was resentful and condescending because the emotions of the event were no longer fresh for me. Time has healed the experience, but for others it is fresh. I must not forget my own experience and extend to them the “shoulder to cry on” that I lacked. This all might seem a bit overstated since we’re just talking about a fictional story, but I think it illustrates just how real and how powerful art and beauty can move us.

And this is what I take from this experience: suffering (whether at the hands of some real-life problem or at the hands of some sadistic author) is often best managed in community. Even the suffering experienced through art is best a shared experience.

This does not mean I’ll stop reading the books (who knows how many years before The Winds of Winter is released anyway) because there is a depth and breadth of story and character that cannot be match by television or film (it’s simply a limit of the medium). This may, however, call for a book group with whom I can journey through this drama.

The Challenge of Job

Job-s-Depair,-by-William-BlakeWhat are we to make of the Book of Job? Ostensibly, it is about the problem of pain and suffering; the problem of why good people suffer and bad people prosper; the problem of how God could be omnipotent and just given the evil in the world. No doubt, the Book of Job is concerned with good, evil, suffering, and God. Popularly understood, the book of Job is one of “theodicy,” that is, the theological and philosophical attempt to harmonize God’s goodness, His power, and the existence of evil. Yet, is the Book of Job a “theodicy”. Does it intend to provide an answer to these problems? Is so, what is that answer? If not, what then is the purpose of Job? A brief examination of the text reveals that if Job is a theodicy, it is a remarkably poor one. What then is its value?

In the opening of the book of Job, the common assumption that God blesses the good and curses the wicked is affirmed. Job is described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away evil” (1:1 ESV). Consequently, he is extremely blessed, enjoying a large family, a great estate, and renown across the land (1:2-3). Then, in a heavenly scene unbeknownst to Job, the accusation is brought forth that Job only worships God because God has blessed him. “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?” (1:9-10 ESV). Job is then stripped of his family, his possessions, and his health. He is left with the conundrum: “what have I done to deserve this?”

With the entrance of Job’s three friends is the reaffirmation that only the wicked suffer and only good prosper. Job is suffering, therefore he must be wicked. Job maintains his innocence despite his circumstances heightening the dilemma of suffering. In a fit of rage, the young Elihu, accuses Job precisely of not producing a theodicy. “He burned with anger at Job because he justified himself rather than God” (32:2 ESV). Elihu then affirms yet again the belief that no one is truly innocent, so Job should repent.

God finally responds to Job in a series of rhetorical questions, the effect of which is to demonstrate to Job that despite the apparent injustices, God is in control of the universe and is just.  Job responds first with silence, then with repentance.  Finally, God restores Job above and beyond his state prior to his suffering.

Where, then, is the theodicy in this? Job is given no explanation as to why he is suffering. No explanation is given generally as to why good people suffer or why wicked people prosper. No justification is offered as to how God’s omnipotence, goodness and the existence of evil might be reconciled. The problem of pain and suffering is left completely unresolved. In fact, in light of God’s response to Job, the book seems to argue that no such answer is even possible.

If the purpose of Job is not one of theodicy, what is its purpose? While Job does not offer a solution to the problem of evil, what it does do is dispel us of the notion that when we are prosperous it is because we are righteous (and vice-versa) and when we suffer it is because we have done wrong (and vice-versa).  The book of Job shows there is no “quid pro quo” karmic relationship between our good deeds and prosperity nor our evil deeds and suffering. It rids us of the notion that suffering is a sign of God’s judgment.

So why do we suffer? The Book of Job does not say. What it does though is provide us with a framework for how we respond to such seemingly meaningless suffering. The solution is not to be found in philosophical and theological argument, the gulf between God and man is simply too great for such explanations to be truly satisfying. The solution is found in God Himself. In the end, Job recognizes that his complaints against God were not based on a full knowledge of God: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5).

Finally, the Book of Job should rid us of the myth that the Judeo-Christian religion is “escapist”.  That it is wishful thinking in a good, all-loving God who will save us from our pain. The message of Job is not that God will save us from suffering, but that in the midst of our suffering, God is there. God Himself is the answer to the question. In the face of God all questions evaporate. This is how someone like St. Thomas Aquinas can look back on his work and refer to it as “straw” after having an encounter with God. Then, and only then, we can affirm with Job, “I uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3 ESV).

The Dramatic Irony of Job 9

In the ninth chapter of the book of Job, Job imagines what it would be like if God were to come and hear his complaint. He considers both what God would do, and what his response to God would be. Then, after several cycles of speeches between Job and his friends, God does, in fact, come “out of the whirlwind” (38:1 ESV) and answer Job. Ironically, the hearing that Job receives is exactly what he said it would be, but not nearly in the way or for the reason he thought. Furthermore, Job’s response to God is also exactly what he predicted, yet again, not in the way he anticipated. In the end, Job’s speech in chapter nine and the actual unfolding of the events presents a prime example of dramatic irony.

In chapter eight of Job, Bildad assures Job that God is just (8:3) and would not punish Job without cause. Therefore, Job should repent, and God would forgive him (8:5). In Job’s response to Bildad, he insists that such an encounter would be useless. “But how can a man be in the right before God? If one wished to contend with him, one could not answer him once in a thousand times” (9:2-3 ESV). God is simply too powerful for Job, how can a mere mortal contend with the one who “removes mountains . . . who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble; who commands the sun, and it does not rise; who seals up the stars. . .” (9:5-7 ESV)? Not only is Job acutely aware of God’s power, he is also mindful of God’s wisdom. In a debate with God, what could Job say? Job insists that God would outwit him by getting Job to prove the opposite of what he believes! “Though I am in the right, my own mouth would condemn me” (9:20 ESV). Job sees that the result of such an encounter would render him speechless: “he will not let me get my breath, but fills me with bitterness” (9:18 ESV).

The reason Job thinks he will not get a fair hearing before God is because he insists he has done nothing to deserve his trouble (i.e., he has not received a fair treatment so far, so why expect it in the future?). “If I summoned him and he answered me, I would not believe that he was listening to my voice” (9:16 ESV). The problem, as Job sees it, is that there is an infinite gulf between God and man. “For he is not a man, as I am, that I might answer him, that we should come to trial together. There is no arbiter between us, who might lay his hand on us both” (9:32-33 ESV). What he needs is someone equal to both God and man who might reconcile the two. At this point in the speeches, Job sees no such solution, yet later he will assert that because God is, in fact, just, such a one must exist (cf. 19:25).

So Job, insistent on his righteousness, is left with the conclusion that because God is in control of the whole universe and because He is far beyond the wisdom of man if God comes to him, Job would be silenced and have no answer.

The irony of Job’s speech is that this is exactly what happens, but not in the way or for the reason Job supposed. In God’s opening speech to Job He affirms Job’s statements (cf. 9:4ff) that God is in control of the universe (38:4f), the seas (38:8f), the movement of the sun (38:12f), light and darkness (38:19f), the seasons (38:25f)—God even affirms that he “binds” (38:31) the constellations Pleiades, Orion, and the Bear that Job had observed were created by God (cf. 9:9). God points all this out with the use of rhetorical questions: “where were you?” etc. The effect of this series of questions is to ask Job, “You say you know these things, but do you understand?” This is the heart of Job’s problem. He recognizes the power and wisdom of God, but has applied it in a limited way.

Job’s response to God’s questioning is exactly what he had predicted: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further” (40:4-5 ESV). While Job had asserted that he would be silenced by God because God would outwit him, what happens is that Job is silenced because he realizes he has spoken rashly. Job comes to see that he has far less knowledge of the situation than he supposed. It is as if God is saying, “If you have understood the gulf that exists between us, why do you presume to find fault with me?” Job agrees, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3 ESV).

It is in this way that Job can continue to maintain his righteousness and yet not make a complaint against God. The solution is not a philosophical justification of Job’s sufferings, but rather a personal encounter with God that ends in trust: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5 ESV). That is, though he cannot see his unrighteousness he trusts in God’s goodness. He concludes, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6 ESV). This comparison between Job’s words and the results reveals a dramatic irony that resolves the tension of the conflict, and elucidates the meaning of the book.

Is the Book of Job a Theodicy?

No, the book of Job is not one of Theodicy, for Job never receives an explanation for his suffering (Ch. 40-41), which is the nature of Theodicy, justifying the ways of God to man.  Rather, the “wager” (if that is even the right word for it), initiated by God, (1:8) sets up the drama to address the issue of what our response ought to be when faced with seemingly meaningless suffering.  Job has done everything right; he is “blameless and upright” (1:1). God himself says that Job has done nothing to warrant his sufferings:  “He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason (2:3).

What this does then, is dispels us of the notion that when we are prosperous it is because we are righteous (and vice-versa) and when we suffer it is because we have done wrong (and vice-versa).  The book of Job shows there is no “quid pro quo” karmic relationship between our good deeds with prosperity nor our evil deeds with suffering.

Therefore, the reason God enters this “wager” with Satan is to teach both Job and the reader what the response ought to be to suffering (42:1-6), whether we understand it or not.