I have regarded Darren Aronofsky as my favorite director for 20 years. He competes in a space that he shares with provocateur directors such as Lars Von Trier and David Lynch but I have an affinity with his films, unlike the others. The first of his films I saw was Pi when I was about 17 years old. It was unlike anything I had seen before. Subliminal glory between the lines of brutalizing flesh. And every film of his after wrestles with threadbare flesh trying to make contact with glory.
His most recent incarnation The Whale grapples with this same universal and persistent question that is the substance of all his films; what is the meaning of all this?
It’s no coincidence that I have such an affinity with an Atheist Jew who can’t resist existential questions that have spiritual overtones. He and I, or at least his art and I, have the same curiosities, wrestle with the same nagging life pangs, both wish for truth to break through the veneer. The caged bird does indeed sing. We’re all caged inside our flesh, our vices, our peccadilloes. The spirit is caged inside the body.
There is a scene when the missionary, Thomas, discovers Charlie’s lover’s Bible and the passage under Roman’s 8:13 is highlighted.
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
The Whale is the most acute examination of the body as a cage that Aronofsky has explored to this point. The film is a slow burn. It is quite a passive film compared to Aronofsky’s last film mother! that was frantic chaos. The passivity is purposeful. Charlie puts up no resistance to the fate of each day. He is Superman at weathering blows. The few loved ones in his life, at first sight, are uncomfortably abusive. We, the audience, can’t believe the cruelty.
There is a scene where his estranged daughter manipulates morbidly obese Charlie into getting to his feet and walking to her that reminded me of a perversion of Christ’s walking on water. He ends up crushing the end table under his weight and flopping down into a devastating heap that is utterly heartbreaking. His daughter storms out the door in disgust.
There is another scene where we can infer that his daughter smashed a plate that had food remnants on it that Charlie was using to feed a bird on his window sill, the one creature who gave him comfort. Again, how evil of her. But there is more than first sight with Aronofsky films. We learn through its slow crescendo that the finale to this story is about freeing the caged bird. When that bird feeds at Charlie’s plate each day it grows dependent, it has no desire to explore, it becomes imprisoned in its domestication. The missionary, too, is caged in his assumption that his past is irredeemable. His daughter is caged inside her abandonment. Charlie’s lover is caged inside his religious hypocrisy. Charlie is caged inside his grief.
It was quite a poetic, quite biblical, ending. During the entirety of the story it is downpouring outside. The following is borrowed from Alissa Wilkinson writing for Vox:
“The real apocalypse is happening at Charlie’s house, at least if we take “apocalypse” to mean a moment of revelation. [The GOP primaries of 2016 are playing on tv in which Ted Cruz beats Donald Trump in Idaho where the film is set]. We know — everyone knows — that these are the last days of Charlie’s life. It’s raining continually outside, like a flood is coming. Charlie is obsessed with an essay he keeps reading about Moby-Dick, an apocalyptic book if there ever was one, about a man with an obsession and a death wish. There’s an atmosphere of dread, both of what’s about to happen in Charlie’s house and what’s going on beyond its walls.”
But in the final scenes the clouds break to sunlight. Weight becomes weightless, flesh walks on water and the spirit is freed from the body.
Charlie exclaims near the end that he thinks it’s impossible for people to be completely careless. Implying that our inherent nature, our instincts, care. In a world that so obviously perpetuates bad, is this sentiment true? I’m perplexed by this existential supposition. There is also Charlie’s obsession with honesty. He implores his students and his daughter to write honestly. Despite his own refusal to confront his flesh. It’s another perplexing theme.
But Aronofsky once again succeeds in creating a picture like that of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” in which man is reaching out for the spark of life from God.
It’s July 20th, 2020 and I’m trying to think of a word that encompasses what the last 4 months have been like for me, what it’s been like for everyone in their own way. I haven’t met a person yet that hasn’t had to ride the pandemic wave (or is it a burn?) without some other personal deprivation taking passenger seat in this wreck. Whether it’s not being able to gather for worship or participate in the sacrament of Eucharist, having to postpone your scheduled wedding, having the unmediated care removed from your prenatal care and birth, not being able to have the support of family after suffering a heart attack.
Demon. Maybe that’s the word.
On March 16th I had been back to work for 9 months since giving birth to my son Wyatt and taking maternity leave. 2019 saw a financial setback since I don’t get paid leave but we planned for it so we would be ok with one lagging year. By the beginning of March the US had been growing worried about the coronavirus Covid-19. It had swept China, Italy, more of Europe and was starting to become a tenable fear. March 11th WHO declared Covid a pandemic. March 16th Governor Walz (and Governors of all the other states) announced the closure of 11% of the labor force in Minnesota. In two weeks a record one-third of a million workers filed for unemployment insurance. When I went to work that Monday the language was unclear and I still didn’t know whether my industry was supposed to be furloughed. At 8 pm that night I received word that I am not allowed to go to work anymore. The furlough was in effect until March 27th. I had to scramble to get my personal belongings from my workplace. How was I going to pay for daycare? How could I take my kids out and maintain their spot? It was a two week increment that left things unsteady and unknown, not enough time to make any big decisions because potentially I was back to work March 30th. Little did I know these small increments would expand to just less than 3 months. I immediately applied for UI. I had worked since I was 15 and had never been on UI before. I was a novice. Turns out I ticked a wrong box and was sent into an administrative Bermuda triangle. I was told my employers HR could not help me. I called the UI phone number relentlessly. At this point I have my kids home with me, I took them out of daycare as we all got our bearings. I’ll never forget those phone calls to UI. I would be on hold for 3 hours everyday only to have my call disconnected. My 3 and 1 year olds would be tearing into something or getting hurt or screaming or crying while I’m waiting to have word about the money that will pay our bills which is less than half of ones income if you didn’t know. For 17 days my UI was stalled. I didn’t know if it would ever come. I was hurtling, sanity first, into despair. I could not believe what was yanked out from under me and was still learning what the potency of this virus is. I was a puddle of mixed emotions. Disbelief, despair, fear, anger and I was forced to depend on an institution that was unreachable, that doesn’t know me, for whom I am an abstraction, a number, a case. I’m not even the worst of it though. In Washington State my sister was denied UI for 8 weeks. You see, out there they paid out $650 million in fraud to hackers armed with people’s data from previous breaches. In order to rein in the deficit they halted all eligible claims, income that people desperately needed NOW. It was starting to feel like we’re a cat’s plaything. To their credit, I can’t imagine being the “one in charge” of all of this. Obviously no choices were easy and that’s simply what they were, choices. Choices based on the expert’s best predictions and guesses. I studied the experts findings too. After all, these guys were informing the policy makers. I subscribed to podcasts, I would spend 6 hours a day watching the news, I logged into CIDRAP to study the studies. This is what led to the country boiling over, the experts didn’t agree. Dr. Osterholm disagreed with his colleagues at WHO and the CDC had a different opinion than Osterholm and…Fauci…well, the opinion was evolving and the evolution was impacting peoples lives in substantive ways. Osterholm admits that there is still so much they don’t know about Covid-19. He also admits that the policy makers have to consider the culture with which they’re imposing restrictions. What type of mores and expectations do Americans have? He also admits he saw his grandkids for Fathers Day.
This last point makes me feel really slighted. The last time I saw my dad was Christmas and I regret never getting a picture of him with 9 month old Wyatt. In fact I never got a picture of him with Wyatt at all. I thought I had time.
I didn’t get to see my dad in March for Wyatt’s first birthday because of Covid. I didn’t get to see my dad for Fathers Day because of Covid. I didn’t get to see my dad at the hospital in May after a heart attack because of Covid. I didn’t get to see my dad at home while he was, as I was told, recovering because of Covid. Then in June my mom is hospitalized and I don’t get to support her at the hospital because of Covid. Both my parents NEED advocates. The telephone game is not enough.
I thought my dad was recovering and he was actually dying.
I desperately wanted to see him but was told it is too risky because of Covid. I wish I would have trusted my gut and saw him anyway. My sister from Washington State had come in town to help care for our mom and she made a date to see my dad on Saturday July 11th. I have to admit I was jealous. I had wanted so badly to visit him during this Covid-demon. During their lunch he was in a real bad way. He struggled to catch his breath, he was literally freezing to death. On the drive home he died in the car. The day I was told the news of his passing, I had been running through the sprinkler with my kids and we were just putting kabobs on the grill. At least during the pandemic-demon there was summer and outside. While I was running through a sprinkler my dad was in the throes of losing his life. I got the phone call and was in disbelief again. Four months ago it was the loss of my livelihood. Now it’s the loss of my dad. I picked up my sister and drove an hour up to Cambridge, MN to view him one last time, to view him for the first time since Christmas. He was lying on a hospital bed with his feet relaxed to the side, shoes still on. I scooted a chair across the floor to his bedside and told myself “shh”, he’s only sleeping right? Overwhelming disbelief. I took my mask off and looked down on his face. The Covid-demon didn’t matter anymore. It had infected my life without infecting me and now he’s gone. Not from Covid but from regular sicknesses that have been taking people’s lives since the beginning of time. Death is a sure thing that no amount of safety will prevent. Safety may flatten the curve but what it did for me was keep me from the things I call life. It kept me from doing what I know in my heart is best. We’re all trying to do what is best for each of us and that is an individual thing. Someone else’s Covid story involves losing their dad to the devastating effects of Covid itself. Ironically my dad didn’t die of Covid but he died gasping for breath nonetheless.
Covid didn’t take time off even after my dads death. We were told by the funeral director that we could not publish the date and time of his memorial service for fear of attracting a large number of loved ones which would make impossible social distancing. We had seen a very large, public, indoor funeral for a person that lost his life on May 25th, hundreds, thousands in attendance, and I wondered doesn’t my dad who is also a valuable child of God deserve a memorial with ALL his loved ones who wish to be there? In our grief we pressed our foot down and the funeral home relented. His memorial took place in the Rice St. neighborhood he had carved a life in and at the church he went to school. During the Lords Prayer, with the doors open in the back on a hot sunny day, his biker buddy cranked the throttle on his Harley Davidson and I literally imagined my dad’s soul joining his Maker on the highway to heaven. The day moved me. You always imagine how losing someone will affect you, at least I do, but it’s out of your control. My body just wept and I couldn’t stop it. I think it was the mounting pressures and mixed emotions these last four months had burdened me with. This force, like a herd of bison, trampled over me. It had tarnished friendships, it had deflated my spirit, it had made me question how courageous would I be if everything was taken from me? Would my gaze be toward the Lord? This Covid-demon had shone me for who I really am.
By weak I mean I have the same nature affliction that John Piper describes going to battle with here. Selfishness, self-pity, blame, anger and sullenness. The Covid deprivation made me realize how dependent I am on the things of this world. Niceties, comforts, property, ownership, self-sovereignty, freedom, the company of other people. And how much I failed to lean into the cross. For too long, deprivation ruined me, reduced me, and laid bare my faults. And this was just the deprivation of American freedoms. What if it wasn’t just a deprivation but a brutality? What if I was a number in a concentration camp? Oh how weak I’d be! My mind knows that the things of this world are temporal but my desires cling to them as if life itself is only the things of this world. But life is full of the glories of God. Glory that is attainable even in earthly deprivation. With the loss of my dad under the banner of Covid I am going to battle with my faults again, may my soul prevail over my flesh.
When I think of everything my dad had lived through in his life from 1939-2020 I imagine all the major challenges and frights and losses he had and yet he never despaired. He seized the day as the old trope says. He really did.
May God equip me with courage, resilience and hope when everything is taken from us except our life and even when that last vestige of property is taken from us as well may we find peace in knowing we have our eternal Father who breathed into us the breath of life, found value in our existence and welcomes us back home.
One last immortal post script for my father:
My dad, Dale, was 42 when I was born, the last chance for a boy out of a handful of girls. God gave him one more girl- Teresa Dale. For the formative part of my life he was an excellent provider. Oil changes, boot-strap perseverance, livelihood for the family, a strong blue collar work ethic. I love him for that. But for the last decade he let us glimpse his vulnerability, hugs and “I love you’s” became important, timely. He’s always been so strong but this was a new strength- tenderness, graciousness, calm. The kind of resolve a man gets when he’s focusing his life on what matters. What it made clear to me is that I was just getting to know him. All his life his animated stories had outsized him and now I was meeting the man the legends are about. A man of nine lives. A man who should have written a book. A person, a soul. A father who always loved his daughters, even that one four decades younger than him. A man who dedicated himself to the honor of those he loved. A man who loved life.
He was proud of us four strong women, all girls, which is just what he needed. And even though I was just getting to know him I am assured that he lived a full life and that he loved us.
Have you ever been hurt so badly that forgiveness seems like a contemptible commandment? Of course you have! Haven’t we all?! And even if your personal life has squeaked by largely unscathed there is the horror of the Holocaust that makes us remember. There is pain, misery, evil and death out there. Even in your home those things reside, rearing their head between moments of joy or peace, like a whack-a-mole. Can’t I just whack that thing once and for all? Do you find your exhaustion and your resentment festering until it becomes as C.S. Lewis describes- “a black we wish was blacker”? In other words, if you found out that some indicting point of view you have about someone is untrue would your reaction be ‘phew, he is not as bad as I thought’ or steadfastness in your indignation that your hatred has to be well founded? Aren’t we all guilty of the latter? We want people to be as guilty as our feelings sentence them with. But the former is the type of love forgiveness is rooted in.
Lewis thought Chastity was the most unpopular virtue. That is, until Forgiveness. We are called to love our neighbor as ourself but within that paradigm is your enemy. If everyone around you are idiots or more nefariously, corrupt, how can you love them? What does that look like?
Here is what forgiveness is not. It is not feeling fondly for the person. It is not finding them attractive. It is not thinking them nice when they have not been.
“This is an enormous relief. For a good many people imagine that forgiving your enemies means making them out that they are not really such bad fellows after all, when it is quite plain that they are.” –C.S. Lewis
Forgiveness does not reduce the hatred we feel for the wretchedness of the wrongdoing. We ought to hate it. It does not mean that the subject of the wretched act ought not be punished. Punishments and governing authorities are anointed to administer earthly justice. Deserved punishment is a wrongdoer’s right as a human being. Because we are ‘selves’ or self conscious sentient beings or made in the image of God (whichever way you want to put it), because we have that level of dignity above all other creatures and life forms on the planet is why just deserts matter. Forgiveness doesn’t negate retributive justice. So, depending on the trespass, jail or prison or death may be necessary. For the Gestapo this is necessary. But even in the execution of the punishment we should, as Lewis says, “feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves- to wish that they were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good.”
What does forgiveness look like for a spouse, friend or family member who hurt us personally? It means loving someone who is sometimes unlovable. But then, are you yourself ever unlovable? Yes. We all are. Whether it’s that I must always be right or that I mentally reduce my loved ones to fools when their interests or idiosyncrasies or delights seem below me. Whether it’s having unreasonable standards or being perfectionist. Whether it’s glossing over my own wretchedness to go out of my way in pointing out theirs. Whether it’s my impatience, my intolerance, my misunderstanding, my anger, my rudeness, my frustration: MY EGO, these all make me deplorably unlovable. Even in my ‘noble’ hope that my loved one be cured of their unlovable affliction, which is an aspect of holy forgiveness (we are called to approach forgiveness with hope for redemption) we still miss the mark with this focus. Even reading this essay you have someone else in mind. You’re thinking of someone who may or may not deserve your forgiveness. Which leads us to what forgiveness IS.
Lewis sums it up so well here:
“For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life- namely myself. However much I dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.”
Isn’t that sharp?! There is someone in this universe that you always go out of your way to forgive. Yourself. When you’ve done something awful (and you have! We all have.) how long does it take you to forgive yourself, an hour, a day, maybe for the more brooding personality a month? Then you carry on enjoying your own company and finding yourself quite worthy and deserving of good things. That is what forgiveness looks like. But what forgiveness is is this: love your neighbor as yourself. It’s a challenging call because ‘our self’ is our constitution that we’re stuck with, that we can’t be rid of, that we can’t abandon so forgiving it is not only built in but necessary. Another’s self isn’t lodged in our being. We can abandon it. But how much more selfless and good and glorious is it to choose to love an abandonable person than the automatic and choiceless act of loving ourself? You would wish your loved one would choose love for you. Through your wretchedness, your guilt, your sorrow you wish for forgiveness and love from them.
So do they from you.
Forgiveness says, you have done an evil thing; nevertheless, I will not hold it against you. I love you.
This is why forgiveness is unpopular, radical and HARD. But for ourselves it is simple. We should extend the generosity we give ourselves to other people. That is love.
To love is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully in your hobbies and your vices, avoid all entanglements, lock it up safely in the coffin of your selfishness. But in the coffin- safe, dark, motionless, airless- it will change. It will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to heartbreak isn’t safety, it’s damnation. The only place you can be free from the danger of love is Hell.
This is an artistic film. I think the thrilling scenes are enough to carry a mainstream viewer but the artistic pace toward the climax is slow. Or rather concealed. Evil doesn’t start out bombastic and in your face, it starts with little background-noise slights and then more overt wrongs until it scandalizes into grand evil. Film critics have had contrasting reactions from “vile, contemptible, an embarrassment to Paramount Studios” to “riveting, masterpiece, visually striking.” It is downright Aronofsky and should be sealed with his family crest!
This nightmare (is this a dream?) is a Christian allegory. That’s what I see.
‘He’ (Javier Bardem) is the Creator God, the houseguests are depraved mankind, the baby is the expiating Christ given as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins, the carbon crystal is the seed of life and the forbidden fruit (the perfect genesis that belongs to God alone).
But who or what is mother?
Some critics have said this is a story about mankind ravaging mother earth, where Jennifer Lawrence’s ‘She’ (there are no names of characters only Him, Her, She and He) is the world. I think that’s too lazy an interpretation. There are too many things that wouldn’t add up. If it’s a lecture on the despicable way we treat the earth then what does the innocent son of man have to do with it? What of God’s taking earth’s love and recreating? It seems God’s preoccupation is with man. He says, for a creator “there is never enough.” Else, there would be no creation. He must bore forth. For the act of creating is out of desire to yield something ‘other’ than thou. God’s constitution is conceiving. He conceived of the earth but his fondness is for humanity. This has me thinking about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the Christian Trinity- that perfect relationship, why more, why us? I’m not sure this film presents the relationship between God and His creatures in accord with Christian doctrine but it is an allegory and a work of art. That these themes are even given screen time is groundbreaking to me in an industry that’s void of existential thought beyond ‘I’.
If She isn’t simply mother earth could she be Lucifer? Lucifer after all is a fallen angel who had protected the throne of God just as She protects His writing room and His cherished tree of life- the carbon crystal. There is also great parallel of His poet’s words and the word of God. There is even anointing done with ashes, by God and his priest, of his fan followers, blessing them; “receive his words.” The allegory goes on. Lucifer was exceedingly beautiful. Lucifer grows loathsome of service to God. ‘She’ is a stridently sacrificial yet jealous character. Yearning to have Him to herself, to have His gaze exclusively upon her, to have first priority when viewing His work of art. Then Lucifer is cast out of heaven and upon judgment is burnt by fire and disintegrated into ash. Jennifer Lawrence’s ‘she’ forebodes about the apocalypse. The narrative in mother! displays genesis through the book of revelation.
Or maybe lowercase mother is simply a person. She is the commoner with the womb that carries Jesus. The same person who seeks a word with him on his walk up to Calvary to whom he says “My mother is someone who hears the word of God and does it.” Lawrence’s She is sick of God’s plans for their household. She is the commoner that is enchanted, even moved, by God’s word but doesn’t accept the radical regeneration that’s required. Her idea of service is still prideful. She doesn’t do it 100% for God, she does it for herself. The home is her work, the womb is her work. He receives praise for His work, She wishes for praise for Hers. This isn’t simply a presentation of misogynistic burden shouldered by women. All un-regenerated people are saturated in self-glory, unable to free themselves from that outlook. Unable to abide the leadership of Him.
There are plenty of stories in the bible that have God resetting the course. Outmoding animal sacrifice for the ultimate blood sacrifice Jesus Christ, Noah’s ark and the great flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. Now, whether the recreation in the film means God as a frustrated amateur that just can’t seem to get it right and narcissistically scraps His work so that He can receive more love, more adoration next time or God as the perfect creator that, out of abundance of love, painstakingly gives second chances, there is artistic license with this. Does the creator ‘He’ create out of an absence and a desperation for more or out of an abundance and a selfless choice to share?
This film reminded me a lot of Aronofsky’s earlier works. There were beautiful cinematic scenes that reminded me of several films. There was Requiem For A Dream in the pulsating organic walls and delusional visions. I saw Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist with the opening and closing sequences of nature insidiously consuming civilization with its tentacles. I saw Gone Girl in the scenes of the crazed fans and paparazzi. I saw Children Of Men with the war ravaged trenches and slummed refugee camps. The decent into Hell was almost as if an elevator were taking you through the generations of the earth’s crust with each layer being an egregious era in mankind’s history.
One thing Aronofsky got spot on is the depravity of man. And I’m not talking about the stereotypical political jargon that a bleeding heart (no pun intended) would sentence you with but rather the curse we’re ALL under. One thing that struck me is the brilliant way Lawrence’s She, whether Lucifer or person or planet, is cast as someone you’re sympathetic for. Of course!…the barging in of houseguests should incense her, of course she shouldn’t forgive the ravenous mob, of course she should be paid more attention to for her sacrificial acts of service and steadfast support of her poet-genius. Of course She should have glory! That’s how mysterious, how outside our mortal comprehension, how ugly to our unregenerate souls, God’s plan is. We see Her as painfully taken advantage of and flogged again and again to the point of total annihilation while He coolly forgives. What is justice for Her? It would be too simple to present sin as the mob but the road to Hell is paved with human good intentions that are apart from His plan. God’s plan is so radical, so rebellious, that forgiveness for a murderous mob is among his orchestration. Certainly God’s justice is mysterious to us. Where His radical love and justice leads in the bible versus where it leads in the film are different paths.
There are so many layers to this film I need to see it again. I’m delighted to see such transcendent themes in a star-studded film. It makes you wonder, like Michael Knowles said in the Daily Wire, if Aronofsky hasn’t paid lip service to the Mother Earth interpretation simply to con mainstream audiences into watching the Bible for two hours.
Nine months ago I wrote a prayer for our unborn baby when I was 27 weeks pregnant. Now our baby girl is 25 weeks old and I was not wrong about my own struggles. There is a huge amount of helplessness a parent feels for their child. When she bursts into sobs after previous contentment you try the few desperate consolation tricks you know and then you dissolve into an exasperated defeated shoulder shrug. You have no idea what’s wrong. Then she’s sick with pinkeye and a cold and has a 101 fever and you don’t know what to do. You ask your husband what to do and he, likewise, doesn’t know. Meanwhile someone’s life is in your hands. You are her creator and her sustainer. You are her anchor; an anchor that is ill weighted sliding across the bedrock while the boat is kicked up by storm.
You find that it’s a relief when your sister, mother or mother in law (anybody!) wants to hold her because all the baby does at this point when she’s not eating, sleeping and filling diapers (and those things have easy remedies, phew) is a lot of looking around. Looking around while in the bouncer, looking around while on her playmat, looking around in your arms, looking around in the stroller. The looking around and smiling is nice. She’s content. She’ll even let you snuggle her for 5 seconds straight. But then it wears into fussing and there’s nothing more to offer of locations and positions of looking around so what now? You want to hold her? Be my guest. I tell myself I’ll understand her better when she can walk and talk and that happens soon, right? Well no, not soon. Come to find out, full articulated sentences don’t happen until they’re 25 years old so I think I’m in for it.
Still, and this is our purpose as parents, right? My one goal for Isla is goodness. Not chiefly goodness for her (though I wish her that joy too) but goodness from her and I constantly wonder how soon the instilling of that starts. I find that, often, I’m waiting for some demarcated time when this or that starts. I’ve come to realize that life just happens, it’s happening while you’re waiting and then you’ve missed what you should have been doing the whole while. It’s easy to view your child as a baby still, even when they’re 15 or 24 months old. To view them too young to grasp lessons but I read somewhere that as early as 9 months your child learns the tool of manipulation. I believe behavioral expectations are best instilled early on so when do I start? At 5 months old she obviously doesn’t intend to scratch or hit, that’s just her primitive reflexes and motor skills still being refined. But soon it won’t be an accident and how do I reason with her then? And what about the lesson your child wants to engage you in? Children have a way of revealing their souls to you when you’re running 15 minutes late for work or when it’s well past bedtime. Will I miss moments because life is passing, I’m exhausted and I didn’t hear the movie soundtrack cue: crucial life defining moment happening in 3, 2, 1?
What will her genetically given personality be? This really frightens me. I will try my best to groom her to fight her nature. This is what civilization is; fighting one’s nature for the well-being of the collective and the well-being of one’s own life as the natural state of humanity is barbarism. But a parents guidance only goes so far and then it’s just eccentricities of her personality at work. Will she be naturally strong-willed, will she be stubborn, will she be easily angered? Will she be laid back, will she be understanding, will she be empathetic? How hard will she have to fight her nature to be civilized and how hard will it be for me to wrap my mind around her eccentricities and imagination.
Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. -C.S. Lewis
How big of a deal will the arguments of ‘keeping your bottom on the seat and your feet on the ground’ be for her future? Will my laziness in this area lead to a laissez-faire adult that doesn’t respect or have reverence for personal property and etiquette? How do I groom her with my values when my values are more and more archaic by modern standards?
Not only will I be fighting my child’s will but I will be fighting popular culture to raise my child as well. Popular culture will be telling her that her desires are paramount to any old crusty institutionalized idea of truth. In fact she’ll hear that there is no objective truth only one’s own made up conclusions on the matter. She’ll hear that the only area that the concept of ‘universal’ is applied to is love. Love is all you need, right? When I tell her “wrong” I will be chiseling through layers and layers of cultural-consciousness sediment that will feel violating to her. Man, do we have our work cut out for us.
I’m not sure God wants us to be happy. I think he wants us to love, and be loved. But we are like children, thinking our toys will make us happy and the whole world is our nursery. Something must drive us out of that nursery and into the lives of others, and that something is suffering. -C.S. Lewis
Isla is on the verge of a belly laugh. She hasn’t gotten there yet. So far her giggle is more of an ‘aheh’ sound but I eagerly look forward to the day of the full belly laugh. And I still look forward to dandelion seeds blown off a stem for the first time through her eyes. She has already seen the sky and I the reflection in her eyes. Not too long until she understands what ‘the sky’ means in all it’s vast and glorious beauty. There is a whole universe out there created for only one small and precious Isla and when her eyes light up with the knowledge of that I can’t wait to see the reflection of God casting back at me.
God lends us a little of His reasoning powers and that is how we think: He puts a little of His love into us and that is how we love one another. When you teach a child writing, you hold its hand while it forms the letters: that is, it forms the letters because you are forming them. We love and reason because God loves and reasons and holds our hand while we do it. -C.S. Lewis
If the only thing you’re celebrating on Valentines Day is romantic love you’re missing out.
On the contrary, if you reject Valentines Day because it’s a Hallmark holiday, you’re missing out. The gift giving sweetness (too sweet?) of Valentines Day is a modern homage of something quite old, indeed original; love.
The first commercial production of the Valentine card in America was a work of art, made of imported lace and delicate paper floral by artist Esther Howland in the 1840’s. Hallmark wasn’t founded until 1910. The etymology of the word holiday derives from the Old English word that means holy day. In the fourth century AD there were several patron saints known as Valentine or Valentinus. Their stories vary but the common theme is rebellion against Roman oppression for the sake of marriage. The Christian church appropriated a pagan feast holiday in February known as Lupercalia, which was a festival for the Roman God of agriculture (fertility). We had marriage and fertility, the link of Valentine’s Day to love didn’t happen until the Middle Ages. Romanticism beckoned in our obsession with sentimental love. The kind of love, as C.S. Lewis describes, in which “we shall not have to do anything: only let affection pour over us like a warm bath and all, it is implied, will be well.” All the loves can be exploited in this shallow way. It is our labor to find a good balance of the loves. Each love is not self sufficient.
The pagan Greeks and later the Christian Greeks had a nuanced view of love. There is Storge pronounced store-gay (a grown affection or fondness), Eros (romantic love) and Philia (brotherly or friendship love). These are the loves that are natural to man. Agape pronounced ah-gah-peh (covenant love or Christian love) is a divine love from God. Eros was seen as an irrational, dangerous kind of love that could possess you and rob you of your senses. That people hope to fall ‘madly’ in love is surviving evidence of this. Erotic love is a hunger, a need that drives us toward satisfaction. But Eros dies precisely because it is a power born of need, when the need is satisfied Eros dies. I believe our culture has neutered love with its myopic view towards Eros. There is an undervaluing of the other robust forms of love in our life that when directed, in concert toward goodness, fulfill something close to true love. While our Western culture has become fixated on sex, sexiness and sexuality it has become ignorant of true love.
Storge describes a fondness one has for an old sweater or your childhood dog or an elderly man you see every morning at the coffee shop. You are strangers but his mere presence has incubated a comfort, a familiarity. A parents affection for a child straddles this love, this love and Philia. For example, a parent has instinctual affection for their child, they clothe him and nurture him but they also behave honorably for him so that he may mimic good behavior. Your child, who starts out a stranger that you nevertheless are fond of, grows through your rearing and eventually, upon adulthood, becomes your friend. This shows the transformation from Storge to Philia.
Examples of Philia love are the relationships between a parent and child, friendships, ally cities/states/tribes, military troops, teachers and students. The purpose of the Philia type of love is to cultivate virtue in one’s life as his life relates to another’s for a common goal. Unlike Storge, Philia love is mutual. Philia is the highest form of love that can emanate from Man.
Words such as philanthropy (generosity to Mankind), philanderer (a man flirtatious with his affections), philharmonic (lovely harmonies), philosopher (lover of wisdom), Philadelphia (brotherly love) come from the root Philo.
Philia, Storge and even Eros are accidental or coincidental, you find yourself in this relationship just as a child finds himself with his parents, or you find yourself a new friend or a lover because of proximity. Had you not gone to that college or joined that group or gotten that job, your paths would not have crossed. While Agape is a deliberate love, you were chosen and you choose to love steadfastly.
Examples of Agape love are the relationship between spouses and the relationship between God and Man. John 3:16 talks of Agape love. In this verse, “For God so loved the world”, the Greek word for love is agapao. Agape love is a self sacrificial love. This type of love is the highest form of love known to Mankind. This type of love can only emanate from God. Marriage is a holy covenant that manifests Agape love. This is a kind of love that loves another regardless of what they may receive. Unlike Philia love that acts virtuous in search of virtue in return, Agape love sacrificially gives, no matter if the person deserves it or returns it, because it is good. ‘Love is patient, love is kind, love does not boast, it is not arrogant or rude, it does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice in failures but rejoices in truth, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’. This old scripture isn’t simply a sentiment. It is a faithful love, Agape love. It is no wonder this love is not natural to man, this love is divine.
What does selfless love look like? Where is it found?
One of the greatest valentines I’ve given in my 33 year old life was not given in the spirit of romantic love. It was the simple gesture of giving flowers to an important woman in my life, my mother. My mother was a teacher, parent and supporter. Her life has had deprivation, loneliness and disappointment but she loves me sacrificially. She did her best to raise me right. She is paradoxically virtuous and fallible, brave and human. She gives me an everlasting love that means more to me than the quickening pulse and the fading embers of romance. How long do the chemical reactions of the body last? But selfless love that echos heaven, that is some love.
The gift of the flowers lit up her day, as she had never had flowers delivered to her in the 70 years of her life. In fact, the deliveryman stood there in her open doorway with the flowers and she insisted he must have the wrong house. When he said, “well aren’t you so and so,” she realized the flowers were just where they were supposed to be. I think the shock of it all; delivered flowers, that someone thought of her, that an ordinary day became extraordinary really touched her heart. I had no idea she would enjoy the gift, much less be elated. That was a special Valentines Day!
It’s a shame that our fixation on romantic love deprives us of the other expressions of love that are so precious. I’ll try to do my best to cherish them all.