Thursday, July 17, 2008

The "Good and Evil" Myth, and Critical Thinking

Let me preface by saying that if you don't believe in the general concept of the existence of good and evil in this world, then this post is not for you. These thoughts are based on the assumption that good and evil are a real part of our day to day life.

No matter what form of Faith they may embrace, most parents teach their children that good and evil are black and white--one existing over here, and the other existing on the other side of the spiritual fence. I believe this is a proper concept of the world for unpracticed little minds. In fact, black and white is where we all start, out of necessity. As we grow, though, what I call the "grayness of life" becomes more and more evident. This presents a situation that I see growing increasingly problematic in our current society, because for many Christians, grayness causes problems.

The first problem is that Christians are taught from the beginning that the "rules" (the Ten Commandments) are black and white, that obedience is non-conditional and non-circumstantial. While I believe that obedience is always required, I also believe that the rules become grayer and grayer as time passes. I wouldn't have believed this to be the case 20 years ago, but as I grow older I have learned that grayness is real. This has nothing to do with God being unclear. The fact is, we live in a gray world. And this brings me to the next problem.

Where Good and Evil Live
Grayness exists because the youthful idea that "good" is here and evil is "there" is simply false. The truth is, goodness exists in a place where it is intricately surrounded by evil, many times to the point of it being nearly impossible to identify one from the other, without careful consideration. I believe this is by design. An evil wound complexly around good, like the roots of an old tree, becomes difficult to discern--and there is the added benefit of distorting the appearance of the good. Because of this, there needs to come a time in a child's life where he is taught to look at life (and by this I mean literature, art, philosophy, music, etc.), and distinguish within it elements of truth--which leads to the next problem.

Guilt by Association
Critical thinking is an area many Christian adults are uncomfortable with, whether they're parents or teachers, because it means some level of exposure to what they may believe is untruth. And with that comes a natural level of fear--mostly for the children, and even often for themselves. Adults who don't have sufficient practice with critical thinking are uncertain of what might happen if they expose themselves to something deemed by others as decidedly "non-Christian" in nature. These same adults, then, are unprepared to teach their children the skills by which they can discern good from evil or, at the very least, truth from fiction.

Authority by Association
When the apostle Paul spoke to the Greeks in Athens (Acts 17), he demonstrated a clear understanding of Greek mythology and philosophy. This foundation gave him the authority to make his own arguments about Christianity. Another less studied speaker would certainly have held less sway with the ancient council of elders at the Areopagus. Is it dangerous? Of course. Life is dangerous. But I'd certainly rather have myself and others whom I trust exposing my children to the world--when they're ready--than to leave it to them to make their own associations. Exposure is inevitable. It's simply a matter of time. The skills to make enlightened choices come only from practice--and ultimately it is our choices that define us. If we're going to make a difference in this world (which I see as life's purpose), we've got to get people to listen, whatever our message. This means we have to know what we're talking about and why we believe what we're saying. Our audience is going to always be aware of the source of our authority--are we?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Rotten by Association

I happen to be a member of my children's elementary school board. Near the end of last year, some parents wanted to make some changes to the uniform policy. So, like any good board, we asked them to form a committee and look into it. They presented their findings to the board, and (after several meetings, several emails, and much discussion) we came up with a policy we decided to vote into active status for the 2008-2009 school year. Things went downhill fast from there.

Any of you who have ever been involved in the decision to change or implement a school uniform policy know what a volatile issue it truly is. We knew this going in, and because of that we decided to simplify the process by letting the committee and board work together to make the decisions for the rest of the constituents. Our assumption was that the committee was a representative sample of the rest of the parents and would speak for them. Wrong! What we ended up with was parents who felt they hadn't been sufficiently communicated with, regarding what they saw as critical changes and hadn't had a voice in the decision-making process, a marathon town-hall meeting that ended in hurt feelings and trampled emotions, a board who felt the entire process had been little more than an enormous distraction from what we saw as more critical issues, and the same uniform policy we began with--at least for one more year.

As I contemplated the mess we were in, it became clear to me that lessons about writing live in the most unusual places. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the process by which the board developed the uniform policy. What was tainted was our method of communication with the parents. We weren't careful enough. We weren't cautious enough with people's perception--and we all know that perception is everything! So what we have is a situation where a soundly developed, fair policy became tainted by our tainted methods of expression--resulting in the whole bunch being thrown out. The policy became rotten by association.

The same lessons apply to writing, especially for white papers or persuasive pieces. Truly, the goal of all writing is persuasion, whether it is to persuade someone to buy a product, accept an idea, or make a lifestyle change. The audience's perception of who we are, our word choice, our tone, all of these are critical factors in determining whether or not we achieve our goals.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Stuff I Learned From my Kids--Entry 42

Tell people they "look pretty" more often.

My kids tell me this all the time, and it always causes me to stop and smile. It really brightens my day. I was thinking about this, and it seemed wasteful to me to see something pretty and not mention it to someone. It seems such a simple thing one can do to make an enormous difference in someone's day, so I've been trying to do this. The other day I saw a girl sitting in the hall outside of my classroom who had these great tan pumps on, so I said, "Those are beautiful shoes." Last week I passed someone on the stairs who had on this awesome fuschia sweater, so I said, "That sweater looks beautiful on you." I have a feeling people cannot hear the word "beautiful" used in reference to themselves too much. I know I can't.

Guess what? This works for writing too. There is so much writing out there that is simply not attractive. If you see pretty writing, compliment it. Take the time to leave a response when you see something noteworthy. It really takes very little of your time, but it can make a huge difference in someone's perspective for the day--yours included. Seeing the beauty in the day-to-day stuff doesn't always come easy. As with everything else, practice makes perfect here too. If you make it a point to look for beauty and respond to it, you'll have an easier time recongnizing what's beautiful (and what's not) in your own writing.

The Aesthetics of Writing

When I was in the 10th grade I took a couple of college preparatory courses to become familiar with the ways of college and earn a few credits. One of the courses I took was Interpersonal Communications, a course in which one became familiar with herself, as well as learning to verbally communicate effectively with others, which was very popular in 1979.

One night the professor had an assignment in which we were to sit and talk with another class member for 15 minutes, get to know them, and then report to the class something about who that person was. The professor paired with a student and took her turn with the rest of us in giving a report. What she said that night changed my life in a way that still affects me today.

The professor said that the student had the most beautiful handwriting she had ever seen, and from that moment there were two things that became important to me. One was somehow getting a glimpse of what the “most beautiful handwriting” looked like, and the other was to make my goal in life achieving the lofty status of having the most beautiful handwriting ever!

I would spend the next year or two consciously working on handwriting styles, altering particular letters when I saw someone else write something in a way I found attractive, and changing from curls and loops to straight lines and back again, as the emotion or style of the times might dictate. I forced myself to go back, erase and rewrite a letter if I subconsciously slipped and put a loop where I intended to make a straight line. I learned how difficult it was to learn to write all over again, even if it was just remodeling my current methods. Going back through my books and letters I can see the difference in styles as they progressed and changed. Eventually I came to find a style of writing I felt comfortable enough with to call my own (some eclectic mix of loops and lines), but I never came close to achieving the most beautiful writing ever.

In addition to being a conscientious student of writing, I am the daughter of a woman whose is noted for its complexity of style and aesthetic beauty. My mother has naturally flowing and graceful writing. I can remember helping her address Christmas cards as a child and watching in awe as she created tiny masterpieces of writing in gold and silver ink. On occasion I tried to learn her technique, but for the most part I was aware that her talents were far out of my league. Even my goal of having the most attractive handwriting in class, I realized, would never take me to her level. She was a natural. If I could just obtain a style of writing that was both legible and attractive I would be pleased, but I still harbored a secret desire to be one day recognized for my penmanship.

Although I never learned to write like my mother and never obtained the status of most beautiful calligrapher in college, I learned a valuable lesson that night in my Interpersonal Communications class. I learned that writing is an art form in appearance, as well as content, and I learned that the physical process of writing is critically important, as it gives unique meaning and heightened sense of value to the words that are written. As a writer I understand the significance of words, but somehow any piece of work seems more noteworthy when displayed through the art of beautiful penmanship. The Declaration of Independence, for example, always feels more impressive when displayed as a reprint of the original document, as opposed to a typed version in a textbook.

When I was learning to write nearly 40 years ago, there were no computers around to deny me the opportunity to develop a beautiful style of writing. Although I am the first person to defend the increased opportunity provided by modern technology, even for writers, I worry today that my children will never learn the importance of good penmanship. It was, after all, the attractiveness of their father’s writing that appealed to me when he left that "secret admirer" note on my door 18 years ago. Now that they are writing, I plan to instill in them the value of occasionally taking a break from their computer keyboard to write a letter to Grandma with a pen and paper.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The View from the Lakehouse

We just returned from three days at Pamela’s lake house in Georgia. Pamela is my husband’s cousin, fondly referred to by my children as “Aunt Pammie.” We take a trip to Aunt Pammie’s every year, so we can catch up and she can see the kids. She recently became engaged to a man who owns a house on the lake, and she still has her home nearby, so whenever we visit she gives us the run of her place. It feels very much like our own private condo.

Aunt Pammie’s house is in one of the quietest neighborhoods imaginable. You’d be hard-pressed to find more than one soul to chat with, should you feel the need. Aunt Pammie also has the finest of fine things. Years of extremely hard work have put her in a position to afford the things she desires, and it is obvious that comfort is one of them. Aunt Pammie’s sheets have a thread count higher than I can count! Even her toilet paper has a richness uncommon to the masses. So here is how a typical day at Aunt Pammie’s goes:

My husband and I drag ourselves from her triple-cushion bed only when “just a little bit longer” becomes no longer acceptable to the kids. Then we put on the thirsty, white bathrobes she hangs on the back of the bathroom door for us, pick up a cup of gourmet coffee, and head out to Pammie’s spacious, Southern front-porch. After a leisurely discussion about how quiet the neighborhood is (among other things), we slowly drag ourselves in to shower and dress for a day on the lake. Then we drive a couple of miles over to the lake house and spend the day enjoying water sports. We alternately swim, bask in the sun, read, swim, lunch, boat, swim, jet-ski, socialize, dine, and socialize until late into the evening (or the kids fall asleep—whichever comes first), at which time we make our way back to her house and fall into the triple-cushion bed with zillion-count sheets with smiles on our faces. And with little variation, this is how the entire weekend goes.

So this weekend, as I was lounging near the lake, I began thinking about what this does to the writer’s perspective. Because every time I return from Aunt Pammie’s house, I feel extremely motivated and filled with ideas. The first thing you might be thinking is the same thing I thought—that it is a simple matter of rest and relaxation: A well-rested mind has creative energy. But upon careful examination, I think it’s more a matter of distance than rest. It is a shift of perspective that comes from being geographically far from your “real world.”

Time goes at a break-neck pace in our world. And even though Pammie goes about that same speed on any given day, her world is--quite simply--not ours. When we’re there, we’re on a mental vacation. The neighborhood seems quieter, the day seems calmer, the house seems cleaner, and the laundry is out of site. So are deadlines and commitments, by the way. And that shift of perspective, even for a few days, offers us the freedom to think and create and be artistic without any glaring reason why we should. That view is so lovely and peaceful--and welcome.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

You, Me, and Edwardian England

Miss Austen Regrets

I've been talking for weeks with a friend about Masterpiece's presentation of The Complete Austen, and we were talking on Monday about A Room with a View. He asked me why I liked these stories so much about free-thinking women in repressive societies and if it was a reflection on what I thought to be a repressive modern society.

I think what he was ultimately asking is if my love for these stories is any indication of my perspective on modern society. The answer is yes, but not exactly as directly and literally as I think he was thinking. The answer is yes, but in a general sense.

The thing I really like is that in these stories you have this culture of oppression/repression/suppresion, however you want to think about it. And then there is one girl who dares to speak out and be a free-thinker, and she feels alone. And she is scolded or mocked for it. Then she finds out that she is a part of a usually well-hidden, yet unquestionably admirable, lineage of women who have free thought and intelligence in common (by the way, I think those two are necessarily related). She doesn't even know these women exist until she happens to learn that someone she knows is actually a free thinker too. But that person has either had to repress the truth about herself to remain a part of polite society, or she is rich enough or old and venerable enough to not care one way or the other--in which case polite society shrugs it off as senility or fanaticism. So now she feels not quite so alone, though only barely less so. But her character and fortitude require that she be true to herself.

Then she finds one man who lives in this culture. In fact, he is successful and respected in this culture. And he actually admires her unfashionable qualities. He finds her refreshing and sometimes exciting. And he usually champions her cause--he stands up for her when she remains true to herself. And that is the 19th century version of the white knight on the horse slaying the dragons that threaten to extinguish the princess' life, only in this case it is a cultural and societal death, an intellectual death, not a literal physical death that the knight prevents.

So the romance, the beauty, the poetry of the whole idea is this: Nothing ever changes. Chivalry is chivalry always. A hero is a hero always. Art, beauty and intelligence are always, in the end, superior to whatever ugly forces threaten to squelch them. A brave, kind, free-thinking, intelligent man championing a brave, kind, free-thinking, intelligent woman is always romantic. And it is always a story worth telling, whether it is medieval, Victorian, Edwardian, or Modern. It is the story I tell to my own daughter each day, whether we're specifically talking about being a woman, or merely practicing it by the things we do, the games we play, the way we interact. Being true to yourself. Being beautiful, inside and out. Being brave. Being lovely. Falling in love. Changing someone's world. All of this is what I have always wanted to be the story of my life--and now the story of hers. And that is why I love these stories. The reason classic tales are classic is because they always work. They always speak to the "current."

So to answer the question, yes, these things are what is of utmost importance to me. Not because of change, though. In fact, because of the opposite. The really important things are the things that never change. I don't believe we're any more or less free thinkers in today's society than we were in any other time. I don't think the dragons that we face today are any more or less treacherous. They simply have different faces. In the end, the story of humans is always that, human. The details change a little here and there. But the meat of the story is always the same. If you think of time in terms of grand scales, as opposed to little bits, things never really change. The pendulum swings this way and that, but it swings around the same truths today that it always has.