Just Keep Walking

14 Apr

Olivia is afraid of bees. I suspect most of us were when we were six; I know I was. Last week my parents took her and the other two to the Norfolk Botanical Garden, and apparently there was a lot of screaming.

This Sunday, I decided to take the three of them to our botanical garden here in town, and sure enough, the fuzzy bumbles were out in force. I long ago made peace with bees when I discovered the delight that comes from trying to photograph them. Olivia still has a way to go. But as we were walking through the buzzing sentries escorting us through the garden, she clung to me and said, “Nana says they will leave me alone if I just keep walking.” Throughout our visit, “just keep walking” became a mantra.

The Internet is chock full of pastors who preach that fear is the opposite of faith. I don’t see it that way, and here’s why. I think of myself as a person of faith. I believe in God, I believe in Jesus, and I believe with all my heart in Romans 8:28. I’ve seen it with my own eyes in other people’s lives, and I’ve seen it in mine. Yet there are still times when I’m brimming with fear. It generally manifests in the question, “What if I’m wrong?”

What if I keep walking, and the bees don’t leave me alone?

And then, I catch myself questioning my faith, questioning my very belief in God, and pretty soon I’m not only feeling fear but am paralyzed by it.

Fear is not a lack of faith. It’s a feeling; just a feeling. One of my favorite moral axioms is “Faith is fear that has said its prayers.” That quote is a reminder to me that my feelings of fear are no reason to berate myself for lacking faith, but a call to act in faith in spite of my feelings.

So if fear is not the opposite of faith, what is? Doubt? This weekend’s gospel was the iconic story of “doubting Thomas,” who refused to believe in the risen Christ until he saw Him with his own eyes and touched His wounds. For 2,000 years, the poor man has been pegged as the poster child for what it means to lack faith.

Thomas doubted not because he lacked faith but because he was human. He was my kind of human, really. You can tell me until you’re blue in the face that something will or won’t work, but I’ll stubbornly disregard you until I try it myself. I put a lot more stock in my own experiences than I do in neat, tidy platitudes about how I should live or the consequences if I don’t. Unlike Thomas, I am willing to at least consider the experiences of others. Your lecturing will turn me right off, but if you tell me what happened to you when you found yourself in shoes like mine, you stand a good chance of changing my mind, or at least opening it to a new possibility. But given the chance, I’ll still run my own experiments, thank you very much. I need my own evidence.

Can any of us blame Thomas for doubting? They saw Jesus die. That’s some pretty hefty evidence, and rising from the dead is an outrageous claim.

Writer and speaker Anne Lamott says, “The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is certainty.”

The moment I think I know something, I’m in trouble. When I think I know something, I cease to be teachable. I become arrogant, and pride cometh before the fall. Knowledge is the currency of my ego, my “Edging God Out.” This is true whether I’m talking about evolution or heaven or the Resurrection, or having enough milk in the fridge to make a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Knowledge has its place, but not when it takes the place of imagination, especially God’s imagination.

I may believe things that I cannot know from personal observation, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t ever doubt my beliefs. Did Jesus really rise? I don’t know. I can’t know. What I do know is that His friends were pretty convinced that He did, so much so that they went to their deaths and started a movement that completely changed the world. It defied the might of the Roman Empire, Europe’s dark ages, the intellectualism of the Renaissance, the brutality of the crusades, the inconsistencies of the reformation, several Christian holocausts, and the hedonism, moral relativism and fundamentalism of the modern era. I have seen with my own eyes how people can be transformed when they become just a little bit willing to acknowledge some kind of higher power. So I continue to “just keep walking” in spite of whatever doubts and fears I might have. That stuff is just space between my ears, anyway. My actions are what matter.

Faith is not the the same thing as belief. Olivia believes that bees are scary and worthy of fear. She believes that bees can sting and she is convinced they will sting her. But she trusts Nana. And she just keeps walking because she can see with her eyes that Nana who doesn’t appear to be afraid. Olivia can choose to trust her belief, or choose to trust her Nana who loves her. She has decided to trust her Nana.

Faith is first a decision, followed up with action. It isn’t an opinion or a belief or a feeling. That’s what makes it so powerful. Belief and unbelief can be wrong, and our opinions can be fickle as our experiences and attitudes change. Facts and statistics can be used to justify our fears just as easily as our fantasies. But as this weekend’s epistle of John tells us, “the victory that conquers the world is our faith.”

How can I that be, especially in times when the world seems to be conquering faith?

When my fear says, “What if you’re wrong?” faith answers, “Then I’m wrong and with any luck I’ll have learned something.”

When fear says, “What if you lose your house or your car or your life savings?” Faith answers, “Something good will come of it and things will work out.”

When fear says, “What if you are killed?” faith answers that nothing goes to waste in God’s world, and that even the worst tragedies and atrocities can be the foundation for the greatest changes for goodness and light. (For what it’s worth, I don’t have this level of personal faith. But because of the saints and martyrs, including modern day ones, I have hope that this kind of faith is possible, even for me.)

We have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Olivia has faith that if she keeps moving in spite of her fear, the bees will leave her alone. I have a personal experience that proves otherwise; when I was about her age, I was stung by a yellowjacket. I didn’t provoke it, and I didn’t even know it was near me, but I was in my front yard and it got me right in the fleshy part of my behind that was exposed when I bent over. Fear of flying insects with stingers is not irrational. But I have faith anyway. I have faith that not every insect will sting me unprovoked. And I have faith that if by chance I do get stung, it may hurt but I will be ok. Faith teaches me that I can just keep walking.

Oh how I wish I could apply this faith to other parts of my life and not just garden walks with bees! But the thing about faith is that it takes practice, and it grows. None of us starts out with complete trust in Nana or bees or God or the divine providence of the universe. We let it grow in one area of our lives and it takes root elsewhere, and not just within us. Courage is contagious. Courage turned a small rag tag group of backwater fishermen into a force large enough and powerful enough to transform even a Roman Empire intent on extinguishing them. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was it toppled in one. Faith takes time and practice. In the mean time, just keep walking. What else are you going to do?

Excellence, Not Perfection

7 Apr

At church on Easter Sunday, the lady sitting behind me told me I had beautiful hair. I said thank you. 

But on the inside, I wanted to argue with her. I wanted to deny that my hair could ever be beautiful because it wasn’t perfect. I wanted to assure her that I have terrible hair. It’s so fine that if I don’t get it thinned every six weeks, it gets flat and just hangs there, lifeless. I wanted to tell her the only reason it looked halfway presentable is because I took the time to curl it. I wanted to point out the grays that seem to be multiplying like Easter rabbits. 

And as I was having these thoughts, it occurred to me – my efforts make a difference. And so does the raw material.

On Sunday, I DID have beautiful hair. End of story. 

I had beautiful hair because I took the time and effort to make it attractive. 

I had beautiful hair because, even at its worst, my hair has the potential to look incredible.

Just like every other part of my life. 

Our inner critics want to tell us that nothing we do is “good enough.” Our inner critics are right if the standard is perfection. Not a single one of us will ever be good enough to be considered perfect. That’s one of the messages of the Easter story; we don’t have to be perfect to obtain the rewards of perfection. Jesus’ sacrifice opened the doors of Heaven, and all we have to do is choose to walk through the gate. 

We don’t even have to change; we just have to be willing for God to change us. I think this is why Jesus warned us about judging others. The change doesn’t happen the moment we are baptized, or ask Jesus into our hearts, or say a silent prayer to God for help, or experience the sacrament of reconciliation. Conversion takes time, and some of us are further into it than others. 

“Good enough” is the lie Satan uses to keep us impotent. If you can’t do something right, he says, don’t do it at all. Which is really just a paralyzing invitation to laziness and a life of unfulfilling distractions from the resulting low self-esteem. 

The truth is, we all have it in us to achieve excellence, if not perfection. All it takes is a little effort, and others will notice. And even if they don’t notice, God does. 

Our second reading on Easter Sunday was proclaimed by a young woman who has Downs Syndrome. I love when she reads the epistles, which is usually once a month. Is her reading perfect? I guess that depends on your definition of the word. But she is always excellent. And always beautiful. You can tell she has practiced, that she takes her role seriously, and that she is honored to be a part of the liturgy. She is the embodiment of the presence of Christ proclaimed in the Word, and anyone who witnesses this on any given Sunday, but especially Easter Sunday, knows they’ve seen the risen Lord. 

Her life is God’s gift to her; what she does with it is her gift to God. To all of us, really. 

My hair is God’s gift to me. What I do with it is my gift to God. 

Substitute the word “hair” with “time” or “talent” or “treasure” or “faith.” And then remember that God is our father, our loving parent who cherishes crayon scribbles on notebook paper. This is the God that Jesus lived and died and rose again for us to know. Perfection be damned. It was on Good Friday. Our one-day-at-a-time excellence is more than enough.

The Memory of Choosing Not To Fight

3 Apr

Do me (and yourself) a favor. Turn off all your lights, quiet your mind and body, and listen to this song with your heart. It’s called Answer, by Sarah McLaughlin.

If you’re feeling especially in need of a good cry, watch the video.

Done?

I heard this song a few days ago when I was searching for another song from the same album, and I felt in my heart this song could be a meditation on Good Friday – the passion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and one of my best friends.

I listened to it when I woke up this morning. What does Good Friday even mean? Each year as I get a little older, my answer gets a little simpler. A few years ago I’d have written a compelling reflection on substitutiary atonement. Today, the crucifix means one thing: none of us – Christian, Jewish, gay, not even the Son of God himself – is immune from persecution for being ourselves, whatever that looks like.

I believe that’s what my best friend meant when He told me to pick up my cross and follow Him. He wasn’t commanding me to be a perfect martyr; He looked at my shortcomings, my imperfections, my quirks, my skin and hair, and all the qualities I wish God would remove or heal, and He told me I need to embrace them. Embrace my sickness and sadness, when everything in me wants to walk away and be some dazzling white version of myself I can’t even imagine, who never sins, who never swears, who never entertains resentments or impure fantasies or jealousy or contempt. He looked at my beautiful, tender heart and He asked me to be willing to let it be broken when people betray or mock or simply don’t understand me.

And as I follow my best friend to the foot of His cross every Good Friday (and plenty of other days throughout the year too), I hear His own prayer and pray for the grace to be able to repeat His words: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”

He was the Son of God, yet He chose not to fight those who nailed Him to the cross. It truly is, in the words of Saint Paul, “something to be grasped.”

When I was about six years old, I asked my father on Good Friday what it meant that it was the day Jesus died. I couldn’t grasp the idea of something happening 2,000 years ago. I was worried, at six years old, that He was being crucified that very day.

He is. A cursory scroll through social media reveals that a man I love very much is being mocked and ridiculed right now. So are the people who love Him, and by extension, so am I. It breaks my heart. I want to obey my God when He commands me to love my neighbor as I love myself. Every religious faith on earth shares that common precept. I want to fight the injustice, but that is not what Jesus would do. He chose not to defend Himself. He became weak.

And yet, since when is the defensive a position of strength? In choosing not to fight, we choose a strength far greater than the strength of the powerful bullies. We are exalted, even as we suffer very real pain.

If it takes my whole life, I won’t break and I won’t bend. There may be days when I feel completely buried under the weight of my imperfections and brokenness. Moments of despair and hopelessness. Days when it seems the darkness has won not just the battle, but the whole damn war. The night is indeed unkind.

Cast me into Easter morning.

The Big Ten

10 Mar

For Lent this year I have been fasting from Facebook. The first week was rough. Real rough. To compare myself to an addict in rehab sucking nervously on a tootsie pop would have been accurate the first few days. I felt deeply in my gut like something was MISSING. Every morning when I woke up and didn’t wake up to George’s coffee memes. Every time I accomplished a task at work, and then couldn’t reward myself with a peek at Mary’s baby animal pictures. Every time I wondered how so-and-so was doing and didn’t check their profile page. Every time I wanted to post something encouraging, or feel the warmth of my virtual community lifting me up.

When I was curious about how the notorious “DT” was going to forecast the snow storm du jour and relied instead on my Weather Channel app or the local TV station website, I couldn’t trust how much bread and milk to buy. (First world problems?)

So I increased my Candy Crush and was kinda cranky with the kids for about a week. Or three. (Remember, we’ve had a LOT of snow days. Without Facebook. Cut me some slack.) I also reacquainted myself with Pinterest. Glorious Pinterest.

The other day one of my friends referred to it as “food porn.”

“Oh, you look at it for the recipes?” I asked her, silently judging myself for not doing something more productive with my online habits, like cooking for my cranky Facebook-free family. “I guess for me it’s ‘house porn.'” I said. We both laughed. Sort of.

I love searching the Home Decor category. It reminds me of my childhood when my favorite cousin and I would pour over the Sears and Pennys catalogs and make lists of every curtain, rug, towel, and placemat we wanted to purchase for the homes we were designing on graph paper. We’d even write down the prices so we’d know what kind of budget we’d need, all the while listening to Neil Diamond, another of the shared guilty pleasures we couldn’t tell to anyone outside the family, lest the deepest depths of our nerdiness be discovered.

Apparently this practice is now mainstream (minus the Neil Diamond). A lot of you reading this have repinned my pins. Consider yourselves outed, nerds.

I thought I had gotten over the hump. I’m still feeling the Facebook sacrifice but it is no longer an obsession; it’s an accomplishment of which I can be proud. I’m productive, less edgy, focusing more on personal relationships than virtual ones, and relearning how to connect with all of you in a way that doesn’t involve social media.

Patting myself on the back, I started to read this past weekend’s scripture selections with the intent of actually writing a blog post. I couldn’t make it through the first reading. It stopped me up short. It’s the Ten Commandments. When I got to the ninth one, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, I kinda broke the second one.

Yeah, I took the Lord’s name in vain.

Isn’t that what Pinterest is? Coveting? Maybe not for you. Maybe for you it’s “food porn,” which makes it ok. But for me, it’s about seeing all the stuff I wish I could do or have in my house, and creating pin boards dedicated to my categorized coveting. More that 1,500 and counting.

(Not Ryan Gosling. Someone else can covet him and his “hey, girl.” When I start pinning that silly goose, you’ll know I’ve hit bottom. Pour me the Candy Crush Soda, please.)

~~~

We tend to think of the Ten Commandments as a list of dos and don’ts from God, or a moral code by which to live. When I read the chapters following Sunday’s first reading selection from Exodus, I learned there were a lot more than just ten “commandments;” there are whole chapters in Exodus dedicated to all the rules set forth by God to govern the conduct of His chosen people.

For example, that whole “eye for eye” thing was instituted to prevent revenge, or taking anything more than was taken from you. It’s fascinating to read all the laws, as long as I keep it in historical and spiritual context; these laws were meant to set the Jewish people apart from their pagan neighbors so they would be a testament to the one true God. The Old Testament Jewish law was never intended, for example, to be used by modern day fundamentalists to justify racism or slavery. As a Christian it is important for me to remember the fullness of the law was expressed in the life of Christ, who said that loving God and loving neighbor were the summation of the whole law and the prophets.

Christ was also the fullest expression of God’s covenant with His people. The Ten Commandments could just as easily have been titled “the ten signs of covenant,” but I believe we humans are much more comfortable with a God of rules than a God of promises. Our egos find it much easier to rebel against and reject God if we think He’s always telling us what to do. After all that’s what Ego does – Edges God Out.

In the chapter preceding the Ten Commandments, God (through Moses) gave the people instructions for preparing themselves to hear God speak to them and make His covenant with them. On the third day, God would descend Mt. Sinai and they would hear His voice. This weekend’s selection is the spoken word of God to His people. They literally heard His voice. Later in Exodus, when the Hebrews were overwhelmed with their inability to follow the rules or presumably remember them, they asked Moses for written Commandments, and God wrote them on stone tablets not once, but twice. Those tablets were placed in the Ark of the Covenant along with the staff of Aaron and a pot of manna, and around this ark the Temple of Jerusalem was ultimately built (and then “cleansed” by Jesus in this weekend’s gospel).

But the first giving of the law was done orally, on the “third day.” It was a promise from God to His people, if they would accept that He alone was God, creator of the universe, and if they would live in the ways He instructed instead of the ways of the world, they would be a sign to the rest of that universe by their actions, and they would be blessed.

Replace the word “shalt ” with “will.” The passage takes on a very different tone:

You will not have other gods besides me or carve idols for yourselves or bow down before them.

You will not take the name of the LORD, your God, in vain.

You will rest on the seventh day, just as your Creator did.

You will honor your mother and father.

You will not kill.

You will not commit adultery.

You will not steal.

You will not lie about your neighbor.

You will not covet your neighbor’s house.

You will not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything else that belongs to him.

Change the “will nots” to “will no longer” and it gets even better.

When we follow the fullness of God’s law (put God first and love your neighbor as yourself), God will transform us from a group of coveting, gossiping, lying, stealing, lustful, life-destroying, disrespectful, prideful, cursing, idolatrous heathens into a people who are known as God’s people by our love.

As a sinner who has broken some of the commandments, sometimes repeatedly, the promise that I could be delivered from my compulsions and especially the consequences that usually follow is a wonderful message of hope. This is the covenant. We will not need the distraction of Pinterest or Facebook because we will be looking for the face of Jesus in everyone we see. We will no longer covet anything, because when we put God first, we will trust He has given us everything we need, and we will be content with that.

~~~

The Hebrew people were never content with that for very long, and God in His great compassion knew it. He planned for it in the covenant. Rather than demand perfection from His people, God set forth a process by which they could cleanse themselves from their sin so no one would be prevented from worshipping the Holy of Holies – He set forth rules for animal sacrifice, substitutiary atonement. In Moses’ day, the Ark of the Covenant was housed in a tent, but by the time of Jesus, the Temple in Jerusalem was where the symbol of God’s covenant, and presumably where God Himself, dwelt. The covenant was written so that sinners could still approach their God. (The covenant also wrote a pretty specific rule about lending money to fellow Hebrews and not charging interest.)

When Jesus “cleansed” the temple in this weekend’s Gospel, it was in part because the religious elites were creating obstacles to the atonement process. The reason there were livestock in the temple courtyard was because they were to be the blood sacrifices people would buy to kill and  atone for their sins. But the Jewish temple couldn’t accept the Roman currency that everyone used; Jewish people had to exchange their Roman coins for Jewish ones which they could then use to purchase the ox or lamb or doves or whatever other offering they could afford.

Obviously the ox was more expensive than the doves, so the wealthy were able to “atone” for more sins than, say, a poor widow who could afford to give only two coins in offering. And not only had the atonement process become unjust, but the money changers were very likely exchanging Jewish coins at an unfair rate. No wonder Jesus called them a brood of vipers and a den of thieves.

“Give us a sign,” the temple elites demanded after Jesus raged against the layers of injustice condoned and encouraged by the Levites and priests. They would have known the Exodus story intimately, yet they completely missed Jesus’ reference when he told them to destroy the temple (of his body) and he would raise it up on the third day. He used the exact same words his Father had used at Mt. Sinai.

Or, maybe they understood exactly what Jesus was saying, which is why they had him killed.

Jesus offered himself as the final blood sacrifice, once and for all, so that sins could be forgiven. God Himself would be the substitutiary atonement, and there would be no need for any more livestock or temple money exchanges. No one would ever be prevented from worshipping God because they were too poor to be anything but ritually impure. I believe Jesus’ angry expulsion of the money changers foreshadowed how his death and resurrection would expel all the forces that attempt to keep us from worshipping God.

There are money changers our heads. They try to convince us our mistakes are too big to atone for. They tell us there’s no use changing course since we’re already sinners and not likely to have much success changing that Why bother? Why keep setting ourselves up for another moral failure tomorrow by getting “right” with God today?

I accidentally ate bacon bits on my salad on Friday; I may as well order steak for dinner since I’ve already eaten meat once. That’s the logic of my money changers. I’m already a sinner, so I may as well sin big, they say. They have no concern about the guilt I will heap upon myself. Maybe not about eating meat, but definitely about the times I break one of the “big ten.”

God wants to throw the money changers out of our heads. He wants to silence the rigid elites in our hearts, too. Our hearts are His temple, and Christ died to cleanse them. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” he says, and the mercy starts with ourselves. There is no longer anything in the way of my turning to God whenever I need Him; nothing except my Edging God Out.

~~~

Coveting must be a pretty serious sin. It’s the subject of not one, but two commandments. That fact is worth contemplation.

What do I covet, and why? Ultimately the answer for me is comfort. I want to be comfortable and secure, and I mistakenly believe a beautifully decorated, perfectly organized home will do that. I believe the same thing of certain clothing, or even friendships and relationships. Coveting – the desire for “more” or “better,” and especially comparing myself to others and measuring myself against near-impossible perfection is not a very spiritually healthy way of life. Like the Israelites eating manna in the desert, I have everything I need, if not everything I want. The secret to happiness is contentment.

In a great twist of irony, I saw a great little article pinned on Pinterest – 10 Ways To Be Happier In Your Own Home.

Many of the tricks, like making my bed daily, keeping a gratitude journal, and displaying sentimental items, are things I do regularly to keep myself from coveting. The final item on the list is connecting with something greater than yourself. I certainly didn’t expect that from a “home decor” blog. It’s a return to the first Commandment – remember who is God, or at the very least, who is not God. It’s a good reminder whenever I struggle with one of the “big ten.”

Fasting and Prayer

18 Feb

When I was a teenager, my family befriended a newly ordained priest who had been assigned to our parish. He wasn’t even 30 years old yet, and having him to our house for dinner or sharing coffee and donuts after mass was a bit like having an older brother. He was instrumental in teaching my mom how to use a computer, and he taught my brother and I all sorts of funny versions of the mass parts set to the theme songs of movies and TV shows. He spoke several languages and kindled my brother’s love of language and desire to travel. And being a bit of a philosopher, he fanned the flames of my theologically curious mind and played Socrates to all my questioning. He really was the best “baby priest.”

Today he’s a grown-up priest, a servant to both the poor and the powerful; those who know him know this. Yet he still finds time to break open the scriptures in a daily blog post for all of us. His recent post about preparing for Lent was simple and inspiring.

http://frwayneball.blogspot.com/2015/02/preparing-for-lent.html?m=1

So often we focus just on fasting. “What are you giving up?” I find “giving up” anything is very difficult unless I’m replacing it with something else. For example, this lent I am giving up Facebook. (Yes, I realize this post is on FB. I can post it remotely. But if you want me to see your comment, do it directly on my website.) I suspect this will be quite difficult, because FB is such an entrenched habit. I get to be social without having to leave my home, or even my bed. I get to feel “important” when people give my comments attention or “like” my selfies. I get to feel “intelligent” when I engage in political or religious discussions. Giving this up will not be easy. I’ve been awake only two hours and already I’m feeling “hungry” for my daily, no, hourly ego stroke.

Jesus said some demons can only be expelled by fasting and prayer. Prayer is what I will use to replace the hunger left by fasting.

I will be praying about several things. First, I will pray for myself. I know this probably sounds weird or even selfish, but it is what the Holy Spirit is asking of me. I pray that I can be a better mother. I pray that my heart will remain open and soft. I pray that God will heal the parts that are broken.

I will also be praying for someone I resent. Resent is too mild a word, really. All the more reason to practice prayer. The resentment is poisonous. Experience has taught me praying for those I resent is a discipline that leads to true conversion. Mine. Bless them, change me.

I’m praying for someone who is sick and doesn’t realize it. I desperately wish I could help, but I know I am powerless, so praying is the only thing I can do. My mother’s prayer in times when she feels powerless over the lives of those she loves is for “God’s guidance and direction.” So I’ll be praying for this person to receive guidance and direction.

I’m praying for two family members who very unexpectedly lost their husbands in the last year. I know several people whose spouses have died, and my heart goes out to all of them, but these two in particular are weighing on my mind. May God comfort their loneliness. I ask you to pray for them with me.

Finally, I will be praying for my children. Each of them is so precious, and each has challenges. All three are struggling in their own way with “growing up,” and as their mother I want nothing more than to keep them little forever, or at least until high school starts. Acceptance is difficult for all of us. I pray that they will be able to let go of babyhood gradually and gracefully as they take ever bigger steps into responsibility and experience the fullness of life. Yesterday’s snow day was a great start. For the first time all three played unsupervised on the snow hill with the other neighborhood kids, and without their mom. I was so proud of them for not needing me to facilitate fun.

Speaking of children, I hear them downstairs making their own breakfast. I’m not ready for that yet. Baby steps. Pray for me this Lent!

On Soulmates, Princes, and Mermaids (the Disney rant)

13 Feb

One day I’m going to write a book about how the Disney empire has deconstructed classic European fairy tales, gutted them of their dark and beautiful lessons, and supplanted them with the most progressively noxious, neo-romantic tripe ever conceived.

Consider this: after nearly 80 years since Disney’s classic animated film Snow White debuted in 1937, we have 73% of Americans believing in a soul mate, according to a 2011 Marist public opinion poll. 80% of those under the age of 30 and 78% of those 30 to 44 believe in the idea of soul mates, compared with 72% of residents 45 to 59 years old and 65% of those 60 and older. 74% of men and 71% of women believe in finding the perfect partner. (You can read the source article at http://maristpoll.marist.edu/210-its-destiny-most-americans-believe-in-soul-mates/.)

I grew up wishing I had Sleeping Beauty’s hair. I prayed “God bless Snow White and the Handsome Prince” every night at bedtime, and I may or may not have made my dad and the boy next door play the part of the handsome price when I was three. I will neither confirm nor deny “Some Day My Prince Will Come” played at my wedding reception (but if it did play, everyone had the decency not to turn it into a “wedding night” joke).

Of course I believed in soulmates.

When I was in my early twenties, I dated a guy who was quite a bit older than me. He was a very decent man, rather philosophical and religious like me, and having had more time in the world than I did, he vigorously challenged my belief in soul mates. He said a soul mate is not someone you search for and find, but something you become to each other, together, over time.

He said a lot of things like that, most of which I completely disregarded because in my early twenties I still believed I knew everything. Long story short, we weren’t soul mates – not the kind you find, nor the kind you become. In spite of our differing romantic philosophies, I was naive enough to believe he was “the one” because of how I felt when I was with him. As far as “23-year-old Christy” was concerned, we were made for each other, and the fact that he couldn’t see it was a painful disappointment.

What freedom I found when I finally released my belief in soulmates and embraced his philosophy that love is a choice supported by action. It meant he wasn’t “the one.” Not only was that okay with me, it was a true relief. It meant I got to have some say in who “the one” is, and isn’t, based on our actions rather than our feelings. I got to choose. That’s not what Disney taught me.

My intention is not to bash all things Disney or romantic. I love Disney. I have wonderful memories of my childhood princess fantasies (even if they were like crack to a baby love-junkie). I’m also thrilled that Disney has produced some modern animated stories with strong female princess characters and beautifully crafted music that engages my daughters’ imaginations. If I have any complaint, it’s to protest the rampant merchandising that has all but taken over toy stores.

I also love romance; I believe otherwise healthy intimate relationships are incomplete without it. Whole industries are dedicated to keeping the spark alive, whether it’s a pseudo-religious marriage strengthening program like Marriage Builders, books like the famed “Men Are From Mars” franchise and “Love Languages” series, or a personal boudoir photography session or trip to the local adult toy store.

One of the miscalculations I made going into marriage (after I tossed the baby out with the bath water and gave up romance along with soulmates) was not fully appreciating both the importance and potential of romantic connection, or the lack of it. I boycotted my first Valentine’s Day as a married woman because I was so let down by our first few months of sharing a home together. Not one of my better choices, I admit. I was still in my ego-driven twenties. That girl was a mess.

I got my first valentine gift as a divorced woman last year from my fella (chocolate infused tea and frog tea strainer, perfecto!), and the emotional high still pays dividends. Every time I make that tea, I get warm all over. That’s partly because gift-giving is one of my primary love languages. But it’s also because I stopped wanting a man to be my perfect fantasy of a soul mate and instead started accepting men, and myself, for who and what we are, and what we aren’t. This is not the kind of storytelling formula you’ll see in a Disney film (although I think Brave and Frozen take steps in the right direction).

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I have several mommy friends on opposing ends of the liberal/conservative pendulum who go to great lengths in protecting their daughters from having a princess complex. Not that I blame them. Princesses are weak, selfish, immature, love-crazed sexual objects, right?

Actually, the Disney princess is rarely any of those things, with the exception of being the object of her prince’s desire. Disney does, however, serve up some fairly predictable character types: attractive female protagonists who are socially rejected, isolated, rebellious, or don’t fit in (Aurora, Cinderella, Ariel, Jasmine, Belle, Mulan, Rapunzel, Tiana, Merida, Elsa & Anna) and male “prince” characters who are either loveable rogues (Aladdin, the Beast, Flynn Rider, Prince Naveen) or idealized to the point of stereotype (Prince Phillip, Prince Charming, Prince Eric, Captain Li Shang, Gaston, and Hans). Kristoff is the only “average guy” Disney male protagonist I’ve seen. Still, his theme song is all about being a “fixer upper.” The problem isn’t so much the message about princesses, but the messages about princes and true love. At best, the modern Disney princess films send mixed messages about accepting men for who they are yet “improving” them with just a little love.

This set-up apparently sells, probably because it reflects our American culture. Society pays lip service to admiring the strong female, as long as she’s easy on the eyes and is just enough of a victim that she needs saving or is somehow incomplete without a prince by her side. We like the underdog or victimized female because at some point in our lives most women have felt rejected, isolated, and that we didn’t fit in, no matter how well we clean up after emerging from the awkward tween years. And many of us have been emotionally if not physically abused. The Disney princess is relatable.

Our society also glorifies the handsome ramblers who are “diamonds in the rough” and just need the love of a “good woman” to polish them up. Or, on the flip side of that coin, we expect our princes to live up to impossibly high standards. I’m surprised more men aren’t offended by the portrayal of their gender in Disney films. They should be.

The Disney plots follow a formula, too. Princess and Prince fall in love; the rogue or royal proves himself worthy by doing battle against a foe who is usually the personification of anything that would separate the two lovers; there is some sort of deception on the part of one of the lovers which must be brought to light and forgiven; but after a successful battle with the forces of evil, they live happily ever after with singing birds and magical rainbows.

We who grow up with that storyline repeated season after season carry this expectation into the lifelong commitments we make with the opposite sex (or maybe the same sex; I don’t know how it works for gay and lesbian folks). Women get married believing their men will change, and men get married believing their women won’t change. It’s a modern joke too true to be funny. We equate marriage with unconditional love, while at the same time equating love with feelings that are in fact capricious and conditional, dependent on the actions of our beloved, who is human. And if he’s a “diamond in the rough” variety, in real life he’s likely to be a heartbreaker. Literally.

If you hunt down the source materials for the most of the Disney princess fairy tales, you’ll find stories that bear little resemblance to their animated versions. Sleeping Beauty, for example, was not wakened by true love’s first kiss; she was raped in her sleep, gave birth to twins as a result of that union, and awakened when they sucked a poison flax seed out of her finger. Rapunzel was all but abandoned by her biological mother to the witch, who in turn abandoned the young woman in the wilderness when she naively became pregnant while locked in the tower. Snow White wasn’t awakened by love’s first kiss, either; the prince tripped while he and the dwarves were carrying her glass coffin, and the piece of poison apple dislodged from her throat. And Cinderella’s father may well have been an accomplice in his daughter’s abuse, along with his wife and horrid stepdaughters.

Protesters were voraciously vocal when Disney reinterpreted the Pocahontas story and turned it into a romance. Where is the defense of the brothers Grimm?

Beauty and the Beast is subtlety and exceptionally different from its Disney counterpart. The Disney version plays right into the modern American myth that the love of a good and beautiful woman can transform an ugly and difficult man into the prince hiding within. In the real story, the beast is indeed physically ugly, but he is unfailingly kind, and a bit dull, and it is Belle who changes from someone who judges those closest to her based on superficial appearances to a discerning soul who learns the hard way to see things as they are and to appreciate loyalty and affection over her unrealistic expectations. The story is the epitome of what it means to become soul mates over time.

My favorite, though, is The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson. Disney’s re-entry into full length animated moviemaking was a charming and beautifully crafted romantic tale with a happy ending. The real story is a layer-after-layer, heart-rending tragedy about unrequited love. And although the ending offers redemption, it comes at great personal sacrifice. The Little Mermaid is the antidote to every Disney storyline. Even though it is fantasy, it gets closer to the truth of what often happens when mismatched people become fixated on an illusion of what they think they want.

Like the animated Ariel, the little mermaid does save her prince in the storm, and does trade her beautiful voice for legs. What the Disney version leaves out is that when she uses those legs, it is like walking on knives. The prince adores his “little foundling” as he calls her, but he loves her as a sister because his heart is in love with the woman he mistakenly believes to have saved him – a temple girl who he never expects to see again. Without a voice, she cannot tell him the truth. The little mermaid is willing to endure excruciating pain, not to mention exile from her family under the sea, and settles for a platonic relationship with the prince until he discovers that his “temple girl” is actually the princess to which his parents have betrothed him. He marries with great joy while the little mermaid awaits certain death when her prince marries, because she did not win true love’s kiss. Her sisters in their great compassion trade their beautiful hair for a knife that the little mermaid can use to kill the prince on his wedding night and thus rejoin her family under the sea. She can’t do it. She would rather sacrifice her own life for his happiness than kill him to save her life. But at dawn, she discovers she has not died, but has become like an angel, a “daughter of air” who can earn a soul and immortality because of her act of selfless love.

Romantic love was only what the little mermaid thought she wanted. What she truly wanted was to have a soul. And mermaids don’t have souls. They can only get a soul by winning the love of a human. Like so many of us, she believed romantic love would be the means to satisfying her deepest longing, and like many of us, she was completely wrong. She abandoned her greatest talent and gave up her very identity, just to win a hopelessly unsuitable man’s affection. He wasn’t bad, just dense. Yet her choices and her sacrifice ultimately won her heart’s true desire – a path to immortality. I doubt Disney could pull that one off, and I don’t fault them for not even trying.

I can’t wait to share the real Little Mermaid with my own “daughters of air.” And the other tales as well. They may not be as palatable as their Disney counterparts, but the original fairytales give us soul-guiding lessons about love and life that we need now more then ever.

If pain is a parable

1 Feb

If a field is a kingdom
If a heart is a chest
If a kiss is a key
If a tear is a lubricant
If choice is a hinge
If anger is a treasure
If feelings are children
If parenting is unconditional
If growth means release

then surrender
love
labor
value
open
leak
join
contain
heaven

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