Don’t Take Short-Cuts With Your Teenagers

From “The Robin & Boom Show Episode 3

“…a lot of parents with traditional Christian values are increasingly unhopeful about being able to pass those values on to the next generation… And one of the things we’ve noticed is that when parents feel pessimistic about their chances of success, the temptation can be to take short-cuts and to settle for getting our children to assent to the beliefs and lifestyle choices that reflect our values without actually helping them to develop the type of critical thinking and thoughtful disposition that’s necessary for them to really make those values their own. It’s a lot easier to settle for the intermediate goal of just getting our children to tick the right box, to parrot back our traditional values, instead of actually inculcating within them the type of attentive and thoughtful and engaged and reflective disposition that’s necessary if those values are going to become part of who they are. And so essentially, we develop a kind of tribalism where we make the children feel that it’s not okay to question the tribe, or we may use control and manipulation to shut down critical discussion. And of course, then what happens is that the children go away to college and become exposed to another tribe – say, something like social Marxism – and because they haven’t been taught to ask questions, they just become like sheep to the slaughter.”

Further Reading

Great Lent and Cultural Anthropology

During this season of Lent, I have thought more than once about the spiritual value of struggle. The Church would not have given us an entire season devoted to struggling if it were not appropriate to view struggle in a positive light.

Not everyone agrees that struggle is good. In my Touchstone article The Cross of Least Resistance, I quoted a number of influential evangelical leaders who taught that the presence of struggle in a person’s spiritual life is a sure sign that something is wrong. This present article will not attempt to expose the hermeneutical and exegetical errors in the opinions of these false teachers (for that, see here and here and here). Instead, I want to look at the question of struggle from the perspective of cultural anthropology. But first, why cultural anthropology?

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Nine Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Parenting Teenagers

This post was originally published a number of years ago, and is being re-issued at the top of my blog for the sake of new readers.

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Having been involved in raising three teenagers, I have sometimes been approached by other parents for advice with their teens. Perhaps it is providential that this doesn’t happen very often! When people do seek my advice, although the various situations differ widely, the problems usually revolve around the same sorts of general issues and so I usually end up saying the same things again and again. For what it’s worth, I’m going to share below what I normally say. This advice is what I wish someone had shared with me before I ever had teenagers. With regard to the personal anecdotes I will share, some of the circumstantial details have been altered to preserve the anonymity of the subjects. But first a disclaimer is necessary for those who may happen to know me: I am still learning to apply these principles myself. It is one of the ironies of life that by the time we finally learn all the lessons we need to know about being good parents, our last child is already grown.

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Rightly Ordered Emotion

In our culture, the main distinction we tend to make about emotion is between emotions that are pleasant vs. emotions that are unpleasant. But that isn’t the healthiest way to think about emotion, not least because it can lead to the assumption that unpleasant emotions should be avoided and pleasant emotions sought. Instead, it is better to think about emotions that are rightly orders vs. emotions that are disordered. Some rightly ordered emotions can be pleasant or unpleasant, just as some disordered emotions can be either pleasant or unpleasant.

Aristotle

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322) helps us to understand the distinction between rightly ordered emotions vs. disordered emotions. Aristotle taught that properly ordered emotions play an integral role in correct thinking as well as in helping a person’s appetites be regulated by virtue. Accordingly, emotion is a type of perception—an “appearing as”— that undergirds moral thinking and decision making. For example, we feel anger when we witness an action that appears unjust, or we feel pity when we see someone suffer from evil. Rightly ordered emotion is thus integral to the concerns by which we perceive the world as moral agents. But it is also possible for disordered emotion to obscure our perception of the world. For example, if I feel envy at the good fortune of another, then my ability to rightly perceive the other person’s situation has been obscured. The goal of education, especially the education of children, is to cultivate proper habits, including the habit of responding to situations with the right emotional reaction. Without properly ordered emotions, it is impossible to achieve eudaimonia, a Greek word that is often translated happiness but more properly conveys the idea of human flourishing.

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Pain, Suffering and Resilience, Published by St. Sebastian Orthodox Press

St. Sebastian Orthodox Press has just released a new book Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives.

This collection of peer-reviewed essays explores the mystery of human suffering along with the spiritual and psychological resources that enable us to achieve resilience in the midst of pain.

The publisher explains how the work

“includes eminent scholars, clergy, physicians, and psychotherapists seeking to serve people in their respective fields, through their respective disciplines informed and guided by the depth and riches of the Orthodox Christian Faith. This is the unifying thread for each of the contributors who bring this ancient Christian perspective into dialogue with the contributions of modern psychology and medical science as they seek to address the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of pain and human suffering in a variety of contexts.”

I was privileged to be asked to contribute a chapter to this volume on the topic of practicing gratitude during times of suffering. My essay  develops material I began exploring in my chapter on Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Saints and Scoundrels. By drawing on classic spiritual texts (i.e., The Way of the Pilgrim, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Dorotheus of Gaza’s Saying and Discourses, etc) and integrating them with recent developments (i.e., advances in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, the twentieth-century prison literature, etc.) I make a case that suffering and gratitude are not related like two sides of a zero-sum transaction where an increase in the former entails a decrease in the latter. Rather, by receiving our sufferings rightly, we can use them as opportunities to actually grow in the cognitive, behavioral and emotional dimensions of thankfulness. From the essay:

“…true gratitude is not merely compatible with an acknowledgement of pain; it presupposes it. To be truly grateful is to acknowledge that life is difficult while framing that difficulty within a context of thanksgiving…. Gratitude releases us to lean into the pain, to stand face to face with the ambiguity and complexity of life and not to despair. In contrast to stoicism, cynicism and sentimentalism, gratitude-based reframing does not involve detachment from suffering; rather, it provides the inner resources for genuine engagement…. In so far as gratitude enables us to lean into pain, to be realistic rather than escapist, it provides the resources to engage with others who are suffering instead of insulating ourselves from their pain. In our comfort-oriented culture, many people’s default response is to avoid those whose lives are lonely, messy or filled with pain. Instead of going through people’s pain with them, we often numb ourselves to the suffering around us in order to protect ourselves. However, when the pursuit of comfort causes us to numb ourselves to the impact of suffering, what we are doing is numbing away the capacity to empathize, to feel love, joy and gratitude. This is because it is impossible to selectively numb emotion. When we harden ourselves as a defense against fear, grief, disappointment, shame, rejection or vulnerability, we are inadvertently reducing our capacity to feel the emotions that are important for our wellbeing, including gratitude.

Gratitude enables us to look pain straight in the eye and not to despair. Gratitude enables us to derive genuine enjoyment from small blessings even when evil, suffering and pain are crowding in upon us. This is important, not only so we can have the resources for weathering life’s storms, but so we have the inner resources to engage with others who are going through hardships. Instead of pushing people away because we cannot deal with their pain, and instead of numbing ourselves in order to be insulated from other people’s grief, a grateful person has the inner resources to empathize with those who are in pain and like the Apostle said, ‘rejoicing with them that rejoice, and weeping with them that weep.’ (Romans 12:15)”

What I don’t share in my chapter, but which I would like to share here, is that the research behind this essay was prompted by a very painful set of circumstances in my personal life. The Lord brought me to a point where I was ready to dig deep in ancient spiritual teachings on contentment and pain. What I found is the spiritual paradox encapsulated by Elder Alexander of Gethsemane who observed that “The amount of suffering that the soul can accommodate is also how much it can accommodate the grace of God.

The best chapters in Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives, are actually the ones written by others, including a contribution by Fr. John Behr and another by His Grace, Bishop Alexander (Golitzin), who serves as Bisohp of the Diocese of the South for the OCA and ruling bishop of the Bulgarian Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America.

Fr. John Behr’s chapter expands on material he presented in this fantastic podcast, where he observed that the greatest change in the modern world (greater even than electricity and the internet) is that we no longer have to deal with death in an immediate way. Until the last fifty years, ordinary people had constantly to deal with the process of dying and with dead bodies. But in the modern world we no longer see death or have to deal with dead bodies, and hence we have no practical horizon for understanding finiteness, vulnerability and transcendence, or even for fully grasping the mystery of the incarnation when God embraced death in order to trample it down.

I hope all the essays in this book can prove an encouragement to ordinary men and women facing struggles and pain.

I would be grateful for people to buy the book on Amazon and then write a review (Amazon always privileges reviews if the person writing the review has bought the book through them).

You can read more about the book on the St. Sebastian Orthodox Press website.

Further Reading

Loving God Without Fear

I was recently blessed to listen to the recordings of a three-part series offered by His Grace, Bishop Irenei (Steenberg), Ph.D. These talks are both inspiring and challenging, pressing us into deeper love of God and obedience to His commands. Ancient Faith Radio has made this three-part series available for free at the following links. I offer them here for the edification of my readers.

Listen to Your Feelings – they might have something important to tell you

One of my favorite movies is the 2002 science fiction film Equilibrium. Written and directed by Kurt Wimme, the film is set in a future society called Libria. In Libria it is against the law to feel.

The main character of the film named John Preston (played by Christian Bale) is a law enforcement officer. He is tasked with destroying objects that could incite emotion, including art, poetry and classical music. He is also required to kill rebels, known as “Sense Offenders”, who choose to experience illegal emotions.

The citizens of Libria have been brainwashed into believing that feelings are the cause of war, suffering and conflict. Accordingly, most of the citizens in Libria willingly participate in their own enslavement by taking a daily injection of a drug, known as Prozium II, which suppresses all emotion.

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How to Find Your Place in the Good Life

Jason and Kaitlyn would never have said their marriage was unhappy. However, throughout the fourteen years they had been together, they gradually drifted apart. They rarely had arguments and to outsiders they looked like the perfect couple. However, as the years went by, they seemed to have less and less in common.

Without giving it much thought, Jason instinctively assumed that the reason he had grown distant from Kaitlyn was because she had changed. It wasn’t simply that Kaitlyn’s had lost her youthful beauty, although it did bother Jason that he was no longer physically attracted to his wife. It was also that she was no longer as fun to be around. She used to be the type of person you wanted to share everything with, but over the years she seemed to have become different. It was hard to put his finger on it.

Kaitlyn tried not to think too much about the growing distance between Jason and herself. A few years ago she had begun to suspect that Jason was using his computer at work to access pornography, but she quickly dismissed the idea from her head. The sense of distance between them was probably just because they were so busy with their kids that they rarely had time to do things together anymore. Whenever they did have a free evening, it seemed Jason preferred to spend it watching sports with his friends from the software firm where he worked. During football season, Jason didn’t even come to church with her and the kids. Kaitlyn reflected that maybe if she and Jason could go on a vacation together, just the two of them, they might be able to rekindle what they had lost.

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Struggling Towards Holiness

Russian Christians frequently emphasize the concept of spiritual struggle, as encapsulated in their word “podvig.” There is no English equivalent for podvig, but the term conveys the idea of a good hardship, a spiritual struggle, a God-ordained difficulty.

“I think I might stop being a Christian,” my friend said, a few minutes after comfortably situating himself in my office.

“Why?” I asked. “Have you stopped believing in God?”

My friend, who we will call Trevor, pondered silently. A few days ago Trevor had asked to meet to get some advice about a personal crisis he was facing. But the conversation had quickly turned to his more general struggles with Christianity.

I renewed my question: “Is it because you’ve stopped believing in God that you are considering giving up Christianity?”

“It’s not that, Robin. I still believe in God. But I’ve been at this Christianity thing for over six years now, yet I’m still struggling with the same sins and addictions as when I converted. People keep telling me I need to rely on the Holy Spirit to help me, but however much I pray and ask for help, it never gets any easier. I just can’t achieve victory over the sins in my life. Why isn’t the Holy Spirit helping me?”

As Trevor continued to share, I learned how well-meaning Christians had been telling him that he needed to abandon the struggle and “let go and let God.” The problem was that victory over sin was part of the criteria these Christians were using to determine whether Trevor had fully “let go.” Trevor had also been told that because he kept sinning this was proof that he was struggling in his own strength. Moreover, he had been told that the difficult Christian life is a failed Christian life, since a life defined by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit will be characterized by rest not difficult struggle.

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Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life

A couple years ago, while doing some work in London, I found myself with an eight day gap in my schedule. I decided to take the train to the quiet countryside of Essex where I had heard there was a Christian monastery that offered free accommodation to spiritual seekers.

As I sat in the train, watching the English countryside whiz by, I thought of a conversation I had a couple days earlier with the receptionist at the London hotel where I had been staying. The receptionist, a young Italian lady named Francesca, had a sharp elegant-looking Roman nose offset by soft dark eyes. She told me she had immigrated to the UK just a month before, after the severe economic conditions in Italy had forced her to come to London in search of work.

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