Fatherhood

My son is a toddler and just beginning to get into mischief. Despite my “advice” (warnings) to him about the risks related to some of the things he might try, he goes ahead and does them anyway. Standing on toys inevitably results in a fall, and this morning he almost fell on the stairs before catching himself (I was there to catch him if he hadn’t caught himself). At that point he looked at me and said “that was close!” – and I agreed with him. He’s a silly boy, learning his limits and pushing those limits outward like any growing boy should.

As I watch him, during those times but also during other times when he is sweet and loving, my mind always comes back to two thoughts:

  1. Every person on this earth who has ever lived has been born to somebody. A human being. A woman with thoughts and feelings, dreams and hopes and goals, fears and concerns. A woman who felt a certain way about her pregnancy and growing baby – feelings which at the very least didn’t lead to abortion but which at the very most may have been what my wife felt: nervousness about being a parent, but love for the child that sprang up like a plant in fertile soil, growing stronger with each passing day and blooming into something beautiful. While the feelings of all mothers fall somewhere on that spectrum, most mothers, I hope, would fall closer to the loving end. Those mothers – and fathers – looked at their child(ren) with love that goes beyond words, an emotion that the English language can’t quite name but which resides deep in the soul of a parent. As I look at my son, I love him so much that I know I’ll do whatever it takes to raise him right. I’ll put all the energy I have into it. Even when there are times that he challenges me, I won’t give up on him. And there’s nothing he can do that will make me stop loving him. Nothing. This is something that every child deserves to have from their parents – unconditional love. But not every child gets this from their parents. It pains me to think about the children that have been born to parents who didn’t want them, or children who were born to parents who have no business being parents. Instead of receiving from their parents what they most desperately need, they receive dismissal, abuse, or neglect. This reality hurts my heart.
  2. A child is undeveloped – immature in many things. Language is simple, wants are many, and frustration/whining comes quickly. As adults, we look at this behavior and are too easily drawn into the misguided belief that we are “better” than that. But let’s consider what we do as adults: use vulgar and/or profane language instead of really digging into our vocabulary; waste money on frivolous things like expensive cars, enormous televisions, and overpriced clothing (to name a few); complain to God when things just don’t go our way or when life isn’t easy. These are the adult parallels to childish behavior. It is God who sees us for who we really are – grown up children whose behaviors really didn’t ever go away so much as change focus. When I see this behavior in my son, I grow irritated and impatient because I’m a fallen person, prone to the same misbehavior. But God, the Almighty Father, sees us from a glorified perspective. He is not characterized by sinfulness but by perfection. Where we hate, He loves. Where we are impatient, He is patient. Where we are angry, He is merciful. This isn’t to say He is a pushover – God fully allows for natural consequences to occur, but the love He offers to us is perfectly unconditional. While I may think that my love for my son is unconditional, I can only think this easily now because he is a toddler and not yet a full-grown adult capable of making poor choices or lashing out at me viciously. I can say that I love him unconditionally with ease because it is easy to do so and the belief has not yet been challenged.

God’s love for humanity is perfectly unconditional, and we can know this because we have a record of the multitude of instances and ways in which it was challenged. The Bible describes centuries of misbehavior by the Israelites, the people to whom God revealed Himself. God allowed for consequences to their actions to occur, but throughout it He continually reminded them that He loves them anyway and that if they would just come back to Him He would once again bless them in abundance. Some of the most powerful verses in the Old Testament are about the love of God toward His people who rejected Him.

It’s easy to read the Old Testament and see the common thread of Israelite misbehavior and God’s anger against them pouring out. I can even understand why this might drive many to reject God because of the descriptions of His wrath. Who would want to give their life to a God of wrath? The important thing to do is ask “why is God so angry?” He is angry because he is jealous. Humans get jealous when somebody has something they want but can’t have (what I’ll call an “unrighteous jealousy” because it stems from covetousness and selfish pride) or when they are not getting the attention they feel they deserve (which may be unrighteous jealousy but is not always so).

There are justified situations of righteous jealousy. For example, if a husband is showing too much attention to a woman who is not his wife, his wife can (and ought to) become jealous. His wife deserves his full attention, and her jealousy stems from the fact that she has devoted herself to her husband – given her life to him – and she expects and deserves the same devotion in return. Similarly, God’s anger stemming from jealousy is a righteous jealousy and thus a righteous anger. God’s love is so completely unconditional – even more so than a spouse’s love or a parent’s love – that He is entirely deserving of our love, affections, and attention back. In any instance where we fail to show Him our love and attention, we deserve the righteous anger of God.

But the New Testament gives one more example of God’s unconditional love: the sacrifice of Jesus, God’s own son and a part of Himself. By taking upon Himself all of God’s righteous anger, He has made it so that we do not receive what we deserve. Instead, we receive grace upon grace. Forgiveness upon forgiveness.

God’s love is so unconditional that He took it upon Himself to be the recipient of His own righteous anger, so that we wouldn’t have to.

That, in my mind, is what being a Father is all about.

Regression

Potty training is hard. Really hard. And talking with people who have potty trained children before is also hard. Really hard. So many people have stories of “oh, my little boy/girl took right to it and figured it out in a weekend.” When I first heard stories like this, they were the only stories I heard, which set some expectations in my mind that I now know are unrealistic. It turns out that most of the people who take the initiative to offer up their account unsolicited are those who did see some quick success. But it’s difficult to discern what they mean by ‘success.’ After all, for a child to be completely potty trained they need to be to the point of recognizing that they need to go potty, head to the potty themselves, do their business in there with no assistance (including handling pants and wiping), and never have an accident. They need to hold it through the night, and they need to be able to communicate to an adult their need to go potty consistently. Finally, they need to do this of their own choice – that is, free of external rewards.

So, for those stories of children who “just picked it right up,” I ask whether or not the above criteria were met right off the bat. My inclination is to presume the answer to this question is ‘no.’ I say this because the criteria I defined are hard to accomplish. Holding it requires muscle development and body awareness – two things that are developmental and not automatic. Distinguishing whether one has to pee or poop is not automatic when a child has lived for a couple years (at least) NOT having to think about that. The same goes for the development of muscles involved in holding it. Muscles that are not accustomed to an action need to be trained to perform that action. Manipulating one’s pants to get them out of the way is also tough when a child has never had to do that before. All of these tasks are not simply something that a child “picks up” in a weekend.

My conversations with people bear out my presumption as well. While there are many who proffer their experience of having a child (or being that child) who nailed it immediately, there are many more who don’t have that story but don’t share it until they are asked. Unfortunately, the best words of advice on potty training don’t come from people who willingly share it.

My expectations were unreasonable, and it showed. My son is going through potty training and I expected it to be quick because I didn’t think about it. Over the past few weeks, he has learned to hold it or tell us he needs to pee/poop, and the number of accidents went way down. But…it took several weeks to make this progress and he still doesn’t reliably push his pants down or poop in the potty (he prefers to poop on the ground outside if he can get away with it). However, he was making good progress until…we broke him.

Recently my son spent the majority of a weekend in pull-ups. While we still took him to the potty every 30-45 minutes initially, it didn’t take long for us to begin forgetting and those intervals became longer. He began peeing in his pull-up. By Monday, he was peeing in every pull-up even when the intervals returned to 30 minutes. So now we are back to square one – trying to avoid him peeing his pants by having a couple naked days. It’s disappointing.

Regression is bound to occur with any skill that is not constantly nurtured or practiced until it becomes second nature. For example, I used to know how to solve some pretty devious differential equations. However, after many years not doing so I’ve lost that skill and can now only handle the easy separable ones without guidance. It’s disappointing.

In this process of potty training, I’ve learned that I’m not nearly as patient as I thought I was. It seems like a toddler was designed to push my buttons, and this toddler of mine really knows which buttons to work. But I need to distinguish between those times when he pushes my buttons intentionally and those times when he does so unintentionally. Having pee accidents fall in that second category, I believe. It’s not misbehavior – it’s just a failure on my part to properly train him in a skill. I need to get a hold of my patience before I lose it, because it’s important for me to remember that he is just having a hard time with a skill that is still under construction. It’s not his fault.

I lose my patience pretty regularly now, it seems. Several times a day. I hate that part of me. But that’s a subject for another day.

It Tempts

(Part 2 of a series)

Note: much of this is written from a heterosexual male perspective because this represents the majority of pornography users as well as the perspective of the author. However, women do represent an increasing fraction of those who use pornography so the pronouns used in this post could easily be swapped or rearranged as the reader deems appropriate.

All around us in modern culture we are surrounded by lurid images. While network television pushes the envelope with scenes showing people in underwear or the view from behind of a topless woman, cable television and satellite dish programming use their less-restricted status as license to portray people naked and/or appearing to have sex. Advertisements use sexual allure to sell products on television, in magazines, and even on billboards. Movies and books almost always have some sort of sex scene in them. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is considered too bland anymore if it doesn’t contain images of women wearing nothing but body paint “swimsuits.” And, of course, sexual pop-up and sidebar ads appear everywhere online.

These media influences impact how sex appeal manifests itself in other aspects of culture. Artists toe the line, and even cross it, with graphic renditions of sexual subjects on public display. Fashion lines produce clothing for teenagers that puts on display what is only just beginning to develop physically. Smartphone apps become tools for teens to share sexualized images with romantic partners and means by which sexual predators gain access to children who are not aware of their advances. These are just a few examples.

Intrinsically, sex is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing. Humans have been designed to enjoy sex, more so than most other animals. And like all good things, people desire it. Sweet treats and shopping at the mall are also good things that people desire. So wherein lies the problem?

Humanity has a problem – all things have been corrupted by the Fall. This means that when we seek out good things, we have a predisposition toward using those good things badly. It may not be in ways that are obviously bad – buying a gun is not an intrinsically malicious action unless it is done with the intent to harm someone – but it is usually in ways that are more subtly bad. For example, a person may find himself having a rather unpleasant day and buy some ice cream as a treat to lift his or her spirits. Buoyed by the rush of sugar, he feels much better. The next time he has a bad day, he may buy more ice cream for that sense of comfort again. After this repeats some number of times, the ice cream has become more than simply an innocent treat – it has become the cushion on which he falls when he is in anything but a good mood. Taken too far, the ice cream becomes what puts him in a good mood. Alcohol could be substituted into this example with the same outcome – something amoral becomes immoral when it is abused. The desire for something that is intrinsically innocent becomes a dependency. This is what our fallen human condition does, and other obvious examples exist, such as drugs and video games.

Sex has been so corrupted, distorted into something it was not intended to be. This is evident immediately in the Bible after Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and realized they were naked. The exposure of their nude bodies produced a sense of shame and withdrawal, where they hid from God and covered themselves up. The exposure of their nude bodies became taboo, and has been ever since.

When something that was designed to be good is used in a way that is no longer good, or when something good becomes corrupted into something bad, there exists in association with it a degree of taboo. Nudity, then, has become taboo. We wear clothing to cover ourselves, but some individuals may wear less clothing as a means of drawing attention to themselves. The more revealing the clothing, the more taboo it is, and thus the more attention it draws. We have sex in darkened bedrooms as a means of visually covering our nakedness while still engaging in something pleasurable because nakedness is so taboo that even revealing our body to our spouse is psychologically difficult (though not impossible, as there are assuredly many instances of couples who leave the lights on).

Where taboo exists, temptation to violate that taboo exists as well. Just as it is typically considered taboo (by many) to wear revealing clothing in public, it is also taboo to stare at people who wear revealing clothing. The beach is a prime example, where revealing bathing suits are commonplace and where staring is considered lecherous. The temptation to stare at women in scanty bikinis exists, strongly, and many men surrender to the temptation without even thinking about it. Other men succumb to the temptation by attempting to be more discreet about it – using mirrored sunglasses or lengthy sidelong glances. The temptation is so prevalent that it is often not even considered a temptation in the negative sense, but instead may be thought of as an entitlement: “The beach is where I go to stare at women, and the women there want me to stare or else they wouldn’t dress like that.” (Note that I say nothing here about justifying that thought, though it may very well be true that some number of people do want to be noticed.)

Sex is likewise taboo. It is generally not culturally acceptable to talk about sex in public. When it does occur, such conversation attracts glances from nearby listeners or headshakes from the older generation who would never have spoken of such things beyond closed doors. And although it is frequently depicted in television shows and movies, it is not uncommon for viewers to avert their eyes during such scenes and for parents to skip over the scene or tell their children to look away. Movies with a high amount of sexual conduct (eg. Fifty Shades of Grey) are viewed with suspicion by some and disgust by others, while the media fawns with amazement that something so classically “forbidden” is now available on screen.

Like any type of taboo, it has an associated temptation with it. People perk up their ears when they overhear sex being discussed because they want to hear about it. Movies and television depict sex acts because the viewers want to see it – if they didn’t, there would be no market for it. Although experiencing it is better, seeing or hearing about it is enticing enough that the temptation is there to pay attention. Indeed, the temptation is even there to seek it out. And those that seek it out need not look far.

Pornography calls out to those who seek it. “Come find me.” It may occur in bookstores, where the adult magazines are placed on top racks behind rows of other magazines but where the titles peek out at the customer. The temptation arises to try to peek around those other magazines, to see what the cover holds. Advertisements on television geared at men bring with them a temptation: if you wear our product, you could have sexual experiences with women like these. The online advertisements that pop up or appear at the bottom of web pages offer the temptation: click here to watch something you otherwise might not get to see.

Whether or not one succumbs to temptation is the result of a cost-benefit analysis. Violating taboos carries a social cost – if you click on that link and somebody sees you do it, then they will view you differently from then on. You become “that kind of guy.” This could be a prohibitively high cost, especially if a man is married. On the other hand, the benefit he might perceive in clicking the link could be so high that it is worth the risk. Just a little peek, just a little release of pleasure hormones in the brain, and then back to life as usual. If the benefit outweighs the cost, then he clicks the link. If the cost is too high, he refrains. But the temptation is there.

The temptation that pornography offers is strong because it offers a view of something that seems exciting. The chance to see something that isn’t often seen or isn’t easy to come by during the course of a typical day. The opportunity for a man or woman to lay his or her eyes on the body of a man or woman without the social cost associated with getting caught staring, in a context that gets past the covering of clothing, and in a way that doesn’t require them to be in a relationship first. If it is sexual pornography, then he can even envision himself as the male role and “experience” the excitement of sex with somebody new every night without the risks of sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy, commitments, or broken relationships. With those things as benefits, and no or little perceived cost if done in the privacy of one’s own home, it is no wonder that so many respond to the temptation by clicking on the link.

However, temptation has the connotation of going against what one “ought” to do. We know we shouldn’t have another bowl of ice cream, but if we do just this once what’s the harm? We will feel awful if we have one more alcoholic drink, but the night has been fun up to now, or I’m feeling better than I did before, and one more drink will keep the good feelings going. We know that if we stare at that woman she may feel uncomfortable, but if we do it without her noticing then it’s OK right?

Pornography resides at the apex of social taboos. It carries with it a high cost if a man is perceived as a pornography connoisseur. He may experience broken relationships or be viewed as unsavory or untrustworthy. And yet, because it is the distortion of something good it carries with it a high degree of perceived benefit and can be used by a man to experience physical reward. Its call is strong, and its temptation is powerful: come find me; I’m worth it.

It Calls

(Part 1 of a series)

When I was a boy – fourth grade, perhaps – I knew about the female body. I didn’t know much, nor did I know why I was so interested, but I knew I was interested. Perhaps it represents what some have seen when they describe the female body as “a work of art”, beautiful in its curves and tender in its softness. Or perhaps it’s something else. All I know is that by fourth grade I was casually and discreetly stealing glances in the lingerie section of the JCPenney catalog that came in the mail.

Such imagery has a certain allure to it. When something is consistently hidden from view it becomes tantalizing to the young mind. Why is this always covered? What does it look like? Why am I prevented from seeing it? Such questions foster a desire to see what is being concealed, and as more time passes the desire grows.

A young boy doesn’t typically have the resources to go beyond this point. The underwear section at the store, the underwear store at the mall, and other advertisements are usually the only static images that are accessible – and even these are not readily accessible but only available by opportunity. Television offers glances as well, depending on the programming, but these are even more tantalizing than images because they are there one second and gone the next as the show continues. What remains is an image in the mind’s eye.

The images in the mind’s eye, however, are powerful remnants. A printed image remains “outside”, where the brain need not load it into working memory because it’s already accessible via sensory input. The images in the mind’s eye represent objects in memory – short-term memory at first – where the mind can dwell on its appearance. This dwelling may not last long, maybe only a few seconds or minutes, but during that time the mind can manipulate the image in a way that a printed image cannot be manipulated. It can be shifted, re-positioned, and even modified in appearance. Clothing can be removed and faces can be replaced.

If the mental image is dwelled upon for long enough, it can even be transferred to long-term memory for later retrieval. The more frequently this retrieval occurs, the more lasting the memory becomes. It goes from being “something I once saw” to “something I can now see whenever I want.” It becomes ingrained in the person’s mind as a permanent object. It becomes part of the person.

People are social creatures. While there are small numbers of exceptions, and the degree may vary from person to person, typically people like being around other people. It is fundamental to who we are as humans and may have at its roots an origin in our spiritual nature as well as our evolutionary history, where survival was better ensured by sticking together rather than striking out on one’s own. In every country, and every survivable habitat, people have grouped together. Even beyond that, people frequently group together based on some shared characteristic(s). It may be shared appearances, shared occupations, shared experiences, shared values, shared interests, and any other of a number of common elements or environmental factors that encourage us to seek the company of others. The point is that a force within us compels us to find more of that “something”. The old adage is that “misery loves company”, but it is also true that joy loves company. Struggle loves company. Wit loves company. Addiction loves company.

One could wager that every human emotion and experience loves company. A golfer looks for others with whom they can share a round on the course, and an intellectual looks for others with whom they can trade barbs or discuss issues in great depth. Those who celebrate look for others to celebrate with, and those who mourn look for others to mourn with.

This indicates that the interaction between emotional experience and psychological need is a strong one. We look to others who share what we are experiencing for relationship purposes, but also so we can share their experience. Adrenaline “junkies” find excitement in experiencing high-risk situations with others, but also find excitement in hearing about high-risk situations others have experienced. When a person has an interest, a value, or an experience, they seek others with those same characteristics so they can share in what the other brings to the table. This is to say that all characteristics of our humanity – born and resident in the mind – love company.

The long-term memory represents a storehouse of knowledge attained and developed by a person during the course of his or her life. It is not just a repository of facts but a system of connections, insights, and truths that one’s mind has deemed important enough to retain for later use and which are used frequently enough to have persisted. It is this frequent use that reinforces the permanence of a memory. A student may take three years of a foreign language in high school, but if several years subsequently pass with no use and no need to use it then the memory will fade. It will be deemed unimportant. But if the student simply talks to himself or herself in that language, then frequent retrieval of the memories aids in cementing those memories in a lasting way. In this way, the language transitions from being a lesson learned in the past to being a characteristic of that person.

Emotional experiences have a similar pattern. If a person harbors a grudge against someone else but quickly forgives it and reconciles the relationship, then the memory of the origin of that grudge fades easily with time. This is one reason why being able to forgive is healthy. But if that person dwells on the memory, frequently remembering the instance where they were wronged by their friend, then the grudge has the ability to permanently fracture the relationship and permanently etch itself onto the mind of the bearer. Such memories are very difficult to forget, and that person might also find it very difficult (if not impossible) to forgive the wrong. The grudge has become part of that person.

An image in the mind can likewise persist if it is frequently retrieved. A book with vivid descriptions forms an image in the mind’s eye that, if striking enough, can persist for years afterward. Similarly, the more the mind dwells on an image, playing with it in different ways, the stronger the memory of that image will be.

Persistent long-term memories of images that represent emotional feelings, adrenaline rushes, powerful experiences, or strong desires thus have the power to shape a person. They can impact personality and behavior, in some cases triggering an impulse to seek more. That impulse acts as an internal motivation to satisfy one’s desire for more of what has already sculpted the psyche. The memories love company, and demand more memories of a similar nature. Having planted the seed in the fertile soil of a young, impressionable, developing brain, pornography grows and sends out deep roots.

But even flowers that look beautiful on the outside can harbor foul secrets. The titan arum, a large flower native to Sumatra, has vivid colors and an enormous flower. But once it opens, a rancid odor is emitted that leads many to call it the “corpse flower.” Lurid, sexual imagery of the naked human body – pornography – is such a flower, but where the stench isn’t noticed until some time has passed. And from its putrid blossom arises a call: come find me.

Hello world

The first output text of every computer programmer marks my entrance into the digital realm. I’ve been accustomed to keeping written journals to-date, but a written journal isn’t always convenient and I type a bit faster than I can write. OK, who am I kidding. Typing is easier than writing, and I’m lazy. Although when I think on it further I realize that writing in a paper journal was easy compared to figuring out how to set up this blog!

Sitting here with a digital journal open in front of me is an interesting experience. When I was in college I entertained the idea of getting a tattoo, but ultimately didn’t because I couldn’t figure out what I’d like stained onto my skin for the rest of my life. The permanence was paralyzing. Similarly, this environment feels a bit paralyzing – what do I want to write about that is so permanent as to be published on the internet until the EMP hits? I think part of the purpose of this is to serve as a way of clearing out my mind. To that end, whether or not anybody else reads this is irrelevant and therefore perhaps the permanence shouldn’t matter. On the other hand, what exists in my mind to be cleared out may not represent who I am as a person ten years from now. If it still exists online ten years from now, and even if nobody else ever reads it, does it still represent me? Does it mean I am still “that”?

Regardless, this serves as a dumping ground for all of the things that give me anxiety and high blood pressure, the things that make me reflect, and the things that move my heart. The web environment will make it easier to do this wherever I am (or at least that’s what they tell me), so it marks a transition for me from analog to digital. I promise nothing regarding coherence of my writing or consistency in my thought. But I do promise to try not to be guarded. Promises made to the “me” that comes back and reads this ten years from now.

Or, at least, the “me” that exists when the EMP hits.