Some Stuff I’ve Learned Since Graduating

I graduated from college about a year and a half ago, so by now I definitely know all about how life works and I’m able to pass on my infinite wisdom to this year’s grads.

I’m kidding, of course. But I have learned some things about life since I graduated, both from intaking wisdom and inspiration from others (such as this awesome piece from RELEVANT magazine or this story on NPR) and just from living life and seeing how things have been a bit different than I expected. Everything I say here is just as much a reminder to myself as it is advice to anyone else. I’m still working on getting it right, too.

This is all purely based on my personal experience and I’m sure will not apply to everyone, but since it’s graduation season I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned since I entered the “real” world.

1. You’ve got to be proactive about going out and getting what you want. No one is going to do it for you.

Want a job? Go out and get it. Want friends? Be friendly.

I know from personal experience: this is easier said than done. I spent six months applying for jobs in the field I studied in school, technical writing, and for which I had previous professional experience. I currently work as a full-time nanny. All that talk you’ve heard about the economy being bad and whatnot? Well, turns out it is very true.

I am also an introvert. When I’m spent from working or socializing a lot, my idea of a good time includes sitting on the couch, talking to no one, and watching reruns of The Walking Dead. So it can be difficult for me to take that first step required to build new relationships.

But that’s the big point I’m making here: you’ve got to practice intentionality. While you may not see results immediately, you’ve just got to be intentional about putting yourself out there. No one is going to hand you internship opportunities or job offers or ready-made friends. I didn’t realize until after I graduated just how much good stuff was pre-packaged for us students by our universities: we were assigned a dorm room with a roommate and neighbors who became our first and (sometimes) most enduring adult friendships. We were constantly invited to lectures, special events, and career fairs that someone else had already put in the time and work to organize. While in school, we were surrounded by opportunity that was, for the most part, simply handed to us.

Don’t worryyou’re still surrounded by opportunity. The difference now is that you have to make the effort to find it and take advantage of it. No one is going to check up on you to make sure you’re progressing appropriately toward your goals; there are no curriculum guides or semester charts that tell you what you’re supposed to do next. The scary and also exciting thing about life is that you have to decide for yourself what you want to do next, and then you have to figure out how to make it happen.

Practicing intentionality applies to all areas of life: do you want to be thin and healthy? Be intentional about what you eat and how you exercise. We all wish that things we desire would just magically happen for us, but in order to truly achieve what we desire, we have to consciously work toward our goals every day.

2. Get out into the world and just start doing stuff.

This is the best way to figure out what you want to do with your life, discover what you’re good at, and learn how you need to improve. You’ve already learned from professors and classmates; now you’ll learn from peers, relatives, employers, and friends about what sorts of options are out there. Expose yourself to lots of things: read books and articles, from fashion magazines to news and political outlets, from food blogs to the New York Times. Pay attention to what excites you, what you want to learn more about, and what projects and jobs other people are doing that you think sound cool. Follow those feelings, because that’s how you figure out what you’re good at and what you want to do.

Find other people who are doing stuff you admire and ask them about it: How did they get there? What do they like about it? What don’t they like about it? What can a recent college grad do to emulate them? This all ties into #1: you’ve just got to put yourself out there. Get in the world’s face, ask lots of questions, and chase after things that interest and excite you. Be curious and proactive.

And by all means, look for jobs in your field, but don’t limit yourself. If an opportunity opens up for something that doesn’t fit what you’re “supposed” to be doing, don’t dismiss it, because you never know what interests it may stir in you or what doors it may open for further opportunities.

You won’t figure everything out right away, or by the time you’re thirty, or maybe ever, but that’s okay, too. You’ll keep experimenting and meeting new people and trying different things, and every experience will teach you more about yourself. Life is one long work in progress, and if you’re open to it, you’ll spend the rest of your life learning, growing, seeing, feeling, and doing.

3. “Nobody feels like an adult. It’s the world’s dirty secret.”

I had to steal this one from a movie I saw recently, Liberal Arts. Over the course of the film, the protagonista man putzing around in his thirties and working a job he doesn’t likelearns to stop living in the past and embrace his adulthood. The line I’ve used above comes from a conversation the protagonist has with his former professor. He confesses that while he knows he should act like an adult, he just doesn’t feel like an adult. The gruff professor replies, “Nobody feels like an adult. It’s the world’s dirty secret.”

This is a great way of saying that, in life, you’re never really going to get to a place where you feel like you have everything figured out. When I was in elementary and middle school, I greatly admired my high-school-aged siblings and their friends. They just seemed so grown up. They were beautiful and funny and confident and everything I expected to be when I was in high school. Then I got to high school, and I realized that, while I was maybe more confident and better at doing my makeup, I still struggled with insecurity and anxiety about my future.

So, I turned my admiration to college students: oh, how mature they were! Listen to them talk about their term papers! Watch how they drink coffee and decorate their dorm rooms with all the grace and ease of a well-rounded adult!

You can see where I’m going with this. As I progress through each stage of life, I tend to shift my admiration to those in the next stage, which I suspect is a way of reassuring myself that, while right now things seem difficult and uncertain, soon I’ll have it all figured out.

Turns out, life doesn’t really work that way. Sure, we grow and become wiser, more mature, and better equipped to deal with things over time, but there will always be a new decision to make, a new conflict to resolve, and a set of new paths to choose from. Rather than hoping to have all the answers, I think it’s more important to strive to be our best in each stage of life while continually getting better, because for most of us, “better” is the best we can hope for. Wherever you are in life—school, early career, marriage, parenthoodyou’ve just got to own it, do your best in it, and try to learn and grow from it. Oh, and don’t forget to have fun!

4. Life is different post-grad, and that’s okay.

This one sounds pretty obvious, but I’m specifically referring to schedules and habits. In my freshman year, while juggling a demanding honors program along with all of the other challenges that come with transitioning to college life, a professor once told us students that we would never again have as much disposable time as we did during college. I laughed and returned to the five hundred-page book I had to finish by the next morning. But I look back on that now and realize that he was right. Sure, college is busy, but when again in life will you have a schedule that includes two- or three-hour chunks of free time in the middle of the afternoon every Tuesday? And good luck finding a job that gives you four weeks off for Christmas, a week off every spring, and three months off every summer (but if you do find such a job, please let me know so I can apply).

Also, eating whatever you want and staying up until two o’clock in the morning catches up with you quickly. Do yourself a favor and break whatever bad habits you have sooner rather than later, because you really can’t maintain them if you keep any semblance of a “normal” adult lifestyle. I was very surprised at how soon I noticed weight gain, or that I could barely function if I got fewer than six or seven hours of sleep. (The other night I only got four hours of sleep, and I felt exhausted for the rest of the week.)

None of this is bad. Early adulthood is just a new, different stage of life, and that’s okay. Don’t spend it longing to recapture the glory days of college; it will make you bitter and sad, and you’ll miss out on the good things you’ve got in life right now. Again, you’ve just got to own it and continue to invest in the important stuff: work that excites you, friendships, healthy habits, your family, and your relationship with God.

5. Hooray! It’s finally over! But really, this is just the beginning. 

Last weekend I attended my brother’s college graduation, and one of the student speakers shouted in celebration: “Hooray! It’s finally over!”

Yes, graduation is a big milestone that deserves celebration. You’ve accomplished a lot, and you should feel proud and relieved. But like any ending, it’s also a new beginning. As Calvin says to Hobbes in the final panels of everyone’s favorite comic strip: “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy…let’s go exploring!”

6. Always remember what matters most.

I’ll end with a powerful quote from St. Isaac of Syria. While the journey of discovering who you are and what you’re interested in is a very important one in life, always remember that the foundation of your very being rests in Christ. In the midst of all of the other crazy demands and challenges of life, don’t ignore God. (I’ll be the first to admit that I’m constantly guilty of this one.) Making our souls right with him is the most important thing we humans have to do; may we not waste our life pursuing anything else above the one who gave us life in the first place.

“Why do you increase your bonds? Take hold of your life before your light grows dark and you seek help and do not find it. This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Book Review: “Let Us Keep The Feast: living the Church year at home (Holy Week & Easter)”

Doulos Resources recently released a series of short books outlining seasons of the Christian liturgical year. Guides for Advent & Christmas and Lent & Epiphany are currently available for purchase, and future editions will be released later this year. I just finished Holy Week & Easter, which is available for pre-order.

Let Us Keep The Feast: living the Church Year at home (Holy Week & Easter) postures itself as a beginner’s guide to the (Western) liturgical year and traditions surrounding these seasons. Starting with a general introduction by editor Jessica Snell, the book is divided into two main chapters: “Holy Week” (written by Jennifer Snell) and “Easter” (written by Lindsay Marshall). In addition to outlining historical and global traditions as well as ways to involve children and community members in the season, the authors include Resources sections at the end of each chapter, listing various readings, music, and prayers related to Holy Week and Easter. These lists are a lovely taste of how these seasons have been celebrated over time, functioning both as a sort of educational survey of seasonal expression and as a suggestion for materials that can supplement the celebration of Holy Week and Easter in one’s church.

The authors highlight some important truths about Holy Week and Easter, as well as Christian tradition in general. Jennifer Snell, in her chapter on Holy Week, speaks of the need to slow our busy schedules in order to fully experience these seasons. In her introduction, Jessica Snell says that “Christians developed seasonal devotional practices that helped remind God’s people of God’s mercies,” affirming the importance of being mindful of these seasons’ significance to the Christian history and faith and how traditions and rituals aid such mindfulness. The authors rightly emphasize active participation in liturgical seasons, particularly within the context of one’s church. Jennifer Snell says it well in the quotation that sticks with me most: “No private devotion can substitute for the corporate journey to Easter in the company of your church.” Easter is more than a single Sunday service in the year; it is, as the authors continually point out, a season that is the focal point of the Church year, just as Christ’s resurrection is the focal point of the Christian faith.

I am by no means an expert on church history and tradition, but based on some research into topics I was less familiar with (and after running a few things by my seminarian husband), the book’s historicity seems to generally hold up (but again, I can’t make any truly authoritative statements in this regard). For other non-experts like myself, the book seems to be a good starting point for learning about various aspects of Western Christian tradition and a potentially good jumping-off point into conducting further research, if readers should desire to do so. The book’s success in this regard could have been even greater if the authors had included more citations of church history texts. It’s possible the authors (understandably) wanted to avoid an overly academic tone, but more prolific historical citations would have enhanced the authors’ credibility and provided additional historical resources for readers to explore. The Bibliography does include some historical works, but most are only directly referenced once or twice; even including a more comprehensive list of historical “Works Consulted,” or something similar, would have bolstered the book in this area.

I came away from the book feeling that the authors should have more clearly stated (even in the form of merely one or two sentences) that their focus is on Western Christian traditions and practices; while some Eastern church practices are mentioned briefly, the book primarily presents Holy Week, Easter, and the cycles of the church year through the lens of Western Christianity (that is, Roman Catholicism and denominations derived from it, such as Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and Presbyterianism). This is implicit in the text, which, as one example, often references the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but readers who are unfamiliar with church history or any sort of liturgical tradition may not make that inference.

Unfortunately, the book contains some typographical errors; nothing egregious, but enough to be noticeable. For example, the title of a book cited, The Origins of the Liturgical Year by Thomas J. Talley, is printed correctly on the Bibliography page but incorrectly when referenced in the text itself. Even the name of the book, as printed on the cover, does not match the book’s name as printed on the title page or front matter page: on the cover, it’s “living the Church Year at home,” while on the other pages it’s “celebrating the Church Year at home.”

Beyond these critiques, the book offers important insight into the history of celebrating the seasons of Holy Week and Easter, and it also provides inspiration for how and why Christians of all backgrounds should work to internalize and cultivate in their daily lives an active participation in the liturgical seasons.

Death, Thanksgiving, and the Resurrection

“Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” — St. Silouan the Athonite

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. An acquaintance of mine is a widower, and while I knew previously that his wife died several years ago, I only recently learned how: she suffered a sudden and massive heart attack. This woman was in her early thirties and in good health, and she died shortly after giving birth to the couple’s first child.

It’s easy for me to think of tragedy as something very distant and other. Tragedy happens to people on the news. It is sad and horrible, but always in a somewhat abstract way.

It’s easy to put my faith in statistics and regular exercise and my daily vegetable intake.

It’s easy to believe that because I am young and reasonably healthy I have a lot of life ahead of me.

Of course, if asked point-blank, I would not say that I expect to live to a certain age or that my life will go exactly as I hope and plan it will; no rational person can say that with certainty. Tragedy teaches us that life is very uncertain. Yet my underlying attitude comes out in my words: I joke with my husband about “when we’re old and gray;” I muse about parenting strategies and baby names in preparation for “when we have kids.” I use language of certainty when I speak of the future.

Like so many things in a young person’s mind, I often and far too easily relegate death to the far-off “someday” category. It will come when I’m old and after I’ve accomplished everything I’ve set out to accomplish. Perhaps I don’t believe this completely or even all the time, but in some small corner of my heart, I believe that death will come when I’m ready for it.

And so, it seems I have built an altar to my hopes and dreams, to what I expect out of life and what I think I deserve. I rely on a good diet and good luck for a fulfilled life, and in so doing I ignore the reality of death and tragedy, which really boils down to ignoring God and my need for him.

A former priest of mine used to respond to the question, “How are you doing?” with the statement, “Thank God.” That is, regardless of the circumstances in his life at that moment—whether joyous or tragic or somewhere in between—he responded in this way to practice continual thanksgiving. This is a good reminder of what our baseline should be as Christians: thankfulness to God for every good and perfect thing, and, more importantly, thankfulness for his unchanging goodness and mercy despite our current life circumstances.

After my priest’s example, I am trying to change the way I talk about my life. I speak of the future in terms of God’s will instead of my own plans. Rather than saying, “When I’m an old woman,” I’ll say, “Lord willing, when I’m old.” It’s not bad to hope for good things, but it is bad to idolize our desires and expectations.  We must remember who is ultimately in control, placing our faith in God’s sovereignty and grace above all else, especially when life doesn’t go according to plan.

This past Saturday, my church celebrated Christ’s raising of Lazarus from the dead. I was moved by one of the Scripture readings during the service, from the book of Hebrews:

“Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’…Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” — Hebrews 13:5-6, 8

In just a few verses there is such a profound and overarching message: that we must be content with what we have, for the greatest thing we always have is a God who will never abandon us, and that is all we could ever need.

While ignoring the reality of death and tragedy can be detrimental, I am not promoting the opposite extreme of being so consumed with the notion of death and mortality that we become hopeless and fail to live our lives well. Rather, we must be mindful of death, our weaknesses, and other realities that ultimately illumine our continual need for God and his grace. The Jesus Prayer, inspired by the parable of the tax collector in Luke 18, is a powerful aid for such mindfulness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”

My contemplation of death seems appropriately timed, as we near the end of Holy Week and rapidly approach Easter Sunday. Soon, the Christian world will celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Death has been defeated, and while it is still a terrible reality of this life, it is not our end. Our mortality and our shortcomings remind us to be humble, but, as St. Silouan says in the quote above, we must not despair. This is not to say that tragedy and suffering are to be dismissed as insignificant; Christ himself mourned the death of Lazarus, which points to how death is unnatural and against God’s will. Death is a horrific thing that tears apart a human’s very being. But thanks to Christ, we have hope beyond death and despite tragedy and suffering, as our savior tells us:

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” — John 16:33

Thank God.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Bad Life Lessons I Learned from “How I Met Your Mother”

[This article contains LOTS of spoilers about the HIMYM season finale.]

A Google search turns up plenty of lists online with titles like “Life Lessons Learned from How I Met Your Mother.” While some talk about how the show taught them to trust that things will work out or to give things they previously didn’t like another try, others are compilations of lines or morals from episodes that honestly sound more like something you’d read on the inside of a Dove chocolate wrapper: “Perfect isn’t always perfect” is one example, or “Things happen for a reason,” or, my personal (least) favorite: “Don’t chase after things that don’t work. Let the universe take over.”

Now that the finale has aired, I thought I’d reflect on some of the bad life lessons the show teaches us. I’ve written before about why I think Ted Mosby is in fact quite the immoral antihero. I’ve also previously argued that the show falsely presents true romantic love as marked by perfection and ease: our soul mates, guided by “the Universe,” come to us ready-made as everything we could ever want, and they are the ultimate source of our happiness and fulfillment in life. Now that the show has come to a close, I’d like to explore and expand on these and some other bad lessons it teaches us about what we should expect from romance and life in general.

I’ve watched every season of HIMYM, and I don’t categorically dislike the show. HIMYM has several pros going for it, such as its unique premise and talented cast. There are also, admittedly, some good messages that can be gleaned from the show: that nothing good ever happens after 2 a.m., for instance, or that marriage can be a good and happy thing (a message that’s rather counter-cultural these days as our society delays or dismisses marriage and often praises hyper-sexuality over monogamy). I actually found this article more difficult to write than I thought it would be because of the good things the show has to offer. If it were all bad, it would be easy to dismiss. It’s deceptive mixture of good and bad makes it, I believe, all the more dangerous, because it is easier to be fooled into believing some of the bad lessons it tries to teach us.

I understand that it’s a sitcom and that much of the humor is intentionally ridiculous (e.g., the cockamouse). But HIMYM chooses to, at times, live in a gray area between comedy and drama, and it has received praised it for its willingness to address darker issues (such as the death of Marshall’s father in Season 6). Because of this, I feel the show gives its audience the freedom to dismiss the not-so-serious stuff as simple comedy but also the right to take the serious stuff, well, seriously. The show treats its defining themes—finding your way in life and finding true love—seriously, so I treat them seriously, too.

(I write this article assuming that most readers are familiar with the show, and I sometimes reference characters or events without giving detailed background information. If you get lost, you’ll find the HIMYM Wiki helpful.)

Like a lot of people, I was pretty shocked when what I had considered to be one of the more outlandish theories about how the show would end turned out to be true: Barney and Robin divorce shortly after their wedding, the Mother (whose name is revealed to be Tracy McConnell) dies of an anonymous illness several years after meeting Ted and bearing his children, and the closing scene of the show is Ted (true to form) returning to Robin. The finale, then, pretty strongly supports one of the more prominent Bad Life Lessons woven throughout the series:

Bad Life Lesson #1: Love is something that happens to us: it is a powerful, uncontrollable, external force that influences us whether we want it to or not, and it is defined by feeling rather than action.

In the first episode of Season 8, “Farhampton,” Klaus (Victoria’s ex-fiancée) tells Ted that he’ll know he’s found his soul mate because the realization of it will hit him instantaneously. You see, it is impossible for a person to become your soul mate over time, and anyone besides “the one” will only ever be, at best, your Almost Soul Mate.

Marshall and Lily have a moment like this, as we learn during their telling of how they met in the Season 3 episode “How I Met Everyone Else.” “It was love at first sight,” they coo in unison.

Ted seems to have a similar moment with Tracy when we finally see them meet on the train platform, but he also has lightning-bolt moments with both Victoria and (most notably post-finale) Robin.

In reality, love is not an external force that influences our lives and our choices. Love is a choice. Love is committing to someone in spite of all of their imperfections and shortcomings (as well as your own). Love is choosing to be faithful to someone for a lifetime, no matter what happens. Sometimes being loving means going through the motions of love, even when you don’t feel giddy or carefree, even when things aren’t easy. There’s a line from one of my favorite films, Paris, je t’aime, that speaks to this: upon learning that his wife has terminal cancer, one of the characters abandons his plan to run off with his mistress and decides that he must support his wife in her final months. “By acting like a man in love,” the narrator says, “he became a man in love again.”

Love is not a force that exerts power over us; love is something we choose to do, and that’s what makes it powerful. It is the choice to love and commit to someone that gives the relationship value. My husband, as he does so many things, once put it best: “I know you’re the person I’m meant to be with because you’re the person I decided to be with.”

While Marshall and Lily’s relationship gets lots of praise from critics, it still relies upon the belief in love at first sight and discovering soul mate status in an instant. I actually came to see a lot of merit in Barney and Robin’s relationship, especially compared to Ted’s quest for a soul mate. In Barney and Robin, the show portrays two people who like each other, have a lot in common, and navigate the transition from friendship to romance. It’s clear from Season 1 that they’re a good match (I re-watched the first time they played laser tag together, and it’s still very endearing). Their love is not defined by a lightning-bolt moment of realization; rather, they get to know each other, discern feelings, and eventually get married. Barney’s character growth is the most distinctive over the course of the show, and because of this I came to find him more admirable than Ted (who is just as selfish and promiscuous throughout the show as Barney ever was). Barney realizes that he needs to change something about himself in order to pursue a meaningful relationship with Robin, and he makes a visible effort to do so.

However, the finale reveals that the writers’ intended endgame was for Ted to be with Robin. Ted never fully let go of his feelings for Robin (no matter how many times he—or the audience—thought he did), a fact that his children immediately discern. After finally getting to the moment in his story when he meets Tracy, we return to the year 2030. Ted’s daughter Penny tells him, “I don’t buy it. That is not the reason you made us listen to this…You made us sit down and listen to the story about how you met Mom. Yet Mom’s hardly in the story. No. This is a story about how you’re totally in love with Aunt Robin.” I appreciate that the writers included this because it’s actually quite self-aware on their part. A problem I’ve had with the show for a while is that Tracy is hardly present in a story that’s supposed to be about her, and Ted spends much more time recounting to his children his complicated romantic history with Robin, a woman who is definitively not their mother, as established by the pilot episode. I’m glad that the show finally addressed this, but I’m still disappointed with the ending. Ted’s children ultimately prompt him to return to Robin, who is still single after her divorce, and act on the feelings he clearly still has for her.

The fact that Ted returns to Robin in the end places emphasis back on their relationship, implying that the lightning-bolt moment when he sees her across the bar at the beginning of the series is the onset of true love. In “The End of the Aisle,” Ted tries to calm Robin down before her wedding to Barney as she is having second thoughts, saying that her relationship with Barney doesn’t make sense. In retrospect, Ted’s speech to her seems to apply more to him: “But love doesn’t make sense! You can’t logic your way into or out of it; love is totally nonsensical. But we have to keep doing it, or else we’re lost and love is dead and humanity should just pack it in. Because love is the best thing we do. I know that sounds cheesy but it’s just true. You love Barney. And he loves you. And that doesn’t have to make sense to make sense.” Ted and Robin don’t make sense in a couple of key ways: they want different things out of life, and she rejected him several times throughout the series.

If love is a force we can’t control that prompts us to pursue a relationship even if it doesn’t “make sense,” this explains why Ted has never been able to fully shake his feelings for Robin, to the point that even when he sits down to tell his kids a story about their mother he ends up unintentionally talking mostly about Robin instead. The final scene of the show depicts Ted standing outside Robin’s apartment, holding a blue French horn, (presumably) the same one he stole from a restaurant to impress her on their first date twenty-five years earlier. This makes it seem like even Ted’s relationship with the mother of his children is, like his relationship with Victoria and all the other women he’s loved along the way, just another denial of his deeper, irrevocable love for Robin, and the Universe (that is, the writers) had to kill Tracy just to get her out of the way of Ted’s greater destiny.

This ending negates any growth or maturation Ted undergoes up until this point in order to let go of Robin, the woman who represents everything he thought he wanted in a mate; as he tells her in this season’s “Sunrise” episode, “There’s no Top Five [women for me], Robin. There’s just a Top One, and it’s you.” Shortly after saying this, Ted appears to make a conscious decision to finally let Robin go, but again, the end of the finale undercuts this. It also diminishes the significance of his relationship with Tracy and makes her seem more like a means to fulfilling another life goal for Ted: having children (it was revealed that Robin is infertile in an earlier season).

At the risk of sounding heartless, I was hoping that the Mother would end up dead or dying in 2030, but not because I wanted Ted and Robin to be together. I wanted to see a character experience an enduring cost in exchange for attaining something good in life instead of just temporary struggle before getting everything he or she wants, which leads to the next Bad Life Lesson:

Bad Life Lesson #2: “If you’re really honest with yourself about what you want out of life, life will give it to you.”

That is one of Future Ted’s quotes (and worse pieces of parental advice, I have to say) from the end of Season 2, and  this sentiment proves very true for Ted in the end. His nine-year quest to find a mate was hardly a “long, difficult road,” as he says in the finale’s last few minutes. Long, maybe, but difficult? He screwed around with a bunch of beautiful women until magically finding his perfect spouse who provides him with the family he always wanted. Indeed, Tracy was so perfect for him, I didn’t want them to have a completely happy ending because it would have solidified the show’s wrong and cliché messages about love (which I’ve already touched on in my previous articles): that we are all destined to meet a perfect-for-us soul mate, or that said soul mate will fulfill our every desire and be the source of all of our happiness. Finally, if meeting his wife and living happily ever after was the end of Ted’s story, it would have further idolized romantic love and romantic partners. As Marshall says in Season 2, “the one” is the girl you can look at “knowing she’s all you really want out of life.” Oh, boy.

Related to Bad Life Lesson #2 is Bad Life Lesson #3: “The Universe” has a grand plan for your life, the focal point of which is finding your soul mate.

I wanted the show to explore how to move forward when your ideal life plan is legitimately disrupted, how to find joy and peace in the midst of truly sad circumstances, and what that would mean in light of all of Ted’s talk about trusting that “the Universe” has a grand plan and that we should simply expect to get everything we want.

Before the finale, all of the characters were poised to achieve everything they hoped to achieve, with their lives turning out exactly how they hoped they would: career success, wealth, fame, and blissful family lives. While I’m glad on one level that the show did not conform to the cliché ending I was expecting, the finale, in its way, still ends with the ultimate no-cost scenario for the protagonist: Ted gets his wife, his two kids, his enormous house in the suburbs, and his original and most enduring love, Robin.

To be honest, I had so many issues with the show to begin with that it’s unlikely I would have found any ending completely satisfying, and the ending I wanted was probably too tall an order for a single, albeit hour-long, finale. As James Poniewozik says in his piece on TIME: “Intellectually, maybe [the show’s] destination did make sense. Couples do divorce…People take years to find themselves, people drift apart and come back together, people die too soon. A great series could tell those stories and lay out those complicated, hard truths. The problem is, that is not the series that How I Met Your Mother was for the previous nine years. It was just the series it tried to force itself to be for its last hour.”

A more optimistic reading of the finale is that it did convey the message that, in spite of unexpected tragedy, we can eventually heal, move on, and maybe even find love again, as Tracy did with Ted (after her boyfriend, whom we learn of in “How Your Mother Met Me,” died) and then Ted did with Robin (after Tracy died). Jessica Goodman adopts this view on The Huffington Post: “The whole nine seasons became one long tale about moving on from loss, accepting growth in pain, the reality of friends drifting apart and the negation of ‘one true loves.’ Ted didn’t have one true love. He had two, maybe more. May we all be so lucky.” I think the argument that the show actually negates the notion of “one true loves” is better made with Tracy’s example: she had Max, her boyfriend from years before she met Ted, who died tragically. Convinced she had already found and lost her soul mate, Tracy held back on opening herself up to love until just before meeting Ted. However, as Ted’s daughter points out in the final minutes of the finale, the whole point of Ted’s story is that he “totally, totally, TOTALLY [has] the hots for Aunt Robin.”

Overall, Poniewozik is more correct, I think: the finale does not change the overarching messages of the entire show, as much as it may attempt to. With the shift of focus back to Ted and Robin and the kids’ sharp insight into Ted’s underlying feelings for Robin, the driving narrative of being with “the one” still holds up amidst the rushed and stunning events of the final episode.

Now, I might more easily accept Goodman’s interpretation if the show had not invested so much in developing Barney as a character and Barney and Robin as a couple. Poniewozik posits in his article that Robin was not ready for marriage at all, and others say that Barney and Robin simply “don’t really make sense together .” While it’s true that Barney’s history as a manipulative womanizer and Robin’s aversion to marriage and family made it surprising that these two would end up marrying each other, the writers did a good job of making sure that surprise did not feel unrealistic as we watched their relationship grow and develop over time. Quickly divorcing them for no better reason than “We’re not happy” (which really translates to “My job is stressful and you can’t update your blog as often as you’d like, so…wanna get divorced?”) resulted in a jarring about-face for both characters, and it does a disservice to one of the more true-to-life romantic relationships on the show. The flimsy reasons for ending their relationship only further demonstrate that the writers just needed to make Robin available for Ted.

I am also unimpressed with Barney’s other surprise: a love child born when he impregnates a girl during his attempt to have a “perfect month,” in which he sleeps with thirty-one women in thirty-one days. Finding “true love” in his love for his daughter after divorcing Robin and reverting back to his old ways feels more like a thrown-together consolation prize for viewers than a legitimate resolution to his character arc.

There is much more I could say about bad lessons HIMYM teaches us about life and love, as well as other flaws I see in both the finale and the show as a whole (you should see my notes for this article). Alyson Hannigan said that the finale answered questions “you didn’t know you had—or never knew to ask.” Given the cruelty with which the writers treat Tracy, the acrobatic leaps they take in order to get Ted back on Robin’s doorstep, and the undoing of all the good they drew out of Barney, I’m left feeling more like the finale disappointed me in ways I never knew it could.

Living a “Christ-Centered” Life is Nobody’s Job but Your Own

I recently saw an online advertisement for a Christian university. The banner across the top of my webpage featured smiling students and, following the name of the school, the tagline, “A Christ-centered education.”

This advertisement, like those for many other Christian universities, implies that Christ-centeredness is an intrinsic part of their students’ education and, more subtly, that attending a Christian school is the best way to have a “Christ-centered” education.

This got me thinking, because it’s simply not true.

I spent the first three semesters of my undergraduate education at a private, Christian university. I learned and grew a lot over that time, and I still have fond memories of attending the school and maintain friendships forged there. However, I chose to finish my education at a public, state university, so I’m able to compare my experience at both types of institutions.

To be sure, attending a Christian college or university is a fine choice for many students. It may be the right kind of environment some need to cultivate and discern their faith, and I’m sure many alumni of Christian schools can claim the same benefits from their education that I found at a secular school. There are stories from all sides—those of students who attended Christian schools and later strayed from the faith, those of students who attended secular schools and found God, and everything in between—and I’d be very interested to hear some of those stories. This is just what I’ve learned from my experience.

So, back to that advertisement: at best, it is quite misleading. Implying that a “Christ-centered” education is best attained by attending a Christian school is the same as saying that a “Christ-centered” career can best be achieved by working for an expressly Christian organization.

To have a Christ-centered education (or job, or life, or anything), one must be Christ centered.

I appreciate that the goal of many Christian schools is to look at education through the lens of Christianity, but in the end (as I’m sure many of these schools would themselves confirm) that work can only be done by the individual Christian in every aspect of his or her life. The only person who can truly and consistently cultivate my faith is me, by the grace of God. There are many benefits that come from taking Biblical exegesis courses or having academic discussions about the intersection of Christianity and other disciplines, but all of the Bible classes in the world can’t replace a personal discipline to study and learn from Scripture and other Christian writings. No number of mandatory chapel services can replace active membership in a church community.

The church is another important factor in this conversation, because the church is (or ought to be) the linchpin for the Christian’s personal spiritual development.

Christian schools are not administers of the sacraments; churches are.

I doubt that any Christian school would claim to be a replacement for the church. In my experience, most Christian schools seek to augment a student’s spiritual development, serving as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, the unique growth and guidance that comes from the church. However, I want to emphasize that it’s important for all Christians to remember that Christ established the church to be the guardian and administer of the faith, and other Christian institutions are secondary.

Also, as someone who attended both a Christian and a secular university, I can attest the fact that one’s spiritual development is not necessarily better or worse in either environment, nor do the beliefs of professors or peers necessarily have a crucial influence on one’s spiritual or academic growth.

I was honestly afraid to switch from the Christian school—an environment I had been in since the fourth grade—to the secular university, fearing that my “worldly” classmates would immediately judge, attack, or condemn my faith. Instead, I found that my professors and fellow students were, on the whole, respectful, thoughtful, and intelligently curious when conversations about religion came up. Also, interacting with people who hold different beliefs than I do (about God, school, morality, life) was very beneficial, as it gave me better insight into how people who are different than me think about the world. I learned both how we are different and how we are not so different. I learned that non-Christians are not necessarily “out to get” me, making me more open to honest conversations about life and faith, rather than afraid of them. I took classes, completed projects, and engaged in discussions with Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, agnostics, and more. To be honest, a lot of the time our personal beliefs didn’t come into play.

Learning in an environment that was not centered around religion made me realize that many people simply don’t care about my religion, so I don’t need to be afraid of immediate judgments about me based on what I believe. It also drove home the reality that the responsibility to remain Christ centered in everything I do is entirely my own.

I feel that my personal experience in both the Christian and secular academic environments demonstrates that a school’s professed religion (or lack thereof) does not necessarily impact a student’s spiritual development, and, more importantly, that Christ-centeredness hinges first and foremost upon the individual Christian. You may be mandated to attend chapel, but no one is going to force you to go to church. All Christians are called to participate in the work of their faith and to choose for themselves what the center of their lives will be, no matter where they decide to get an education.

By the Parting of the Waters: Reflections on Epiphany and Baptism

On January 6th, my church celebrated the ancient Christian feast day of Epiphany. On this day, as this article from the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) discusses, we commemorate Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River, the revelation of Christ as both human and a member of the divine Trinity, and the subsequent sanctification of mankind and all creation because of this fact. This year, I was particularly struck by the significance of water and baptism in Christian spirituality and tradition. (The OCA article provides a more in-depth explanation of the holiday and provides the source for much of what I say here.)

Epiphany means “shining forth” or “manifestation” (it’s also sometimes called Theophany, meaning “vision of God”). The feast bears this name because it celebrates Christ’s baptism, in which we find a quintessential manifestation of the Trinity:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’ — Mark 1:9-11

The service also includes readings from Isaiah that foretell Christ’s coming and the salvation of the world; included is the passage in Isaiah referenced in the Gospel account of Christ’s baptism that speaks of John the Baptist as a voice crying in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord,” (Isaiah 40:3). While there is much to glean from these passages, I’d like to highlight the language of water in particular:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing…the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water… — Isaiah 35:1-2, 7

‘For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.’ — Isaiah 55:10-11

‘Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.’ With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. — Isaiah 12:2-3

In these verses, water is presented as the source of rejuvenation for dry and thirsty grounds and is compared to the word of God that incites spiritual growth and accomplishes his purpose in the world. Finally, in my personal favorite verse among this group of passages, salvation is called a well: with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. I love the verse’s poetry, and the metaphor makes sense: wells are sources of water, which is the source of life. Spiritually speaking, salvation in Christ is the ultimate source of life, and we must draw upon him continually, daily, faithfully. This verse also beautifully captures the fact that salvation is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process of growth and sanctification.

The overall message is clear: just like water, the salvation of Christ is necessary for life, growth, healing, and flourishing. Jesus calls what he has to offer the world “living water” when he speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well:

Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?’Jesus said to her, ‘Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ — John 4:10-14

As Christ, God became man in order to redeem mankind. Epiphany celebrates and commemorates this, but it also reminds us that God has dominion not only over humanity, but also over all of creation, as the OCA article points out. He is the author of all life and everything that has being, and when God took on a material form he redeemed every part of the material world:

In the Lord’s epiphany all creation becomes good again, indeed ‘very good,’ the way that God himself made it and proclaimed it to be in the beginning when ‘the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters’ (Genesis 1:2). —  “Epiphany”

Christ brings salvation to the world through his dual nature, and this nature is made manifest at his baptism. Similarly, it is through baptism that Christians participate in the saving work of Christ’s death and resurrection, entering into new spiritual life. As Paul writes in Romans,

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. — Romans 6:3-5

Living water, indeed.

As the Israelites were delivered from their bondage in Egypt through the Red Sea (Exodus 14), as they entered the promised land through the Jordan River (Joshua 3), so are we now delivered from sin and so do we enter into new life with Christ: by the parting of the waters.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

“And When You Fast:” Thoughts on Food in Preparation for Great Lent

‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything. – 1 Corinthians 6:12

As we approach Great Lent every year, a common question pops up in online articles, during coffee hours after Sunday services, and in casual conversations among Christians and non-Christians alike:

“So, what are you giving up for Lent?”

Some may give up an activity like engaging in social media or watching television. Others may pick a single food item, such as candy, or soda, or french fries. It’s good to try and purge things from your life that are unnecessary or overly time consuming, even if only for a temporary period.

But I want to speak of my personal experience in the practice of significant dietary fasting and why I’d like to encourage evangelicals (and all Christians) to consider a somewhat larger-scale food fast this year for Lent.

(Of course, everything I say here is based on my personal experience and should not be taken as a substitute for medical advice. Anyone who wants to try fasting or make any significant change in their diet should first consult with their doctor and consider their personal medical and dietary history and needs.)

I was raised in an evangelical tradition, and while I grew up accustomed to the notion of fasting, the extent of my experience with and knowledge of fasting and other Lenten practices was limited to my observations of Catholic acquaintances. I knew that people commonly gave something up for Lent, and many of my (Catholic and non-Catholic) friends talked about giving up something specific and limited, like their favorite junk food. Chocolate was a popular choice.

I didn’t try fasting until I was in college, and I went pretty large-scale, compared to the kind of fasting with which I was familiar. For Lent during my freshman year, I gave up all animal products: meat and dairy, essentially. This is the fast I have kept (not without slip-ups, of course) for Lent since then.

Fasting has taught me some important lessons about my relationship with food. I’ve learned that I use food to to self-medicate, to improve my mood, and to indulge myself when I’m having a rough day.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that when it comes to food, easily and often, I am not in control: rather, food controls me. When I suddenly can’t reach for my favorite comfort foods, I get frustrated, sometimes depressed.

The tagline of many Snickers commercials is “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” with the implication that eating a Snickers bar will help you feel more like yourself. But is it really good for us to believe that we are somehow not ourselves and out of control unless we can always immediately satisfy our cravings and fill our bellies the instant we feel the pang hunger?

An acquaintance once responded to the idea of fasting by saying, “I don’t need to fast because I’m free in Christ to eat whatever I want.” But it’s not good to always eat, or do, or say, or think whatever we want. Acting on every impulse and desire is not freedom.

I’ve also heard people balk at the notion of giving up food in any sense because they simply “love” food too much. If the only reason a person resists fasting is because they truly cannot fathom giving up certain foods, or they enjoy certain foods too much to abstain from them even temporarily, that is no mark of freedom, either. It is more like gluttony. Fasting has taught me that I far too easily turn food into an idol, something I worship and rely on in order to feel satisfied.

I never knew how much of a slave to food I was until I tried fasting.

Another benefit I’ve realized from fasting this way is that it enhances the celebration of the resurrection at Easter. Fasting, followed by feasting, enables us to celebrate with all aspects of our being. Humans are not merely intellectual or emotional creatures; we are physical as well. I think many people like to believe that our bodies are not really part of who we are, or they are at least a lesser part of who we are, but that’s simply not true. God created us spiritual and material, and He cares enough about our bodies to redeem them through Christ’s incarnation and restore them in the resurrection we are promised after death.

After all, if our bodies weren’t an important aspect of who we are, fasting would be no big deal.

Further, by indulging in certain foods out of celebration rather than out of necessity (because we “can’t” give them up), we practice mastery over our food instead of letting food master us.

Fasting also inspires thankfulness by reminding us of the true purpose of food, on its most basic level: survival. When food is no longer about what I want or what sounds good and is instead just about nourishment, I am reminded on a visceral level to be thankful for such nourishment, even when it’s as simple as a bowl of rice and beans or a piece of fruit.

It’s also crucial to keep in mind that fasting is not about maintaining perfect abstinence in order to make ourselves “worthy” to receive God’s grace. It’s about freeing ourselves from any unhealthy relationship we may have with food (or anything else) and finding our satisfaction in God alone.

Food, Faith, and Fasting, a podcast hosted by Rita Madden (a Registered Dietician who also holds a Master of Public Health degree), is a great resource for anyone interested in learning more about fasting and spirituality, as well as gaining some practical tips on the topic. She has some good thoughts on the relationship between hunger and spirituality during a fasting season:

Now it’s important to mention something here, because when hunger goes up, frustration goes up. So when we feel hungry, we also get frustrated. Blood sugar goes down; irritability goes up. So be aware of that: there are going to be times when you’re going to feel frustrated more. Turn to prayer…When you’re feeling hungry, and you turn that hunger into prayer, whether it be at a service or in your prayer corner at home or just taking a five-minute break and just clocking out of your workday and having prayer, this is a good thing. This is how this tool of fasting can help us to deepen our prayer life and our walk in faith.

Again, the practice of fasting helps us master our hunger instead of being mastered by hunger. Instead of turning to food in our hunger, we can turn to God.

This year, I encourage Christians who have never practiced a Lenten fast, or who have never practiced it on a larger scale, to consider doing so by giving up something significant in your diet. Of course, one beauty of the fast is that there is no “right” way to do it; consult with your pastor or priest (and your doctor) to discern what is appropriate for you. It’s okay to start small, especially if you’ve never fasted before.

Try and choose something that will be difficult to give up, because it is largely in the daily work of the fast that the greatest blessings are revealed and that we are reminded to look to God alone for our true satisfaction and sustenance.

Laundry, Life Lessons, and the Cosmos

I hate doing the laundry.

I hate having to lug the hamper up and down five flights of stairs. I hate having to pay each time I want to wash, and again to dry. I hate folding and ironing and putting away, so the clean laundry often just becomes its own pile next to the dirty pile in the bedroom, out of which we pick individual socks as needed. And I hate those piles.

But laundry is just one of those chores, like dusting and washing dishes, that must be done. Not because it will ever be finished, but because if we neglect it, we’ll end up living in filth. As I wrote  in my last article, it’s important to continually strive to become better, and being faithful in our daily tasks is part of that process. The goal is not perfection, but improvement (at the very least, the desire for and effort towards improvement, which, I’m finding, sometimes matters even more than the end result).

Further, while I believe that the desire and effort to improve is good, and I believe that beauty and meaning can be found in the seemingly mundane daily tasks we must accomplish (like laundry), it’s important to step back from all of that and gain some perspective. Yes, it’s good to continually work to make ourselves better, but we must do so with the proper mindset so that we pursue the right kind of “better.”

I recently had a conversation with a woman I do administrative work for about automatic bill payments. She’d asked me to look into an automatic payment account for her, and I was explaining that the payee only accepts direct withdrawals from a bank account, requiring a routing number.

“Wow,” she said, impressed. “You know a lot about this kind of stuff, and you’re just a kid!”

Now, as someone who got married young, I’m used to people balking at my age. I tend to bristle at the shock I’m sometimes met with when I tell people that I’m twenty-three and have been married for three years.

But this time, I took it as a compliment. Here was a woman in her sixties, speaking with much more wisdom and perspective than I posses, reminding me that I have a lot of life left ahead of me and a lot of learning and experiencing left to do.

Since graduating college, I’ve been plagued by a sense of urgency to get on to the next “thing,” even though I don’t fully know what that is yet. Still, I’m restless. And the Internet doesn’t help; my Facebook and Instagram feeds remind me daily of what my peers are up to, which is to say, everything I could be doing. So I found my employer’s comment comforting. She’s right; in a lot of ways, I am still on the threshold of life. I have time. No need to lose sleep over such things.

And, when we step back to consider the big picture of life, it helps us see that the smaller, everyday things that consume our attention should not be our primary focus; rather, the state of our hearts and minds in the midst of our hectic lives is most important.

In her article “Human Stains,” Heather Havrilesky calls laundry an “eternal tide,” something we ought to surrender to instead of continually fighting to overcome. She makes a good point:

We have the things we have, rich or poor—or, like most of us, somewhere in the insecure in-between. Our windows are clean or dirty, our rugs are vacuumed or covered in dog hair, our closets are a mess or well-ordered, there are dirty dishes laying about or not. These things don’t define us, no matter how stubbornly we cling to the notion that they do.

She ends her piece musing about American Idol, saying that perhaps forgoing the dishes and ordering a pizza to eat with the kids while watching TV can be the nobler choice, promoting the idea of sharing a moving (or, at least, mutually enjoyable) experience with your family over running around “making things look clean:”

So what [if it seems like bad parenting]? Doesn’t that one girl make me cry every time she opens her mouth to sing? Doesn’t her voice change everything? And when my kids ask me why tears are rolling down my cheeks, I tell them that when someone can focus like that, with an open heart, with a calm mind, it’s like they’re channelling some divine force. There is nothing quite like that moment, I tell them, when you realise that you’re very small, that you’re not in control, but the grace of the whole world, the spirits of the dead, are rallying around you. In the soaring sound of her voice you can hear it: the sky is on her side.

Havrilesky here speaks of letting go of the anxiety that comes with trying to be perfect, like we once imagined we would be or like we imagine our Facebook friends to be. As that song by The Postal Service says, “everything looks perfect from far away.” Gazing off into my future, it’s easy to set some ideal of my “perfect” self up on a pedestal, hoping to become that person someday. Scrolling down my newsfeed, it’s easy to believe that every happy photograph or self-affirming status is evidence that I’m lagging behind. They aren’t afraid of the future. They’ve got everything together. They don’t have piles of dirty laundry hidden away in their bedrooms.

But, as Havrilesky says, it’s important to realize that we are small and not in total control, which is totally okay. The fact is actually comforting, and it serves to remind us what the motives behind our everyday actions and pursuits should be. We must lift our faces from time to time to consider the stars and remember our place in the midst of it all, because, as cliché as it sounds, that’s how we realize what’s truly important in life.

Every time I look at the sky, I’m reminded of how small I am and how big our Creator is. I feel at peace when I look up into the eternal vastness of space, because remembering my smallness in the universe puts everything in perspective. It’s both unsettling and eerily calming, the feeling that washes over me. It’s like floating, free and content.

Havrilesky is right. A perfectly clean house does not define us. Neither does the big corporate job, or the nice car, or the souvenirs from all of the foreign countries we’ve visited, or the fame, or the fortune, or whatever it is that keeps you up at night, worrying that you might not achieve it. How we do things—laundry included—is much more important and formative than what we do, and the how is directed by our relationship to God, which is the most important thing of all. And like laundry, we have spiritual “chores” to do to stay on track, like prayer, contemplation of Scripture, and other activities that help us commune with God. It’s not a perfect analogy; I don’t hate praying or reading my Bible (which is not to say that such tasks are always easy). But, just as neglecting household chores leads to a dirty home, neglecting spiritual tasks leads to a dirty soul. These activities keep the grime away and lay the foundation for a richer, more vibrant life, one that is properly oriented.

The stars remind us to carry on with our work free from worry or fear so we can become healthier and more fruitful,  not idolatrous worshippers of our own personal version of perfection. The cosmos silently urge us to embrace our smallness as children before a great and powerful and loving God, our heavenly Father, and to be at peace as long as our primary task is bettering our relationship with Him. Everything else will fall into place, and there’s no need to anxiously rush around.

After all, we’re just kids.

Image via ESO

Don’t Just Be Yourself; Make Yourself Better

With the arrival of the new year, many of us will take time to reflect on our accomplishments and experiences of the past twelve months and to look ahead into the future. There is a sense of hope that comes with the beginning of a new year: new goals, new dreams. A clean slate. We resolve to lose weight, to write more, to stay in touch with friends, to always fold the laundry as soon as it’s out of the dryer. We head into the first days of the new year with a list of items to check off in order to make ourselves better.

And this is good. Because the fact of the matter is that you (and me, and everyone else) ought to strive to become better. Many popular culture media preach a different message, however: that we are perfect just the way we are, and that we shouldn’t feel a need to change ourselves. Romantic comedies, sitcoms, and the like apply this message to romance, telling us that if we are to find someone to love, we should find someone who never wants us to change and who believes we are perfect, because that is the hallmark of true love.

I’ve written before about how Ted Mosby gets on my nerves. I’ve found that How I Met Your Mother, while decently funny, is full of sneaky half-truths about what good and healthy relationships (particularly, romantic relationships) are supposed to look like. Television in general, I’ve come to learn, tells us many lies, and HIMYM perpetuates a specific lie in it’s ongoing account of Ted’s journey to find true love: that the person you are meant to be with should be a perfect fit for you from the moment you meet, and that no change or improvement should be required of either of you during the course of the relationship.

At the beginning of HIMYM season eight, Ted has a surreal conversation with his girlfriend’s ex-fiancée about how you know if you’ve found your soul mate. The ex-fiancée, Klaus, tells Ted that there is a (fictional) German word that means “lifelong treasure of destiny.” Ted inquires as to whether or not a person could become that, more and more, over time. At this question, my heart dared to hope for a richer, more meaningful discussion of love and commitment, one that involves mutual sacrifice and growth rather than an unrealistic picture of perfection and ease.

That hope was quickly crushed, though, by Klaus’s definitive answer: no, absolutely not. “[It’s] not something that develops over time,” he says. “It’s something that happens instantaneously…if you have to think about it, you have not felt it.”

Christopher Orr wrote an excellent critique of Love Actually last month, arguing that the fundamental flaw of the film is how it presents love:

…as either absurdly easy—something that strikes you like a thunderclap and requires only a single grand gesture in order to be fulfilled—or all but impossible. Notably absent is the idea that love might ever be worth a little sustained effort: some mutual exploration and discovery, a bit of care and nurture, maybe even the overcoming of an obstacle or two.

HIMYM, it seems, shares this flaw in its presentation of love. This is a pretty grim message, for a couple of reasons (that do not apply singly to romance).

First, it implies that if there is any indication that you and the person you are in a relationship with are not totally perfect for each other (let alone the question of how you’re supposed to discern said “perfection”) then you should call it quits. This completely undermines most wisdom I’ve heard from people in long-term, committed relationships: that it is difficult, that sometimes it sucks, that you will get angry and frustrated, and that it requires constant and mutual work, sacrifice, and humility to be successful and lasting. Yet I myself have been affected by the lies about love propagated by popular culture (HIMYM and Love Actually being two examples), feeling the fear creep in during difficult moments in my marriage. Maybe I’m not perfect enough for my husband, I’ve wondered. Maybe he would be happier with someone else. I don’t think I need to elaborate on how poisonous this kind of thinking can be, both to one’s self-esteem and to the relationship as a whole.

Of course, the most effective lies are mixed with truth, and the message of HIMYM, I believe, stems from a good place: a desire to find happiness, to be accepted, and to be loved unconditionally. You shouldn’t be with someone who doesn’t like you, has nothing in common with you, or wants you to change who you are completely, but that’s just common sense. You also shouldn’t be with someone who worships you as a perfect being capable of bestowing every happiness upon them, which is what I think the show is really saying when characters express their desire to find “the one.” If anyone pulled a Love Actually on me with the line, “To me, you are perfect,” my response would be, “You obviously don’t know me that well, do you?” Unconditional love and the need for growth and change are not mutually exclusive.

The second reason this is a disastrous message is that it lets us off the hook regarding self-improvement. It encourages pride and ego rather than humility and servitude: if someone tells me I need to change, that’s their problem, not mine. True love doesn’t require change, at least not according to popular culture.

One lesson I’ve learned this year is that, as an adult, I alone am responsible for my own self-improvement. When parents and professors are no longer constantly around to keep us on track, it’s up to us to keep moving forward. This year I’ve been mulling over the realization that if I stop trying to get better, the only alternative is that I’ll get worse. I suppose you could say that a second alternative is just stagnation, but “stagnant” and “worse” seem equivalent. Living life well and in a way that makes us better is difficult, but we can’t give up on it because the alternatives are far worse than the effort required to succeed.

So while HIMYM and other pop culture examples like to tell us that we should just be ourselves and embrace who we are, because we are “perfect” as-is (maybe not for everyone, but certainly for our “one”), we must temper that with a dose of humility and accept that we are imperfect beings in need of improvement. This is the sanctification of loving human relationships: not that we achieve everlasting happiness through our own personal “perfect” match, but that we choose to be burdens on each other, ultimately sharing the different kind of joy that comes from learning and growing together in spite of our many flaws and the inevitable challenges we will face. When you love someone, it’s just what you do, and that is the real hallmark of truly loving relationships.

In a romantic relationship, people can become better for each other and more unified over time, growing deeper in love and intimacy as the years go by thanks to all of the shared experiences and learning that takes place. So I think Ted’s question regarding the possibility of becoming better over time is closer to the truth: we are still becoming who we are meant to be. We are works in progress, not yet perfected. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

All of this is not to say that we should hate ourselves or feel worthless; on the contrary, every human being is an image-bearer of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, and inherently valuable and loved by their Creator. This humility, then, should be adopted not along with despair, but with the recognition of our God-given value as humans and the saving, sanctifying grace of Christ that is freely offered and promised to us. We are imperfect, but our Father continually works to perfect us. We must participate in that work—through spiritual exercises like prayer and fasting, but also through the everyday routines and decisions that shape us—always remembering that we do not work alone. We shouldn’t try to become some other person entirely whom we believe to be better than who we are. We should resolve to continually try to become better versions of ourselves.

Be yourself, surely, but make yourself better.

I’m Dreaming of a Non-Pop Christmas

As someone who holds a retail job in December, I can tell you that I listen to more than my fair share of Christmas music on a daily basis: remixed versions of “Let It Snow;” endless ballads recounting the life and times of “Frosty The Snowman;” more renditions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” than are possibly justifiable.

Like trying to find a parking space close to the Apple Store, coordinating relatives’ cross-country travel schedules, and enduring the crowds and lines that comprise every Saturday at the mall in the month of December, this kind of “pop Christmas” music has become another aspect of the holiday season that seems to stress and annoy rather than inspire and comfort. While many of us have our favorite seasonal songs (“The Christmas Waltz,” anyone?), pop Christmas music provides temporary enthusiasm for the holidays at best, and a pang of annoyance and even cynicism at worst.

But there are two types of Christmas music, and they represent two different types of Christmas. Pop Christmas music represents the Christmas that is about hot cocoa, falling in love, enjoying a fresh snowfall, and caroling in the snow. Beloved Christmas films like Miracle on 34th Street also populate the pop Christmas world, relaying the importance of revitalizing one’s faith in Santa Claus (a fictional character loosely based on historical St. Nicholas) and thus ironically presenting a sense of faith and devotion related to a Christian holiday that is, at best, only tangentially Christian.

On the flip side, there is Christmas music that represents a deeper, richer, more theological Christmas. This genre of music can be a valuable resource for Christians as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ. The weeks leading up to Christmas ought to be a time for contemplation and expectation, not merely gift shopping and baking and decorating. It’s not that any of those things are inherently bad; rather, it’s that we as Christians must remember to make time and space to get into the proper mindset during the Advent season. While this kind of non-pop Christmas music presents a starkly different message than its pop counterpart, most of the songs are still prominent enough to be part of the Christmas music canon, and therefore familiar to many. As we prepare for the ending of the Advent season and the celebration of Christmas itself, we can consider these well-known yet perhaps overlooked songs in a new light and, trite as it may sound, reorient ourselves to the true meaning of Christmas.

Take, for example, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Anyone who has ever tuned into the Christmas radio station could probably hum the tune from memory, but the song itself is rather antiquated compared to many pop Christmas hits, dating back to the eighteenth century. The first verse is probably the most familiar:

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born the King of Angels:
O come, let us adore Him, (3x)
Christ the Lord.

I find the subsequent verses, though, to be more spiritually engaging, particularly the second and fourth verses:

God of God, light of light,
Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, begotten, not created:
O come, let us adore Him, (3x)
Christ the Lord.

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given!
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!
O come, let us adore Him, (3x)
Christ the Lord.

These verses contain several significant theological references. There is mention of the miraculous virgin birth. The second verse speaks of Christ’s fully divine yet fully human nature, borrowing language from the ancient Nicene Creed (“Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not created”).  Finally, the verses convey the miracle of Christology—Christ’s position as a member of the Trinity, co-eternal with the Father—particularly with the fourth verse’s allusion to John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made trough him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (1:1-3)

There are more examples. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is full of Old Testament references to the birth of Christ as the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, specifically the one in Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and you shall call his name Immanuel.” This song is an excellent starting point for a conversation about how Scripture of the Old Testament points to Christ’s life and works in the New Testament.

I’m also a fan of the poem-turned-to-song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” originally written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Here is the final verse:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Again, the scriptural and theological allusions are simple yet deeply beautiful reminders of real reason we’re to celebrate this time of year, such as the heavenly hosts’ praises to God in Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” And, of course, there’s the poignant second line: God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. It’s a reminder that God is real; God is alive; God is present and human in the birth of Christ; God is with us. Immanuel.

These types of Christmas songs can help center us around the divine, mysterious, miraculous reason for the Advent preparation and Christmas celebrations: that God became man so that the rest of humanity could be redeemed and renewed and able to participate in the divine.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)