On Language: A Primer for Careful, Thoughtful Introspection

If words matter–and you’ll find that I am very quick to contend that they do–then we ought to be careful with the language we speak. For some, this point might seem like something akin to an argument against profanity. I’m not (necessarily) out to destroy those with foul mouths–it isn’t my habit, and it is one that I prefer as strong emphasis rather than filler words, but if done with thought and a certain sort of intention behind it, a chosen “swear word” can pack the necessary punch to communicate precisely what was intended. (See here Paul’s use of the word ‘skubala’) Continue reading On Language: A Primer for Careful, Thoughtful Introspection

A Defense of Traveling Without a Smartphone

Last week, my husband and I spent a few days in Montreal, Canada. It was our first trip up to the Great White North since moving to the Boston area almost exactly one year ago. I had heard that Montreal is primarily French speaking, so I was prepared for a bit of a cultural immersion. What I didn’t prepare for, though, was not being able to use my iPhone as soon as we crossed the border.

About two minutes after passing through border control, my husband and I each received text messages informing us that using data while out of the country would cost about an arm and a leg. This meant no more Google Maps; no more checking for updates on our lodgings in my Airbnb app; no more Instagramming, Tweeting, or checking Facebook. No more constant access to the Internet.

At first, this was nerve-wracking. Neither of us had ever been to Montreal, after all, and neither of us could speak French very well. As I’ve said before, I am an introvert who is afraid of drawing attention to myself (sometimes to a debilitating point), so I don’t like the idea of standing out as a tourist. In hindsight, however, the experience of exploring a new city without constantly referring to a screen was pretty nice. Aside from using my phone to take photos and videos from time to time, I didn’t take it out that much around the city. Of course, we had wifi in the apartment where we were staying, so in the mornings and evenings we looked for fun things to do online, made lists of names and addresses in a notebook, and marked their locations on a paper map given to us by a friendly employee at a tiny rest stop in northern Vermont. (We came to rely on that map a lot during our trip, so friendly Vermont rest stop lady, if you’re reading this for some bizarre reason: thank you.)

Not only did we quickly learn that most people in Montreal can speak English (at least when they want to), it was also a relief to find that the locals were pretty friendly and happy to help two lost-looking American tourists. One afternoon we sat down in a park and unfolded our map, trying to orient ourselves and find the quickest route to a bar where we’d read we could get some good local beer. Two friendly faced, stylishly dressed university students approached us. The young man greeted us in French but quickly realized that we didn’t speak it. He proceeded in English: “Do you need some help?”

“Well,” my husband said, “We’re just trying to figure out where to go next.” The blond-haired female student bent over us, looking at the map through her large hipster glasses.

“Do you want to know exactly where you are?” she asked in her lilting French Canadian accent.

“Sure,” my husband replied. “We’re trying to get to this bar nearby.” He pointed to our marking on the map, where earlier that day he had simply written the word “Beer” on the  intersection closest to the bar.

“Ah, Dieu du Ciel!” the girl said. She knew of it and told us a good way to get there.

The next day we made a wrong turn on our bikes trying to make our way back to the Latin Quarter (where we were staying) from the port in Old Montreal. Again, we stopped and opened the map. Not five minutes later, two young men approached us and offered to help. As we talked, they also gave us tips on some fun things to do that evening. That’s the thing about pulling out a map in public: it’s a universal signal that says, “I’m lost,” and it’s recognizable to speakers of any language.

While it’s definitely great and convenient to be able to pull up Google Maps and know exactly where you are, or to do a quick Yelp search for good restaurants in the area, traveling in a new place without that instant accessibility to information lent itself to a more human experience. We had more interactions with locals than we would have had otherwise; when we got lost or needed a recommendation, we had to rely on the kindness of strangers rather than our smartphones. And, of course, there was the added benefit of not compulsively checking Facebook every five minutes during meals together. Plus, using a paper map and finding our way as we went was kind of fun; to be sure, it was also occasionally frustrating, especially when certain streets seemed impossible to find on the map or had different names for some reason. But after a while, we got a better feel for how the city was laid out and which streets could take us where than I think we would have by simply following turn-by-turn instructions from a GPS.

I’m not making a broad argument against modern technology. Most days, I love having a smartphone. But it does seem that certain technologies can lend themselves to isolation, depending on how we use them. If my husband and I had been able to use our smartphones every time we needed directions or help of any kind, it probably would’ve been a little more convenient, and we probably would’ve saved a little time getting around, but we also wouldn’t have interacted as much with the people around us. And for an introvert like me, I often need an extra push toward interactions with strangers.

When visiting a new place, opening yourself to receiving help from the people there makes for an experience that is more human and more interpersonal. It makes you vulnerable and it’s even a bit humbling, because you can’t feign independence with a technology crutch. Instead, you must accept setbacks and delays as part of the reality of exploring someplace new, and if you need help, you must acknowledge it, reach out to your fellow man (or let them reach out to you, as was often the case for us in Montreal), and see where you end up.

The Power of Fantasy

When I was little, my parents chose to tell me the truth about Santa Claus. They thought if I knew this particular myth was false, I would be less susceptible to believing lies in the future. They didn’t want me to confuse fantasy with reality, especially when I began to learn about Christianity. Not surprisingly, a lot of Christians feel similarly about fantasy and ask why would you read or watch something that doesn’t exactly correspond with the reality we experience? While these concerns regarding fantasy are not ungrounded, I believe there is also a lot of good and truth that can be communicated through this specific genre.

Although the genre of fantasy is able to communicate truth, it does not mean it is free from potential danger. Scripture defines the line between myth and reality when Peter writes, “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ…” and Paul warns to not, “devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.” These two verses clearly warn against the dangers of myths and fables since they have the ability to detract from the truth of the Gospel.

These passages were interpreted by many Christians, including my parents, to mean all fiction must be harmful since it was unrealistic and therefore untruthful. To these Christians, fantasy stories are made up of lies and deceit and are directly opposed to the Bible which is completely truthful. The works which include fantastical elements such as talking animals are deemed falsehoods since they promote worlds incompatible with the Christian reality. Whether or not one completely agrees, these types of concerns are truly valid when an individual begins to replace truth and reality with a fantasy world. Fantasy is not meant to be nonfiction and most would understand the label of fantasy to differ from reality. However, the distinction is not always easy for some, which is why prudence and discretion are important guiding factors when exploring fantasy.

However, in spite of the potential risks, fantasy was championed by Tolkien and Lewis as a powerful tool for Christians through its ability to engage the imagination. Their use of magic and myth is supported by many Christians because of their explicit ties to Gospel themes, but C.S Lewis believed fantasy was useful beyond direct connections to the Bible. He said, “At all ages, if [fantasy and myth] is used well by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it.” Fantasy thus has the unique ability to extend beyond the present and introduce to the human mind the potential of a life beyond the tangible reality man experiences.

Fantasy’s introduction to the extension of life beyond the material then allows the mind to break the limitations of materialism and embrace truth’s existence outside materialistic bounds. Fantasy critics construct a false parallel between tangible reality and truth, believing fantasy’s venture outside the realm of daily life is an attack on reality. Tolkien said, “creative Fantasy is founded…on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.” At it’s core, fantasy still maintains logical thought, but it simultaneously engages in a world which extends beyond an earthly framework.By doing so, fantasy breaks the spell of a mindset that truth only exists in this present earth and teaches us to realize greater truths beyond a material worldview.



A Journey of Sacrifice

“You will have to manage without pocket-handkerchiefs, and a good many other things, before you get to the journey’s end.” (*The Hobbit*, 35)

This is my favorite quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s *The Hobbit*, because it communicates the very thing that makes an adventure great: sacrifice. Bilbo is suddenly presented with an opportunity for adventure. He’s used to living in a cozy hobbit-hole, with the comforts of home at his fingertips. Yet something deep within him prompts him to take the opportunity and go on a journey with companions who are practically strangers. He does not quite know what he’s getting into and he suspects there will be perils ahead, but he still chooses to go. Less than five minutes into the journey he remembers his pocket-handkerchief and wants to turn back. It is at this point that Dwalin, a no-nonsense dwarf, reminds Bilbo that if he wants to be a part of the adventure, he’s going to have to leave the comforts of home entirely behind him. Bilbo is reminded to anticipate sacrifice if he wants to get where he’s going.

I’m not going to say that the Christian life is like an adventure –after all, adventures are temporary. You return to the the comforts that you sacrificed once the adventure is over. The Christian life is not called the Christian adventure for a reason. It does not last for a few months and then come to an end. I will, however, say that this line from the Hobbit reminds me of the sort of sacrifice which Paul explains in Romans chapter 12. The Apostle writes:

> I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12.1-2)

Paul is instructing believers to seek a radical transformation. When he tells us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, he means that we are no longer serving our flesh but giving ourselves to God. The world tells us it is okay to pursue our sinful desires. Paul is telling us to leave the world’s standards behind and change our mindset. If we want to be obedient we have to go all the way. We cannot be of Spirit with a mindset and a desire that is of the world. Yes, sacrificing our desires is uncomfortable and sometimes feels uncertain, but it is necessary if we want to get where we are going.

Returning to The Hobbit, it appears that Bilbo’s sacrifices actually improve him. Prior to his journey, he knew little of what happened beyond the borders of the Shire. He was content with his pipe, his food, and peace and quiet. He never had any need to exercise courage or push himself beyond his comfort zone. He learns with every step of the journey that there is more to him than he thought. He has a courage and strength within himself that brings him to confront incredible foes. In the end, he returns to the Shire as a changed Hobbit, with a beautiful story to tell.

It is okay if sacrifices scare you. You should feel a tinge of fear when you read the aforementioned line from The Hobbit, mostly because you can sense the risk and peril that is coming. You might feel a tinge of fear when you read Romans 12.1-2 as well. Saying no to a desire is painful. Christians know that they are on a life-long journey in which they will have to give up their desires. However, we can be comforted in the fact that as we make sacrifices we are being transformed and prepared for a future glory. Sacrifice is painful but necessary, frightening but transforming. As you strive to sacrifice the desires of the flesh, remember that you are on a journey in which you are becoming closer and closer to God. Not to mention, your journey ends with an eternity spent in his presence. With this hope in mind, press on in your journey of sacrifice.

Happy Endings in Love and Life: The Keys to Satisfaction

Man was never created to be an independent creature, free to do as he pleased.  In the garden, God created man to be in constant communion with him. Adam’s sole purpose was found in relationship with God. God created Eve because it was not good for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18).  Relationship is a core component of human nature.  Humans were made to be in constant relationship both with God and with each other. Eve broke that relationship when she took the forbidden fruit, choosing  her own way instead of God’s way, disrupting the natural state of man.  Man was no longer in constant subjection to God.  Listening to self instead of God soon became an option for living.  Obviously, this was not without consequence.  Discord and strife, instead of peace and harmony, immediately became the norm for life.  Hello to the world as we know it.

Marriage is an institution ordained by God designed to replicate the harmony in the garden.  Husband and wife entering into perfect harmony with each other; two becoming one (Genesis 2:25). However, just as it was in the garden, the husband and wife experience unity in their submission to God.  This requires mutual submission and self-sacrificial love.  Acting for yourself in opposition to your spouse results in strife.  For many, this kind of marriage seems very constraining.  It is.  You are not allowed to follow all your passions on a whim.  Marriage is a life time commitment to submitting to and loving another human being.  But in this commitment comes great joy that is not possible in relationship outside of marriage.

Desire is an important part of any relationship.  But as with any passion, desire can come and go.  Following desire can lead you down many stray paths.  Desire alone is not enough for a thriving relationship.   Commitment and security are needed.  In Song of Solomon, the bride says, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me (7:10).”  Without this firm sense of belonging, insecurity and doubt will destroy even the most passionate relationship.  Marriage provides a framework for desire where security and exclusivity allow it to blossom.

What about people in abusive marriages?  What about adultery?  There is no doubt that these will drastically affect and possibly shatter any union.  Strife and discord are inevitable in any relationship, no matter how committed the two spouses are to God and each other.  But my point here is not to write about the affects of sin on marriage.  My point is simply to present the best bet for a lasting love.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is the story of a tragic love affair.  Anna and Vronsky are destroyed by a love that cannot satisfy.  Anna soon becomes consumed with doubt and insecurity regarding Vronky’s commitment.  Without marriage, there is no assurance of commitment or belonging, thereby making insecurity overtake passion.  Vronksy strives to retain his “manly independence” and keep a life apart from Anna.  He holds onto part of himself that he refuses to give to Anna.  This too prevents them from becoming one flesh.  Chaffing is the natural result.  Destruction instead of a blossoming love becomes the outcome of their affair.  Desire outside the bounds of marriage yields nothing but strife.

Anna and Vronsky are perhaps an extreme example of something so commonplace in our culture, love outside of marriage.  Anna and Vronsky’s destruction was in part caused by their rejection by society.  Today, “living together” is a common place behavior.  While it may not be openly destructive, as with any other self-centered behavior, it can result in nothing but inward strife and discord.  It may feel good at times, but does it satisfy? True satisfaction only comes through living a life in relationship with and submission to God, and, if that life involves the love of your life, a God centered marriage.

Why is God important?  This too goes back to the garden.  God created us to be in constant relationship with him.  Thriving is only possible through this relationship.  Veering away from God might lead to earthly pleasures but will never lead to ultimate fulfillment.  Jesus came so that we might be fulfilled in a post-fall world.

Are you engaging in a self-centered behavior right now?  Whether it is an extra-marital affair, or something like excessive drinking or viewing pornography, I have to ask you, “Does it satisfy?”  Not just on the surface, but deep down inside.   Jesus tells his followers, ”The thief comes to kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).”  Choose life.

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.

Storytelling and Expectations: How I Met Your Mother, The Last of Us, and Bioshock: Infinite

When we hear a story for the first time, I think we all try to predict the ending. Sometimes we’re spot on, and sometimes we are way off. The “twist” reveals as much about what we thought would happen as it does about the story we are hearing: sometimes a “twist” is so unexpected and out of the blue that it ruins what felt like a coherent story. Other times, like in Fight Club, the story is appreciated far more the second time through, with the twist revealed. The upending of our expectations is something we all sort of want, but some storytellers go too far.

One film that managed to avoid this problem was Pacific Rim, which is probably the most straight-forward film of the past few years. The trailers promised you giant robots fighting against giant monsters, and the film delivered exactly that. The story may have felt somehow less “interesting”, simply because there wasn’t really a twist. There was danger and a progression of that danger, but there wasn’t a sudden reveal that maybe we were actually the problems all along, or something of that nature (maybe the kaiju were actually our deep-seated fears, and the whole thing happened in our minds, or some other inane twist). But twists for the sake of twists are hardly worth examining.

Last year there were quite a few games that were (rightly) praised highly: The Stanley ParableThe Last of Us, and Bioshock: Infinite come to mind. The first I’ve already written about, but the game functions as an exploration of our expectations, as a way to take what we think a game is and, well, upend it. The latter two, however, don’t really step outside of the way a game is put together. They’re both linear, and you follow the story regardless of the decisions you make (Bioshock: Infinite has a few choices, but are not nearly as significant as the choices in Mass Effect, for instance). In fact, in a time where choice is becoming a near requirement for games, I appreciated both of these games for just letting me play the story that the games had to tell.

Spoiler warning for both The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite.

The ending for The Last of Us is one that I hated. I know many thought this was the best game of the last year, and in many ways they are right. The game is mechanically impressive, providing a depth and terror to the combat that many games lack. I felt real emotions for the characters, akin to some of my favorite books. There were, in fact, quite a few moments where I was emotionally flustered but had to act; a character just died, for instance, but I needed to shoot my way out of whatever situation I was in.

At the end of the game, the protagonist (who you have spent the majority of the game playing) lies to save the girl he now thinks of as his daughter. The daughter might be the only way to save the world from the terrible disease that has infected so many, but she would need to be killed to do so (she wouldn’t survive the operation required). In a terrifying last scene, you break into the room and save her from the surgery, only to whisk her away unconscious. When she awakens, she asks where you are, and you explain (falsely) that there are others just like her, that she isn’t unique, and that the world will eventually be saved anyway.

At this point I was upset with the protagonist, but could live with it. This girl had seen through lies before; it takes someone fairly smart and quick to survive as long as she has. But the finale of the game is a bit more harrowing: she forces the protagonist to look her in the eye and promise that he’s telling the truth. He does it, and she is satisfied. The end.

The frustration that I’d embodied this man who was not only unwilling to make the sacrifice to save the world (which is understandable, considering the cost), but he couldn’t even tell the truth to this young girl who thinks of him as father was almost unbearable. I had to rethink the entire game, and every development that the protagonist made felt empty in light of this moral failure. It felt as though the conversations I’d sought to have with the young girl were all to build trust, only to have that ripped away.

And maybe the story wanted to teach me that people are evil. But I already knew that, and didn’t feel better for the new “realization.”

Bioshock: Infinite was far more philosophical in nature, in regards to the twist. With jumps between various parallel universes throughout, the twist in that game ended up faring far better. The reveal that Booker (the protagonist) is also Comstock (the villain) works well, primarily because the protagonist reacts the same way that we do: Booker is angry and distraught, and immediately seeks to make sure that this isn’t going to be the case for him. The game even ends with Booker drowning his alternate selves (who chose baptism into a new name, Comstock), simply to remove the universes of his own evil. That’s a far cry from someone consciously lying to their child about perhaps the most important truth in their world.

Both of these games were heralded partially for their gameplay, but also for their unique stories. The twists made them, in a sense, memorable. I’ll likely not forget either of them, and would be interested in replaying both in a couple of years when the intricacies of the stories aren’t so fresh.

The breaking of expectations can go either way: sometimes we herald the story as ground-breaking and beautiful, while other times we decry the absurdity of the change to the story we’ve been told all along.

Even earlier this week with How I Met Your Mother‘s finale we saw the way people reacted to broken expectations. Some were frustrated, and some felt the show had a great conclusion.

Spoiler alert for How I Met Your Mother.

My friend Sarah Parro nailed many aspects of the conclusion, but one bit in particular is worth repeating:

 […] 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.

The end of the show was somewhat predictable (I knew that the titular Mother would die, for instance), and somewhat painfully consistent. The show was always about Ted and Robin, even when it wasn’t. The show always had Marshall and Lily together, even when they broke up for awhile. The show never had Barney settling down (which makes his new-found love for his daughter a little hard to swallow, considering what else he goes through in the show). The one question that is left unanswered is whether or not Ted and Robin will work this time; they’ve both tried this before, after all, more than once. But maybe now that Ted had his children and Robin had her career they can finally settle down with each other. The show really was about meeting the Step-Mother, not the Mother.

So did HIMYM break expectations? Sure, in some ways. I didn’t expect the show to end at all (I kid, I kid). For the most part, the show landed precisely where it always fell: the Universe wants you to be with the One, and you will be with the One, unless you screw it up somehow (but even then, you’ll probably end up with the One).

Twists are valuable, of course, but only insofar as they are twists that we can swallow. If I were to re-watch HIMYM, I should see, from the start, that Robin and Ted were meant for each other (for the record, Barney and Robin were a far more endearing couple; they both started at a similar place and grew together, which has quite a bit of merit in its own right). But I suspect I’d see the same convoluted story of on-and-off again romances that we felt the first time: only now we’d chime in with Ted’s kids that no, someone other than Robin isn’t right for you anymore.

I don’t mind twists. I think some twists are fundamental to good stories. But some stories can be told well without them, and HIMYM might have been more honest if it hadn’t attempted to include lots of twists at the end, no matter how expected.

Perhaps if the ending to HIMYM was something like this, we’d all feel that it was too generic and familiar (or, dare I say it, happy). Perhaps if The Last of Us had ended in sacrifice, we’d all have been bored to tears by the now-played-out sacrificial father role. And perhaps if Bioshock: Infinite had just forced us to kill Comstock, instead of realizing that we were him, it would have been forgotten as a game with above-average gameplay and writing that neglected to do anything new in the genre. I might have preferred that ending to the first two, even if I would likely have forgotten the last soon after finishing it. But sometimes I’d like a happy ending that doesn’t skirt my expectations, except the expectation that the ending will be happy.

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.

Writing as Art

During my final semester of college, I’m taking a class called “Vision, Voice, and Practice.” The painting and poetry professors have teamed up to teach it, and it’s offered for either upper division Art or English credit. That’s where the “Vision” (art) and “Voice” (writing) parts come from.

The class has afforded me a wonderful opportunity to study that strange being known as the Art Major. I’ve learned that  these beings are most active at night, understand the term “Class starts at 8:00am” very loosely, and like to talk about symbolism. They’re also deep thinkers, insightful, and caring.

Being in a class with art majors has given me a glimpse into the art world—a world where trinkets arranged in boxes help people think about exploration, and a pile of jumbled words  produces a 3D object.

in-class text coll. treeBeing part of this community has made me think differently about my writing.

In my mind, I’ve always categorized “skill” into three sections: skill, craft, and art. The difference between these three had something to do with practicality and objective beauty. I might be skilled at washing dishes, but the activity isn’t beautiful, and is definitely not an art form.

Craft got a little closer to art, but it was still too practical. The glass-blower creates beautiful bowls that hold liquid, and the wood worker creates sleek tables, chairs, and surfboards. But these things were still practical—they were working pieces, not art pieces.

Art, though—art was the shimmering pinnacle of creativity and beauty. It wasn’t supposed to be practical. It was the standard of perfection that practical people looked to and dreamed of reaching.

I had always thought of writing as part of the craft category. It can be measured definitively by a set of rules and requirements (grammar and style) and becomes better with practice. It’s used practically: to record the minutes of a meeting, persuade the public to vote for a new tax, or warn drivers about the deer that might cross the road. Therefore, writing didn’t qualify as art.

My definitions were wrong.

I won’t attempt to give a definitive, holistic definition of “Art” in this post. That’s book and dissertation material. But I will say that any good definition of Art will not demand physical beauty, and will not exclude practicality.

One of the main purposes of Art is to make us think—to challenge our pre-conceived ideas and broaden our perspectives. Sculptors use clay and photographers use printed images, but they both use them as mediums to convey an idea, or even to produce a practical object.

Writers use words to the same end.

Language as a medium doesn’t depend merely on definitions to convey meaning. It also uses style, sound, restriction, and even visual presentation—the same criteria we use to evaluate art.

By the same token, Art doesn’t exist apart from the practical concepts and struggles of humanity. Artists are trying to work out answers to these questions through their work. There is no such thing as meaningless art, (though some have tried). The end result always includes an idea, a concept.

secret garden, 2The other essential part of Art is active creativity. A rose is beautiful, even “sublime,” but it is not human art. This is where “Practice” comes into the class title. We are actively practicing our disciplines, not floating around in the philosophy of Formland, but grounded in the work we make. Our assignments are both individual and collaborative, but in each one, we’re creating something.

Through Practicing the collaboration of Vision and Voice, I have learned to not limit my own work, but to see it as Art.

All the pictures above are projects done in this class. If you’re interested, you can check out the class blog here for more of them.

The Well-Ordered Soul in Plato and Athanasius

I spent five months trying to order my soul. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates establishes the just man as the man whose soul is well-ordered. This means that his appetite, spirit, and reason play their respective roles. Reason guides the appetite and spirit, allowing the just man to evade vice and pursue virtue. Socrates explains that “the most happy is the most kingly, who rules like a king over himself”. Embracing this idea, I sought to order my own soul without any guidance aside from my vague understanding of justice, virtue, and reason. It didn’t work.

In his treatise,On the Incarnation, Saint Athanasius reveals his perspective on Plato’s idea of the well-ordered soul. He exlpains:

For if even Plato, who is admired by the Greeks, says that because he who begot the world saw it distressed and in danger of sinking into a region of dissimilitude, sitting at the helm of the soul he helped it and corrects all its faults, what then is there incredible in what we say, that humankind being in error, the Word sat at its helm and appeared as human, in order that he might save the distressed by his guidance and goodness?

The Son of God lived, died, and was resurrected to conquer death and corruption. The Word took on flesh and became the mediator between God and man. He has reached down to depraved creatures so that he might heal our broken souls and lead us to holiness. It is through his sacrifice that we are able to partake in the glory of our Creator. In understanding the basic message of salvation, the foolishness and arrogance of trying to order one’s own soul becomes apparent. Man is in a perpetual battle with the flesh that cannot be won without the Word at the helm. It is arrogant to assume that a fallen individual possesses the power to rule oneself.

The temporal ends promised by Plato pale in comparison to the beauty and goodness of Christ. The happiness that Socrates mentions is one of earth and time. The kingly sort of ruling described in the Republic is a human ruling which can never be perfected. On the other hand, the Word guides the soul closer and closer to God until the soul is made complete and is able to enjoy the eternal happiness that is the presence of God. Also, when one submits his soul to God, he is submitting it to the only King who is eternally just and sovereign.

Regarding the means to a well-ordered soul, there is action required by the individual. However, it is action that is grounded in the power of Christ. The Apostle Paul closes his letter to the church in Thessalonica saying:

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

God, through the incarnation of the Word, does the complete work of sanctification in one’s soul. Plato was right about living virtuously. To have a well-ordered soul, the good must be sought and the corrupt must be expelled. Unfortunately, what Plato failed to recognize is that God is ultimately the King over one’s soul, and must be relied upon for complete order.

Plato’s idea of the soul — though pagan— is captivating and inspiring. By the grace of God, others such as Saint Athanasius have seen and proclaimed the truth of this idea in a new light. With the Word at the helm, the well-ordered soul has now become a sincerely hopeful ambition. This is not to say that it is easy. With a corruptible flesh, it remains a continual struggle to maintain purity in spirit, soul, and body. Nevertheless, there is a righteous King who abounds in grace and lends his strength so that we can become more and more like him and someday rest in the goodness of his presence.