Pride and Prejudice, First Impressions, and Living for Society

Before settling on the title “Pride and Prejudice”, Jane Austen titled her novel “First Impressions.” As the “almost title” suggests, first impressions play an important role in the plot. Mr. Darcy’s aloofness causes the Bennets to scorn his company and drastically misjudge his character. On the other hand, Mr. Wickham, a scoundrel, soon becomes a family favorite. At the novel’s conclusion, very few are privy to the information of Darcy and Wickham’s true character; everyone else is still blinded to the truth by their initial impressions.

Due to this great error in judgement, the reader is led to question the validity of first impressions. We are constantly “performing” in hopes of gaining people’s favor. Since first impressions are so performance oriented and may not be an accurate depiction of who you really are, it seems that they can be completely disregarded as an accurate tool for interacting with other people. Yet, Austen does not want us to completely rule out the usefulness of making favorable impressions on people. She uses Elizabeth to illustrate a way of acting that is socially acceptable, and therefore pleasing to others, yet still true to herself.

In the book, there is a constant tension between pride and vanity. Mary Bennet explains the difference as, “Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” (p. 14) Darcy knows his own worth, and does not need other people’s affirmation. However, “weaker” characters, those less sure of their capability, are much more dependent on other’s good opinions. For example, we see Ms. Bingley constantly acting in flamboyant ways in hopes of gaining Darcy’s attention. She cares almost exclusively about other people’s, specifically Darcy’s, opinion of her.

Before falling in love with Elizabeth, Darcy is presented as a completely self-sufficient character. He does not need anything from other people. Darcy’s pride is the result of his recognition of his self-sufficiency. Since he does not need anything from other people (with the exception of his friendship with Bingley), he does not bother trying to get people to like him. This works for Darcy. His self-sufficiency allows him to act in a meaningful way (saving the Bennet family from destruction) while being disliked.

However, Elizabeth, along with all the other women in the novel, is much more dependent on other people. As a woman in that society, the only option for advancing in life is marriage. Therefore, they must make good impressions on people so as to gain favor. Elizabeth, for the most part, does this. She plays by the rules of society. Yet when it is time for Elizabeth to make the decisions that really matter (who she marries), she asserts her independence from society’s rules. Her happiness is more important than following the rules. So even though Elizabeth is outwardly submissive to the rules of society, her inner strength allows her to act independently from the expected behavior.

Darcy is attracted to this quality in Elizabeth. Elizabeth does not completely spurn the rules like Darcy does, but she does not order all aspects of her life around them like Ms. Bennet. So Elizabeth is a wise choice for Darcy—she will not embarrass him by acting inappropriately in Darcy’s higher society but she also is not afraid to think for herself.

Most of us could not afford to act like Darcy. After all, we need a job to put bread on the table. Yet we should not sell our souls trying to win other people’s favor. Elizabeth provides us with a happy medium. It is wise (and beneficial) to follow society’s rules—to a point. First impressions are important. They put you in a position to benefit from society and enable you to act in a meaningful way. However, like Elizabeth, we should not compromise who we are simply because society wants us to. This is especially applicable as Christians. We are living for our Lord, and what our Lord demands of us is often different than society’s expectations. Wise people will respect us for our integrity, yet it may mean giving up a seemingly valuable opportunity.

Everything is clearer in hindsight. Did Elizabeth make the right decision not to marry Mr. Collins? Yes, because Mr. Darcy allows her to live to her full potential. As we are making decisions, there is no guarantee that a better opportunity will come along. Good first impressions put us in a position to make that decision.

*Quotations taken from Oxford World Classics edition.

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.

The Art of Self-Knowledge

I’m my own worse critic. I don’t mean to say that I see every flaw in my writing; I mean I only see the flaws in my writing. The difference may be slight, but it is like the difference between deciding to sit down and practice the piano, and deciding to push the piano out of a 10 story building, light all of the copies of music on fire, and yell “to hell with it!”

So when Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to a class of high school students surfaced in my news feed this past week, I felt convicted:

“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

He reminds me that the practice of any art is more like exploration and less like decoration–it is about the soul of the artist. My worse criticism of my own writing stems from this confusion. Instead of asking myself, “What does this blog, poem, or essay say about my soul?” I ask whether it compares well to the writing of my peers or my favorite authors.

The same principle applies to the way I consume art. Instead of worrying whether I like the right movies or books, I could inquire about how my response to particular stories reveals some new aspect of my soul.

In an interview from 1968, Ray Bradbury describes human beings as “tension collecting animals.” In other words, we sometimes suppress violence, grief, and joy because those impulses are not always appropriate to the situation we find ourselves in. These tensions, however, accumulate over time and need to be exercised.

Often, we don’t know what tensions we’ve accumulated. Sometimes, we just feel feelings without a clear understanding of where they’ve come from or why we’re feeling them. So, as Bradbury says, the artist will come along and help us discover what they are and allow us to exercise them. Too often, the cathartic experience is a neglected avenue for self-knowledge.

Whether creating or consuming art, we should learn to posture ourselves for inquiry. We don’t always know what tensions we need to exercise on a particular day and so we need to go exploring. Because of my own propensity to care more about art as decoration instead of exploration, I’ve set up some guidelines to follow:

1. Follow Vonnegut’s advice: “…starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives…Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.”

2. Don’t overwhelm yourself with art. Instead, allow yourself the space to get to know one painting, sculpture, poem, or song. Inquire about your experience by asking “what tensions am I feeling? What tensions is the artist representing?”

3. Pay attention to your preferences and start there. If you’re wondering what counts as good art, then you’re thinking about this backwards. If you do not find Van Gogh intellectually or emotionally engaging, then don’t try to force yourself to like him just because everyone else does. Exploring art isn’t a competition, and it doesn’t require a refined taste. Like the things you like and ask yourself “why do I like this?” Only when you start reflecting on your own experience, will you eventually begin to see what makes an artist like Van Gogh great.

4. Be aware of how much art you are consuming and how much you are creating. Inevitably, you’ll always consume more art than you create. It takes several years to create a movie, but only an hour and half to watch it. If, however, you find that you haven’t created anything in a long time (paintings, poems, music, photography etc.), then consider making time for your own art. Creating art often has the effect of not only revealing something new about your soul to yourself, but of helping you to better appreciate good art when you see it.

5. Finally, follow Vonnegut’s last instruction: don’t show your art to anyone because “you will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded…You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.” For a host of obviously bad reasons, this is a hard rule to follow. I like it when people like the things I create, and without fail, this desire eclipses the real rewards of making art. Art as self-expression is the act of exploration. Who knows what knew thing I’ll discover about myself or about the world through the crappy poem I wrote today? My job is only to be interested; the rest is not my business.

It Is All About Presence

You may have seen a recent commercial that talks about all the wonderful uses of a pencil, as the screen focuses on one while the background changes to thematically coordinate with the narrator’s descriptions. After a few shifts, the background remains still and a hand reaches down to grab the new iPad Air that was hidden behind the very thin pencil, and the commercial explains that Apple hopes you will find just as many uses for their product. The advertiser’s idea is to convince the customer that, as essential as a pencil has been to poems and symphonies and even doing various things in space, so is the iPad Air. The electronic tablet is professed to be the next revolutionary step in writing from the old pencil and paper.

The 21st century has opened with exciting advances in cyber technology that lead us to debate between physical and digital modes of information. If a company keeps all of its files in electronic media, whether hardware or the cloud, they have more space for physical items like office furniture, and can quickly access their information by a few keystrokes. However, should the hardware break down or the ethereal storage get hacked, that information is vulnerable and, even with backup, possibly irretrievable. So, hard copies are usually prudent for the cautious business owner, though even these are subject to physical damage or loss. One cannot afford to fully trust one way or the other, and so must maximize the benefits of both.

The question becomes more pointed if no significant resources are at stake. When it comes to books, we can carry an e-reader that is capable of providing a small library in the same space that one book would normally occupy. Since producing paper gives people concern for the shrinking global tree population, it would seem prudent to just skip the hassle of carrying bound volumes. Even the book lover’s complaint that e-readers ‘just aren’t the same’ is ringing less true year by year, as technology provides page turning, bookmarks, and generally paper-like screens. As online shopping led to Borders going out of business, so the digital format could replace the last few centuries’ tome, like a new Gutenberg press.

Yet even so, there is a strong reluctance for many to make that final jump— dare I say a faith that things like physical books still offer us something that cannot be replaced. What we lose in technology is the presence of that material we interact with, since cyberspace occupies no real space, and whether connecting with people or writing, they are presented to us via electric signals that are translated into text and picture, not as a corpus or body. The physical element is sacrificed for the sake of efficiency, and that’s fine where efficiency is necessary. Technology can give access to those materials when a physical interaction is not possible.

The problem is Americans have the innate assumption that perfect efficiency will make things easier and life better, so we hardly ever stop increasing speed at the expense of those precious bodily experiences. A digital library cannot be strolled, and no e-reader lets the pages flip past your fingers or gives you the smell of ink and old paper. If electronic stimuli can ever provide those experiences, the point will not be that it feels real, but if it is real. The point is we might be tempted to claim that technology is the peak of communication, as if it can do away with all the inefficiencies and unwanted side effects from tangible thought and corporeal contact.  

The heart of it all is that humans are not complicated data processors, but physical and spiritual beings. Whether in business or leisure, it is harmful for a society to consider ease and productivity as their highest goal, as the primary means of achieving the elusive pursuit of happiness. We need those messy, untimely moments where life is best lived, as well as finding methods to get more things done more quickly. We still need to be able to touch people, and to have their words actually inscribed and close, not just quickly projected and quickly removed. There is more to life than getting the most out of a service, or being preeminent at providing one. When the holidays are about looking for the best stuff at the best price, rather than finding the gifts that bring true joy to our loved ones, including spending time with them (if possible), then they won’t be so holly or jolly.

To be fair, companies are aware of this presence factor and often incorporate into their commercials the notion that their products liberate the customer to take care of those moments, unencumbered by inferior, less handy products. The struggle lies not in those who take stock of what people are like and then advertise accordingly; rather, it lies with the individual from whom commercialism ultimately flows. Having an iPad is great, so long as it doesn’t stand in for love of our neighbor. Focusing on the physical beings around us, not the digital or even physical benefits we expect from the gifting season, is to be more human and, we shall find, gives us actual joy. In the same tradition where God came down to be present with mankind on Christmas morn, we should take time to put aside the fleeting intangibles in favor of those presently with us, who make life complicated and material.

Image via Flickr.

Meta-Thoughts for Forum Blogging

It might have slipped your notice, but the Evangelical Outpost found six Torrey Honors students who were keen on writing, tsk-tsked at our lonely Blogspots and well-hidden journals, and invited us into the open, the fray of forum blogging. Instead of constantly writing by ourselves (and mostly, for ourselves), the forum-structure offers a chance to refine our blog posts with dialogue. The major premise of EO content isn’t a particular theme or audience; it’s inter-editorial feedback. So, I won’t say they let us go completely unscathed, not with the weekly grooming and shearing our pieces get. We subscribe to the blog-dialogue approach, where every post is part of a larger conversation.

Sometimes, Facebook feed and daily blog skimming unearths posts which are actually aspiring to be essays—pieces that stand-alone on internal consistency and supported argument. Timothy Bartel recommends an excellent set of questions for what qualifies as a good ‘essay-post.’ But that’s not the only way to read or write. In fact, it’s rare in the blogging world. Several of us are looking into what we do with those messier, less-polished posts that don’t deserve the wide, public audience an essay would.  Rebecca Card-Hyatt suggests we are writing for a difference audience: peers, friends and like-minds.

The future for blog-dialogue offers several promising effects:

 

Relevance / ‘In Real Time’  

 Write a review of a presidential debate. Then, refine it for a month until it qualifies as an essay. There’s too much distance. While the written response might be insightful, interest in the instigating event has already peaked and disappeared. Our friends have already watched, opined about and moved beyond the following four debates. Essays aren’t naturally conducive to interacting with fast-paced culture. One alternative is to devote all blog posts to what’s transcendent, limiting ourselves to only abstract ideas and excluding current events. That’s a limiting alternative, however. range of interests, though. For me, writing in conversation with like-minds runs on a spectrum of interests, including everything from the ordinary to the sublime. All due respect to the ordinary, writing quickly is the way to keep pace with up-to-date topics.

 

More critical thinking, not less

Real conversations crumble under the siege of poor speech and lazy thinking. The challenge of having real forward movement required you to move forward at a shared pace, going step by step, thought by thought. Simultaneously, the challenge of communicating to someone else requires you to think through old thoughts in new ways and invent an apt expression for them. The blogger keen for listeners and responses wants the same things as a normal conversationalist, simultaneously aware that blogging is susceptible to sloppiness of thought and delivery but, placed in a dialogue atmosphere, might become an opportunity working out real communication. Each post functions like a few statements, building on previous thoughts and anticipating nearby implications. The guidelines and challenges of an ordinary conversation shape limits for the writer which naturally improve her work.

 

Layers of timbre

I encounter a lot of over-assertiveness in individual blogs. The writers are distinctly aware that, aside from their font and background color choice, confidence is their only platform. But too often, the anxiety of being their own endorsement makes their tone more obnoxious than persuasive. The blog-dialogue distributes the weight of authority between all the participants, giving everyone a chance to risk sharing their idea without fearing the ‘you-don’t-sound-expert-enough’ response. It allows different timbres to color the general tone: curiosity, concord, humility, uncertainty, etc. Instead of being delivered in one tone bent on asserting the speaker’s authority, the blog-dialogue has a layered tonal atmosphere that illumines the topic directly, in addition to highlighting the speaker.  The wider range of writers increases the range of readers.  The entire team of writers draws an audience of diverse shape, eliciting fresh density to the tone of the pieces. As a result, the audience watches how their attention actually contributing to the conversation, validating their input and watering down the emphasis on who is following, sharing or tweeting whom.

 

Recurrences

Images seeped with memories. Rock-bottom questions. Words with long histories. Inside jokes. Recurrences are facilitators of our best conversations. They are reminders of how common understanding between people makes listening worthwhile. They function as comfortable resting points during strong disagreement. Ultimately, they support our weird questions and crazy assertions with credible backstory. Spouting out statement after statement like meteors that light up and then die keeps a writer on a surface his audience can instantly access. Without backstory with his audience, he won’t reach the level of discourse where his thoughts begin to build new ideas on familiar concepts.

The outworking of blog-dialogue continues to evolve. Some actually address their posts to their intended reader, as though writing a letter. Others have a heyday with embedded links, drawing lines out to as many available perspectives as possible. At the Evangelical Outpost, there’s always a dialogue behind the scenes in the editorial process. The future of the approach doesn’t require commitment to any one tactic. Blog-dialogue will and continues to occur wherever online publication multiplies one thought into several ideas, one question into network of thought-projects, and one person into a community.

The Best Article You’ll Read Today (Isn’t This One)

I’m serious.

If this is the best article you’ve read today so far, then I would encourage you to read more. Maybe try this one. That is just what I had open on my desktop, there are a lot more out there.

But who knows which one will be the best to read? That’s a journey you’ll have to take alone, my young apprentice.

You may have noticed—assuming that you at any point in the last three months had access to the Internet—that there’s been an overwhelming surge of a certain type of article headline. The kind that makes whatever the article is talking about sound like it must be up there with finding a cure for all of the world’s diseases.

Things like “You Won’t Believe What Happened When This Person Did This Thing,” or “This Thing That Happened Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity.”

This type of enticing headline style is called “clickbait.” It was recently made legendary by “good-news-spreading” site Upworthy, and has been copied ad nauseum everywhere else. Sometimes it starts to get a little annoying with so many grandiose claims and so much similar wording all over your Facebook newsfeed.

Steve Hind of The Guardian writes in his In Defence of Clickbait: “When readers are lured in, and rewarded for their curiosity by good content, everyone wins.”

Sure. But what if online publishers set up promises on which they can’t deliver?

“Well duh, then no one will share it,” the readers respond.

And it’s true, to some extent. In the Darwinian world of online traffic rankings, only the interesting survive. (Kanye tweets excepted.)

But there are still a couple of repercussions to this kind of model. The first, as you might expect, is that everything becomes impossible to gauge or even take seriously. We can’t just give all of our online content participation trophy-headlines, or the same thing happens that we all felt in second-grade soccer—suddenly no one is special.

In the same way that repeated, unpoliced misuse of “your/you’re” has made even grownups unsure of correct usage, overuse of hyperbole dumbs down the awesomeness of everything.

We’re already reaching a point where having a “purely factual” headline is something only really super-respectable news sources, who already have an audience, can feel confident about. An un-established writer labeling something as “Some Thoughts I’ve Had” rather than “Something Everyone Needs to Know” is immediately dismissed. Because with all of The Most Important within our reach, why would we have time for anything else?

Another thing that irks me about this type of marketing is an assertion like “This Will Be The Best of This Type of Thing You’ll See All Day.”

Sure, there is some potential for really niche topics: a video titled “This Will Be The Best Video of A Llama Singing You See Today” will probably turn out to be accurate.

But did anyone tell these people about the Internet? I can actually go to this thing called YouTube and type in “llama singing” and find other results, which I might be inspired to do after seeing that first video that piqued my interest.

And finally, my biggest concern with clickbait is its tendency to try to predict or even mandate your reaction. Particularly lines like “You’ll Never Guess” or “This Will Make You Cry.”

Who are you, freelance Buzzfeed columnist, to tell me what I will or will not think or feel?

There is, of course, some implicit understanding that titles like this are just a recommendation of your most likely reaction, and meant merely to give you some kind of context for what type of thing you’re about to read or see. It’s better, I suppose, to be aware you’re about to watch a heart-wrenching story, before everyone hears you sobbing in your cubicle.

But that doesn’t keep lines like that from acting as the laugh tracks of the Internet. Sometimes appropriate, but sometimes painfully awkward and misplaced.

Which comes back to that issue of making promises.

Most of us grew up hearing stories like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and can’t shake the feeling that there’s something wrong with stringing your audience along. Even if they’ll keep believing you every time.

Back when newspapers and magazines had to rely on physical subscriptions, there was no room for bait-and-switch marketing. People got what they paid for, because it was the same thing that they had already gotten to know and learned to trust.

And trust is something that marketing agencies have been trying to replicate for decades, but never mastered.

I grew up with a stellar ability to overdramatize my problems when it was convenient for me. (Think Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.) There were numerous factors that led to my eventual reformation, but one of them was just having a couple of professors who wouldn’t buy what I was selling. After the third “but I was so sick and busy and ran out of printer ink the day that paper was due!” they started calling me on it.

And perhaps it would be helpful to start calling these “best things ever” on their respective crap.

Am I saying that we should all boycott Upworthy? No. Stop reading Buzzfeed? Well, maybe.

But can you imagine what it must be like working at a site like that? Having to scour the world for “the BEST advice for twenty-somethings” and “the CUTEST cat picture EVER.” That’s a lot of unnecessary pressure, spawned from the success of clickbait.

Maybe we can start by presenting things with less ridiculous adjectives in our own sharing, and giving less-paraded things a chance. There’s nothing wrong with reading another article aside from the best one. It can still be good.

I think one of the reasons I like listening to NPR is that they spend so little time on convincing you to care. They don’t introduce a segment about Somalia with “This Story Will Bring You to Tears”…they just start talking about it. It’s up to you, the listener, to engage with the content and react as you see fit.

What a concept.

Maybe we could be people who are thoughtful and humble in the way that we engage with media content and each other. Giving everything a fair shot, but valuing trustworthiness above flashiness.

Wouldn’t that be just the BEST?

Image via the ever hilarious xkcd.

The Hidden Theology of ‘What Not to Wear’

Recently, while feeling sick and unable to sleep, I got out of bed around 2:00 a.m. and decided to pass the time with some Netflix, settling on a couple of episodes of TLC’s What Not to Wear from season nine. I initially picked it because I wanted something somewhat mindless to watch. After a while, though, I noticed how the show, in it’s own way, addresses some very important and deep human issues: issues regarding self-esteem, our inherent value as individuals, and how we think about and treat ourselves.

If you’re not familiar with the show, it follows two style experts, Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, who are summoned by concerned family members and friends to give a woman a style makeover. Her closet is purged, she is whisked off to New York City and given $5000 to buy a new wardrobe, and then she gets a new haircut and makeup consultation to top it all off.

It’s not the kind of show you’d expect to address deep, personal issues—after all, in many ways it’s just another makeover show, and on the surface it can seem quite shallow—but I think the host’s raise some valuable points about the psychology, and even spirituality, of personal appearance.

Take Jackie, for example, the subject of episode three’s makeover. A formerly single mother of four, Jackie is now engaged to marry a great guy. However, her wardrobe choices oscillate between the wild extremes of frumpy sweats and oversized tee-shirts to skin-tight, super low-cut tops and dresses. Stacy and Clinton, as they do to everyone who comes on the show, put Jackie in the intimidating 360-degree mirror to assess Jackie’s outfit choices from every angle (an admittedly excessive tactic, but it’s reality television, after all).

Stacy and Clinton quickly dig up the underlying motivations behind the way Jackie presents herself. Jackie confesses that she has been cheated on multiple times in the past and has taken a blow to her self-esteem as a result, feeling like she’s “not enough” to keep a man interested. Motivated by this insecurity, she puts it all out on the table with extremely revealing date outfits in an attempt to ensure her fiancee’s continued devotion. On the flip side, she puts no effort into her day-to-day wear, throwing on ill-fitting tee-shirts and baggy pants to run her kids around and manage her own full-time class load, believing her daily personal appearance—and, by extension, herself entirely—to be less important than her other responsibilities. When asked if she believes she deserves to feel beautiful, Jackie is only silent. Stacy points out that both of her wardrobe extremes are inappropriate: “One says you don’t value yourself at all, and the other one says you’re giving yourself away for free.”

Heather is another example of someone with a dual personality caught between conflicting wardrobe identities.  At 6’1” Heather’s easily noticed, but she likes to dress in flashy clothing when going out on the weekends to get extra attention from men. When dressing for her office job (which she hates), however, Heather puts no effort into her appearance. Again, nothing can escape the all-seeing eye of the 360-degree mirror, and the truth comes out. Since she had her first child at the age of seventeen (and has since become a mother of two), Heather feels she was forced to grow up too fast, so she compensates by dressing provocatively and overly young for her age in an effort to recapture her youth.

This is par for the course in every episode. I’m fascinated both by the intensely personal, and sometimes heartbreaking, stories the women tell to explain the way they dress, as well as how adeptly Stacy and Clinton nail down the real issues at hand and then proceed to demonstrate how a revamped wardrobe can help lift self-esteem, establish a more appropriate identity, and even open up future opportunities for growth (both personally and professionally).

Dress for the life you want, not for the life you have.

But the message even transcends that; it’s more along the lines of “Dress for the life you do have: a life that is valuable and beautiful and worth respecting.” It’s beautiful, in a way, what these stylists do for people. When you get past the posh New York clothing boutiques, the $200 jeans, and the professional hair styling that’s impossible to recreate at home, you see that they’re giving people more than just an external, physical makeover. It’s also an internal makeover. Stacy and Clinton show these women that they don’t have to dress like a slob or a slut (their words) because they deserve to treat themselves better, because they are better. As Clinton says to Jackie at one point during her episode, “The first step of putting effort into yourself is…realizing that you deserve it…[that you deserve] to feel beautiful, just for being you.”

One could argue that the overall message of the show is that a woman must wear stylish clothes and lots of makeup in order to look and feel beautiful, and perhaps that is one message of the show, even if it’s a more subliminal one. I still think the show makes valid points about enhancing your self-esteem and establishing an appropriate perception of yourself through your appearance and presentation. How we present and dress ourselves matters because it’s an extension of how we feel about and treat ourselves; just as it is important for human beings to respect each other, it is equally important for us to respect ourselves. And the bottom line is that our external (physical) selves and our internal (psychological, emotional, spiritual) selves are all united as a single, complete human identity. In addition to everything else that makes us human, we are also physical creatures. God created us spiritual and physical, and we will continue to be such, even after death, once our bodies are restored in the resurrection.

Of course, the deeper truth is that all people are inherently valuable because they are valued by a loving Creator. Because God loves and values us, he became man, died, and rose again to redeem humanity, body and soul.

Considering What Not to Wear has made me realize that how we present ourselves (not only through our clothing, but also through our behavior) matters, not just because we want to make a good impression, or nail the job interview, or impress someone on a date, but because we as human beings are inherently valuable. We are image bearers of God—a God who became man and took on a physical body—and we ought to treat ourselves and each other as such. Physical presentation is one component of that.

This all is not to say that our physical appearance is the most valuable part of our identity (after all, those who have suffered physical injuries or malformations are not less valuable for it), but I think effort and thought put into our physical selves ought not to be discounted as entirely shallow or meaningless, as long as it stems from the right place. After all, our physical presentation not only cues others how they ought to treat us, but it’s also an indication of how we value ourselves and how we believe we ought to be treated.

It’s not about being stylish, or having the most expensive clothes possible, or conforming to a particular understanding of a “correct” appearance. It’s about recognizing our inherent value and acting on that recognition through the choices we make about how we present ourselves.

I’ve had my share of self-esteem struggles just like anyone else, and when I’m feeling down, my husband encourages me to look at myself in the mirror and remind myself that I am smart, valuable, beautiful, capable. The mere act of saying the words helps build up a better self-image, just like how the act of putting on a suit or a nice dress helps build up confidence or a sense of professionalism. We must hold the belief internally and act on it externally. Above all, we must hold firm to the conviction that we are children of God, worthy of the most powerful love in the universe.

I’ll Save My Gucci For Sundays

A smashing outfit is worth a thousand words. I buy what “fits my image” and dress to “make a statement.” Apparel advertising buttons our identity to our body. It encourages self-expression through something visual that we create or select with the cooperation of our minds and our hands. For that reason, fashion savants likely claim ranking with other types of visual artists. For an animal, its outerwear is defense against weather. But ‘wardrobe curators’ and the like explore more complex uses for clothing by engineering it for communication between people. It communicates status and role, dispositions toward authority and levels of self-esteem. Even more abstractly, it communicates a person’s unique ability to relate linear patterns, colors or shapes.

So, clothing—it’s an image of who you are. Granted, it’s a brief image—we can’t statically frame our outfits for study. Our own moving bodies are the frame. Outfits are assembled for certain moments or a stretch of hours, and then get dismantled, sort of like the short-form of installation art. But when taken as a whole, the right wardrobe is evidence of someone’s good taste correctly conveying their peculiar identity.

We’re attracted to those people, wondering how it is they deftly create consistent, genuine images of their identity. Come Sunday morning, Christian adults who dress well have this effect on me. Their identity in Christ—an identity centering on Christ while radiating his image to the world—is now made visible in a small way. It absorbs me in the thought of Christian adulthood. The image of their identity is profound motivation to mature my own identity and invites me to become the disciple of my elders.

Yet we don’t often think immediately of clothing when our church communities encourage us to develop our faith through carefully considering culture and art. Quite possibly, clothing has been waylaid while we catch up on learning how to healthily consume higher art. It’s likely, though, that we should encourage more attention to it in our after-church fellowshipping and small-group conversations. Kent Reister recently described a healthy consumer as someone who loves something “for its aesthetic power” by encountering it with “focus and deliberation,” turning an “overload of film and music access” into “searching out the infinite design of God in one good story or track.” Pausing in the ‘image bombardment’ of our culture to give diligent awareness to the intelligent design and significance of a few images transforms consuming into partaking of God’s nature. Taking pause with clothing as an image is doubly worthwhile; clothing facilitates encounters with beauty as seen distinctly by another human. Particularly in a church setting, a conversation about clothing is a trustworthy convergence of becoming a better consumer and seeing the image of God in the soul of our neighbor.

The Christian communities I am familiar with have no strong resistance to dressing fashionably. They also don’t encourage or articulate stronger aesthetics beyond  principled modesty. If that’s the only governing principle for the art of grooming, then the only criteria for being ‘well-dressed’ is probably ‘finding clothes which minimizes thoughts about sex.’ There is easily more to motivate our clothing choices than sex. Human beauty is not inherently sexually attractive. Otherwise, how would you justify telling your daughter she is beautiful? We are daily discerning human beauty without experiencing it sexually.

To caveat, I am deeply grateful to my parents and church for teaching me the protection and freedom of modesty. But limiting discussions of clothing to modesty is doubly restricting. It veers toward more application for women than men. Men don’t get (need? deserve? what are we telling them?) much training in clothing aesthetics.  Also, it only teaches women to dress their body by thinking of its sexual purpose. The gender compartmentalization ends with recognizing the sexuality of the body and falls short of recognizing its humanity.

Limiting theology of clothing aesthetics to modesty boxes it into the one season of life where modesty is relevant. Dressing well is merely fad for the young and sexually aware. It plays no role in drawing us further up and further in to Christian maturity. But if you are like me, you are convinced that dressing well may become a means to glimpsing part of God’s nature. Naturally, you hope that your peers are not the best available experts on clothing aesthetics. Instead, you look to your elders and hope to find their conversation both seasoned and eager.

 

 

 

Villainy and Valor: The Superhero Obsession

From Batman to Iron Man, Superman to Spiderman, our society has become obsessed with superheroes. It’s not just a kid thing anymore. Whether it’s because of the special effects or the romantic elements, people flock to the theaters for any movie that involves a caped (or suited) crusader risking his (or her) life to save those he loves. The good guy always learns responsibility and self-sacrifice, and, though all hope may seem lost, he always wins. So why is it that everyone loves these somewhat predictable  and unrealistic movies so much?

Perhaps people love these movies exactly because they are predictable and unrealistic. The way the good guy saves the day might not always be the same, but the fact that the day will be saved remains true. Even the bad guys are usually pretty similar – they all feel betrayed and persecuted in some way and sulk behind a cloak of lies while they plot for some kind of world dominion and power. These movies provide two and a half hours of escape from an unpredictable and depressing world. Real life can be disappointing for many people, and reading the news every day can be discouraging. Superhero movies give people the chance to feel optimistic about life. The day can be saved and the villain can be conquered; that promotion can be acquired and that bully can be put in his place. But then they go to work the next day and remember that superheroes aren’t real and that if they want the day saved, they have to do it themselves.

The obsession with superheroes has only increased over the years as more and more people want to have something, or someone, to put their hope in as they live in this selfish and sad world. Each new day seems to bring a new tragedy – school shootings, terrorism, shipwrecks, car accidents – or just the everyday heartache – insufferable bosses, unattainable goals, lost love, too many bills. No one swoops in to carry them away and solve all of their problems. Yet they don’t want to lose hope that that could happen. What they don’t realize is that they do have a hero they can put their hope in, and while he may not be the typical superhero in a flashy suit and  cape, he is very real and most definitely will save the day. Of course, I’m talking about Jesus Christ.

I know it may sound cheesy to you, but think about it. All of these superheroes are based on Christ. He fought the first villain and has already won – we just haven’t seen the fruits of it yet. Satan invented bad guys; he challenged the King’s authority and desired world dominion and power for himself – the first to ever do so. Every villain since then has only been an imitation of Satan. Aliens trying to destroy the human race? Satan wanted humans to die, too. Evil genius trying to sneak unnoticed into a position of the upmost power? Yeah, Satan tried that one, too. Powerful manipulator attempting to rule by force? Satan used his legion of fallen angels to try that one. Villains always fail because Satan failed. They can’t win. What makes a villain interesting in the story is the fact that he is human and thus has a chance for redemption, whereas Satan has already sealed his fate.

Likewise, the superheroes are modeled after Christ, though not as perfect. Jesus did not make mistakes, but the superheroes usually do. However, they learn from those mistakes, and, in that knowledge, they become more like Christ, learning to sacrifice and use their gifts for the good of mankind. Superman is perhaps the most obvious hero that is like Christ – not being raised by his real father but still speaking to him, being superior to the human race, always stepping in to save the humans. Thor, too, is seen as a god with superior abilities yet does whatever he can to save the human world. Even those without superpowers eventually take the weight of the world and put it on their own shoulders, promising to do whatever is necessary to save humanity. Sometimes these heroes are even able to come back from death, just like Jesus did, or seeming death (though none are ever dead for three days).

So why do we obsess over superheroes? Perhaps these stories are more realistic than they at first seem; they remind us of our need for a Savior – Jesus Christ. Every human being was created to have a relationship with Jesus Christ and have him be our Savior. When we don’t feel the effects of that, we turn to the next best thing – superheroes. They remind us that good will always defeat evil by doing what we forget Christ has already done. The victory has been won; the enemy has been conquered. Though we don’t know how the day will end or in what ways the villain will attack us, we know that good will prevail over evil in the long run. So when you go to see the new Thor movie or tune in to the new episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and you find yourself wishing you lived in a superhero story, remember that you already do. Christ is the ultimate hero, and he will swoop in and save the day – all you have to do is let him.

Rethinking Individuality: Family in A Tale of Two Cities

When my grandmother was growing up in a foster home she did not live the life that she imagined. She did not have nice clothes, nor did she have many friends because her speech impediment set her apart. She went through so much hardship that I could never understand. As a child reflecting on this, I did not understand how my grandmother could deal with her past, but it later dawned upon me that my grandmother was able to put aside the past by seeing her grandchildren live her dream life.

There is something strange about the attachment we have to our family; we hope for the best for those we currently reside with and for our future posterity to have better things. We hope for this even if it is at our own expense. Why did my grandmother unselfishly give me the last cookie from the cookie jar when she never even had that option as a child? Why did she care so much for my happiness as a child when she had none?

Charles Dickens portrays this family dynamic in A Tale of Two Cities in the character of Miss Pross, the caretaker of orphaned Lucie. Pross is described as “one of those unselfish creatures…who will, for pure love and admiration, bind themselves willing slaves, to youth when they have lost it.” This may at first glance seem like Miss Pross is living vicariously through Lucie, but I do not think that this is what Dickens means to say.

Pross desperately wants Lucie to marry a man who is fit for her and Pross claims that none of the suitors are “in the least degree worthy.” Mr. Lorry even goes to the length of calling Pross one of the lower Angles because of the “faithful service of the heart” that she exhibits toward Lucie.

There is this delicately crafted family relationship that Pross and Lucie share that can almost be likened to the relationship between a daughter and a mother; Pross wants the best for Lucie not for her own sake, but for Lucie’s sake. Pross wants the best for Lucie because she herself never had what was best.

Dickens furthers this value of family by contrasting the two cities of the novel: London and Paris. London, the home of Pross herself, is a stable city that maintains its value of family. Paris on the other hand is striving toward revolution and a new idea of the individual. There is no room for the family unit in Paris because the revolution and the making of this new society means an individual commitment to the goals of the revolution and nothing else. London has family values, while the revolution in Paris creates the values under which all individuals must adhere.

France’s destruction of family even goes as far as preventing the act of mourning. A family member of one who is killed by the guillotine may not mourn their death, but rather rejoice in it because it is following the values of the rebellion.

The Revolution takes away the power of what should be the strongest unit in a society.

When I worked as a staff member at a family camp this past summer, we were taught that we ought to value each individual in the family but also to remember that the family had one extra member: the family as a whole was a type of individual in itself because it was a unified body bonded together by its powerful relationship.

The family unit is bonded so tightly together by relationship that it is itself one unique and cohesive unit. When we look at Dickens’ portrayal of the French Revolution and its destruction of family we see that the rebellion is made up of a bunch of individuals, but not the strong unit of a family. The strong individual lies in the essence of a family.

It is for this unit that Pross travels to France to be with Lucie and her family. It is for these relationships that Mr. Lorry cares so many years. It is for this unified body that Sydney Carton dies.

And the funny thing is that all of the above mentioned characters are a part of that family. They do not stand for themselves alone when they make their sacrifices, but rather stand to protect the others who are a part of their individuality.

It is because of this that Carton will live even though he is dead. His individuality extends beyond just himself; it lies within the family unit that he has sought to preserve.

This powerful relationship that the family has also extends to the church member. As adopted sons and daughters of God, we are in the same family unit. The Apostle Paul even goes are far to say that we are members of the same body; we make up one individual. Somehow our membership in Christ has not only made us a united and cohesive family unit, but has made us into one person.

Dickens tries to explain this mystery of family as a singular unit and he does this by showing the love that the members have for each other. It is love that builds up and unifies, it is a love that sacrifices.

My Grandmother knows that her individuality does not lie within herself, but within her family. So too do Christians find their individuality when they look to the body that they are a part of, the unit that they have a family in.