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.

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 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.

Heisenberg in the Mirror

I did it for myself. I liked it. It was good. It made me feel alive.
-Walter White from Breaking Bad

In the beginning of Paradise Lost John Milton describes Lucifer after his fall from Heaven:

O how fall’n! Who in happy realms of light clothed with transcendent brightness did outshine Myriads…now misery has joined in equal ruin: into what Pit thou seest from what height

In the epic poem Lucifer looks up to the glories of Heaven and is haunted by the distance of his fall. For Lucifer the torment of Hell is not the fiery pit, but the low position—the eternal incompletion. From now on he will go to any measure to restore his glory. With this resolve against Heaven and its King, Lucifer transforms into Satan; the lowest being, armed with terrifying power and voracious ambition.

Recently the AMC show Breaking Bad aired its final episode and ended with high acclaim from fans and critics. In 2008 the show had 1.4 million viewers, but five years and many Emmy awards later (including best show of 2013) its finale claimed 10.3 million laptops and television sets. Breaking Bad is the story of a suburban dweller named Walter White, a chemistry genius turned high school teacher and a man whose life is miserable anyway you look at it. His sixteen year old son has cerebral palsy; his teacher’s salary hardly pays the bills; his masculinity is dwarfed by his brother in law who is the DEA for Albuquerque; and the company he co founded out of grad school and sold for five thousand dollars now makes millions he’ll never have. Lung cancer is added to Walt’s list of complications and he is subsequently controlled by his fearful wife who finds out she’s pregnant after the diagnosis. Yes, Walter’s been dealt a terrible hand but he finds a niche that will allow him to practice chemistry and provide for his family before he dies: cook and sell methamphetamine.

As the story develops, the dopey but genius Walter keeps his cover by habitually lying to loved ones. Meth manufacturing inevitably doesn’t allow his hands or money to go blood free and the cash flow increases when he turns his mind to deception and manipulation. His cancer eventually goes into recession but his crime life turns into a vicious cycle of no return as Walt’s objective changes from providing for his family to controlling his destiny. In his rise from drug manufacturer to kingpin Walt gives himself the name Heisenberg; a name that grows into the biggest in meth production and eventually the most notorious name in the world of crime.

In sixty two episodes creator Vince Gillian successfully turned a cheesy dad into the image of Scarface, but the portrayal of Walt is much different than silver screen crime boss like Tony Montana or Vito Corleone. In a crime film the protagonist usually has a charismatic rise and fall and you feel the raw power of the character when the credits role. But in the five year rise and reign of Heisenberg, the belittled and somewhat pathetic Walter White is never forgotten to the character.

Often the best part of a crime film is being introduced to an entirely new world; a place distant from the viewer. For instance in the world of Goodfellas I can watch Joe Pesci murder someone with a knife and I’m inclined to believe I’m not capable of that kind of evil. But Breaking Bad starts in the suburbs–not the streets–and Walter White could be your next door neighbor. He doesn’t practice crime from cultural pressure, family heritage, or because it’s the only life he’s known, he does it because he has been slighted by a existence of namelessness, and cancer threatens to leave it that way. The awareness of his low position motivates him and he looks to excel by any means. This makes it uncomfortably easy to relate to Walter White. If we have been cheated, shamed publically, or forgotten by a loved one there’s always that feeling of desolation that tells us to do something rash or powerful to tip the scales in our favor. What if everything in life minimized and pained you and you were given less than a year to live? Wouldn’t you want to take control? The idea of taking owning of your own destiny is usually thought of as a good thing, but what if self fulfillment comes in the form of a pitiful suburban dad engineering a scheme that turns him into a monster? The results are not as sexy as most crime movies, but they are exponentially more terrifying.

The story of Heisenberg is as ancient as it is personal. After his fall from Heaven, Lucifer is trapped in a state of infinite smallness made from eternal loss. In Eden he temps Eve with the phrase, “you will be like God knowing good and evil.” This is the message: “you are not what you could be, think of what you could become.” We thought eating the fruit would make us closer to God, but disobedience made us haunted by our distance from him. We know from history and the evening news that people will do monstrous things in the search for some kind of fulfillment or satisfaction. Are we that different? Are we incapable of horrors?

Remember the pitiful Walter White. Remember the monstrosity of Heisenberg, because the story of Breaking Bad shares an ancient paradox with the Tower of Babel that is still relevant to our time and heart: the more bricks you lay to attain Heaven the farther you build from God.

Learning to Love Others Through LOST

Though we were made to live in relationships with others, many people go through life alone. They have jobs and friends and interact with others, maybe on a daily basis even, but they never really let anyone close to them. No one knows their secrets, and they face all of their struggles, internal and external, on their own. But this is no way to live. God created us to live in harmony together, helping one another and loving each other through everything. When you already feel that you’re facing life alone, it can be hard to trust others and learn how to be loved, as well as learn how to love others. Yet if you learned this seemingly simple lesson, life would be so much richer. One of the greatest examples of this can be found in the television series LOST.

By understanding the finale, we can begin learning to love others through LOST. When LOST ended in 2010, many people were disappointed and angry with the finale. The writers didn’t answer every single question, and they felt gypped because they’d invested so much into the show and didn’t think the ending was much of a reward. These people, however, missed the whole point of the show. If you asked them what LOST was actually about, they might say, “a plane crash,” “a mysterious island,” “unanswered questions,” “time travel and other sci-fi strangeness,” or something along those lines. While the show incorporates each of those things, that’s not what it’s about. The main point of LOST can be summed up in one word: characters.

From the first episode, LOST focused on the fourteen main cast of characters, with that cast decreasing and increasing throughout the six seasons as some people died and new ones were introduced. The beauty of the show is found in each of these characters, in their trials and heartache, their sorrows and joys. The first season makes this clear through the use of flashbacks. Each episode focuses on one character and uses flashbacks to show why that character is acting the way they are in the present. The flashbacks quickly develop the characters: Jack is the heroic, over-controlling doctor who feels he can never live up to his father; Kate is the always-on-the-run criminal who comes from a broken home; Sawyer is the conman who hates himself as much as he hates everyone around him; Sun and Jin are the married couple who keep so many secrets from each other, they barely talk to one another; Charlie is the drug-addict rock star whose brother ruined his life; Claire is the pregnant, single girl who’s giving the baby up for adoption; Hurley is the overweight funny guy who won the lottery and used to be in a mental institution; Sayid is the romantic torturer who fights his demons almost daily; Locke is the older guy who used to be in a wheelchair and felt he had no purpose in life. Through these flashbacks, we see the reasons for why the characters act the way they do. Through the events on the island, we watch them grow, learn, and change with each other. Fast forward six seasons, and you can barely recognize these characters. They have experienced love and loss, and changed for the better because of their experiences together.

LOST does something that not many other shows can do. It brings together a group of seemingly random people that have nothing to do with one another and forces them to live together. Their ages, nationalities, religions, and experiences are all different; they have no reason to be together other than the fact that they all happened to be on the same plane. They would never have talked to each other if the plane had not crashed. However, they all have one thing in common: they’re alone. They’re alone in their sorrows and sin. They have no one to trust. These “Losties” are truly lost in the world. They could be anyone you see on the street. As they are forced to live together though, they come to know one another. They challenge each other and learn from one another, and, somehow, they learn to love each other. They learn that they need each other, a simple human truth that we could all learn. We need other people. LOST exploits this simple human need: God made us to live in a community with other people who love us, faults and all. The Losties don’t learn this lesson right away – it takes six seasons for them to live it out – but when they do, it’s something beautiful. They each learn how to selflessly love another person.

LOST does contain suspense and mystery – the monster, polar bears, time travel, other people inhabiting the island, etc. It’s not a show that could happen in real life. But the people on the show are real. The mysterious things only aid in developing and growing the characters. Viewers get distracted by those things, and thus they were upset when their questions were not answered in the finale. But that wasn’t the job of the finale. The finale’s job, based on how character-driven the show was, was to give a satisfying ending to those beloved characters in a way that would give credit to all that they had been through. And the finale does just that. It emphasizes why the characters needed each other. It shows you the important moments in their lives and reminds you, the viewer, that you cannot live life alone. You need other people to love and be loved by, just as much as the Losties needed each other.

In the season five finale, one character complains to another about the corruptibleness of humanity, saying, “It always ends the same.” The other character responds, “It only ends once. Everything that comes before is just progress.” This line applies to every life and is illustrated in the lives of the Losties. They make mistakes and feel despair, but they learn and change. They don’t give up on themselves or each other. They learn forgiveness and sacrifice and selfless love. The beauty of the finale is that, though their experiences were strange and unrealistic, the characters’ emotions and growth were very realistic. They didn’t need all of their questions to be answered, they didn’t need the strangeness explained – they only needed to be together and loved. Just like in our lives – we can never have all of our questions answered, but we don’t need them to be. Though LOST is not a Christian show, it has Christian themes, and the finale ends with the most important one in the show. The only way we can survive this life is by living together, demonstrating God’s love by selflessly loving one another.

Cowardice is Virtue; How The Doctor Saved the World through Cowardice

Note: There are spoilers here if you haven’t seen Season 1 of Doctor Who (2005)

Let’s set the stage.

The Doctor (I find him amazing) is at a crossroads. The sinister Daleks (an ingenious race of genetically engineered aliens designed to take orders and exterminate all life) were not destroyed in the previous war that killed The Doctor’s race. They have been secretly harvesting humans and have returned in full force, ready to claim the Earth as it’s own paradise. They will exterminate all humans and then move on to conquer the rest of universe. All of The Doctor’s defensive forces have been eliminated and he sent his trusted friend Rose back to her own time, against her will, as a promise to keep her safe.

There is still hope! While his friends have defended (and sacrificed themselves for) The Doctor, he has been converting the space station in which they are trapped into a huge “delta wave” generator. This wave produces enough power to wipe out the entire race of Daleks in one single pulse. There’s only one problem. There hasn’t been enough time to focus the direction of the delta wave, so it has become more of a pulse or bubble. It will effectively wipe out the Daleks, the space station, and the entire planet Earth, which they are orbiting.

It is in this moment that The Doctor becomes surrounded by Daleks; even the Dalek Emperor has come to gloat in his triumph. The conversation begins:

The Doctor: You really want to think about this. Because if I activate the signal, every living creature dies.
Dalek Emperor: I am immortal.
The Doctor: D’you want to put that to the test?
Dalek Emperor: I want to see you become like me. Hail the Doctor! The great exterminator!
The Doctor: I’ll do it!
Dalek Emperor: Then prove yourself, Doctor. What are you? Coward or killer?

At this moment, I myself am stymied. What would I do in this situation? The Daleks have proven themselves to be a true threat. They will not alter their course and it is quite literally The Doctor alone who can stop this threat. He lost his entire race last time in the process; the war was that difficult. We know The Doctor is selfless, so it doesn’t matter to him if nobody else is there to witness how he saved things, it must be done. In light of all of life in space and time, this one planet of human beings here and now seems like a small cost. Surely it is drastic, but it must be done.

With his hands on the trigger, and a moment of hard thought and struggle, The Doctor makes his reply:

Coward. Any day.

I’ll admit I wasn’t quite expecting this decision. Earth, humanity, and even himself were all doomed to death and whatever horrible abominations the Daleks would  perform, yet he chose “cowardice” and let the Earth live, even for just a few moments longer. Placing myself in The Doctor’s shoes, this seemed foolish to me, in light of the greater good of space and time that would be spared.

And yet, that’s really just letting the ends justify the means. Even if it spelled certain doom, I wasn’t the one ending the lives of billions. I was not playing God, and I was not corrupting my soul in the extermination of so many souls. There are some things beyond the scope of my responsibility, or at least beyond the range in which I am capable of handling.

In that point I think The Doctor knew that virtue (and maybe even God) wins.

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Christians and Television: From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation

A cadaver in a lab is no more alive than a corpse in a ditch, though it may smell a little less. In the end, both are buried. Rot looks alive compared to the sanitized corpse because rot is life that feeds on death, but sanitation’s sanctity is ultimately worth something. Because Christians identify with Christ’s resurrection as well as his death, merely sanitizing a corpse dignifies it but fails to perform the necessary resurrection from death to life. Continue reading Christians and Television: From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation

Ted Mosby Is Not a Hero

Full disclosure: I’ve seen all seasons of How I Met Your Mother available on Netflix, although I haven’t kept up with current episodes. It’s entertaining, it has it’s funny moments, and it’s a way to pass the time. But as I moved through the seasons, I began to get more and more uncomfortable with the show’s portrayal of relationships and less and less sympathetic toward Ted Mosby as a protagonist.

Ted’s character is, on the surface, presented to us as a hopeless romantic: an idealist with a lot of love to give, longing for the day he meets “the one” with whom he’ll spend the rest of his life. We already know that he gets his happy ending, since the premise of the show is that Ted from the year 2030 is recounting his misadventures to his future children, i.e, the offspring Ted will share with “the one.”

But when I think about Ted Mosby, I see, perhaps hidden a little deeper beneath the laugh track, perhaps within the subconscious of the show itself (since I doubt that the show’s writers intend for Ted to come across this way), a man whose selfish actions are supposed to be somehow justified by the fact that he hopes to one day settle down, get married, have some kids, and for goodness’ sake stop sleeping around. I see a man who is just as selfish and casually promiscuous (or at least, just as nonchalant about being casually promiscuous) as Barney—the womanizer of whose lifestyle we’re supposed to kind of not approve (even the other characters on the show look down on his shallow behavior). And I’m supposed to root for this guy?

I’m bothered by the dichotomy of Ted the Romantic, whom we’re supposed to cheer for, and Barney the Womanizer, whom we’re supposed to find shallow and inappropriate (although I think even then in just a friendly, Barney-will-be-Barney sort of way). I think it’s dangerous to root for a protagonist like Ted Mosby, because Ted shows us that it’s perfectly fine to casually sleep around in your twenties-to-mid-thirties as long as you someday get responsible and have a family with “the one;” best of all, this lifestyle is virtually consequence free! And don’t worry, you’ll find “the one.” Everyone does!

This is, I believe, a reflection of contemporary norms regarding sexuality and relationships. And I think it’s dangerous that so many people are buying into Ted Mosby and what popular shows like How I Met Your Mother are telling us about what we should expect out of romantic relationships.

For instance: this concept of “the one.” Ted’s immoral means are supposedly justified by his “virtuous” end: finding his “one,” his soul mate, his future wife. This notion that there is a single person out there in the world who we are destined to be with encourages, I think, the same kind of unrealistic expectations as a Disney princess movie. Searching for “the one” is like waiting for Prince (or Princess) Charming: the only person in the world who can rescue us (from our insecurities, weaknesses, loneliness) and make us complete and truly happy. “The one” is the only person with whom we are meant to spend our lives, and once we find that person it’s time to cue the music, ride off into the sunset, and roll credits. If I put these kinds of expectations, and this kind of pressure, on my husband, I can only imagine how detrimental it would be to our relationship if and when he fails to meet them. After all, while my husband is absolutely an extraordinary man and my favorite person to be with, he is only human. And he is certainly not my savior.

This kind of thinking ignores the less-than-idealistic aspects of real-life relationships that take commitment, sacrifice, and work. Real relationships are not always easy or exactly what we want or expect them to be. This kind of thinking is both selfish and idolatrous: if we subscribe to the concept of “the one” we in turn must believe that the person we end up with will provide us with comfort, ease, and happiness. Further, believing someone to be “the one” sets them up on a pedestal of perfection akin to idol worship, because we are asking of them lowlier versions of things that we should be seeking from God: salvation (instead of comfort), sanctification (instead of ease), and eternal joy (instead of immediate happiness). (I feel I should clarify that marriage can be a vehicle through which God sanctifies people, but that’s different than another person being the sanctifier.)

In the end, I think Ted’s journey is misdirected, and that in turn those who perhaps identify with Ted’s journey are misdirected. Part of the human experience is to search for meaning: what will make us content? What will give our lives purpose? How do I find my own happy ending? The answer lies not with another person—a spouse, a soul mate, “the one”—but with Christ.

You move us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You. – St. Augustine, Confessions

The Forgotten Gift of the Dove Real Beauty Video

You’ve probably seen the Dove Real Beauty Sketches Youtube video. Last week, it generated a lot of responses, from the informative to the satirical, both pro and con. Surprisingly, no one I read mentioned the feature of the video toward which I gravitated most strongly.

While everyone else watched the women, I watched the strangers. I watched the people who had just met a woman and were being asked to describe her features. If you watch them, they simply beam when they give examples of her beauty. The chance to say something good about another person draws joy into their hearts. They enjoy finding and identifying loveliness in the features of others’ faces. It delights them.

That generosity, that impulse to respond to the good in others, intrigued me.

This video shows a subtle surprise: strangers eager to build up, not to tear down. Ours is an individualistic culture. Because of this, we tend to view the unproven people around us as competitors, not helpers. An immoderate sense of independence can make us see someone’s proffered help as a declaration that they perceive us as weak.

However, this assumption creates community disconnections: an immoderate sense of independence can inhibit other people’s ability to be Christ to us. It presumes that the dance of the Christian life is a solo act, instead of recognizing that there are moments when another dancer must support us as we dip. Back around Christmas, I heard many exhortations that giving is better than receiving. It’s true, and I don’t want to contradict it. But, perhaps Easter provides a chance to reflect that I can’t always be the giver. Receiving is its own art: it is an act of humility and moderation that comes too easily to some and only with great struggle to others.

There is a natural give and take to generosity. To act as though I’ll always be the giver is to pretend to be God, just as much as to act as though I’ll always be the receiver is to give up on the restoration of the image of God in me.

Accepting gifts blesses the giver, by letting them be like Christ to us. A few weeks ago, I walked by one of Nashville’s homeless newspaper vendors. I didn’t have any money on me, so I smiled and wished him a good day as I passed, wishing inwardly I had some something for him. He returned the greeting as I went. Then, he called after me, “Ma’am! Ma’am!” I turned around to see him holding out one of his papers toward me. Sadly, I stuttered that I didn’t have any cash on me. He smiled a toothy, beautiful smile and said, “Take it. I want you to have it. On me.”

I almost didn’t. But, the joy on his face—exactly like the joy on the faces of the strangers in the Dove Real Beauty Sketches—made it evident that I would be selfish to keep him from the opportunity. Who was I to pretend that this man didn’t have anything worth giving me? I thanked him and took the paper.

He had the chance to give to someone totally undeserving. It was my role at that moment to be the undeserving one. It was his role to be Christ to someone.