Never Let Go

Madeleine L'Engle reads with granddaughters Lena, left and Charlotte (now Charlotte Jones Voiklis). L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” became a favorite of young people, Voiklis says today, because “kids read it and understand that they are not being talked down to.” Illustrates KIDSPOST-WRINKLE (category l), by Moira E. McLaughlin (c) 2012, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, March 14, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: From Crosswicks)

“No long-term marriage is made easily, and there have been times when I’ve been so angry or so hurt that I thought my love would never recover. And then, in the midst of near despair, something has happened beneath the surface. A bright little flashing fish of hope has flicked silver fins and the water is bright and suddenly I am returned to a state of love again — till next time. I’ve learned that there will always be a next time, and that I will submerge in darkness and misery, but that I won’t stay submerged. And each time something has been learned under the waters; something has been gained; and a new kind of love has grown. The best I can ask for is that this love, which has been built on countless failures, will continue to grow. I can say no more than that this is mystery, and gift, and that somehow or other, through grace, our failures can be redeemed and blessed.”

Madeleine L’Engle

In this day and age – family is sometimes all you’ve got. So many around us don’t even have that. Fragments are all that’s left. L’Engle describes her marriage as a construction project that travels like a roller coaster up and down through life. I get the sense that she felt it was something worth hanging on to – a relationship like no other that couldn’t be found elsewhere. A relationship that mattered, for the sake of her children, for the sake of her spouse and always – through the long haul – for her own sake.

  • We sometimes get exasperated with one another too quickly. Family has to learn how to stick it out to the bitter end. Take a long road trip together or get snowed in during Christmas.  Make sure there’s only one bathroom.
  • When you’re feeling sorry for yourself is the best time to start doing something for others. Families are where our children learn to live by seeing examples. Show them how to give instead of take.
  • Call your adult children and ask them how you can pray for them this week. Be sure you pray and then follow up, keep following up. Tell your children how they can pray for you.
  • Treat each moment together as if it were you last. That helps you to put things into better perspective. It helps you to stay in the moment and not lose sight of what is really important – right now.
  • The most important activity that members of a relationship and families learn how to do is to “get over themselves.”

The building of relationships is an ongoing project of success and failure. All that matters is that we never give up. Marriage and family takes work – a task that each generation has to put it’s shoulder to with a committed heart. No half measures will work. It’s encouraging to read the words of famous figures who affirm what a difficult journey it often is. It’s typically very discouraging to see every single week another famous couple calling it quits and then rationalizing their failure as a sensible decision. Your children have been raised watching this “play” over and over again. It will compete with the story you tell with your own lives together.

Building a civilization is accomplished in each daily decision to . It’s never perfect, it’s but a love built on failure, it is a mystery that can endure.

“In a word, live together in the forgiveness of your sins, for without it no human fellowship, least of all a marriage, can survive. Don’t insist on your rights, don’t blame each other, don’t judge or condemn each other, don’t find fault with each other, but accept each other as you are, and forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts…”Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

The New American Family


Research based on the latest census data indicate that the American family is no more. The dramatic changes in living arrangements, delayed child-bearing and longer singlehood mean that what we once thought of as a “traditional” family may be long gone.

But here’s something very interesting from a news report on the study:

Despite the negative changes in American families, one group has remained stable and most closely resembles what was once considered the American norm and that is the immigrant community. [This study] found that immigrants tend to be married at a higher rate, and divorce and remarry at a lower rate when compared to those born in the United States.

It seems like those on the road to becoming our newest citizens seem to look and act more like traditional Americans than even we do! Immigrants depend upon their families for so much:

  1. Economic support and launching into a new society – who but family wants me to succeed more?
  2. Remaining close in order to maintain important traditions and values during assimilation – while we’re becoming Americans, we want to keep cherished traditions from where we came
  3. Collaboration with other immigrant families from similar backgrounds for help making the social transitions – people who have come here ahead of us can help to show us the ropes. Family members help other family members.

As I think about it, what’s tragic is that we all need our families like this, still. It doesn’t matter if we are immigrants or native born. We all need help making it in the world around us. Family is supposed to fulfill that function.

More people in our country have terrible difficulty in life because their family just isn’t there anymore. Maybe we should look to our immigrant neighbors as examples?


Why Are We Addicted to Our Cell Phones?


“Computers are useless, they can only give you answers” – Pablo Picasso

I’m teaching classes and I can’t seem to understand why college students can’t get off their phones for an hour. They put them on their desks, hunch over them, stare at the little screens, click away and seem addicted to this little device. I call them out, make fun, a little shaming, all to no avail. The “addiction” is too strong.

Maybe these findings from a recent Pew study can shed some light on the phenomenon.

  • The largest category of people who use their cell phone as their primary means of internet access are 18-29 year olds
  • Overwhelmingly, people are using their cell phones as a tool for tasks like getting directions
  • Mostly, using a cell phone makes people feel productive and happy.

The cell phone technology seemed to appear overnight. We still haven’t caught up with it. Social norms are lagging behind when it comes how to use this technology and still fit in during social interactions.

I sat in a hospital waiting room the other day and had to listen to a grandpa’s out loud detailed business conversation he was having on his cell phone. He never seemed to think he should get up and leave the room – sparing all of us the embarrassment of being forced to eavesdrop on his life.

Families are responsible for what we call primary socialization – helping children learn how to navigate the world (yes sir, look both ways, sharing, etc.). Cell phone norms seem like something we are all going to have to develop and teach as we grow up with this rapidly advancing technology.

Based on these findings from the Pew research;

  1. I need to help my students by providing them with some specific norms in my classes.
  2. I should find ways that students can use their phones in class to search for information and help us all to learn (a technique one of my colleagues already uses).
  3. There are sure to be ways that I can piggy back important lessons in sociology to their strong desire to remain socially connected during class. Their desires to be productive on their phones can be used to also be productive in learning content in the course. I think. I’m going to work on this.

It’s a relief to see in this Time Magazine survey report that the U.S. is BEHIND other countries in our cell phone addiction!

How Good is Being Alone?


I was reading the review of a book the other day. All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by journalist Rebecca Traister traces the history and the changing role of single women in our history. According to the Census, there are now more single women than married. How did that happen?

The status of women, families and marriage is undergoing dramatic change in our society. Here is an interview with Traister where she points out some of the most significant demographic changes that she has written about in her book. An important fact she points out:

One of the most startling statistics is that today only 20 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 are married, and that compares to 60 percent in 1960. The other figure that I find very startling, in part because it was so resilient for so long, is the median age of first marriage for women. From the time they started recording it — which was 1890 — until 1980, that median age of first marriage for women fluctuated only between 20 and 22. … In 1990 it jumped to over 23, which is a huge jump from having been in that small range for so long. Today, for women, it is over 27. So if you’re just looking at the sort of historical picture, there’s this relatively flat line for almost 100 years and now there’s not just a jump over that line, but way over that line.

I’m a sociologist. When I see changes like this I want to know about what’s happening in other dimensions of our society. There’s an interconnection between all things. Higher levels of education for women, a transforming service/information economy, higher income equality for women, shrinking size of family, more family debt, higher levels of choice in all areas of life, exploding access to social media…phenomena like these all have an influence and even causal effect on why changes occur in marriages and families.

There’s so much changing all around us. Of course we will see effects of these changes in places like our relationships and institutions like family.

We are studying Genesis in my Sunday School class. God proclaims everything he makes to be good. Then he creates man and sees that he is alone and declares that this is not good.

Our society is now trying to figure out all sorts of ways to solve this eternal problem. Marriage used to be the best solution. Now only half of adults live with a spouse, the other  half are cohabiting, living alone or are in some other arrangement. 40% of cohabiters break up within five years.

It seems that we are trying to piece together fragments and shadows of something we know to be better. What we have ended up with are too many people alone – for whatever reason. And that is still not good.

“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”  -Edith Wharton

Where Did “Dating” Come From?


“None of us marry perfection; we marry potential.”  – Robert D. Hales

As I ask my classes of college students each semester, it seems that the numbers of students who go on “dates” is declining.  Current research tends to support the growing trend among young people – dating has gone out of style.

Where did “dating” come from in the first place?

Courtship here in America started out with much more close contact than you might realize. Ellen Rothman writes that in the late 1700’s as many as 30% of brides were pregnant at the time of their marriage. Even though unwed pregnancy was rare, people who were engaged often began sexual intercourse before their marriage. The patterns of living enabled people to spend much more time with one another as they were courting.

As the Industrial Revolution began to reshape American society, courtship rituals also had to be adjusted to fit all the new ways of working and living. As people began to live in larger cities, work and home became two separate spheres. Interaction circles grew wider as people came into contact with more and more people and often with people of different habits.

What we now call “dating” became a custom later, after the Victorian era, when sexual norms became more restrictive. Sexual regulation became more important in families. Working class families searched for ways to better oversee their children’s social lives. When it came to courting, all sorts of obstacles prevented parental oversight. There wasn’t any privacy in their homes for young couples to socialize. There weren’t enough regular social occasions around which families could invite courting couples to participate. Who could afford it? Interaction needed to be formalized in some way.

What evolved were arranged dates and times during which a male suitor could take his female acquaintance out of her home and spend time together in another location. Her father, of course, was the one to set the day and start/stop time for this “date.”

Once “dating” became the norm, it soon spread to the other social classes. When the 20th Century arrived, romantic love and adolescent experiences became dynamic components in the development of the distinctive identity we now know as “the teenager.” Youth spent more years in school, worked outside the home and began to consume the new mass culture (television, radio and Elvis). They were developing an independent identity earlier than ever before. Dating was a central role of this new identity.

By the time most of us started, dating had also become a way for men and women to conspicuously consume – to demonstrate their social status by spending money and looking beautiful. There were very specific gender roles. The male was always the initiator and took responsibility for pleasing his date. The female, while not being the damsel in distress, was expected to follow along. Even though her role was more like that of a special guest, she had all the right to provide her opinion about the plans for the evening. As the relationship developed, they would collaborate more on choices and familiar patterns.

I am indebted to Gene H. Starbuck for this lesson

Today, things have changed. Single’s aren’t dating very much.

Most young singles in America do not describe themselves as actively looking for romantic partners. Even those who are seeking relationships are not dating frequently. About half (49%) had been on no more than one date in the previous three months. (Mary Madden and Lee Rainie, Romance in America)

When we talk about the fragmented family, it’s important to not just look at how families fall apart and come to an end but to also examine how people learn to fall in love and decide to create a family in the first place. If dating has come to the end of its usefulness, what new social practice will we use to help people create the most important bonds in their lives?

Alone in the Crowd


“The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.”  – Charlotte Bronte

I was at the grocery store again and I couldn’t help but notice more family experiences that just made me keep thinking about it all.

  • There was that 6 year old standing by the butter yelling at the top of all of our lungs that he had “found it!” He made sure that everyone knew this three or four times. I watched as the woman who looked like she needed three naps pushed her cart toward his excited dance. I thought to myself, I hope the day never comes when they stop speaking to each other.
  • Then there’s the dad who has responsibility for his three little tiny girls walking around his ankles like kittens. He is focused on his mission, eyes searching, while they are running around and darting in front of everyone else – causing near misses and collisions right and left. He remains oblivious. His wife has obviously given just one simple directive, “don’t leave anyone behind when you come home.”
  • Watching the young (and older) couples filling their baskets together is always fun. Sometimes she is having to give a lot of directions and he is just there to do the pushing and pulling. Other couples look like they are on an adventure, planning a meal or getting their week organized. Every now and then there’s an older couple, one of them is confined to an electric cart and his/her partner is moving up and down the aisle finding the right item. They work as team to manage their life together.

I’m usually at the store by myself. It’s therapeutic. People say they see me there but I never notice, walking by, talking to myself, in my own world, watching the world around me.

The grocery store is a great place to see the American family in action. As I’m watching these people together doing the mundane tasks associated with life I think about where our society is heading. We are trending toward more fragmented families and choosing to live alone.

According to numbers from the most recent National Survey of Family Growth, more men (66%) than women (49%) agreed that it was better to get married than to go through life remaining single. Are men more frightened of loneliness? Are women less willing to settle for second or third best these days? This doesn’t mean that people are less willing to have children. The stigma of single-parenthood has dramatically declined.

This also means that half of women are willing to remain single. It’s become a more normal option to them – at least on a survey question.

The trend for many is away from marriage as a key component of the American Dream. It promises a high level of individual autonomy and control of one’s lifestyle. But there is a cost to both the individual and to our society.

I suspect that as the days go by I might see more lonely shoppers at the store and far less interaction to watch.

You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs
I look around me and I see it isn’t so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what’s wrong with that?
Paul McCartney

The Stage is Set


“Dinner is not what you do in the evening before something else. Dinner is the evening.” – Art Buchwald

What was your family like around the dinner table when you were growing up? The answer to that question depends on how old you are, what generation you belong to…before or after handheld technology. That time around the dinner table helped to make you who you are and shouldn’t be discounted as something that just happens on it’s own.

More families today spend less time than ever gathered together around the dinner table during the week. All kinds of experts (even me) believe that the diminishing of this social practice is bad for our physical, moral, psychological, social and spiritual health – as individuals and a society.

A very interesting brief piece about this topic can be found here: A History of the Family Dinner in America

In general, family time together is shrinking. Today, that sort of time seems to be concentrated around carpooling to after-school activities and working together on mountains of homework. We are together trying to solve problems, driving around in the backseat and often plugged in to our devices.

Casually sitting around the table, reflecting on the day, listening to each other and providing guidance and feedback is one of the most crucial daily activities that families engage in.

Think of all that has come about to change the family dinner table:

  • The microwave and fast food
  • Cable TV turned on all the time
  • Cell phones
  • Afterschool activities (careers)
  • Mountains of homework
  • Single parent families
  • Two-career families

Do you think the day will soon come when most of our children will only gather around the table during special occasions and holiday celebrations? Will families only come together at inconsistent times and never know the rhythm and flow of daily gathering and sharing? Will children one day grow apart from their parent(s) too soon and lead lives much more independent than is healthy simply because their family cannot find the time to put everything else aside and be together?

There’s a Family Dinner Project working out of Harvard. It’s aim is to help promote the practice of family dinner by providing resources.

What makes us live lives that are self-destructive? What makes us raise children in ways that aren’t the very best? Why have we built a world in which we have to slowly kill ourselves in order to survive it? No one does any of this on purpose. Life just happens.

What about living your life instead letting your life live you?

“We can surely no longer pretend that our children are growing up into a peaceful, secure, and civilized world. We’ve come to the point where it’s irresponsible to try to protect them from the irrational world they will have to live in when they grow up. The children themselves haven’t yet isolated themselves by selfishness and indifference; they do not fall easily into the error of despair; they are considerably braver than most grownups. Our responsibility to them is not to pretend that if we don’t look, evil will go away, but to give them weapons against it.”  ― Madeleine L’Engle

Is Blindness Learned?


You see the world through the eyes of your family.

An incredibly thoughtful piece recently on the BIOLA University Center for Christian Thought: Blind Spots: What You Don’t See Can Hurt You. The author is Kyle Roberts, Associate Professor of Public and Missional Theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. His critical point is that…

Ignoring our blind spots can be deeply injurious to us to and to others, often resulting in far worse than superficial cosmetic damage. The dismal record, both past and present, of human discord, violence, subjugation, and oppression results in part from massive “blind spots” in our understanding of ourselves as human beings and in our behavior toward others. We are naïve—but culpably so—to the ways in which cultural, ideological, and religious forces invisibly (or subconsciously) shape and mold our interpretations and actions.

More perniciously still, many remain blissfully ignorant of the extent to which power and privilege constitute potent forces in our public discourse. These “invisible” forces of power and privilege are often painfully visible to minorities and marginalized persons—those who “see” (or feel) them simply because they don’t have the option to ignore them. “Harmless” blind spots for those of us with privilege and power can be constantly damaging collisions for others.

He makes several very important points in his piece. Read the whole thing. He’s trying to help us to think with a broad “imagination” about our world and experience in it. When I think about blind spots, I think about biases. There are any number of cognitive biases that people practice without even realizing it. Sometimes we do this to make sense of the world. Sometimes this produces a blindness effect much like what Dr. Roberts writes about.

  • Bias blind spot – the tendency to see oneself as less biased than other people.
  • Clustering illusion – the tendency to see patterns where actually none exist.
  • Confirmation bias – the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.
  • False memory – confusion of imagination with memory, or the confusion of true memories with false memories.
  • Hindsight bias – filtering memory of past events through present knowledge, so that those events look more predictable than they actually were; also known as the “I-knew-it-all-along effect.”
  • Just-world phenomenon – the tendency for people to believe that the world is just and therefore people “get what they deserve.”
  • Ostrich effect – ignoring an obvious (negative) situation.
  • Wishful thinking – the formation of beliefs and the making of decisions according to what is pleasing to imagine instead of by appeal to evidence or rationality.

When I read his post I can’t help but try and nail down some of the possible causes for this blindness. Roberts is making the point that blindness can be explained by the root cause of inherited sin that we all share. This “disease” leads to any number of twisted perspectives and selfish behaviors.

I think his point is right on target.

Something else interests me as I was reading his thoughts. He points out a number of examples of cultural beliefs and practices that perpetuate blindness.

  • Violent beliefs and behaviors
  • Stereotypes about other races and ethnicities
  • Cognitive biases that produce closed minds and narrow perception

All have a learning dimension. Studies have demonstrated that people learn from others how to think and act in ways that can produce blindness.

Here is where culture and family come in. One of the most important roles of the family in our society is to socialize children with the values, norms and practices necessary to become successful members, and in so doing, to create a stable and flourishing society.

When our families are fragmented we run the risk of creating a blind society whose members can’t see the future.

Never Let Me Go

An older couple sitting on a grass bank

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot

I’m sitting here looking around and I notice people that are always present, but I suddenly notice something for the first time. Something I’ve seen over and over again, but just now, I realize its significance. Something has been taking place day after day and the light is just now coming on in my brain and I see it for what it really is. It’s so essential, it holds everything together. It matters most.

“Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.” – Goethe

There’s that couple struggling together with a crippling disease. They work as a team getting up and preparing to walk to their next stop. All that the rest of us do automatically, these two must carefully manage over and over. They live their lives intertwined, making life work because they have each other. This is one thing they know they will always have.

Over there is another couple. Now that time has passed, I don’t think she always knows where or who she is. But he is faithfully at her side, her duty bound escort, Prince Charming and devoted spouse through better and worse. Who would have planned this sort of experience for those golden years? But as I watch week after week I know that these two surely aren’t living their life according to plan, they are living their lives as they are. He is not a master of his fate, never was, but he is certainly a master of his heart.

Sometimes there’s a commotion. Children of all ages are scurrying about trying to find their place. I can sometimes see a few faces filled with giant smiles that stand out. Dark hair and darker complexions blending in with siblings that are fair and towheaded. It’s clear that these children were chosen, rescued from unfortunate circumstances and embraced into a loving family. These young lives aren’t supposed to fully understand what’s happened. Their job is to live, learn and love. It’s a marvelous reminder of an eternal truth.

We believe in God who has adopted us in the same way.

All around me, each and every day,  I see the reality that none of us can make it without others who love us. We need to have people who are committed to us in deep ways (like marriage, blood, and adoption) intertwined in our lives. At times we think about these people, we just don’t think about them enough. We always take one another for granted. We get blown over without realizing who it is that’s always there to hold us up. We let another day pass just assuming that those people in our lives will still be there tomorrow, as if tomorrow itself were so certain.

…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part…  (From the Book of Common Prayer)

Children Ought to Have Parents


When did you outgrow your parents?

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

– Joni Mitchell

I saw a television news program the other evening about families who have children that decide to adopt a different religious faith. This seemed strange to me. I know this to be a very rare experience. I wonder why the news thought it was something that we needed to hear about? Because it was abnormal? Television has become our version of the circus freak show, right?

Children don’t decide on their own about things like religious belief. Young adults sometimes do when they leave the family and strike out on their own. Children make decisions about religious belief in the context of their social environment, with family, teachers, ministers and friends.

A recent Pew study found that 44% of adults have switched their religious faith from the one they grew up in – but they made this decision once they became adults. The largest group were Protestants (the largest segment of the population).

  • Most of these reported that they made their switch to a different Protestant denomination, like from Baptist to Methodist.
  • They did so for two main reasons, because they had moved to a different community or had married someone of a different denomination.
  • We continue to live in a rapidly mobile society AND Protestantism continues to reinvent itself with all sorts of new “brands” emerging each year.
  • Switching from one distinctive religious group, like Judaism to Mormonism remains rare.

What struck me about the story on the news was this trend we keep experiencing in America of treating children as if they were completely self-aware adults who are ready to make all sorts of decisions for themselves like religious belief, sexual preference, gender roles, or even dress codes.

Children are supposed to be in a special kind of relationship called childhood. They need to relate in healthy ways with adults called parents who are chiefly responsible for socializing them, preparing them for successful entry into the world of adulthood. Parents aren’t supposed to surrender this role and suffer the angst of trying to be the BFF of each one of their children. Parents aren’t supposed to be disconnected (too connected to their work!) from the day to day lives of their children in such a way that they can’t engage in healthy, practical and successful socialization. It’s difficult, but someone has to do it!

I keep seeing cues from the media urging parents to let their children become self-regulating autonomous decision makers. This isn’t healthy for anyone. What do we need from parents?

  • Parents are the adults, and act like it
  • Parents model good decision making
  • Parents provide structure, rules and consequences – a safe and consistent environment in which to learn and grow
  • Parents help their children take appropriate steps that move forward

This article from a young adult blogger recently appeared in Relevant Magazine. She writes about five lessons she learned about life while being a part of her church youth group. As she reflects on the experience she’s discovered that these lessons have turned out to be true. It’s a great post and I thought about how she got involved in her youth group in the first place. Her parents took her to church, drove her to meetings, modeled their own religious lives and invested themselves in her spiritual growth.

Children, teenagers even young adults starting their lives need parents. They need parents to teach them how to survive in this world. They need parents to help them find their way to God. Remember, less than 20% of American households are two parents and children. A little more than a third of our children live in single parent or in cohabiting family arrangements. So many of our children are being raised in a variety of living situations.  Ones that are probably less secure, less certain. The job of parenting is as essential today as it ever has been.

 “Listen, there is no way any true man is going to let children live around him in his home and not discipline and teach, fight and mold them until they know all he knows. His goal is to make them better than he is. Being their friend is a distant second to this.”   – Victor Devlin