From the Basement

June 28, 2010

On Love & Experience

Tonight, I want to talk about love and experience within the context of romantic, Christ-centered relationships. This isn’t an overly comprehensive essay – just some of my thoughts on the matter.

I’ve been in a relationship for over a year and a half now, and it’s serious. We’re also in a period of long distance, and I know that I’m more prone to doubts and fears when I’m away from him. Something I’ve struggled with over the last few months is owning the fact that in times like these, I am barraged with lies. Self-doubts fester in me, infectious, and they creep into old wounds and plop themselves down and act like they are exclusively My Issues and not lies that I can rebuke.

One such lie is the lie that I don’t have enough life experience, that maybe I’m being over zealous. It is, after all, the first rock-solid, healthy, long-term relationship I’ve had (note the emphasis on healthy). So – why not wait a little while? Break up for a little while? See where life takes both of us? Who knows, maybe we’ll find other people.

Notwithstanding the fact that this thinking makes me sick to my stomach (the first sign that it’s not an expression of me), there are other reasons that it’s a lie and clearly not of God.

I’m going to step out on a limb here. My hypothesis is that experience is (or can be) the antithesis of trust. For the purposes of this post, I’ll venture to say that experience in relationships does not necessarily teach us how to love or, indeed, the very nature of love.

When we speak of being experienced, it seems – most often – to refer to sexual experience. That’s not the focus of this post, but I do want to briefly address it. I think that the following excerpt says it best. Josh Harris, author of the controversial I Kissed Dating Goodbye (I still don’t know how I feel about that book), was interviewed a few years ago on secular radio, where he was grilled on his virginity and lack of experience. But his response to this particular question left his interviewer speechless.

Taylor: So what’s going to happen when, let’s say you get married and you get to the honeymoon suite and she’s lousy in bed?

Josh: Well, I won’t have anything to compare it to.

A Christian man or woman’s sexual experience or lack thereof is a different post – but I did want to throw that in there to emphasize the point that experience does not necessarily correlate with: better sex, better relationship, better intimacy.

If anything, experience erodes our ability and/or willingness to let God into the picture. Personally, this happens with writing all the time. I’m only recently learning to pray about my writing; I’ve been doing it for so long that it feels like second nature. I’ve read dozens of writing books, written hundreds of thousands of words in my lifetime… and am only beginning to learn to include God in my process. “But I know what I’m doing,” I say. “But I know what I want to write about,” I say. “But I know my process! I know what I need,” I say. He pretty much just laughs and shows me how to do it better. Everything I thought I knew about writing is being tossed out the window. Okay, maybe not everything. I still abide by the As Few Adverbs As Possible rule.

Experience (oftentimes) begets pride. In parenting. Loving. Careers. Even ministry. “The way we worship has been working for years. Why fix what ain’t broke?” And that’s only one example.

When we have experience in relationships, we can convince ourselves that we know how to love when in fact it is Christ in us who teaches us how to love. It’s about remaining tender to his heart and to his leading. It’s about learning how to live out 1st Corinthians 13. It’s about choice.

This is such a radical concept in my life right now. God has been teaching me so much about choice over the last year – choice in worship. Choice in quiet time. Choice in writing. Choice in loving.

The qualities of love – which are, at their core, the qualities of God, who is love – are not based on “a fancy or a feeling,” to quote Jane Austen. They are not organized like “If you’ve loved one person, go to step A. If you’ve been in several relationships, skip to step C!” Rather, we are called to love others simply as Christ loved us. These are the qualities we are called to cultivate in our relationships:

  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Does not envy
  • Does not boast
  • Is not proud
  • Is not rude
  • Is not self-seeking
  • Is not easily angered
  • Keeps no record of wrongs
  • Does not delight in evil
  • Rejoices in the truth
  • Always protects
  • Always trusts
  • Always hopes
  • Always perseveres
  • Never fails

There is not a qualifier on these qualities, e.g. “be patient IF you feel like loving them.” No – I am called to practice these characteristics on the days when my mother is driving me up the wall. When my sister ignores me and stays in her room. When I don’t feel like loving my boyfriend. When the excitement isn’t bouncing off the walls.

These are characteristics that grow as we grow in our relationship with Christ and, yes, as we practice them over time. I’m not denying the value of experience – just suggesting that we not take it as the ultimate litmus test.

Ultimately, your ability to love is not based on the amount of relationship experience you have; it is a direct correlation of your relationship with Christ – how you understand and receive his love, and how you apply it to your relationships. Similarly, the depth of your commitment is not measured by the number of partners you have (that is to say, the number of people you’ve ruled out) but rather by your mutual commitment to Christ and to the qualities of love that you are cultivating in your relationship.

Relationships are like gardens; they need to be tended, watered, weeded, and sometimes just enjoyed, basked in. We garden because we love to look upon beautiful things, or because we love to reap the fruits of our labor and enjoy fresh produce on the table. I don’t want to take the food metaphor too far, but it is similar with relationships: we are designed to desire love, to want to bask in it. To quote the film Moulin Rouge, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

And, I would note, your experience with gardening is most often grown when you tend the same garden year in, year out, learning the nature of the soil, how much water to use, the way the light and shade fall at different types of day, the animals to ward against, the flowers that look best together. It is not much use if you begin a garden only to abandon it half-way through; you learn how to begin a garden, but you don’t learn how to tend it, nurture it, preserve it, keep it.

We’ve all had different experiences in life and in love. I have friends who have fluttered around like butterflies from flower to flower, enjoying the process and maintaining their integrity. I’ve had girlfriends who married the only man they seriously dated, and their marriages are things of beauty. And I have friends who have been in serious, long-term relationships only to have the relationship end after several years; I have marveled at how they still found joy and truth in the process.

A friend recently came to me seeking advice for maintaining a long distance relationship. The only advice I could give was, keep seeking after the Lord. If you are seeking after the Lord and your partner is seeking after Him, truly and honestly, with all your being, in prayer or reading or however you connect – if you both are seeking, then you both are finding, and you both are growing. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.

Quick memo: not all Christian relationships end in marriage (thank goodness), and I’m a firm believer in not putting that pressure on people … so that’s another post that’s currently brewing.

In the end, our God is too great to be boxed into patterns. One size does not fit all. This morning in church, Pastor Mike joked that there’s a reason we’re not given a formula for salvation, or else the church would find all sorts of ways to constrict people. The same applies to love. There’s not a formula for relationships given in the Bible – we’re simply told that love is the highest commandment, to first love God and then to love each other. We are given the qualities of love. But we are not told how to apply them, or an ideal number of relationships pre-marriage. Thank you Lord for that freedom! For the mercy! For the fluidity, the flexibility, the awesome adaptability and creativity that Jesus uses to bring people together, friends and spouses, parents and children, co-workers, colleagues, peers.

We truly serve an awesome God who loves us and who seeks to give us good gifts. My prayer is that I can trust him enough to accept this awesome gift of relationship that he’s given me. To trust him, to trust my boyfriend, to trust myself.

1st Corinthians 13:13: And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

June 21, 2010

The Power of Twilight, part two

“It’s why we engage with literature, so we can see other people’s craziness.”

– one of my favorite professors, the indomitable LKH

~*~

My last post was about Twilight. If you haven’t read it, I suggest doing so, since this one picks up where it left off. Specifically, this post is the explication of the following line:

It is my opinion that all this “bad vs. good writing” debate is covering up our real issues with Twilight, which will be in another post.

… This is that other post.

I previously talked ad nauseum about how compelling stories sell and how critics should not be surprised when a book with “bad” writing (whatever that means) sells, because compelling premise trumps Norton-worthy writing almost every time.

Addendum: for those of you who may not know what a Norton Anthology is, it is this Leviathon of a book containing all the “must-reads” of British and American literature from the past, oh, 1200 years. It is assembled by the folks who are slowly becoming one with their desks up in the ivory towers, a.k.a. academics, and is basically T.S. Eliot’s dream come true (it’s supposed to sort the wheat from the chaff, whatever that means). This book is required for any sort of survey lit class, and did I mention the best part? It is thousands of pages long. Or, as the afore-quoted professor put it, “Our friend – the hernia – waiting to happen.”

So, back to Twilight, which will probably never be included in the Norton (just sayin’). I suggested that part of its popularity is due to its premise, one that has proved to be inordinately compelling for the millennial generation. Fifteen years ago, average teenage girl meets sparkly vampire would not have sold. Why? Because there were YA vampire novels released in the 1990s that did not merit much ado about anything. The Vampire Diaries is a series that has profited tremendously in the Twilight afterglow; the series was initially published in the 90s but didn’t really pick up until after Twilight. And now TVD has its own television show.

I think it’s fair to say that Twilight was the right book at the right time. It has a powerful hold on youth culture and has inspired dozens of spin-offs, but nothing can top the original. It’s become popular that it’s almost as popular to bash Twilight as it is to love it.

One of the most popular anti-Twilight points is about the “bad writing” and how it’s ruining young people’s understanding of literature. Twilight being popular heralds the depravity of popular taste, etc. etc. etc. Whatever.

And now we’re caught up to where I left off – all this talk on how Twilight is bad writing, yada yada yada, so awful how could people like it … all this is just a cover for what critics think is really wrong.

When I picture Twilight, I think of it as an IV that has a direct line into the body that is our culture. Yep, in a hospital. And yep, I get the possible pun with blood. The books are saying something that desperately wants to be voiced. It’s like medicine. But is it the medicine we want?

Whether Twilight is compelling is not in question. What is in question is whether it should be compelling – and, more frighteningly, what it means to have such a story be so obviously representative of the state of our youth (at least the female half).

Let’s describe that story. A girl with low self-esteem finds her purpose entirely in a guy, a maladjusted 100+ year-old vamp who for some reasons spends his days repeating high school (like Groundhog Day, only voluntarily). Edward is a masochist, and Bella has low self-esteem and suffers from depression. We learn in the first chapter that she has abandonment issues. The starting point of their relationship is that they sit next to each other in biology, and Edward pays virtually no attention to her, yet she becomes unnaturally, inordinately attached to him. And sure enough, within a few hundred pages, she’s willing to give up her soul for him (that is, she wants to be a vampire, too). She doesn’t care about her soul; she cares about having him.

And let’s talk about Edward. This guy has issues. He’s emotionally stunted (who wouldn’t be, repeating high school?) and he plays with fire by developing a relationship with Bella. Think about it: he tells her she shouldn’t be near him, he tells her he’s dangerous, but obviously his desire for her outweighs his concern for her safety, because notwithstanding his suicidal sting in New Moon, he does not stay away from her. He has some self-control, but he’s thirsty for her blood. The word lush is used in the fourth book to describe this. And let’s not skip over the point that he hates himself, and that she is his purpose and reason (which is why he’s suicidal in New Moon when he thinks that she’s dead – Romeo & Juliet allusion!).

So, in sum, Bella is attracted to an hot, filthy rich vampire who loves her but really, really wants to kill her. They are both depressed, they don’t like themselves, and their identities get wrapped up in the relationship. And this has the makings of true love … how, exactly?

To say it’s an unhealthy relationship is an understatement. To say it is disturbing is certainly fair.

(I may insert more thoughts in here at some point, but the coffee buzz is wearing off and I want to wrap up.)

When it comes down to it, I think we’re scared of Twilight. Not of the Team Edward vs. Team Jacob mania – teenage hormones are nothing new. Rather, we’re scared of what it means if Edward/Bella, rather than Darcy/Elizabeth, is the idealized relationship for a teenage girl. We’re scared of what it means if our sisters and daughters are identifying with a character who retreats so deeply into her own depths she doesn’t have the strength to bring herself out. With a girl who would give up her soul for an immortal lover.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published 113 years ago (1897). In that book, vampires heralded the end of individuality, and as such, they were to be fought. They were dark creatures, villains, the natural of humans. Now, they are romantic heroes.

Edward is afraid of his own darkness. Bella, the reader proxy, is not. What does this say about our culture, especially youth culture? Bella does not fear human death, nor does she fear the consequences that come with immortality (immortality is rarely a good thing in literature – think what it meant in Harry Potter or, going back a few centuries, Marlowe’s Faustus). Vampires, once a threat, are now simply misunderstood. And, interestingly enough, it is not the sparkliness of vampires or even the immortality that attracts Bella, but rather the fact that she wants to be a vamp because (wait for it) … her boyfriend is a vamp. She is eager to be absorbed into his world, a world in which she only fits because she has him. Her identity becomes meshed with his. (There are so many gender issues in these books; check out bitchmagazine.com for some rockin’ articles.)

To close, I think that part of Twilight’s power stems from fear. Fear of its significance in the lives of our youth. Fear of what that means. Fear for our culture. And fear because none of us saw it coming.

I’ll probably be back to expound, edit, etc. In the meantime, I welcome comments, respectful arguments, links, etc. What’s your take on the Twilight phenomenon? The Girl Downstairs wants to know.

May 20, 2010

“Go to the mattresses”

My mom recently bought new mattresses for my sister and I. Apparently, mattresses have a 10-15 year life span, and it’s advisable to get new ones at some point in that time frame. So we got new mattresses.

Two things come to mind when I hear the word mattress:

a)    a support system

b)    that quote from The Godfather – “Go to the mattreses” – that I only know because of the movie You’ve Got Mail

These two things seem inextricably interlinked at the present moment. In You’ve Got Mail, the quote is used to exhort the female protagonist to fight for her small business. So if you go to the mattresses, you’re fighting (and fighting hard) to get something. And then the second one is basic enough: a support system. A network of friends, of relationships.

Bear with me here, but let’s say that each of us has a mattress that we carry around with us. It’s our support system. Our relationships, our work maybe, our families, our privacy – whatever it is that you can collapse on at a moment’s notice. Whatever gives you rest. It’s something we fight for. It’s something we rely on, and we don’t realize how important it is until it starts breaking down.

Because the truth is, there are times when we need to get a new mattress. What used to give us support doesn’t anymore. Relationships change, wear out, and thin over time; to adapt a common adage, you go from the family you’re born with to the family you choose. Friends change, and even if friends don’t change, the nature of the friendship changes. And other things, too – the identity of being a student is a support that is two weeks away from being extinct (at least for now).

My “mattress,” as it were, is in a state of revision. And it’s a good thing. And I’m “going to the mattresses” to fight for my vision of what that could be. I can’t see it clearly yet, but I can feel it forming beneath me – and I’m choosing to trust that.

April 19, 2010

“Days Like These”

Filed under: Choices,Faith,Uncategorized — jeannablue @ 1:51 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Some days, you have to trust God because there’s nothing else you can do. I was at church with my dad this morning, and the pastor talked about placing our trust and hope in God, how placing it in other people or institutions is a lost cause. Fact is, there is no savior on Capitol Hill. There’s no savior on TV or in a book or in an institution or even in ourselves.

Faith gets me by most days, but sometimes, I shake a fist at God, asking him why he’s given me a certain situation to deal with. Others, I trudge along, making my way through the muck of apathy, trying to ignore him. It’d be nice if I could say that I didn’t have those doubt days, those tough days, those I don’t feel like faith will cut it days. But I do.

The good news is, he loves me through ‘em.

A few weeks back, I was sitting at one of my favorite cafes in town munching on a hot hoagie sandwich, listening to my iPod. This song came up. It’s from the soundtrack of a movie that I’ve never seen; my dad’s had the soundtrack since I was a kid. While the movie Falling From Grace is apparently nothing to write home about, the soundtrack is a solid collection of rock, alternative country, and Americana – John Mellencamp, Lisa Germano, Nanci Griffith, Dwight Yoakam. And this song, which describes where I’m at right now.

“Days Like These” by Janis Ian

On days like these

When the rain won’t fall

And the sky is so dry

That even birds can’t call

I can feel your tears

Disappearing in the air

Carried on the breeze

On days like these

It’s years like these

That make a young man old

Bend his back against the promises

That life should hold

They can make him wise

They can drive him to his knees

Nothing comes for free

On days like these

But you can’t reap what you don’t sow

And you can’t plant in fallow ground

So let us fill this empty earth with hope

Until the rains come down

In lives like these

Where every moment counts

I add up all the things

That I can live without

When the one thing left

Is the blessing of my dreams

I can make my peace

In days like these

I can make my peace

In days like these…

The one thing I have is the blessing of my dreams, and that is because my dreams are blessed by an awesome lover who holds all my fears and hopes in the palm of his hand. His promises are written not only in the word but also on my heart. While I have my fits, my doubts, and my bouts of disappointment, ultimately, I have his promises to return to at the end of the day.

Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

These days, I’m learning that trust is a choice worth choosing.

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