Monday, February 28, 2011

A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted, by Will Bowen

There is a significant amount of complaining that occurs in our house. Ellis, our turtle, wins the prize for most complaining. In fact, he has complained so much about being in our classroom aquarium that I recently set him free. Mosley, our dog, gets the silver prize. He's old and restless and his complaints are in the form of incessant whining, regardless of the fact that all of his needs have been more than adequately met. Then there are the children. Their complaints range from not enough food to too much food, not enough compliments to too many compliments, and too much together time to not enough together time. And then, there is me. I complain all of the time. My subjects are vast, but I tend to complain about my children's complaints, my dog's complaints, and my turtle's complaints.

When I stumbled across A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted, by Will Bowen, I bought it without even reading the premise of the book. This was clearly a case of judging a book by its title.

Mr. Bowen is a minister who decided to start a movement in his church to stop complaining. He attacked his own complaint-filled life by wearing a bracelet on his left wrist. As soon as he complained, the bracelet had to go to the right wrist. The next day, he would put the bracelet back on the left wrist, where it would stay until he uttered a complaint. His goal for himself, his congregation, and the world, is to keep that bracelet on the left wrist for 21 days straight - WITHOUT complaining. Bowen went so far as to design a specific bracelet for purchase. His premise is that, if one can keep from complaining for 21 days straight, complaining in that individual's life will stop for good.

Along with specific tips on how to stop complaining, the book includes a compilation of stories touting the benefits of complaint-free living and the struggles to go even one day without complaining. Bowen more than adequately captures the struggle to change behavior in this book. Bowen writes, "In his play Fiction, one of Steven Dietz's characters remarks, 'Writers don't like to write; they like to have written.' Similarly, people don't like to change, but they like to have changed." He dispels the myth that self-will is enough; he provides a gimmick, in the form of a bracelet, as a tangible reminder that a vice needs to be addressed.

As is usual, I was pretty convicted by this book. However, I kept returning to this question: Do I need the bracelet? After all, I have the power of God available to me. Shouldn't that be enough to stop complaining? Am I not really a Christian because my complaining behavior has not changed? Have I just not prayed enough? Confessed enough? Why can't I stop complaining? Maybe - just maybe - I've not spent enough time thinking about how much I really do complain. Perhaps I need to be more horrified by my complaint-filled life.

I read this book on February 11th. Since then, I've been wondering if I really need the bracelet.

Yesterday, February 27th, I opened my beloved newspaper to Randy Cohen's final article. Randy Cohen has been "The Ethicist" for 12 years. He wrote 614 columns on ethics. In his final column yesterday, he writes this:

"I say with some shame, there has been no such gradual change in my own behavior. Writing the column has not made me even slightly more virtuous. And I didn't have to be; it was in my contract. O.K., it wasn't. But it should have been. I wasn't hired to personify virtue, to be a role model for the kids, but to write about virtue in a way readers might find engaging...What spending my workday thinking about ethics did do was make me acutely conscious of my own transgressions, of the times I fell short. It is deeply demoralizing."

Here is a man who wrote about the need to change behavior for twelve years. He immersed himself in thinking about turning vices into virtues and it did not work, by his own admission. Maybe he just needed a bracelet during those 12 years.

But as I thought about Mr. Cohen and his sad admission in light of my own admission that I am a complainer, the answer struck me. This side of heaven, we will never get it completely right. I will never stop complaining, whether I buy the bracelet or not. Mr. Cohen will never become completely virtuous, whether his contract pays him to be ethical or not. This goes beyond the common adage that "Nobody is perfect." It points us to the fact that we live in a fallen world. And the response to that fact should not be a plastic bracelet. It should not be to feel demoralized. It should cause us to turn to the One who forgives and loves and provides new starts gazillions of times each day. And gratitude for that is what will help us change our behavior.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Reasons I Have Not Read the Twilight Series

Several of you have asked why I've not read the Twilight books, the popular Young Adult series by Stephanie Meyer. Generally marketed by mainstream America as a morally upright love story for teens, I've received many shocked reactions from people when I explain that I have not read them and that I do not have any plans to read them. Here are my reasons:

  • Vampires do not interest me. Hobbits, yes. Vampires, no.

  • I despise romance novels. A novel with a well-written romantic scene is fine, but books that are 100% about romance are, in short, completely unrealistic. While countless numbers of novels are also unrealistic, romance novels tend to encourage the women reading them to put those same expectations on their own relationships. Add to this reason that in the Twilight series the romance is between two teenagers, and I bristle. Teenage girls in our culture struggle enough with finding their identity in having a boyfriend; why do we need to perpetuate the struggle through encouraging their reading of these novels or the watching of the movies?

  • I will not buy, borrow, or browse books that encourage young women to enter into relationships that are dangerous. The two main characters refrain from pre-marital sex prior to their wedding night. As a result, this series is marketed as triology that is "safe" for teenage girls to read. From what I know of these books, they are anything but "safe". Edward and Bella's entire relationship is centered on danger, as Edward constantly struggles with the need to suck Bella's blood. While obviously an unrealistic situation, the message that this sends to young women is that a relationship lived dangerously is exciting. I have a profound problem with this kind of thinking and I hate to see it glorified in our culture. Not reading Twilight is my feeble attempt to take a stand on this issue.
  • There are countless numbers of brilliant novels that are more exciting, more engaging, and more edifying. It is with those novels that I will spend my time. I encourage you and the young women you talk with to do the same.
This book will provide some additional reasons that your teenager should not be reading the Twilight series.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Best Books of 2010, Valentine's Day Edition

In honor of my love for books, I give you my Best Books of the Year 2010. Happy Valentine's Day!

Tenth Best of the Year: Room, by Emma Donoghue - This is a disturbing book and it won't make you feel good. You will have a difficult time putting it down. This story is told from the viewpoint of a five-year old boy who has never left his room. The insights that unfold about the history and future of the boy's room accurately portray the state of our society. This is an easy read that is unusual, smart, and though-provoking.

Ninth Best of the Year: The Unnamed, by Josh Harris - I adored Harris' first book, which was absolutely hilarious in its satirical look at the corporate office culture. His second, The Unnamed, is a stark contrast to his first. An in-depth look at suffering and marriage, it is dark, depressing, and yet it is chock full of insight on sticking with your betrothed through thick and thin. You can read my full review here. While the experts didn't generally give this one favorable reviews, I thought it was an extremely worth-while read, and especially important for couples.

Eighth Best of the Year: Little Bee, by Chris Cleave - Little Bee escapes her native Nigeria for the hope of salvation in England. A couple in England tries to help her in the midst of their marital turmoil. Again, this isn't one that will make you feel good, but it sheds an important light on immigration issues facing the West.

Seventh Best of the Year: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy - Here's another that stuck with me. My husband read this one and we talked about it extensively; maybe that's the reason I can't shake it. The Road chronicles a father and son as they try to survive in a post "apocalypic" (the reader never really knows why the entire world has been decimated) world where the few survivors are driven to the most horrific of responses to being the few living beings of any kind remaining on the earth. Beautifully written, this one was very tough to read, but I still highly recommend it. During my early morning runs when there is no one else on the road, I am quick to remember this book and I think I appreciate the present a bit more because of it.

Sixth Best of the Year: Blame, by Michelle Huneven - Patsy, a college professor, is accused of killing a mother and daughter while drunk driving. This novel is the story of how she survives her prison sentence and how she copes with life after her time is served. Huneven grapples with the question of how much punishment is really enough. The twist at the end of this one surprised me, though my dad saw it coming. The writing is lovely and thought-provoking.

Fifth Best of the Year: Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen - The Franzen frenzy? Yep. The guy deserves it. He must be a genius, and, boy, would I love to sit down and talk to him. Although I liked the way The Corrections was written much better, Freedom is no less brilliantly authored. In fact, it was intriguing to read his two novels back to back and be able to observe just how different they are. Freedom is satirical as it looks at American culture post 9/11, and yet there is beautiful compassion mixed with the satire. The intermingling of the two tones causes the reader to wonder whether or not America looks like Franzen's picture.

Fourth Best of the Year: Lit, by Mary Karr - Many readers are complimentary of Agassi's Open as an honest memoir of a well known athlete. Mary Karr isn't a well known athlete, but she is a poet laureate and her memoir is full of raw vulnerability like nothing I've ever read. My mom and I will often quote lines from this book to one another. The Glass Castle has gotten so much attention and praise; Lit is the same type of memoir, but it is so, so much better. She struggles with relationships, substance abuse, and the possibility of a brilliant career. This one is outstanding.

Third Best of the Year: Tinkers, by Paul Harding - There is a reason books win Pulitzer Prizes. Tinkers, the winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, is well deserving of this year's honor. It is the rapid accumulation of a man's thoughts as he lies on his death bed. While maudlin and sad, the account is a stunning reminder to me that the "little" moments in life aren't necessarily "little". This is not easy reading, but I thought it was well worth the effort.

Second Best of the Year: Home, by Marilynne Robinson - A follow up to Gilead, Home does not disappoint. It is the story of a prodigal son, though it will make every other take off on the Biblical story pale in comparison. I saw myself all over the judgmental characters in the novel and was convicted to the core. Not a day goes by when my sinful self reminds me of those poignant characters. Its impact on me was enormous, more so than any Christian living book I read this year.

Best Book of the Year: The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen - As my regular readers know, I was only reading the genre of parenting books in 2001, which happens to be the year The Corrections was published. My parenting would have been fared better from reading this book than from reading those books. It is a novel about a family living in the 90's. As the father faces Alzheimer's disease, his wife and three children seek to grapple with their identities in an American culture that promises much and delivers little. The introspective reader will see himself or herself all over the pages of Franzen's superb writing. Highly convicting, this one got to me at the core, probably because the writing holds a mirror in front of my face and says, "Is this what you want your life to look like?" But not only is his writing powerful enough to kick the reader in the gut, it is beyond gorgeous. It is, by far, one of the most incredible books I've ever read and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Honorable Mention - My Reading Life, by Pat Conroy - While Pat Conroy's writing is just TOO much for me, I adored this memoir. I could completely grasp his excitement for reading, and the way he described his love of books, well, in that case, his writing is spot on. If you need some motivation to read more, check out this one.

Award for Most Gut-Wrenching Book of the Year - The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell - Heh, heh, heh. I couldn't resist.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

You've been awfully busy if you haven't heard about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I have no less than 20 emails in my inbox asking me if I've read it. The book has caused so much of a stir that several men have sent me emails about Amy Chua's description of Chinese parenting. One such father told me that he was going to "step up" his parenting after reading the excerpt from Chua's book. Many mothers I know have quickly scanned the pages of this book, worried to the point of frazzled that they aren't parenting the correct way.

Well. Here at Civil Thoughts, we established long ago that I'm certainly not a perfect parent. I didn't need to read this book to convince me of that. Before I give my opinion on the book, I need to mention a few things. First of all, as the author herself and many journalists have mentioned, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is not meant to be a parenting how-to. It is a memoir of her parenting journey with her children. Second, there is sarcasm scattered everywhere throughout it. There is some debate about this, but I saw her tongue-in-cheek statements frequently. Third, before you enter into a heavy dialogue about this book, read it. Don't just read the excerpts. The excerpts floating around will give a bit of a false understanding of what Chua is portraying. Finally, I happen to spend an hour a week with a Chinese mother, who has been parenting her children in the United States for ten years. Prior to coming here, they were living in China. I've witnessed a real, live Chinese mommy. In fact, every Wednesday she tries to get me to parent the Chinese way, especially toward my daughter from China.

In Chua's easy-to-read memior on raising her two daughters the Chinese way while living in America, she consistently compares the Chinese way of parenting with the "Western" way of parenting. She specifically shows how she parented the Chinese way with regard to her children's piano and violin playing. Chua is married to a Jewish American and together they have two daughters named Sophia and Lulu. For the most part, Sophia complies with her mother's plan for her life. Lulu is a different story. The memoir is scattered with funny - or what I perceived to be funny - excerpts of her conversation with Lulu, the child that bucks Chua's way of parenting. On page 66, Lulu tells her mother that she is like Lord Voldemort. And then, there was this conversation during a violin practice session that made me laugh out loud:
"Your brain is annoying me," Lulu said. "I know what you're thinking."
"I'm not thinking anything," I said indignantly. Actually, I'd been thinking that Lulu's right elbow was too high and her dynamics were all wrong, and that she needed to shape her phrases better.
"Just turn off your brain!" Lulu ordered. "I'm not going to play anymore unless you turn off your brain."

Humor aside, Chua takes parenting very seriously. She compares Chinese and Western parenting throughout the book. Here is one of her summaries that best describes what she sees as the difference:
"Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturning environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away."

The self-proclaimed Tiger Mother is singularly focused in her methods of parenting. She sacrifices money and time (though not a career as a professor at Yale) to help her children become musical prodigies. Why? Because it is the Chinsese way. She says:
"All these Western parents with the same party line about what's good for children and what's not - I'm not sure they're making choices at all. They just do what everyone else does. They're not questioning anything either, which is what Westerners are supposed to be so good at doing. They just keep repeating things like, "You have to give your children the freedom to pursue their passion" when it's obvious that the "passion" is just going to turn out to be Facbook for ten hours which is a total waste of time and eating all that disgusting junk food - I'm telling you this country is going to go straight down hill! No wonder Western parents get thrown into nursing homes when they're old!"

Chua concludes that Western parents are just as singularly focused on praising and giving children freedom to pursue their passion. I tend to agree with her conclusion, in general. Most Western parents are not apt to force their children to practice instruments or a foreign language for countless hours a day after they've spent much of the day in school. Many Western parents tend to remain uninvolved in the education of their children, believing that is the job of the school system. But Western parents tend to believe their way is correct just as much as Chua believes her way is correct. While I'm not saying that Western parents needs to adopt Chinese methods of parenting, we can learn something from her. It is evident that she is regularly evaluating how she can parent in a better way to achieve the goals she has for her children. She admits that each way she chooses is not the right way. Shs is constantly evaluating and re-evaluating. This, in my opinion, is a profitable thing to do as a parent.

What we also learn from Chua is that one method of parenting does not work for all children. Lulu does not respond to her ways as Sophia did. There simply is no formula for parenting. We Westerners keep looking for it. Heck, a Chinese woman tried a formula. She learns that there is no formula after much turmoil in her house, but she still learned it.

So. Does that leave my opinion between a rock and a hard place?

We have the Chinese parents who parent the way they do because it is the Chinese way. We have Western parents who parent they way they do because it is the Western way. Are those our only choices? Rigidity versus freedom? Criticism versus praise? Discipline versus play? Do we have to choose? Well, if you've read the Western criticism of Chua, you'll read that we don't have to choose. You'll read that we may have balance with our children. We Western parents may give time limits on electronic devices, but we may still allow them. We may suggest a different way of doing someting but we may couch it with praise. We may let them play instruments, but they only need to practice for 20 minutes a day. I don't know about you, but it is hard for me to find balance. The admonition to "find the balance" is much more difficult than choosing one way or the other. So what is this Western mommy to do?

While Chua's guiding parenting principle is "the Chinese way" and Westerners' guiding parenting principle of parenting is "the Western way", I have another driving force. As a Christian, it's pretty important that I exit the Chinese versus Western conversation and enter the Bible's conversation about how to parent. Does the Bible give direction on how rigid or how free I should be with my children? Does God tell me how much to praise and how much to criticize? Can I find Scripture about how much to push and how much to back off with my kids?

In fact, it does. This direction can be summarized in one word: grace. Above all, we need to give our children grace. Sometimes that grace comes to our children in the form of more structure for a child struggling with too much freedom. Sometimes that grace will come to our children in the form of a word of needed praise, and sometimes grace will mean withholding praise toward the child so that praise of his Creator is given. And how do I know what grace to give a particular child at a particular moment? I seek the grace as I parent, daily, hourly, minute by minute, with each and every individual child. And some moments I'm going to forget to seek grace in God's parenting wisdom. When I forget, I'll seek the Chinese way or the Western way. And grace will then be given to me. But when I do, by His grace, seek His parenting wisdom, He will gladly give it and I, in turn, will give grace to my children. And it will be the grace that they need at that moment in time. Each child is different, each day is different. There are no perfect parenting formulas. There is only grace, in parenting and in all things.