Please Stop Calling Your Relatively Privileged Life “Crazy” and “Messy.”

A few weeks ago, I asked folks on Twitter–and specifically, my colleague Amy Simpson, who has recently published a book on mental illness and the mission of the church:

What do you think about the way people use words like “bipolar,” “crazy,” and “manic” when they really mean “moody,” “energetic,” “quirky” and even “fun”?

It’s part of a pattern I’ve noticed lately–and maybe you’ve noticed it too.

People with beautiful headshots, flawlessly designed websites, and enviable accomplishments insist that they are really just a ‘mess.’ Or that their families are ‘crazy.’ Or that their homes and lives are every bit as complicated and frustrating as everyone else’s…meanwhile, their Instagram feeds show nothing but beauty; if ‘chaos’ is there, it’s only ever of the picturesque kind.

From Flickr User Tanja. CC license.
There’s nothing picturesque about true squalor of the sort that Jeannette Walls endured.                              From Flickr User Tanja. CC license.

There are no birdcages sprouting stalagmites and stalactites of bird droppings. There are no snotty-nosed, unwashed, half-dressed, hungry children who’ve never visited a dentist in their lives. There is food in the fridge and on the table, and it isn’t even growing mold or crawling with roaches or undulating with maggots. In fact, it’s from Trader Joe’s and may even be organic! There is no broken glass or police officers showing up because the neighbors heard screaming. There is electricity and running water and indoor toilets.

Yeah, there’s raised voices and tempers and conflicts. But that makes you human. Not crazy. Not dysfunctional. Not “a mess.”

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This weekend, I read and then immediately re-read Jeannette Walls’ instant classic of a memoir, The Glass Castle. It disturbed me deeply, but reminded me very much of one of my favorite books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It is hard to resist a story of a girl triumphing over seemingly insurmountable adversities.

One of the things that I appreciated deeply about the book is that while it ends, ultimately, on a note of grace, and while there are glimpses of light even in the most dismal of episodes as her truly dysfunctional parents (both probably bipolar, and one a severe alcoholic), Walls never glamorizes the poverty that they endured. She does not romanticize any of it. She makes no attempt to paint her childhood as in any way quirky, cute, or picturesque.

Without lapsing into melodrama, she portrays it as the nearly unmitigated horror that it was.

And while she and two of her siblings managed to endure and make something of their lives, she makes no attempt to hide the fact that one of them–her younger sister, Maureen–didn’t seem to. Nor does she disguise the scars–some of them literal–that they bear because of their parents’ recklessness and refusal–or inability–to care for them properly.

There are two things that I keep thinking of as I reflect on this book.

The first is that while it is easy to celebrate the hard work and grit and good luck that allowed someone like Jeannette Walls to triumph and to tell her story with such grace and elegance, there are millions of children in the US who endure terrible suffering and do not emerge victorious but instead become the victims of their parents’–and society’s–failure to help them while help is still possible.

As I think each time I reflect on Anne Frank, how many stories like hers never got to be told? How many stories of triumph over poverty, ignorance, and mental illness could be told in this land of plenty and opportunity, if resources were directed away from war and toward the kinds of programs that make it possible for all children to succeed?

The second is that I’m really tired of seeing words like “bipolar,” “crazy,” and “messy” thrown around by middle and upper-middle class folks who have beautiful headshots and gorgeous websites and lovely homes and the time and resources to document their “messiness” and “craziness” on Instagram. Not wanting to make your kid a costume for a school play or serving a frozen Trader Joe’s meal for dinner is not a “mom fail.”

Losing your temper with the kids moments after you were laughing uproariously with your girlfriends does not make you “bipolar.” Running from school to music lessons to sports practice to a church event might mean you’re overscheduled–but not that you’re “manic.”

These words describe serious and scary symptoms of serious disease. Millions of children–in the US–would count it a huge step up to be eating Annie’s Organics mac & cheese made from a box or making do with a less-than-Pinterest-ready birthday party.

In her memoir A Good and Perfect Gift, my friend Amy Julia Becker noted the pain she felt when a friend described her Ivy League-educated husband as “retarded” because he couldn’t remember to take out the recycling. The words were like a slap: no, he clearly did not have an intellectual disability. But Amy Julia’s own beloved daughter, born with Down syndrome, did.

Using words in that thoughtless and inaccurate way may seem harmless, but it trivializes the real struggles of real people.

So let’s not make light of real suffering by calling our generally okay, pretty much functional, and actually pretty privileged lives “messy,” “dysfunctional,” and “crazy.”

And as we celebrate people like Jeannette Walls (whose book spent almost 2 years on the New York Times’ bestseller list) let’s remember the people who never lived, much less wrote, stories of triumph.

How to Nurture Creativity In Children (& in yourself)

I’m far from an expert on the subject, but I think the key word is nurture: creativity is there within our children; it’s not something we need to inculcate but simply something that must be tended, guarded, and allowed to flourish.

I have a new piece at iBelieve on the subject. Here’s a taste. Click through to read it all!

Nurturing Creativity in Children

Rachel Marie Stone

Nurturing Creativity in Children

Many people think of creativity as a trait one either has or doesn’t have, like having dimples in your cheeks, or having brown eyes. In truth, creativity is innate to each one of us, given as a gift by the One who created all things. And like a living thing, creativity can be stifled as well as nurtured.

In a popular TED talk, British educational adviser Sir Ken Robinson provocatively asked “do schools kill creativity?” Schools, he argued often enshrine right answers as preferable to divergent thinking, and many schools reinforce the idea (usually indirectly) that a mistake is just about the worst thing a person could do. Yet creativity “is as important in education as literacy,” he says, “and we should treat it with the same status.”

But how? What can parents do to nurture their children’s God-given capacities for creativity?

Realize creativity might not always look the way you expect it to look.

Many of us immediately think of paints and canvases–or perhaps of musical instruments or poetry–when we think of “creativity.” But creativity encompasses more than just the arts. In its essence, creativity is the ability to make something new–to put words or ideas or foods or colors or Lego bricks together so as to create something that didn’t previously exist in anyone’s mind but your own: a poem, a scientific theory, a new kind of dessert, a painting, a toy spaceship. Scientific advances and technological innovations require creativity every bit as much as painting murals or playing violin concertos do. So if your child shows no interest in arts and crafts, don’t write him off as “not creative.” He’s probably just creative in a way you didn’t expect. Which brings us to–

Give your child freedom to pursue his or her interests.

It’s important that children have some freedom to pursue what they are interested in. This doesn’t mean they should never have to engage in activities that they don’t like, of course–it simply means if your seven year old is content to build new things out of Lego for hours on end, you don’t necessarily need to interrupt him to make him do an art project, because chances are he’s already flexing his God-given creative muscles. Some parents are perplexed to find their children aren’t interested in the same sorts of things that they are, but it’s a mistake to assume that because you love music, your children will, too. It’s important to give children a wide range of experiences, but it’s equally important to allow them to become who God created them to be, instead of trying to mold them in our own image.

Offer your child a safe space that’s free from too much criticism, and too much praise

For creativity to flourish, a child needs to feel safe. She needs to know what she makes, says, or thinks will not be harshly criticized, and that she is not loved conditionally, the condition being she performs well and makes no mistakes. Essential to creative success, notes psychologist of creativity Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi, is a high tolerance for making mistakes, and we develop that when we learn a mistake is not the worst thing in the world. We can instill this necessary confidence in our children first by loving them unconditionally, as God loves us, and then by communicating to them that their beings, not their doings, are what are most precious to us. A firm resolve not to criticize or mock their efforts–or to base your affection for them on their talents and gifts–can help strengthen their willingness to explore and take creative risks.

{Continue reading…}

How To Make (Psychological and Emotional) Space to Create.

My children spend more time building with Lego than just about anything else. While they covet and save up for sets like any good little American consumers, they spent most of their time re-mixing those sets (and their thousands of eBay purchased random pieces) into wildly new creations.

Seriously, some of the stuff they come up with is just incredible. They use pieces in ways that I’m sure the designers at Lego never intended. Ons the shelf in the other room there are elaborate dragons with hinged tails, spooky temples, and strange little machines with gears.

Almost always, what they make is surprising, unexpected, startlingly new.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a worshipful paean to my children’s creativity. I’m not saying that their Lego models are going to end up in MoMA. It’s just that I want to share some observations from when a totally different thing enters the picture: the Lego building challenges.

They get these Lego magazines bundles of advertisements in the mail (thanks to my mom, who faithfully ships them overseas) and each features “building challenge” contests as well as pictures of children with their winning creations. There’s a prize of a $100 gift card for some of the contests.

For days after they read about a new “challenge” (build a dream home, build some kind of robot, etc.) they’ll work and re-work a project and pester us to photograph them and worry about whether or not they’ll win…and here’s the surprising part, the part you are not allowed to tell my children:

When they are building for the contest–for that $100 gift card and their picture in the magazine, their creations are startlingly less creative

All of a sudden, they are timid and anxious about their creations. They’ll ask me what I think of them–something they never do otherwise; usually they just present their work to me with the jubilance of people who know what they’ve accomplished is good–and, honestly, their for-contest work is always inferior to their regular work.

Why does this matter?

Because I think it shows us something important about motivation and its effect on creativity.

Most of the time, the kids build with Lego simply because that is what they love to do. They are pleasing no one but themselves. There is no point to the work except the work itself. There is no limit on the time spent working except the time they choose to spend on it.

So most of the time, they build in a state of flow, which is:

“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

(psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi –say”CHICK-sent-me-high-ee”–in a Wired interview.)

If their only concern is the work, their work is amazing, and they work with confidence and pleasure. As soon as there’s a carrot–an extrinsic reward–their creative juices seem to dry up, and they’re building replicas of some other kid’s idea and worrying about whether they’ll ‘win.’

This is not a new idea, or a strange one. It’s the idea that has driven alternative models of education and employment.

“There is something really special about when you first realize you can figure out really cool things completely on your own. That alone is a valuable lesson in life.”

(Florian Wagner)

When we were both in graduate school, my friend and I reminded each other to find our “no pressure zones.” For us that involved a lot of intentional non-procrastination and striving actually to enjoy what we were learning. It also involved studying together in pleasant locations and drinking lattes.

Sometimes I am all but paralyzed by the fear of doing what I do badly OR by the desire for external affirmation. When I am in that mode, pretty much everything I write, say, draw, or cook is total crap. It’s when you move into the pleasure and rhythm of the work itself, I find, that things turn out well, which is annoying because I’m basically saying that I think people–or at least I–work best when I manage not to be so worried about how it will turn out, but instead to be absorbed in the work itself.

For me, faith is a part of this, because I find it very, very difficult not to seek extrinsic rewards and affirmation, but remembering God’s grace allows me to offer it to myself and others, and to stop trying to keep score.

“Grace cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.” (Robert Farrar Capon)

Your thoughts?

While You’re Signing That Change.org Petition, Don’t Forget to Look Up From Your iPhone

Screen shot 2013-08-07 at 10.10.58 AMMy friend Karen Swallow Prior has an award-winning essay up at Christianity Today’s This is Our City project called “How I Learned to Love my Literal Neighbor.” I told her it reminded me of this old Peanuts strip:

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Here’s just a taste of Karen’s essay:

“Both of us had been raised in the country, in fact. So living on a lot the size of a postage stamp in a sea of mass-produced buildings stacked up against each other—even the small variations in architectural details followed a pattern—had never been our style. But it was a place to rest our heads during those busy, building years of our marriage. I was teaching and working on my doctorate while my husband traveled, playing music on the regional church-coffeehouse circuit. We weren’t home much.

As committed Christians, we took seriously the parable of the Good Samaritan. We understood that the people whom my husband played for, my peers at the university, the students I taught, those we met through church and volunteer activities, and the strangers we ministered to on overseas mission trips were all our neighbors.”

But we were so busy loving our parabolic neighbors that we had neglected the literal ones.

And she goes on to tell the story of how she grew to love her (literal) neighbors, including an (adorable) little boy who

“likes to help me do my barn chores. He uses his own manure fork, which he requested for Christmas, to help me muck stalls. He likes to check for eggs in the henhouse and proudly carries home the ones he finds. His mother says he gets upset if anyone else eats “his” eggs. Sometimes, she says, he waits out on the back deck of their house, watching for me to come out to the barn to do the evening chores. When he sees me, he hollers for me by name. And I respond in kind.”

Screen shot 2013-08-09 at 1.00.23 PMRead it all here. And follow Karen on Twitter while you’re at it: @lovelifelitGod

The Peace of Wild Things (with photos of animals seen on a recent safari)

For me, there is nothing quite like being outdoors, and, especially, seeing wild creatures, as an antidote to anxiety. I don’t think there is anything particularly unusual or strange in that. God’s strangely comforting words to Job involved proclaiming himself as involved and caring in the lives of the wildest and remotest creatures, Psalm 104 celebrates God as the one who knows the comings and goings of animals, and feeds them, and Jesus points his hearers’ attention to the birds and the flowers as evidence of God’s loving and continuous care.

I love Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” which, to me, somehow expresses all of that. Several years ago, when we were enduring particularly stressful times, I memorized it while washing dishes and repeated it to myself in bed when I couldn’t sleep, and when I longed to put on my hiking boots and wander into the wilderness, but had to stay home to change diapers and put kids down for naps. It’s worth reading and re-reading, I think:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

{via gratefulness.org}

I am, faith in Jesus notwithstanding, quite expert at “taxing” my life “with forethought of grief,” and that is just one of the reasons I love wild things: they cause me to consider that I am as beloved, or more so, than these creatures that God so loves.

Here are some of the wild things that gave me peace and grace this week:

kingfishers
kingfishers
bathing
bathing
delight
delight
impala
impala. so beautiful.
into still water
into still water
tree
wild, beautiful trees

{All photos by the Stone family. Feel free to share so long as you link back here. Thanks!}