The Context Of Encouragement

Often, whether we are trying to give or receive encouragement, the efforts are often spectacularly unsuccessful. That which was meant to console or cheer up someone only ends up infuriating them, because it comes off as teasing or attacking. Yet clearly encouragement is something we wish to do, and that some people (even if not we ourselves) do well [1], and something that is necessary given the sorts of difficulties we face, which often drag on for a long time with little or no seeming improvement, despite our greatest efforts. Encouragement is, after all, the stirring up of courage and hope within someone who may not be naturally predisposed to be particularly courageous or hopeful, so that they may successfully do combat with fear, doubt, worry, and anxiety, with which many of us are very familiar. It is an immensely important task, one which is necessary not only in terms of the quality of life, but indeed for some of us a necessary quality even for mere survival in the face of the stress of life. Given that we are often not the best at encouraging ourselves, the existence of a robust and kind social network of friends and (hopefully) family is essential, given that we often need far more encouragement, and far more focused encouragement, than we often let on. Few of us wear our hearts on our sleeves, and even if we are communicative about areas where we want drastic improvement in life, it is not always easy for useful assistance to be provided.

In light of this combined difficulty and importance, I would like to examine the ground on which encouragement seems to falter the most. It appears, at least from my personal experience and observation, that encouragement fails most often in the context of that encouragement, which often renders the content of that attempted encouragement either ineffective or (even worse) offensive. In examining the context of encouragement, I would like to keep the focus most clearly on the recipient of that encouragement. After all, the whole worth and value of encouragement is in the benefit that it provides to the person who receive the encouragement. It does us no good to feel as if we are being loving and understanding to others and a great help if they do not feel encouraged and loved and understood and helped by our efforts, for we only deceive ourselves even as we may unintentionally hurt those we are wishing to help. The fact that these wounds are without intention does not mean that they are any less real or any less a barrier to the friendships and relationships we wish to build and maintain. As is generally the case, it may be difficult for such hurts and concerns to be communicated effectively in either direction, which makes this all the more problematic of an issue.

There is a great paradox at the heart of encouragement. On the one hand, it is something that we need to come from the outside, because if we could encourage ourselves effectively on the inside, we would have little need of encouragement in the first place. However, the accurate and helpful reception of encouragement is far from a straightforward task. As encouragement comes from outside, it must be recognized and felt in a way that is helpful and beneficial if it is to do any good to the person receiving the help or to the relationship between the parties giving and receiving the encouragement. That which comes from outside is often viewed intensely critically by those seeking to guard their heart and that which comes under the label of encouragement often comes with a sting or a hidden accusation attached to it which leads it to be viewed as an attack, which is seldom helpful in providing encouragement. In some cases, this is because of the lack of skill of the person giving the encouragement, or a lack of concern to the sensitivities of others. At times this is because the person being encouraged has not done a good enough job of communicating what is and what is not acceptable communication. At times it is because encouragement comes from someone with whom there is no relationship (or at least no positive relationship), which negates any kind of good that someone might try to give. At other times encouragement fails because it comes on ground that is so sensitive to deal with that no one may be considered safe to step on such ground. In all such cases, encouragement fails to be of benefit to the recipient when it leads them to feel attacked, whether it is because someone they do not like is trying to get involved in their personal business or because someone is far too close for comfort.

In giving encouragement effectively, we have to examine our own motives. Is our motive to appear like an expert in something, or to appear as some kind of authority? If so, our encouragement will likely not succeed unless we are asked by others for advice because they recognize our expertise already, because if we give advice or encouragement unbidden, our gift often comes not from a genuine desire to help, but rather from a selfish desire to gain power or influence or authority, which will likely and entirely understandably be resented. More charitably, our desire to encourage may be prompted by a general desire for happiness on the part of others and simply may intersect with the lives of others as encouragement. Here, though, that general desire for well-being may not always be interpreted in a friendly way, as encouragement is highly context dependent, and the context of the recipient is frequently problematic. One example, not at random, should suffice. I find it intensely frustrating that my ability to make friends among young women in my congregation has been greatly hindered by the fact that such young women have been “encouraged” further along than either of us would wish, leaving them sometimes feeling uncomfortable about going to church because they feel pressured about dating me. Since I feel I am socially awkward enough that I do not need any help in driving away others or creating difficulties for myself, these attempts at encouragement are not appreciated at all. It is hard for me to be charitable to the motives of those who cause me such personal harm in such a sensitive area of life. The only such encouragement that would be welcome would either be a simple expression of a desire to pray for happiness and well-being or encouragement that came from the ladies themselves. In such cases motive would not be seen as a problem, because people providing encouragement in areas where they are personally involved is far more welcome than third-party interference.

Another area where encouragement may be aided is a shared context. To the extent that encouragement is based on something that two people share, it is a lot more effective than something that is only relayed second-hand. That which encourages us (or discourages us) often relates to matters of timing and circumstance. If someone shares experiences with us that are encouraging if brought to mind, then they are better able to encourage us precisely by bringing those memories to mind, so that we may have more pleasant material to ruminate upon than our usual and natural thoughts and reflections. On the other hand, trying to encourage someone by explaining something that they did not witness or experience is far less helpful, especially because it only engages the intellect and not the heart. It is also why those people who encourage us the best are those people who share the best experiences with us, the good times as well as the bad times, because encouragement is about placing things in context, and it requires a shared positive context to improve a perspective that is shaded too negatively. How to do this is a tricky matter, but an important one.

After all, our wish to encourage others itself should presuppose love and outgoing concern for others, even if we may not always feel very fondly about them because of experiences. Yet, despite our own feelings and intents, other people (for a wide variety of reasons) may not have positive feelings for us. If we cannot encourage people from closeby because they do not wish us to be close, sometimes we must quietly pray from afar rather than to engage in efforts which are likely to be counterproductive. If we know that we are dealing with people who are sensitive about certain subjects, we may simply have to choose not to go into that territory because it will only make them upset, unless they trust us to be sufficiently gentle and tender with our sensitivities. This trust is hard to earn, and sometimes all too easy to lose. The whole point of encouragement, though, is doing well for others. If this means we must care for others privately because it cannot be shown appropriately, so be it. If it means we must be quiet where we would prefer to be loud, or gentle where we would prefer to be strong, or careful where we would prefer to be bold, or restrained where we would prefer to be wild, it is not our own preferences that encouragement is really about, but doing well and wishing well for others. After all, those who wish to encourage us are under the same constraints concerning our own preferences. To the greatest extent we are able to know the preferences of those we wish to encourage, let us act accordingly, and let us place no unnecessary barriers to the encouragement of others.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: The Devil’s Novice

The Devil’s Novice, by Ellis Peters

The titular character in this eighth novel of the Brother Cadfael series [1] is a young man who has been taken in as a novice in order to escape a charge for murder that he did not commit but that his father believes him guilty of who is timid and overly intense by day and thrashes about in torment in the night with horrible sleep. He is troubled by having been accused falsely of violence, and by the torments of his extremely flirtatious future sister-in-law, who appears to enjoy drawing the attraction of every man around here, irrespective of the trouble she causes. For his torments, he is labeled as the devil’s novice and avoided by most of the other students, who are jealous of his brightness and find his suffering easy to make fun of. Naturally, Cadfael, being a sympathetic sort of person to outsiders and suffering innocents, takes him under his wing, and the result ends up being immensely surprising, to say the least, in a family situation that is extremely dysfunctional.

What is of immense interest is that the story of a mysterious missing and murdered priestly ambassador intermixes with the story of abbey politics along with the politics of marriage of nobles and the greater politics of the Anarchy of England, where the quarrels over the throne encourage overly ambitious lesser rules, like the ambitious Earls of Chester and Lincoln, to carve out mini-kingdoms for themselves and murder innocents in order to get the jump on their enemies, only to be foiled by having their plans revealed before they are fully ready. This is a novel where the twist is not personal, but political in nature, and where those who feign friendship are willing to kill to get their chance at advancement, even as others seek to protect their honor and reputation at extreme cost.

Like many of the Cadfael novels, this one has a lot of interlocking parts and memorable characters. Brother Mark, last seen helping the lepers of St. Giles, is seen here as a kindhearted soul whose decency in helping the troubled young novice earn him the path to education and a road into the priesthood, an immediate rise in his own social status. For the unwilling novice himself, he is cleared of charges, restored to the love of a wounded family, and given a chance at love with a young woman who loves him despite his faults and immensely foolish stubbornness. This is a play where most people receive a better fate than they deserve, and where a murder escapes immediate justice only to be pursued by a relentless assistant sheriff who means to take it out on his hide, possibly in a future novel, as armies are gathered in a complicated and multi-front war.

[1] See, for example:

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Keep Up Your Heart

Today, as I was reading a book [1], I was struck by the following quote, as it related to a young man with tormented sleep who saw no escape from the horrors his eyes had seen: “Despair is deadly sin, but worse it is mortal folly. The number of your friends is legion, and God is looking your way as attentively as ever he did. All you have to do to deserve is to wait in patience, and keep up your heart (125).” One of the reasons why physical courage is easier to maintain than moral courage is because physical courage brings glory, and because the danger is external and easy to recognize. Moral courage requires that we keep up our heart when the danger and distress may be known only to ourselves. Also, physical courage is the work of a moment, while moral courage is the accumulation of the work of a lifetime of wrestling with the darkness that has been appointed as our trouble for as long as we inhabit this life. Many of those who appear brave at first glance eventually collapse under the weight of the burdens that they are under.

For a variety of reasons, I am deeply interested in the problem of despair. I have stared long enough into my own darkness and its causes and repercussions, not that I really enjoy staring very much, except I do tend to get rather absent-minded when thinking and forget to change the way my head is pointed, to know that despair is one of my own enemies. How could it be otherwise? One of the most obvious consequences of a lengthy experience with trouble and difficulty is the loss of hope that one will see better days. For example, those who are afflicted with seasonal affective depression (otherwise known as SAD) need the frequent if not continual presence of sunshine to remind them of light, for the absence of sunshine in months of overcast and gloomy days sends them into a dark place because for whatever reason they are not able to summon up the sunshine themselves. We should not be too harsh on such people, for many of us, myself included, are people who must be reminded of the happiness, given the long-term overcast skies our lives have seen. My own struggle for hope in my life has been such that I have never felt able to condemn others for their own struggles or failures in this area. For truly I can cast no stones in such a matter without condemning myself as a hypocrite, for my own struggle to keep up heart has been a matter of public record.

Indeed, the issue of hope and its absence can be a life or death matter. My uncle David was a fairly solitary man, the favorite son of my paternal grandfather, and not the sort of person to openly admit any struggle that was not a physical fight. Yet after years of struggling with alcoholism and depression after the death of his father, he took his own life, unmarried with no children, about the age of thirty. I cannot say I remember anything at all about the man, because he was dead before I visited my father’s family in Western Pennsylvania, but his death still haunts me all the same. His death haunts me because it brings together a host of family issues in one tidy package. You have disastrous parental favoritism, a difficulty in relating to others, a struggle to marry and build a family, and the battle for hope that is a far more grim battle than many people may easily recognize. His death had reverberations in our family, in that it removed a hard-working farmer, whatever his own personal demons, and that the manner of his death led my paternal grandmother to reject the churches of her local community because they all refused to speak on behalf of an obviously troubled and tormented soul, and my grandmother refused to darken the door of a church that would not have mercy on someone who had taken his life in despair. For she, a hard-working and intense German farmer herself, and as hard a time as she had dealing with others on an emotional level, surely knew the sort of torment of her family, even though it seldom, and awkwardly, came out in conversation before her own solitary death when her own heart muscle failed her at last.

A hope that is not seen is not hope, but reality. We only have need of hope because we are created for the light but must pass often through the darkness. We are created for life but made acquainted with death. We are created for love, but our hearts are seldom whole without hurts and wounds. We are created for family but often no strangers to isolation, whether of our own choice or the choice of others to exclude us and be deliberately unfriendly to us. We are created for kindness but continually faced with cruelty, or with the reminders that we have been cruel where we should have been kind ourselves. In such circumstances, we all have need of hope, for we do not see the world that we were created for. We are discontented because we know we do not belong as we are, that we were designed for a better life than we may now enjoy, even if we do not have any idea how it is to get where we should be, as the road is unclear. Yet if we are condemned to travel a dark and lonely road [2], we have need of any light that we can bring with us to shine along the way, so that we do not fall into despair as we travel along the course of our lives.


[2] For a variety of reasons, this is a frequent area of personal musing:

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Album Review: California 37

After the success of their comeback album “Save Me, San Francisco” [1], Train decided to stay close to California and released another album with a similar focus on the wine-growing areas outside of San Francisco. This album was not quite as successful as their previous one, but it still had some big singles, even if those singles were more focused on the Adult Top 40 and Adult Contemporary markets. In many ways, this album marks an elaboration of and a continuation of the previous one. It explores love and family, the bruises one has from past relationships that have gone wrong, and the desire for a new beginning and a fresh start. These are common longings, and well expressed. Now for a track-by-track review:

This’ll Be My Year: The driving spoken-word song that begins this album closely resembles Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” only with a more guitar rock approach, one that blends the spoken word interests of Pat Monahan as songwriter with gentle hooks, and a love of pop culture references. This is a song that was waiting to happen, commenting on the fact that what the narrator really wanted was to find love and a sense of home. Maybe this’ll be my year.

Drive By: A song about a one-night stand that is not what it appears, this is about being overwhelmed when one finds love and intimacy as a fairly shy and timid love. Surely, at least some people are like this, right? It was a well-deserved hit with its theme of romantic devotion and mid-tempo driving guitar part.

Feels Good At First: This song slows down the mood in a country mood, reflecting on the fact that love feels good at first, but doesn’t always feel good. It is a soft and touching ballad with woodwinds that add to the pensive and reflective mood of the song, a suitable album track that reflects a mature experience of love, with all of its ups and downs.

Bruises (featuring Ashley Monroe): This song continues the country vibe, with country singer Ashley Monroe, of the last song. The song talks about running into someone one knew in the past to reflect upon the bruises and wounds and losses that one gains over time as a romantic person in a cruel world that does not reward our faith in love or in the wisdom of our own hearts. This song was a mild hit on Adult Top 40 and Adult contemporary radio, and could have been a country hit as well, with its acoustic vibe.

50 Ways To Say Goodbye: One almost feels guilty for liking this song. It features ludicrous ways for a partner to die as a way of lying about the fact that she left and wants nothing more to do with the narrator, a person who really doesn’t know how to say goodbye well (we all know people like that, I suppose), mariachi instrumentation, and references to Yom Kippur. It was also a hit single among those who didn’t entirely realize how sad this song is despite its fast tempo, or were laughing at the narrator. Some us feel too guilty to laugh, I suppose.

You Can Finally Meet My Mom: This is a song about putting away the clutter that we often use to fill our lives and making time in our lives for those who mean the most to us. With pop culture references aplenty, a common Train phenomenon, a gospel choir singing the title over and over again, this is a song about the importance of finding love and settling down, with a wistful whistling to go along with the general mood of the song.

Sing Together: Another song about marriage, this ukelele-based song (much like “Hey Soul Sister”) compares a loving life in marriage to singing together in a beautiful duet. It is a fitting metaphor for a song that appears like it was made to be sung at wedding receptions for people with similar romantic inclinations to the band. The close of this song is very sweet and lovely as well.

Mermaid: The fourth of the songs on this album to become a radio hit, this song is funny and full of humorous inside jokes about treasure maps and pirates and, well, mermaids. It’s not surprising that this hook-filled power pop number became a hit, but it is a bit surprising that it was buried so deep in album, just to give a reference to Alcatraz and to serve as the inspiration for among the funniest tour titles ever: “Mermaids of Alcatraz.”

California 37: This song is pretty fierce and serves as the true state of Pat Monahan reflecting on the hard work that it took for Train to become a relevant rock & roll act, showing a literal and metaphorical road, reflecting on an ex-wife and a lot of nasty critics, all with subtly distorted lyrics that befit a song about defying one’s haters and doing what one loves and finding success, and giving credit to those who stood by them when times were difficult.

We Were Made For This: An abrupt shift of mood, this song with its sweet and repetitive instrumental part and lyrics soaked in love and devotion to one’s partner, this is a song for a lazy morning of cuddling in bed with a loved one while one’s kids are playing, for those lucky enough to enjoy that sort of thing.

When The Fog Rolls In: The closing song of this album is a reflective piano ballad about the relationship between friends and lovers, and the fact that love doesn’t always seem to work out and when one’s path doesn’t always look clear, like a road when one is socked in by the fog. This song may be compared to “The Finish Line” and a sequel to “Half Moon Bay” from the previous album. It is a moody song, but a lovely one, perfect for those melancholy days when one is having to say goodbye to a past relationship.

Overall, this album features nice elaborations and touches on what one gets used to hearing from a Train album. There is a mix of genres, including some country elements, there are excellent flourishes and instrumentation, a drastic shift in mood from devotion to melancholy to (surprisingly) anger, along with heartfelt lyrics. Four songs off of this album were worthy hits, and several more are likely to be wedding staples for a while to come. If you are a fan of Train’s music, this is a worthy album as part of their organic development from the start, even if it does throw a few curveballs to show surprise and growth.


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Book Review: The Sanctuary Sparrow

The Sanctuary Sparrow, by Ellis Peters

The title character in the seventh [1] Brother Cadfael mystery novel is a young man who escapes from a lynch mob by claiming the right of sanctuary at the abbey where Cadfael lives, after he is falsely accused of theft and murder after being cheated out of his fair wages for singing and playing a version of the viol at a wedding feast for a greedy family of merchants. He is an honest and decent young man whose life has been full of abuse and difficulty, a vagabondish existence where he falls in love with the first young lady who happens to be kind to him. Unlike some unfortunate people, she loves him back, and he finds safety in the sanctuary where he goes to escape trouble. Not everyone who seeks sanctuary is so fortunate to have a forty day grace period to avoid trouble, sadly.

This novel is a mystery in another sense too, in that the story is far progressed before there is even a murder to investigate, before culminating in a dramatic ending with people who think they have nothing to lose and who are ruthless in seeking to defend their interest and claim what they view as theirs. The tension between a love of money and a love of family, and that which threatens both, is present here. Among the more villainous characters in a novel that has plenty of dark people is a seemingly mousy and unlovely wife who uses emotional blackmail to keep her unfaithful new husband loyal after he is exposed and considered a suspect in a murder for sneaking out to enjoy a dalliance with a money-hungry and flirtatious wife of an often-distant merchant. Of course, when bad things keep on happening to the family, it does not take long to figure out that this is not by chance, but by malign design.

Over and over again this play looks at similar issues of love and marriage, of love outside of marriage, of marriages without love, of the bargains and price that people pay to be with those they love, about how the search for love leads some people to be noble and leads others to be petty and destructive. Likewise, some people love peace and quiet more than being just and honorable to others, while others are simply in love with solving mysteries and cannot help but seek to be helpful to those they meet. This is a compelling mystery, one that involves the law and family, and a hope that nice people need not be secretly dark or evil, but really be nice and kind people inside and out. Such could be the material of our lives, if we lived in a kind enough sanctuary, like that of this novel. Not all of us are so fortunate, alas, to live in a novel that is written by someone who wants a happy love story in it, even if it is full of drama and peril. At least there is the payoff to make this fiction enjoyable to read, even if it does at times hit a little close to the desire for sanctuary some people feel even now.

[1] See, for example:

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Rest In Peace, David Ekama

Occasionally it falls to my lot to write about the death of people I know [1], and today I was informed about the sudden death of an acquaintance of mine from my days spent in Western Pennsylvania. I must admit that I did not know the young man who died, David Ekama, very well. He was a good deal younger and we did not hang out in the same circles, but to the extent that I knew him in the context of his family he was a very friendly fellow, very kind-hearted and friendly and easy to be around, and he was spoken of universally as being generous to all within his area of influence. I do not know how he died, but I do know that this young man rests in peace, and I hope that his friends and family may find peace as well. I know all too well that the death of family members and loved ones can be hard to get over, especially when there feels like so much unfinished business. Let us hope that everyone is able to find peace and remember the generosity of character of a young man whose life has been cut off all too soon, and cherish the memories of times spent and moments enjoyed in friendship.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: The Virgin In The Ice

The Virgin In The Ice, by Ellis Peters

As the sixth novel [1] in the Brother Cadfael series, this novel adds some wrinkles to the series. For one, profoundly, it introduces a brave and gallant young liege-at-arms to an Angvin noble who happens to be Cadfael’s own illegitimate son that he never knew he had, and there is some father and son bonding in this novel that is deeply touching and full of mutual love and respect, as both father and son are portrayed as gallant and honorable men. On a slightly more chilling side, the title of the novel makes a strong moral statement about the issue of rape. The virgin in the ice is a young nun murdered by a rapist upset that his previous rape victim, a headstrong and flirtatious young beauty, refused to marry him. By making it plain that a rape survivor (or, the titular victim of a rape/murder) is still a virgin, the author is making a bold statement about virtue even in the face of brutality, which makes Cadfael’s efforts to help encourage the young woman and his unknown son even more touching.

At its core, this novel is about the breakdown of societal structure, and the way in which people use anarchy in the larger scale as a way of providing a space for their own rapacious conduct and their own brutality in the absence of a strong central government. Likewise, this is a novel about the redemptive power of love, even in a world where trust is difficult. With the loyalties of people hard to determine, and the temptation to betray trust ever present, the characters of this novel who are worthy of loyalty have to prove that loyalty in extreme ways, including a willingness to face death in order to fulfill their responsibilities and attempt to retrieve their honor. It is a novel about the struggle that people have to claim an identity, or to avoid crippling feelings of guilt for past mistakes. Even Cadfael himself is not immune to this struggle for self-justification, as when he muses to himself: “There had been other women, before her and after. He remembered them with gratitude, and with no guilt at all. He had given and received pleasure and kindness. None had ever complained of him. If that was a poor defense from the formal viewpoint, nevertheless he felt secure behind it. It would have been an insult to repent of having loved a woman like Miriam (page 13).”

Despite the serious nature of this novel and presentation of Cadfael’s wandering and his struggle to overcome his past, even when he is reminded of it a bit forcefully and surprisingly, this is an immensely satisfying novel. It combines a skillful look at history, a thoughtful approach to mystery, and a deeply humane and uplifting view of legitimacy and love of several kinds. It also, touchingly, gives Cadfael the realization that he is a father, and that despite his own failures in love that his blood, and that of a beloved former lover, live on in a worthy and honorable son. This wrinkle, including the fact that his son is on the opposite side of the Anarchy from his close friend the assistant sheriff, whose wife gives birth during the course of this novel as well, suggests an expansion of Cadfael’s concerns as a monk and as a father in coming novels ahead.

[1] See, for example:

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Organic Evolution

Today, after watching the week’s lectures for my coursera class on the music of the Rolling Stones, I was struck by the scientific implications of the way in which musicians who write their own music behave. One of the lectures this week focused on the stylistic continuity of the band from its original covers through the early 1970’s, focusing on genres like country, soul, gospel, rock, blues, and psychadelic. Despite the fact that we may listen to an album and try to label it as a particular genre, it is far more common that a band reaches fairly early its general range of styles, and then revisits and refines the same themes and concerns over time, or they gradually shift with age and maturity. This is a natural process, and one that we see consistently. It is one of a small set of organic patterns that we see over and over again, and that is worthy of comment.

Let us note here that we are speaking about bands or singers that write their own material. The organic process of gradual change within somewhat narrow bounds, or rapid development of genre and slow development and elaboration within those genres, or of oscillation between a small set of approaches, is what we see when we look at the geologic record of life. The Cambrian explosion set up nearly all of the large scale genres for life to fit in, and everything else was largely elaboration within those limits. Likewise, the change over time of finch beak size is not in one direction but is oscillation within a range is based on environmental conditions, and there are constraints on either side as to how much variation is permissible beyond which a creature will not go. Whether we are talking about Beck albums or finch beak sizes or powdered moth coloration, this pattern of oscillation within narrow bounds is observed.

What this suggests is that there really is something organic about people writing their own music and lyrics. Art is an organic process. Even where it does not become stuck in a rut, there is a certain comfort to the way artists behave after a long time. There is only so much variation that is naturally present within the same genome or the same individuals, and so after a while one has seen it or read it or heard it before. Occasionally, the pressure of external circumstances or a sudden flash of insight or connection may create new elaborations, but this requires a consistent devotion to improvement and development that is not present in nature without the aid of conscious design and effort. Yet the behavior of musicians and artists in general has not generally been seen as part of the same pattern of behavior of the larger world of life.

This is somewhat puzzling. If there is a fairly narrow bound beyond which individuals and small groups do not go beyond once they have set their initial conditions, unless there is conscious design and effort and overcoming resistance to change, a process that is difficult and laborious and often immensely time and effort-intensive, then why should we expect undirected processes without teleological qualities or conscious effort to produce miracles. We do not see miracles in our own lives from time without effort. If we are estranged from people who do not speak to us or care for us, or think well of us, time will not erase that enmity and replace it with fond feelings or even a desire to start over unless that enmity is consciously addressed and overcome, or forgiven and the slate is wiped clean. Time alone creates no miracles.

Yet time itself can provide a context by which effort can be useful with planning and design. At the beginning of their career, the Rolling Stones performed tours and shows at a relentless pace, but those shows were short, and the band’s early efforts were heavy on cover songs and songs that were clearly inspired by other songs without a great deal of originality. Yet after a little bit of time, they had become well-practiced enough to charge confidently into a few genres and themes (like dissatisfaction or the fickleness of love) that they returned to over and over again with elaboration and refinement. There would be different emphases at different times, but within the same range. So it is with anyone who creates; there are consistent concerns that are returned to over and over again with a slightly different emphasis but with the same general patterns. We see in nature what we see in art; therefore, we see the process of creation rather than having the benefits of design apart from the occasionally undesirable existence of a Designer.

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Book Review: The 5 Love Languages

The 5 Love Languages: The Secret To Love That Lasts, by Gary Chapman

It is perhaps highly ironic as someone who thinks and writes about love so often that this book has escaped my voracious reading until now, even though I once attended a seminar at the Winter Family Weekend my church holds on the book. Among its many virtues is the fact that this book is straightforward and manages to toe a narrow line between the universality of its principles about there being a small set of core ways that people feel and express love with a large degree of variation within those types based on cultural, background, and personality concerns. Another virtue is a certain sense of humility in knowing that while certain principles may usually work and certain patterns of behavior exist that people cannot be coerced into feeling or giving love simply because someone speaks their language. This is a salutary and necessary reminder.

In terms of its organization, this book introduces the crucial issue of people not feeling loved after the wedding, and the problem of keeping people’s “love tank” full. Then the book spends about half of its pages talking about the five languages, including some of their major variations, with stories about how the author recognized those languages and how partners at the brink of separation and divorce can learn how to communicate love to each other before it is too late. The author talks about infidelity, the gradual cooling of love after initial infatuation, and about the fact that love is ultimately a choice to show outgoing concern for someone even apart from the shifting nature of one’s emotional state. This can be a hard lesson for any of us to take, and the fact that the book dwelt so much on troubled marriages and renewed romance was a bit tough to read.

At its core, this is a practical book about communication. Assuming we wish to convey love and concern for others, this book provides us ways this can be done that it will be most effectively understood. The fact that this book focuses mostly on marriage is understandable but, in my case, a bit lamentable. Nevertheless, insofar as all of us have our own characteristic ways of feeling loved and automatically showing love, this book is an easy-to-read and useful guide to doing so with an aim for understanding others as well as being understood so that we may have better marriages, a better relationship with our children, better experiences on the job, and better friendships. Of course, some of us long for the opportunity to show and feel love in these areas of life, opportunities that, for whatever reason, have not yet come.

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Saying I’m Your Number One

In the current hit “Lips Are Moving,” contemporary pop/50’s girl pop throwback Meagan Trainer sings about a problem that was highly relevant to many of the young women I happened to see at a recent dance, judging by their enthusiastic singing along to the words. Of particular interest is the prechorus to the song, which reads as follows:

“I know you lie
‘Cause your lips are moving
Tell me do you think I’m dumb?
I might be young, but I ain’t stupid
Talking around in circles with your tongue
I gave you bass, you gave me sweet talk
Saying how I’m your number one
But I know you lie
‘Cause your lips are moving
Baby don’t you know I’m done [1].”

At the heart of this prechorus is a fallacy by equivocation. In fact, there very well may be two. As these are problems that can frequently ruin relationships and deal at the core with the problem of loyalty, it is worthwhile to point out the source of the fallacy and recognize it when and where it can be damaging to our own friendships and courtships. The singer is bemoaning the fact that she was dating a cheater, and implies that he was lying when he told her that she was his number one. This may not have been the case, though. In fact, saying that someone is a “number one” directly implies that there is a number two at least, and possibly a lot more. Number one is a rank on the list, and the singer, quite understandably and properly, wanted to be the only one, as well she should. But saying someone is the only one and the number one are not the same things. One needs to be precise about these matters.

It is possible that the failure of equivocation goes even deeper than that. It is possible that the guy used the same failure of equivocation to give the impression of loyalty to her without actually meaning it. After all, it is fairly easy to misunderstand words, especially in the context of relationships and intimacy, where we will often hear and interpret behavior and words that are ambiguous according to our wishes and longings and not always with a high degree of accuracy. However, if the guy intended to confuse the singer about his intentions by leading her to believe that she was his only one when in fact she may have been a narrow number one on a lengthy list where convenience and variety was particularly valued, that would be an immensely wicked sort of deception to play.

This sort of misunderstanding of words, whether deliberate or not, is not that uncommon. Recently I was gathering my belongings at services to leave when I got caught up in a conversation that was going on next to me. I happened to say that I had never played Wallyball myself, and it was taken by someone in the conversation, perhaps playfully or maliciously, to be an obvious sort of foolish comment to say, since one does not play Wallyball by oneself. Of course, the only people I know who play the sport were a part of that conversation, and my chances of being invited to play along with them are not particularly high, so it is unsurprising that I would not have played the sport. Of course, if there was an implied invitation, open or otherwise, that would change my view of the interaction from one of irritation with being misunderstood to concern for the logistics of the matter.

And that is at the core of this problem of ambiguous meanings. Do you wish to truly understand and be understood or do we prefer to take advantage of ambiguity to avoid dealing with difficult truths. If we desire to be clear about ourselves and our intentions, and we put our character before others as an open and mostly decent book, then we would expect not to have any songs like “Lips Are Moving” written and sung to or about us. That is a good thing, as it is a pretty harsh song. If others are equally honest and kind with us, we have the chance of forming strong friendships and relationships through honest communication and outgoing love and concern. And that should be what we are all looking for, without playing word games and trying to tease or deceive others.


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