Escape from War

One of the most interesting facts I’ve learned while reading the Letters of J.R.R Tolkien is that he began writing his stories while he was deployed during World War I. It was one of several similarities I found between us, for I also wrote fiction and poetry during all three of my deployments. Most deployed service members try to find ways of escaping their dreary lives away from home, whether through gaming, sports, or reading. Writing is one of the best ways to escape since it allows you to create a world where everything turns out happily in the end.

As I noted the past few weeks, I’ve been reading the Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, which contain the most open declarations about his views of faith and literature. It also includes many biographical facts as he comments about events in his life. In one letter, he described that he began writing the mythology of Middle Earth while in a hospital after the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Many people don’t realize that Tolkien served in the trenches of World War I, and it is from this that he developed his views of the evils of mechanized warfare so evident in The Lord of the Rings. Although he didn’t comment about it at the time, when he was so absorbed with the war and had no idea his private world would amount to anything, later he recalled how he began to develop his own mythos based on Norse, Finish, and British legends, which he had studied in his short time at Oxford University before being assigned as an officer.

Tolkien considered his writing an escape, as became clear in letters composed during World War II. He wrote often to his son Christopher, who served in Africa during the war, and he frequently commented on the similarities of their experience. He observed that Christopher had to deal with the same old “camp” problems Tolkien had – regimentation, “grimy canteens,” “lectures in cold fogs,” and “huts full of blasphemy and smut.” He referred to Christopher as “a hobbit amongst the Urukhai,” meaning the tribe of dirty orcs who had captured Merry and Pippin in LOTR. In another letter, he added, “Only in one way was I better off: wireless [radio] was not invented,” which he called “the weapon of the fool, the savage, and the villain … to destroy thought.” He would later send Christopher copies of chapters of LOTR as he completed them. “You are suffering from suppressed ‘writing,’” he wrote, noting this was the result of Tolkien raising him on storytelling. Tolkien had been writing stories for his children for years – the Hobbit and Roverandom both originated as stories he read to his children. He wrote he had originally used “escapism” to adjust to dislocation in moving from South Africa as a child, “and I still draw on the conceptions then hammered out,” though as a soldier he had little time except on leave or in the hospital.

I related closely to many of these experiences. As I’ve retold many times, I originally wrote The Fairy Child to my children while deployed to Iraq and sent it home to them a chapter at a time. When I deployed the second and third time, my children begged me to write them new stories, which resulted in The Mermaid’s Quest and Troll-Bane (unpublished). While I wrote mainly for them, there were times when I also suffered from “suppressed writing” – I thought I would burst if I didn’t write something. For me, as with Tolkien at war, writing was an escape, a way of processing being separated from home, suffering through war, and being constantly in the company of others. Though I often enjoyed the fellowship of brothers in arms, I also at times wished for nothing but to get away from everyone else for quiet thinking. I used to go and sit on the roof of one of the office buildings just to get away from everyone. My writing was a way of dealing with the issues I faced during deployment just as much as it was a way to help my children deal with their issues.

One of my favorite poems is “The Prudent Jailer,” by C.S. Lewis, which perfectly describes the way those burdened by war often feel, where he compares living in this world to being in prison:

Escapists? Yes. Looking at bars
And chains, we think of files; and then
Of black nights without moon or stars
And luck befriending hunted men.

The jailer, he observes, tells the prisoners, “The proper study of prisoners is prison,” which he calls “tireless propaganda.” For most people, “stone walls cannot a prison make / half so secure as rigmarole.”

Most service members face many of the same feelings. They are trapped far from home under incredible stress and sometimes great violence. Is it any wonder that their thoughts turn to life back home or to other places and times where the story turns out happily? This is why fiction, and fairytales especially, are so powerful. For some, the very act of creating or writing is the escape. For others, it’s traveling, or exercising, or watching football, or planning vacations. It’s anything that helps them to escape the problems of warfare if only for a moment and regain the hope they have lost.

© 2021 J.D. Manders

Allegory or Myth

Many people who read look for symbolism. This is a natural way of interpreting literature – to look for how books relate to real life. In many cases, the author encourages this use of symbolism. In other cases, readers view all symbols as allegory – e.g., Aslan, Harry Potter, Meg, and Frodo are all Christ-like figures who must sacrifice themselves to save others. Yet, while many authors seem comfortable in having their works described as allegory, it was a description that J.R.R. Tolkien often rejected while at the same time acknowledging there were certain symbolic parallels of his faith in the myth he created.

As I noted in my last article, I’ve recently been reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien was an avid letter-writer, and it is here, rather than in his fiction, that he explains his religious and literary ideas. For many people, one of his most surprising views is that he detested allegory and chafed whenever anyone described Lord of the Rings as allegorical. “I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory,” he plainly stated in 1951 when shopping LOTR to several publishers. Most likely, he was thinking of the very specific definition of allegory as used in Medieval literature, in which everything in a story represents something else. Pilgrim’s Progress is perhaps the best-known allegory, although it dates after the Middle Ages. The point Tolkien makes may be a fine one, but it reflects his strict use of literary terms and his view of intentionality. People today use the term allegorical to mean anything written with any message in mind expressed as symbols, but in Tolkien’s time the more formal definition was more common. In any case, Tolkien repeatedly said he did not write the books to make a religious or political point. For those who believed the book was about World War II, he was quick to point out that he started planning LOTR some three years before the war started. While he did not deny certain innate elements of his belief came through, he intentionally avoided the topic of religion. There are no temples among the denizens of Middle Earth because God exists mainly in the background.

Tolkien was more comfortable describing LOTR as myth or fairy story, which he argued were also important for adults as for children. “Fairy story has its own mode of reflecting ‘truth’, different from allegory, or (sustained) satire, or ‘realism,’ and in some way more powerful. But first of all it must succeed just as a tale,” he wrote a magazine editor in 1956. He wished to create a story with a history and background so realistic (what he called “mythopoeic”) that the truth it reflected would not be readily apparent. At the same time, Tolkien himself had earlier acknowledged that the use of allegorical language and symbols were unavoidable, and that, the better a story, “the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations,” and the better allegory is written, “the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.” In this sense, Tolkien accepted that his stories did have a meaning that related to the real world, which crept in despite no intent on his part to do so. In short, he did not deny that his mythical world reflected his personal views, but the fact he did not try to make this a point is what made it so effective.

When asked what he thought was the meaning of LOTR, Tolkien acknowledged three issues in which his story reflected reality: Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. The idea of a fall was perhaps most prominent. Decline of peoples due to a moral failure is a frequent theme in history, from Atlantis to Rome. It is also a biblical theme harkening back to Eden. The mythos of the Valar, the corruption of the Elves by Morgoth and then Sauron, and the corruption of Numenor by Sauron are all examples of deception of people resulting in the destruction and fall of nations living in veritable paradise. In LOTR, the corruption of Saruman, of Theoden, and of Denethor follow this theme. A major part of the drama was trying to prevent a fall and then how to address a fall.

Another area that greatly concerned Tolkien was the overarching concern with mortality. He created two different categories of peoples with different timelines – elves and mayar, who are both eternal; and man, hobbits, and dwarves, who are not. For man, the great temptation was always to gain immortality; for the elves, the focus was preventing the passage of time and death of the mortal world and beings. This also reflects Eden, since the original temptation was for man to become like God. This remained the great temptation throughout the LOTR and its myth and is the subject of considerable commentary. Is it worth Arwen giving up immortality to marry Aragorn? Do the eternal people wish to pass to the West or remain and keep a hold on Middle Earth? Elven realms, such as Imladris and Lothlorien, existed as strongholds where nothing ever changed. In the end, however, they all passed to the West, leaving only mortal men, for this was their destiny.

Finally, Tolkien saw a great struggle of machinery against nature. For Tolkien, the machinery of Sauron and Saruman tried to change nature to give them advantage, but they ended up destroying everything that made fighting worthwhile. He likewise argued that magic was a type of machinery, for it sought to change the natural order to gain dominance of others. This was not the case with what some called elven magic, for they were simply using their natural abilities to create things of beauty consistent with nature. It was the use of power to dominate that defined magic. Thus, many saw the machinery of Sauron and Saruman as magic, while Tolkien saw it as a type of machinery because it tried to achieve the same purpose. For example, use of rings to maintain life unnaturally or control others was the type of machinery against which Tolkien fought. So also in the real world, where people use science to unnaturally extend life, technology to create an artificial world, and political manipulation to control others. Tolkien condemned these as heartily as he did the magic of the enemy in LOTR.

Thus, while Tolkien denied that the LOTR was an allegory, he admitted that it reflected his views in specific areas, such as his view of fall, of the temptation of immortality, and the desire to use nature instead of working within it. In fact, all fairy tales and myths reflect a certain reality, which is that there are powers greater than us that work all things together for our good. Despite his protestations that his tale had any allegorical meaning, it nevertheless reflected his views. All art reflects the views of its creator – it is impossible for it not to, for what we create naturally contains an imprint of ourselves. Such is the nature of art, creation, and literature.

© 2021 J.D. Manders

Good, Evil, or In-Between

For most people, life is about a struggle between good and evil. Whether you define good as adhering to a specific religion, moral code, or political cause, everyone tends to see the world in black and white. Those who agree with you are good; those who disagree are bad. Our literature tends to reflect this same division, whether it’s heroes versus villains, investigators versus criminals, or warriors and spies versus national enemies. Many see books such as the Lord of the Rings the same way, yet J.R.R. Tolkien often rejected such labels. For him, people weren’t good or evil but somewhere in between.

I’ve recently been reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Like C.S. Lewis (though fewer of his letters survive), Tolkien was both an avid letter-writer and a packrat who kept nearly every scrap of paper he wrote. As a historian, I’ve always found great value in correspondence for gaining insight into people’s real views, since many people are much more open in letters about their feelings than in their public pronouncements. Tolkien’s letters provide us with marvelous insight into his travails in completing the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings as well as problems he had with publishing his works, such as the fact it took him several years to publish LOTR after he completed it. We can follow his career in light of World War I and World War II and see him comment on the issues of the day. It is here, primarily, rather than in his fiction, that we get a sense of his religious and literary views.

One of Tolkien’s views that has not received a lot of commentary was his rejection of his characters as symbols of good or evil. This was and remains a common interpretation of LOTR, which many see as a basic tale of good versus evil in a fantasy universe ­– Gandalf is good and Sauron is evil, etc. Yet Tolkien himself rejected this interpretation: “Some reviewers have called the whole thing simple-minded, just a plain fight between Good and Evil….Pardonable, perhaps…in people in a hurry, and with only a fragment to read.” Aside from Boromir’s temptation and Denethor’s despair, he pointed most prominently to the corruption of the elves by Morgoth in his then-unpublished Silmarillion. A few years later, he clarified, “In my story I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing.” Rather, evil was merely corrupted good. Just as Satan was a fallen angel in Christian theology, so also Morgoth and Sauron were also fallen angelic creatures. While Sauron was as close to absolute evil as one could get, Tolkien observed that “he had gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of the earth. But he went further than human tyrants in price and cost for domination, being in origin an immortal (angelic) spirit.”

Tolkien held similar views of the main characters in LOTR, whom he saw, not as good or evil, but as imperfect creatures who strove toward good and often made mistakes. Nowhere was this as clear as his treatment of Frodo. Several people had written to him questioning why Frodo had been given such honor when he had failed by claiming the ring for his own and only destroyed it accidentally. Tolkien’s answer was that Frodo “was honoured because he had accepted the burden voluntarily, and had then done all that was within his utmost physical and mental strength to do. He (and the Cause) were saved – by Mercy: by the supreme value and efficacy of Pity and forgiveness of injury.” He admitted that Frodo failed but rejected the idea of an “indominable hero.” Instead, he appealed to the Lord’s Prayer and being led not into temptation but delivered from evil. “A petition against something that cannot happen is unmeaning.” In his response to a similar letter, he noted, “It is possible for the good, even the saintly, to be subjected to a power of evil which is too great for them to overcome – in themselves. In this case the cause (not the ‘hero’) was triumphant, because by the exercise of pity, mercy, and forgiveness of injury, a situation was produced in which all was redressed and disaster averted.” In short, even imperfect creatures who try to be good must rely on a higher power, which works out all things for a greater good.

Although many accuse Tolkien of simplicity or presenting shallow characters in a fairy-tale ending, his characters reflected his view of the world, which is that no one is purely evil or good. Rather, we are fallen creatures who struggle. Even when we choose good, we all sometimes fail, and even when we choose evil, our deeds still work out for good. In those cases, it is the grace of God that allows the cause of good to succeed, especially when we are personally weak. There is a fairytale ending, but it comes not because of the power of heroic characters, but because of the power of the author of history, who carries us to meet our destiny even when we lack the strength.

© 2021 J.D. Manders

Soldiers Also Experience Separation Anxiety

As a proponent of family readiness, I’ve spent a lot of time discussing the challenges that family members and especially children have with deployments and separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is when someone becomes anxious over being separated from family members. It is something that families of service members, first responders, and many others often face. Yet as I’ve recently rediscovered, service members themselves also often experience separation anxiety.

I have spoken often about the challenges that children experience when service members deploy. My first deployment, my children had a lot of typical issues – they had problems sleeping (nightmares, sleepwalking, etc.), acted out in school, made worse grades, etc. Although I did not know this would be an effect of my being gone, I quickly learned about separation anxiety. I afterwards spent considerable time trying to connect with my children to lessen their concerns. Although the anxiety was less noticeable in later deployments, it was nevertheless still there. As my children became older, they were able to talk about their feelings, and they understood when they felt disconnected and made efforts to get in touch with me, and I continued to stay in touch with them as adults if only to make them feel comfortable being on their own. In fact, they did the same when they went off to college or went on trips.

While it’s mostly children and family members that we think about as having anxiety, service members also suffer from separation issues, although they are much less likely to show symptoms until later. While deployed, they are usually too busy at first to worry about family. After time, the anxiety comes out as they worry about those back home, think or dream about them, and feel lonely or disconnected from them. Although most service members try to stay connected with their families through social media or phone calls, these occasional touch points are not enough, and they slowly become distant from those they most love. This sense of disconnectedness becomes more acute once they return. Often service members feel like they don’t fit in the family anymore. Sometimes this is because of families having grown more independent while they’re away – their spouses now take care of their finances or yardwork alone, children have learned to read to themselves instead of having their parent who is serving reading to them, or the family has a new schedule from which returning service members are excluded. Sometimes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) makes these separations worse, but even service members who do not face the rigors of combat experience separation anxiety and associated depression and pain.

For myself, I became aware I suffered from some of these feelings only after my last deployment. My previous deployments, I had come home and immediately went back to work. Staying busy kept me from noticing my disorientation. In 2018, I was unemployed for some three months. In the interim, my wife returned to work, and my children were in school. Left alone with my thoughts, I experienced depression such as I have never felt before. It occurred to me that, of the 25 years of my marriage, between training, work trips, and deployments, I had been separated from my wife and family more than a quarter of that time. I thought about all that I had missed – birthdays, holidays, Christmases, vacations, changes in my children; and all the problems that my absence had created – financial burdens, household chores, safety and security, and more. Most of all, I felt a sense of loneliness, separation from family, and disconnectedness. As I looked back on earlier deployments, I saw that I had felt the same thing many of those other times, though I did not know what they were. I had also suffered from anxiety at times, although I was often too busy to notice or else I buried these feelings. Only in quiet seclusion did I begin to pay attention to these issues for the first time.

The truth is that many service members suffer from similar problems of adjustment due to living apart from family, but many are too busy or lack the introspection skills to notice. Especially among men, who often don’t like talking about their feelings or who try to be tough or hard, this can be difficult to admit. Only after they lash out at others, struggle with substance abuse, go through divorces, or experience dread or pain without knowing the reason do they begin to see that their own anger, frustration, pain, and depression are the result of being separated from their loved ones for long periods of time. Sometimes it takes a shock to make you really begin to examine yourself and change your attitude. However, it is only then that real healing can begin to take place.

I say this not to cause anyone embarrassment but simply to recognize that even service members must deal with their separation issues and anxiety. They also can take steps to connect more with their families and lessen their feelings of disconnectedness, both while deployed and when they return. Their families can take steps to help returning service members feel more integrated and included. Simply recognizing that Soldiers can have separation anxiety, too, can help with the healing process.

© 2021 J.D. Manders

Take Time to Train Your Children

I was talking to a parent recently who said that she always had to pick up for her children. When I asked her why she did not train them, she said she did not have time. She was always in a hurry when they left the house, and her child always dawdled about chores. The problem is that this situation will never improve with age. Another few years of always being in a hurry will result in having a preteen who never does chores, who will then become an adult who never does chores. It may take some extra effort, but we should always take the time to train our children.

It’s a fact that training children takes longer than training adults. At first, this is because they are untrained and don’t know how to do anything, especially with young children. They don’t know because no one has ever shown them how to do chores. Just like any other training, such as teaching children how to read, you have to take the time to show children how to do chores; you can’t just assume they will know. This means helping them pick up toys and putting them on the shelf, helping them put trash in the trash can, helping them put dirty clothes in the hamper and hang up clean clothes, and helping them put dirty dishes in the dishwasher. At least at first, the parent will have to do the chore with the child. You have to help them or show them how to pick up and put things away before you can expect them to do it on their own. Even then, they are children. You have to monitor them and correct them to ensure the job gets done. This means taking more time than simply doing it yourself. It’s only after they do a chore several dozen times that you can trust them to do it without your help. This is a normal part of the training process, what the Army calls crawl, walk, run, for you must learn to do all things with help before you do them by yourselves.

The difficulty for most parents is that they don’t want to take the time, either because of being in a hurry, because of being tired, or simply because of not wanting to do it. However, parents must recognize that raising children takes effort and time on their part. Children are not wind-up toys that you can simply give instructions to and leave alone in their rooms or in the kitchen. You must set aside time to instruct your children by showing them how to do their chores. If you want them to learn a chore, you have to take the time to teach them and not wait until the last minute when you are in a hurry. Likewise, if you promise to discipline them by taking them home from the store, you have to be willing to take the time in doing so. This is why it’s better to schedule time to train your children when you have time to do so instead of trying to hurriedly instruct them as you are leaving, when everyone is ready for bed, or while you are working on something else. Everyone gets tired, and sometimes everyone even gets a little lazy, but once we’ve taken on the responsibility of having and raising children, we must take the time to show our children how to become adults who are hard-working and responsible.

If parents take the time to train their children, they might be surprised by the results. By the time that our children started kindergarten, they could pick up their rooms and put folded clothes away. By the time they were in grade school, they were unloading the dishwasher, helping wash clothes, and folding clothes. By the time they were in middle school, they could clean the kitchen, sweep, mop, weed the flowerbeds, and rake. When they could drive, we sent them shopping and to run errands. We naturally gauged their ability by their age (it’s hard to get children to clean counters they can’t see or to use brooms taller than they are), but we spent the time to train them to do these tasks, showing them what we expected and then checking on them. When our children went away to school, we were surprised how hard they worked to keep their laundry and dishes up to date and their personal spaces clean. Even our messy daughter has proven cleaner than we expected. While we hear some parents say their children are too young or that they always do things the wrong way, it is possible to raise productive children if you take the time to show them how to do chores.

Training is a process that requires more than just telling people to do something. This is as true with adults as with children. You have to show them how before you can expect them do it on their own. Especially with children, you may have to show them many times. This requires time. If you leave training children to the last minute, you will never be successful. If you take the time to train your children, you will always be surprised by the results.

© 2021 J.D. Manders

Faith Requires Experience

For many people, faith and religion are primarily about the intellectual acceptance of creeds and tenets, about following an ideology, or about recognizing the truth. In fact, these are only the first steps of what I would define as true religion. You may have to accept certain truths to begin to encounter God, but ultimately it is only by experiencing God that we can truly forge a relationship with our Creator, which as I’ve argued repeatedly ought to be the goal of faith. In short, faith requires embracing an experience-based mysticism.

I must be careful about using the term “mysticism,” which has earned a bad connotation in some Christian circles. The word “mystic” originally meant an initiate who had a spiritual experience to advance in a religion. Although many pagan religions used the term for their members, the early church also used it to describe ascetics or others who sought spiritual experiences in Christ. Until the third century, spiritual experiences were a regular part of all Christian services. Even after this point, mysticism continued among many groups, such as monastics. Today, too many people associate mystics with kooks or supernaturalists who seek out spiritual experiences regardless of the source, for example through spiritism, ghost hunting, or religious experimentation. While one must always be careful not to open up to harmful spiritual experiences, many throw the baby out with the bathwater by suggesting that all spiritual experiences are illegitimate. Most of this is due to the more scientific attitude that pervades modern culture, which tends to doubt supernatural encounters.

This attitude really did not begin to change until the 1920s and 1930s with the work of Evelyn Underhill, among others. She was a contemporary of C.S. Lewis and friend of Charles Williams who popularized Christian mysticism through dozens of books, public lectures, radio addresses, and private prayer and worship groups. During the same time in the U.S., Evangelicalism, which tends to focus on spiritual experience, began to grow, holding enormous influence on the rest of the church, including those who doubted their experiences. Since the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, having spiritual experiences has become an ordinary part of the Christian movement. People talk about having God-encounters, and even mainstream preachers such as Rick Warren speak of “Experiencing God.” The very concept of being “born again” implies undergoing a spiritual change that comes from experiencing and submitting to God. In this sense, while many religions have mystical branches, Christianity is perhaps the only faith that requires mysticism because it demands having spiritual experiences to even begin to believe and know God.

This doesn’t mean having a spiritual experience is the same as having a relationship with the Father. Many people of all faiths have spiritual experiences without ever encountering God or placing their faith in Him. It may be necessary to believe in certain creeds, but a spiritual encounter with God ought to accompany intellectual conversion. Neither does having spiritual experiences negate the need for growing in righteousness, which is the natural result of encountering God. Those who think they don’t need to change after they have a spiritual experience may need to look again at whether they actually encountered God. They may need to ask themselves whether they have gone deep enough. At the same time, as Underhill often observed, neither does a mystical, experience-based approach to God imply a mountaintop experience or isolating ourselves. We often encounter God most when we are working or when we worship in a group, for God moves as often in everyday activities as He does when we are in a prayer closet. Nevertheless, we must all recognize that there must be a God-encounter based on experience to begin to have a relationship with Him.

Many often differentiate between “believing in” and “believing on,” and that they are not the same. Simply “believing in” God does not mean you have a faith-based relationship with Him, nor does accepting church doctrine or creeds necessarily result in belief. As some note, even the devil believes in God and trembles. “Believing on” means trusting in, and you can’t trust someone you’ve never met, do not know, and never experience. Without experiencing God, you cannot trust Him or have a relationship with Him. Faith requires experiencing God.

© 2021 J.D. Manders

The Need for Scouting

When I was growing up, I had a great love of nature, and I loved exploring and being outdoors. Scouting (Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts) was an important part of this process. Although I never made Eagle Scout, scouting taught me many lessons and left me with an enduring interest in camping, outdoor living, and service. Sadly, scouting is nearing extinction in the U.S. as numbers have declined, but today’s generation needs scouting more than ever.

I recently read an article about the decline of scouting in America. In the past three years, participation in scouting organizations nationwide has declined by more than 50 percent, from 1.97 million to about 762,000. People have explained this decline by a number of factors – COVID, lawsuits over sexual abuse, integrating women and homosexuals, and politically motivated training. It is undeniable these had an effect – because of integration of women, the Church of Latter Day Saints ended its century-long association with the Scouts. Yet this decline has been ongoing for years – scouting membership dropped from 6.5 million in 1972 to less than 4.8 million in the mid-1990s. In other words, the more recent controversies associated with scouting only accelerated a long-term decline that started 50 years ago. This would suggest that most of the decline are the results of generational changes in culture. These changes include greater urbanization, reliance on technology, and moral ambivalence. These are the very areas where scouting teaches important lessons.

Most people alive today have lived their entire lives in urban or suburban environments, in which they have every comfort and luxury. They rarely live outside of air conditioning, they ride in cars everywhere they go, and they buy all needs from local stores or on the Internet. The result is a generation that doesn’t know how to survive outside of these luxuries. It’s a sad situation when members of Congress don’t realize that someone has to kill the meat and reap the crops they eat. I’m a big believer in living off the land as much as possible by growing my own vegetables and fruit. I’ve actually had some people question why I can my own vegetables and jelly when it would be cheaper to buy them. It’s still traditional for many people where I live to put up food they can use all winter to supplement store-bought food. Likewise, as a child, I remember making soap and candles, tying knots, building my own furniture, and repairing electronics instead of merely throwing things away. My brother made his own bow and arrows using a kiln he made in our backyard. I’m not endorsing conspiracy theories about technology outages, but I do believe in being prepared. As recently as 2011, tornadoes where I live knocked out power for more than seven days. Scouting not only teaches us skills to be self-reliant, how to hunt or harvest, and how to survive, they build up our endurance to do these activities when the air is off.

Reliance on technology is perhaps one of the biggest changes to our culture. Social media, smart phones, and electronic games have taken the place of exploration and sometimes even all outdoor play. I am no Ted Kaczynski, preaching an anti-technology gospel. Technology provides us many wonderful benefits, and I enjoy them as much as the next person. The problem is letting our other skills and awareness of nature atrophy. From a practical standpoint, the self-reliant or survivalist must know basic outdoor skills, such as land navigation, avoiding poisonous plants and animals, obtaining food from the land, or living outdoors. Many people today have never been camping, fishing, or hunting; some have never been alone in nature before. Yet even if we were to eliminate such practical uses of this kind of training, there are other advantages. I’ve discussed many times the spiritual benefits of nature, from personal enjoyment to experiencing God. Nature holds important lessons for us, such as self-reliance and self-confidence, bravery, peace of mind, love of others, and a sense of proportion. Scouting helps us to explore, survive, and learn to live in harmony with nature rather than being users of it.

While most recent objections to scouting have been on moral grounds, it is this more than anything that this generation needs. I am not specifically referring here to issues with sexuality, abuse, or woke political ideology. While there may have been issues such as these at the national level, most local troops have been impacted very little by recent controversies. When abuse does happen, it is inexcusable, but I believe it is rare. Rather, I am talking about the moral teaching that scouting has longtime provided, such as service, kindness, friendship, self-reliance, and patriotism. The issues are often related – the increasing moral turbidity, vanity, self-centeredness, and hedonism of our culture have gone hand-in-hand with a decline in service, hatred of country, and unkind treatment of others. Yet it is precisely these things that would help the youth of today by teaching them there are things more important than themselves. Scouting provides these lessons by placing children in a structured environment where they learn to serve others, get along, and respect our nation. It is no surprise that many who start in the Scouts end up in the military, which reinforces many of the same values.

It may be that the Scouts will not last another generation. If so, it will be a sad day. At the same time, there are many other outlets to learn the same lessons and skills, such as Royal Rangers, OAK, Mountaineers, Quest, OutdoorIQ, and many others. For those who are not joiners, simply forcing your kids to go outdoors, learn survival skills, and serve others will do well to set them onto a path for a better life. Scouting is essential for a child’s education and is still very much needed today.

© 2021 J.D. Manders

It Is Still Worth It

Like most of my fellow veterans, I watched on television in horror as the Taliban took over the country of Afghanistan, where I had deployed in 2012. The scenes were gut-wrenching, both in seeing extremists in charge of the nation and also in watching our allies die as they tried to escape. I’ve seen a lot of conversations among other veterans about whether we have been betrayed and our sacrifices wasted. Some ask, was it worth it? To this, I must answer a resounding, YES. It was worth it. I might answer the same way about all of my deployments, for service is always honorable and worthwhile.

First, we must ask why we deployed to Afghanistan, and why we deploy to other locations. Most people argue it is to help the people of the countries where we go. In the short run, however, the reason why service members go to other nations is because we are ordered. As members of the military, we serve the nation and execute the missions given to us. Sometimes these seem to missions make sense, and sometimes they don’t, but we do it for our own nation, not for the sake of others. At the beginning of this conflict, the mission made sense. Our purpose was to remove those who had orchestrated 9-11 and stop it from happening again. Politicians disagreed about whether this required nation-building or not, but there is little doubt that we fulfilled this mission at the time. For all practical purposes, this mission was over by 2014 when we started to draw down troops, though most recognized we would need to keep some numbers there for many years. While it may seem that this purpose is unraveling and the threat increasing, yet at least on my watch it was fulfilled. For more than twenty years, our enemies were on the run and unable to form an adequate defense, let alone mount an attack on U.S. soil. We completed the mission given to us and met the requirements of our nation.

Of course, as service members, we want to know that we are helping people, that we are more than a cog in the machine of war. We want to feel good about our service and believe that we helped make a difference in the world. For the same reason as above, I believe that we did. I remember while in Afghanistan visiting schools and marketplaces and seeing young girls and women freely walking the street. I watched engineers building roads and buildings, putting up utilities, and cities springing up. I saw the impact that capitalism made in the lives of ordinary people. It is true that many of these freedoms and benefits are quickly fading and that future generations will be made to suffer. At least while I was there, it was a far less dangerous place than it was before we came or will be after we leave. A whole generation of young girls grew to adulthood without knowing the oppression of the Taliban, and that is a good thing. Many young men were able to raise families without growing opium. The Afghanis were free to fight for their rights and carve out a safer future. Our suppression of violence had good results while it lasted. For this reason, also, I believe our sacrifices were worth it. Certainly, those who were able to live in peace for a while would think so.

This need not mean that we have to be happy about the way we have departed. For those who believe in honor and keeping your word, I understand feeling shame about betraying our allies and leaving them to die. It is unbecoming the charity and bravery of our people and certainly does not reflect our values. For those who believe in democracy, I have to wonder if we really gave it a chance. While people complain about the amount of time we’ve had troops in Afghanistan, we still have troops in Europe and Asia seventy years after World War II. We can establish nations in a matter of hours, but it takes many generations for the rule of law to take hold. For those who believe in fighting terrorism, keeping a small number of troops in Afghanistan seemed a small price to pay to ensure the Taliban were never able to return to power. At the same time, like many others, I also believe that our service members have been deployed in the Middle East far too long. The main question at this point is not whether we should have left but rather “when” and “how” this should have taken place. In the end, however, when told to leave, our military will salute and execute the mission given to it. We must always remember that U.S. policy is changed at the ballot box, not on the battlefield.

Whatever comes will come, but I continue to believe that our sacrifices were worth it. At least for a time, we protected the homeland and made the lives of some people better. Nothing material we do in this world is permanent, but we can say we held the line in our time. In fact, we can say the same about all our service. Whether you agree or disagree with national policy, we are the ones who protected and served the nation, and that is something worthwhile. It is still worth it.

© 2021 J.D. Manders

Laws Are Made for Man

A few days ago, I was jogging on a two-lane road, facing traffic as required by law. A car approached. There was a double line in the road at that point, though clear visibility of oncoming traffic showed that no one was approaching. I could see the woman in the car through the windshield struggling as she tried to stay within the lines instead of swerving to avoid me as every other car had. She was obeying the rules, but in doing so, she came within inches of hitting me. She had not learned that rules are there to protect people, not to be obeyed no matter the consequences.

It’s a basic ethical dilemma often taught to grade school children. What do you do when a law prevents you from doing what is right and helping people? The usual scenario is that a man walks up to a lake and sees a little boy drowning, but there is a fence around the lake, and signs surround it saying, “No swimming.” What is he to do? Young children and those with an underdeveloped sense of ethics believe they should follow the law no matter what. More advanced students and those with keen ethical reasoning understand that the fence and sign were only there to keep people from swimming and drowning and ought to be temporarily disregarded in order to save someone ignorant of them. Between the two laws – man’s law to not swim and God’s law to save life – the higher law trumped the lower, for the lower was made to enforce the higher. In these situations, you don’t necessary break the laws but simply bend them to allow you to help others. Most of the time, you would continue to enforce the same law.

We find this same ethical dilemma throughout life. The speed limit on a road is 25 miles per hour, but you drive 50 to get your injured or pregnant wife to the hospital. Do you follow the law and risk her having a miscarriage? Most police officers would escort you instead of giving you a ticket. You accidentally turn the wrong way on a one-way road, but a sign says no U-turns. Do you continue going the wrong way or do you turn around? Most would choose to turn around since continuing the wrong way has a greater chance of causing injury to someone. Practicing medicine without a license is illegal, but someone becomes injured, and it’s half an hour to the nearest hospital. Do you treat the injuries and perform CPR though not certified, or let the person die? Someone is threatening to break into your house. Do you shoot a firearm at them to protect yourself or let them enter the house and possibly injure you and your family? In these cases, juries tend to bend the laws to allow people to protect others, which is why the laws exist.

Of course, there is a point where this dilemma becomes untenable. Usually, it’s when someone else is injured by the same actions. For example, the police might be willing to overlook someone who is hungry stealing bread or medicine they need, but they usually don’t if the person is stealing televisions to pawn and make a buck. One is immediately lifesaving, the other is merely theft. If too many people steal bread from a baker, he may end up going out of business, which harms the lives of his employees. You might get away with one time, but repeat offenses often still result in conviction. In these cases, a difference in degree is a difference in kind. A recent example of that dilemma is the extension of rent relief despite the expiration of benefits to renters. In this case, protecting those unable to work because of the pandemic must be weighed against landowners and their employees who no longer have a means of relief. Giving relief to one means injuring the other, so which is ethically correct? Usually, another solution can be found that avoids the dilemma, for example, by providing economic assistance to renters to allow them to pay their rent and avoid inuring the landowners.

The rabbis have a saying that man is not made for the law, but the law is made for man. In other words, we pass laws to serve, protect, and help people. Insisting that people follow a law that no longer does this is unethical and makes no sense. Though we are a law-abiding people, we are not slaves to the law. Rather, the laws were made to serve us. Most people believe there is a higher law guiding our actions, which is God’s law. It is this that all laws ought to serve. We must be careful to violate man’s law, for often we cannot see secondary effects that injure others unseen. Nevertheless, we ought to make loving others the measure of all we do and not merely follow laws if they result in our harm.

© 2021 J.D. Manders

Children Are the Same

I’ve always been a people watcher, for it’s how we learn about others. Our recent trip to Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, presented a perfect opportunity to watch people. Over a week, I sat and observed hundreds of children interact with exhibits, rides, parents, and park employees. There were children from across the country and across the world – Southern, Western, and Northern; Mexican, Indian, and Japanese. While every person is unique and every culture has its own focus, I found that most children are mostly the same.

I must preface this article by observing that, when I speak of children being the same, I mean children in their natural state. Children who have been exposed to the world have already begun to learn about adult life through observation while simultaneously unlearning their childlike qualities. These naturally become desensitized to their childlike nature in imitation of adults. By this, I don’t mean that children are naturally good and become evil (in fact, the opposite is often true). Rather, I am speaking of learning about society, about others as opposed to themselves, about how to respond to the choices of others, and about how to get along with others. These are all learned behaviors that result from growing independence. Children who have not been exposed to the adult world lack experience and tend to fall back on the guidance and provision of their parents and the simple views that occur without guidance. This is their natural state, and children grow out of it as they change. The rate of this change varies widely. What is amazing is that, for those who have not yet grown up, there is surprising consistency in their characteristics.

There are several qualities that define the reactions of children, no matter what culture or background. One is that children are naturally curious. That is, they try to learn about the world about them. Adults tend to believe themselves knowledgeable (even when they aren’t), and thus are less receptive to new information. They try to shoehorn new information into existing categories. Children have no categories and therefore are open to new ways of thinking. They also more willingly seek out new information. The children I saw in Orlando were discovering new experiences, trying new things, and getting the full experience. Older children and adults simply wandered from one attraction to another without paying much attention to them. They were seeking something exciting or shocking. The children learned even from ordinary experiences. They were happy with very simple rides because they provided new experiences without having to be shocking.

Another quality I saw among children I saw as that they were humble. By this, I don’t necessary mean self-deprecating but rather unaware of divisions that are the natural results of the adult world. Most children do not pay attention to wealth, status, race, nationality, or other divisions because these are external and artificial constructs. They are learned behavior. Thus, while adults tended to congregate based on these artificial social divisions, children were unaware of these divisions. In fact, they are unaware of themselves and didn’t normally think of themselves in terms of race or money. They were willing to play together, communicate to each other, share, and help others without regard to societal divisions because they simply did not pay attention to them. Meanwhile, adults tended to be less sympathetic toward those not in their own group – they cut in lines, refused to help people, and spoke to others only when engaged. Children are usually the ones who are willing to cut across societal divisions.

Finally, I observed that most children had greater faith. While those of an atheistic mindset may interpret this to mean that they are too trusting or obedient, I am referring more to an attitude of believing, which is not exactly the same. Adults may see believing as being more gullible, but of course from a child’s point of view adults are full of doubt, wavering, and dissimulation when they encounter something they can’t explain. Children believe in fairies, not because someone told them, but because spiritual explanations occur to them naturally until they learn to doubt. This is because they can imagine the existence of the supernatural, while many adults cannot. Thus, children I saw reacted with wonder at the idea of magic. They believe that such things are possible. For adults, it was all a big game. Rides give the children the illusion of flying because they can imagine it. They can only provide adults a sensation of flying and then only when they include intense movements such as loops. Using their imaginations, children can experience flying without such stimulation because of their higher level of faith.

Christ once said that we have to be as little children to even enter the kingdom of God. In other words, we have to be naturally curious about the truth, humble enough not to let division keep us from loving each other, and believing enough that we can accept miracles without doubting. We have to be like the hundreds of children I saw in Orlando. All children exhibit these same qualities. We would do well to imitate them if we are to become spiritual people.

© 2021 J.D. Manders