Faith, Family, and Faithful Service (and Fiction)

This year marks the sixth anniversary of when I started my blog. Since the beginning, I have re-posted my first blog explaining the purpose of this forum from time to time in case new readers have joined. As it’s been nearly two years since the last time I did so because of COVID and other trials, it is high time I did so again. At the time I started writing, many military families had requested more information about how to instruct, reach out to, and inspire children during the absence of their parents. The initial purpose of my blog was to provide thoughts related to public service, its impact on families, and how to maintain strong faith and resiliency, especially through the use of imaginative writing. I repeat and expand here on my first article detailing the focus and purpose of my blog.

For those who are unfamiliar with my work, I am a thirty-year veteran of the Army National Guard who has deployed three times to the Middle East in 2004, 2012, and 2017. During my deployments, I wrote my children stories and poetry to connect with them at a time they were dealing with separation anxiety. My intent was to distract them from my absence using fiction while providing inspiration and instruction to make good decisions. I later published some of these works as The Fairy Child, The Mermaid’s Quest, The Unicorn Eternal, and the Christmas Letters (which are all available online on Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, and other outlets). Since my return from my third deployment, I have had the opportunity to speak publicly about my experiences and encourage military families in particular to maintain family connections and readiness. My blog, which I started in January 2017, addressed these same views, and I wrote more than half of them while I was deployed the last time.

As a military service member, I understand the trials that families have to deal with during the absence of public servants. In addition to deploying three times, I have often been absent for training or emergency response missions. Of course, military personnel are not the only ones who struggle with these issues. Most first responders do, and so do occupations ranging from military civilians and contractors to truck drivers who frequently travel. I believe that service is important to our society. These are the people who make our economy work and protect us from harm. Therefore, these articles address the unique needs and challenges of faithful service.

My primary focus has been to assist families in dealing with the absence of service members. While we all agree that those who faithfully serve our nation are deserving of special thanks, most seem to overlook the sacrifices made by families, which are often as great as or even greater than those of the service member. Most adults know what they are getting into when they volunteer for service. Spouses and children often do not, and they usually have no choice in the matter. As a result, they often have to deal with issues such as single parenting for long periods of time, separation anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, constant relocation, and discipline. These can impact behavior, education, and cohesion of families, especially over time. It is not always clear how to handle such circumstances. As a writer, I believe literature, imagination, and creativity are tools that can help families and children especially cope with stress and separation. These articles provide both service members and their families thoughts and resources about how to address these problems.

Third, as part of discussions about family, it is only natural that I talk about faith. By this, I do not mean that the articles are “preachy.” However, faith is an important part of resiliency – faith in a higher power, faith in our nation and society, faith in our culture, faith in family, and (yes, sometimes) faith in ourselves. Resiliency is the process through which service members “snap back” from the stress and challenges of service, and resiliency training is a requirement in the military. I try to introduce ideas about faith or philosophy that can help others deal with all of life’s problems, including deployment and family separation. I mostly keep these fairly general so as to be applicable to people of all faiths, but my views as one who follows Christ are often apparent. By this, I mean no disrespect and only wish to inspire all people to find something in which they believe as a step on the path to resiliency.

To this list, I would add fiction. I have explained over the past year that literature and imagination bring certain benefits. These benefits include temporary escape from reality into a magical world, awareness of supernatural powers, and a happy ending. These stories can provide healing to those dealing with separation and anxiety about life. Like all stories, they can also provide inspiration and instruction to children who emulate characters in stories with which they relate. Thus, I believe that literature and imagination can help people overcome problems related to deployment.

As I continue to publish articles I think will help others, please feel free to contribute ideas or ask questions, including directly through my FB page – www.facebook.com/AuthorJDManders. I continue to ask for forbearance of any errors, as I do not have an editor and often do not have time to do more than a cursory proofread. As I am still a serving member of the U.S. military, my time is rather constrained. I would add that I try to avoid being political, other than dealing as a family with politics, but it is sometimes difficult to avoid controversial topics. Any opinions I present are my own and not that of the U.S. Army or of any professional organization. Thanks for tuning in.

© 2023 J.D. Manders

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Do More Than Make a Resolution

Every year on New Year’s Day, people make resolutions about how to improve themselves. They promise to lose weight or spend time with their families or read more. Sadly, most of these resolutions end up unfulfilled. As with self-help in general, we are not lacking in a desire to improve ourselves, only the willpower to do so.

Many people I know make resolutions or promises to themselves each New Year. They resolve to lose weight, go to the gym, eat healthier, or drink less. They promise to spend more time with their spouses, children, outdoors, or away from work. They say they are going to read more, be a better person, or give to charity. Some people write them down and then burn them as prayers or make lists and schedules. Others pray over them or take oaths. Most people simply make promises to themselves, which are the most easily broken of all. Now, there is nothing wrong with making promises to improve ourselves. The problem is we break most of these promises. If we were to actually keep all of these resolutions for self-improvement, it would be life changing. Indeed, it would result in major changes in our culture, which remains self-centered, gluttonous, and angry. If only we could keep our resolutions!

It is the same problem that we find with the vast majority of self-help programs, most of which are unhelpful for most people. I’ve always had a problem with self-help gurus who make most of their money off of helping people, which reminds me of a Ponzi scheme. Of course, many self-help programs do try to help people. Many describe how to live a good life, yet most people know what they need to do to become better. Others try to help people organize to do all of the things they want to do or to calculate tradeoffs and let go of parts of their lives. While people who have trouble with organization certainly benefit from such programs, the real issue with self-improvement for most people is a lack of willpower. They know what is right or what is best, but they simply prefer to do what they have always done. They know they should lose weight to be healthy, but they enjoy eating and don’t want to change their diet or exercise more. They know that overwork is harmful to their relationships with family members, but they think that money will make them happier. In many cases, they are simply too weak-willed to follow through with the changes they envision. It is just too much effort.

Part of the problem is a broad misunderstanding of the nature of people, which tends to be resistant to change, prone to take the easier path, focused on the short-term, and prefers doing what feels good. Especially when it comes to giving up vice, our human natures are nearly always resistant. By this, I don’t mean merely that some people have an addictive personality, but that most people are driven to seek their own benefit first. It takes a strength of will to give up most pleasures. For most people, it takes a radical change of attitude, which for most people usually results from a life-changing experience, such as a health crisis or a divorce. In other words, true change comes not from external laws, knowledge, or standards but from an internal change of heart. It is this area where faith becomes critical – most who face these experiences learn that only God has the ability to change us from the inside. If we are seeking to change, even if only to lose weight, we will often only be successful when we are willing to ask for help to change.

There is nothing wrong with making New Year’s resolutions. We all should have goals and ambitions and be aware of what we need to do to become better people. Nevertheless, we should also recognize the limitations of self-help. Truly changing ourselves takes more than trying harder to meet an external goal. It takes a change of heart and thinking. If we really want to change, we must do more than make a resolution. Truly changing often requires help. Fortunately, help will always be given when we seek it with all our hearts.

© 2023 J.D. Manders

When God Came Near

The most deeply sublime element of Christmas, the great irony that moves so many to faith, is the appearance of God as a baby in a manger. There is something incongruous about the omnipotent Creator appearing as a helpless child. It seems so odd, many immediately doubt that it could be so, yet it is precisely this element that draws so many to Christmas. It reminds us of when God came near.

Most religions present their God or gods as great conquerors or all-powerful beings who help their followers to achieve victory. This is as true in modern religions as it is the ancient mythology of the Norse or Greeks. People shout “God is great” because they cannot see Him as anything other than a conqueror. Christianity has always been different. While Christians recognize God is Almighty, they believe that God became Incarnate to save us from our sins. He was born as a frail human being (Jesus Christ), who, though divine, appeared in a shell that was mortal, weak, limited to time and space, and even a little sad at times. This was the Emmanuel mentioned by the prophet Isaiah – Emmanuel means “God came near.”  It is this and not merely the birth of a holy prophet or wise teacher that Christmas originally celebrated.

The theological term for what Jesus went through to be born on earth is kenosis, a Greek word meaning literally “to empty self.” This was the word Paul used in Philippians 2:7 to describe how Jesus “made himself nothing” or emptied himself of divinity to become a man. In short, although Jesus was divine, He shed divinity to become mortal. Although immortal, He shed eternal life to die as a man. Although the ruler of the heavens, He shed being a king to become a peasant. Although worthy of all honor, He shed majesty to become ordinary. Although all-powerful, He shed omnipotence to become obedient. He did this, not because He was unable to access His power, which He did to work miracles or speak truth, but because He humbled Himself to live and learn as a man that He might be near to us. He submitted Himself to humanity and death that He might die to save us.

Nothing better represents the transition of kenosis than the baby in the manger. It is as far from a powerful God as you can get. A baby is wholly dependent on others, soft, weak, and easily injured. A baby has no personality, no majesty, no wisdom, no power to influence or to change. A baby cannot be a teacher, lead armies, or work miracles. Despite this, the shepherds and wise men still came to worship Christ as a baby. The reason is clear – before Christ did a thing, they recognized the divinity in Him, a veiled power and majesty, a vibrant life that seemed out of place in a baby. Long before Jesus taught wisdom, worked miracles, or led people to believe, they were worshipping Him. It was not because of anything that Jesus did that they praised Him, but only because of He was the Immanuel. Though Christ emptied Himself of divinity to become a man, He remained the incarnate Son, who would grow and become wise, powerful, and majestic, even in death.

At the same time, Christianity also teaches that believers also go through a kenosis. This is when we empty ourselves of selfishness and sin to assume a holy and divine life. Jesus described this process as carrying our cross daily – a phrase that implies a slow death. Paul likewise spoke of dying to self that Christ might live in us. He emptied Himself of heaven and came to earth that we might empty ourselves of earth to go to heaven. Thus, we empty ourselves of death to assume His life. We empty ourselves of foolishness to gain His wisdom. We empty ourselves of independence to become dependent on Him. We empty ourselves of ordinariness to become precious to Him. Then we will become as a little babe that we might draw near to Him.

The magic of Christmas is that God drew near to us. He emptied Himself of divinity that He might dwell among us and help us. In return, we empty ourselves of sinful mortality to partake of His life. He drew near to us that we might draw near to Him. As we draw near to Him, He promises to draw near to us, like an eternal cycle. It all started with the wonder of Christmas, when God came near.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

Christmas Anywhere

For most people, Christmas is a magical season when we gather with family and friends, receive gifts, and worship together. Yet sometimes the season doesn’t work out the way that we plan. It is times like these when we must decide what’s really important. If deploying with the Army has taught me anything, it is that we can celebrate Christmas anywhere.

Everyone I know who celebrates the Christmas season does so in slightly different ways. Most decorate trees, some go without. Some put up their trees on Christmas Eve and leave them up until January, some put them up after Thanksgiving and take them down the week after Christmas. Some get large trees, some small. Some decorate with lights or ornaments, some don’t. Some put up holly or evergreen branches, some don’t. Some go to church services or caroling, and some just drive around and look at Christmas lights. Some sing traditional carols, and some listen to more modern music. Some send Christmas cards, and many don’t. Some give many gifts, and some give just one. Everyone has their own traditions and rituals for how they celebrate the Christmas season.

The problem comes when you don’t get to celebrate Christmas the way that you normally do or go where you normally go. Maybe they don’t have the kind of tree you normally have, or your favorite ornaments break. Maybe your job or personal life interferes with your plans. You don’t have time to send cards or go to the service you normally do. Maybe you’re out of work and can’t buy the same level or types of gifts that you usually do. Maybe weather intervenes and keeps you from looking at lights or signing carols, or you are unable to visit family because of work conflicts. We never know what is going to happen to wreck our plans. Do we get angry when this happens? Or are we disappointed? It may not seem like Christmas because we’ve been unable to do what we normally do, and we get upset.

If there’s one thing that deployments have taught me, it’s that you can celebrate Christmas anywhere. Many people were upset because of being away from home during the holidays, and even the most experienced were a little sad. Family members try to cheer you up by sending wrapped gifts, cards, or decorations. It was not the same, but I was able to make my hooch seem a little festive. My mother always sent brandy-soaked homemade fruitcake, which we shared around to those who had a taste for it. My units always tried to cheer people by decorating, putting up a tree, and doing a gift exchange. The bases we were only always decorated the dining facility and put on a holiday meal, and the chapels had Christmas services, which all but the most hardened atheists attended. And there was always the hour-long ubiquitous phone call home (usually late at night because of the time difference) to talk to everyone for at least a few minutes.

Despite the hardships of not being at home and getting to do the things I wanted, I always seemed to have a good Christmas. The few gifts and cards we received were more precious, the meals better tasting, the voices of loved ones more appreciated, and the songs we sang more moving because they were all we had. When your horizons are limited, it’s then that you most enjoy the view. It was at those times that I realized that Christmas isn’t about the traditions, the decorations, or even being with family. It’s about celebrating the coming of Christ, and He is as present in foreign lands as He is at home. While the traditions, decorations, and family help us with this celebration, ultimately none of these are necessary to remember the reason for the season. In fact, you need not do anything or go anywhere specific because you can celebrate Christmas anywhere you happen to be.

Things may not be going exactly as planned this Christmas. You may be struggling with working or not working. Or maybe circumstances are keeping you from being where you want to be. Remember that Christmas is about more than traditions and decorations. You still have time to prioritize what’s important – the reason for the season. You can celebrate Christmas anywhere.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

The Guard Is Family

Many service members feel alone. This is especially the case in the reserve components, where people often see their brothers and sisters and arms once a month and struggle more with daily life. At the same time, reservists and guardsmen have bonds that that often surpass those experienced by other service members. We should always remember that the Guard is family.

This past month, our unit held a suicide standdown, where we took a knee and reminded personnel that they are valuable members of the team, that they need to keep an eye on and help each other, and that people who are struggling have many resources available. Most people are aware of the extremely high suicide rates in the military, which are among the highest in the U.S. Service-wide, suicide rates have declined slightly over the past year by about 15 percent, but there has been no similar decline in the National Guard. The reason becomes quickly evident. People whose full-time job is the military are with their brothers and sisters daily, and many of their problems are related to dealing with service. Not so in the reserves, where people struggle with other jobs, with family, and with life outside of service. They deal with the same problems with the rest of the population, but these are compounded by service. Further, since they see their units only occasionally, there are many months between when their issues become noticeable to others.

Yet National Guard units offer other benefits that can help people struggling with behavioral issues. Unlike other services and components, where people are constantly being reassigned and come and go, most enlisted personnel spend their entire careers in only one or two units. This is the case even though most people no longer drill at armories that are down the street – the downsizing of the Guard in most states has largely ended the feeling of a hometown Guard. Nevertheless, though you drive several hours to drill, you are part of a small group of coworkers. You see the same people consistently over several years, even if you only see them a few times per year. You get to know people closer and can see their progress through life as they finish college, enter the workforce, have families, age, and then retire. You go to religious services together, celebrate holidays together, and you hang out after work. Many people maintain these relationships even after they leave the military as they attend luncheons and reunions.

Why, then, has suicide remained so high in the Guard? Part of it is that people are becoming less and less involved in each other’s lives. There is a tendency not to interfere with people, not to meddle, not to be nosy. People embraced “don’t ask, don’t tell” in more ways than one. Part of the reason is how busy everyone has become, not only with work, but with modern media. Everyone is working like a dog, and then you spend your spare time on phones and computers. The cure is to become more involved in each other’s lives. We must get to know each other again. We must know about our coworkers and employees. We must ask them questions about their lives and help to celebrate their milestones. We must make ourselves available even between the one weekend a month. We must check up on each other. Some are reluctant to do so because of not being reimbursed or not having the time, but this is a matter of life or death. It only takes a few minutes to send an email or make call, but these touchpoints mean the world to those who are struggling.

If the Guard is family, this is the least we can do. If these people are our brothers and sisters, we must show a little interest in them, ask questions, get to know them, and reach out to them. It could save their lives. There are enormous advantages to being in a military family, from extensive resources to help people, to having stability outside our often chaotic lives. If you are in trouble, turn to your family. We are ready to help.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

Lucy’s Love for Linus

This week, I watched “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” as I have every Halloween since I was a child. Many people have often found solace and deep meaning in the Peanuts cartoons, and especially in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The Halloween special is no different. In this case, the deepest meaning comes with a loving gesture by Lucy for Linus that has always touched me.

The Peanuts cartoons have been part of the fabric of my life since I was a boy. I watched all of the animated specials each year, and I religiously read the comic strip in the paper until Charles Schulz passed away. There is a simplicity to the strips, which present the views of the children involved – the adults appear only as incomprehensible squawking voices in the background. It reminds me of the prophecy that “a little child shall lead them.” Other than when Linus explains the coming of Christ in the Christmas special, there is no overt religious message in most of the cartoons. They are simply about ordinary children – the bossy sister, the naïve brother, the goofy kid picked on by others, the pretty girl, the tomboy, the brainy girl, the filthy boy, and the neighborhood dog. Yet these characters often present a genuineness and honesty that we don’t find in other cartoons.

Everyone seems to relate to one of the Peanuts children the most. Almost everyone likes Snoopy with his imaginative adventures, his hip attitude, and his “Joe Cool” persona. Some people like Linus because of his faith, his naivety, and his charm. Others relate to Charlie Brown, who is ridiculed and picked on yet remains the center of action in the neighborhood. Some prefer Peppermint Patty or Pigpen or Schroeder or Franklin. The one that most people seem to relate to the least is Lucy, Linus’ sister. Though some may like that she takes charge in almost every situation, her bossy demeanor, her know-it-all attitude, her blatant selfishness, her hostility toward other characters, and her frequent deception of others makes her difficult to like. She is, in a sense, the Pharisee of the Peanuts gang. Like the Pharisees, she prefers rules over faith, refuses to listen to others, and is often arrogant and self-righteous in her treatment of those beneath her. We see this in her ridiculing Linus about his beliefs, in running a psychiatric stand to make extra cash, and in always pulling the football away from Charlie Brown.

All of this in Lucy’s character makes the key moment in “It’s the Great Pumpkin” all the more surprising. You probably know the scene I mean. Her idiot brother, Linus, has stayed in the pumpkin patch all night again waiting for the arrival of the mythical Great Pumpkin. She has scoffed at him throughout the show. Despite this treatment, despite missing candy and parties, despite being rejected by his friends and abandoned by his love interest, Linus stayed all night in the pumpkin patch believing the Great Pumpkin would arrive. Lucy wakes up at four in the morning and checks on her brother. On finding his bed empty and still made, she puts on a coat and goes out to retrieve him, finds him sleeping shivering in the pumpkin patch, and takes him to his room, where she promptly takes off his shoes and tucks him into bed. Despite all the picking, despite her self-righteous attitude, despite her bossiness and hostility, she really cares about her brother deep down. This is the key moment of the show – like Linus’ Christmas speech – when we see God at work in this everyday, nonreligious cartoon. We find out that Lucy is a loving sister after all and that most of her gruff exterior is just show.

We may relate most to Snoopy, Linus, or Charlie Brown, but we should always keep in mind that there’s a little Lucy in all of us. It’s why, although she may not be a favorite, she remains a popular character that people relate to. We are all a little Pharisaical at times, a little self-righteous, a little selfish, and a little arrogant. Yet there comes a moment when we must drop the pretense and just reach out and take care of each other. This is what Lucy did for Linus. If we all could do the same, we would be better off.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

Learning from History: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee

Many people tend to judge historical characters based on their stand on issues that align with modern political opinions. In fact, we find that, like all people, most historical characters are complex, with good traits and bad. Most do not fit neatly into modern categories of correctness. Many make mistakes. Some evolve and become better people, and some don’t. Rather than judging people by how they align with modern politics, we ought to recognize positive traits and accomplishments while condemning the bad. If we do, we find that most people have qualities to admire, and no one has lived a life worth cancelling.

We might take as an example the modern views of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Based simply on an analysis of where they stood on a single issue – slavery – the tendency has been to praise Grant for fighting the war against slavery while condemning Lee for fighting to defend it. If the Confederates were evil for defending the right to slavery, and the Union was good for fighting to eradicate it, then Lee was a bad guy, and Grant was a good guy. Many people view all of history in this light, dividing people into good or evil based on modern political views and then condemning and cancelling those with whom they disagree. This is the justification for tearing down statues and renaming military bases, streets, and courthouses. However, history is much more complicated and does not easily fit into these categories.

In the case of Grant, we find a self-made man from a lower middleclass family. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1843 about halfway through his class. After fighting bravely in the Mexican-American War, he resigned his commission to pursue business, mainly for financial reasons to make more money. During this time, he purchased and owned a slave but did not have the stomach for it and soon after became a staunch abolitionist. When the Civil War came, he was offered a captaincy but held out for higher rank and pay. He accepted an assignment as lieutenant colonel and rose quickly in rank due to his success on the battlefield, though he was often criticized for his bloody approach and for racking up more casualties than other commanders. He was also criticized for forcing labor from freed slaves and for his apparent alcoholism. Despite his personal failings, Abraham Lincoln appointed him as the commander of all Union forces, and he defeated Lee at Appomattox, Virginia. After the war, Grant was elected president in 1868. Historians have generally criticized the corruption of his administration – his pursuit of money continued to be a problem – but he nevertheless received praise for helping to reconcile the South, ending reconstruction, and providing immediate equality to former slaves.

Lee, meanwhile, came from a famous Virginia family owning a large plantation and many slaves. He graduated from West Point in 1829 second in his class. He also holds the distinction of being only one of five cadets who earned no demerits while at school. He served faithfully in the military, including the Mexican-American War. Unlike Grant, however, Lee remained in the Army, eventually serving as Superintendent of West Point. He took off only two years to run his family plantation after not being able to find an overseer. Although later accused of treating his slaves poorly, most historians have seen this as the result of applying the strict disciple to which he was used. In 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union to join the Confederacy. Lee opposed the rebellion, but he felt honor-bound to support his state. He quickly proved a great tactical commander and won many battles. He was remembered as a highly honorable leader, just and kind towards his men and enemies alike. However, he eventually lost due to the North’s greater manpower and industrialization. Despite calls for him to refuse surrender, he believed it more honorable to save lives. After the war, he opposed former Confederates continuing the war, and he sought reconciliation, even going so far as meeting Grant in the White House. He also opposed raising statues of Confederate leaders, whom he felt were unworthy. He supported the manumission of slaves but believed that they ought to receive an education before being admitted to citizenship. He briefly served as president of Washington University before dying in 1870.

One can make many comparisons between Grant and Lee. For most, what is important is that Grant opposed slavery and won the war, while Lee was a slaveowner and lost. Yet both of their views were complex. Lee opposed slavery in general as an institution incompatible with liberty, and though he reluctantly accepted slavery, he sought a more practical approach to freeing slaves. Meanwhile, Grant was opposed to slavery and did much to advance equality, but he nevertheless had no qualms about forcing freedmen to work for him if it served his goals. Grant made his career serve his ambitions, while Lee continually sought a career of service and training. Grant was a self-made man and much more money-driven, which got him into trouble while president. He was practical in his approach to warfare and sought to win no matter the cost. Lee, meanwhile, was driven by honor and service. He cared for his men and surrendered to save lives. Both seemingly learned from their mistakes. Grant later came to seek for reconciliation with his former enemies, and Lee came to regret his support of the Confederacy and opposed continuing the fight. While modern politicians tend to view them only through a single lens, they were much more complicated than often recognized.

In reviewing their legacies, it is Grant’s and Lee’s change of heart that is most striking. Both recognized their mistakes and sought to reconcile a nation that remained divided for a decade after the Civil War. In the end, this is the trait that is most admirable and from which this generation most needs to learn. Let us also have the humility and wisdom to recognize our shortcomings and seek reconciliation with those we once wished to destroy. Sometimes history is complex. Let us hope we learn from it.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

When Life Isn’t Fair

We’ve all heard children say, “It isn’t fair.” Most children have an innate sense of fairness or justice, often because they’ve not yet been conditioned to see differences in outcomes. This is why so many children raise issues of unfairness when they see it, especially when it concerns themselves. While many parents simply dismiss such statements, they provide a perfect teaching moment to help them understand what fairness is and the best ways to address it.

Many parents, when they hear their children complain about being treated unfairly, have a tendency to dismiss it by reminding them that “life isn’t fair.” While this sentiment is certainly true – life is often unfair – and children must learn at some point that things will not always go their way, you must ask yourself is this the lesson that you want your children to gain? Life is also cruel, but this doesn’t mean that you want to expose your children to cruelty. Most children understand that life isn’t always fair, for they likely have already been mistreated at some point, by teachers, by other children or parents, or simply by circumstances not always going their way. What they are looking for is help in understanding why something their parents have done seems unfair, and justifying tyrannical decisions simply because life is unfair is not always helpful.

Rather than trying to teach them that life is unfair, you could use the situation to explain the differences in equality, equity, and fairness or justice. There are several graphics out there, which you’ve probably seen, that try to show the differences in these terms. The most popular is a picture of a tall man, a young man, and a child trying to look over a wooden fence. In an equal solution, they all receive the same remedy – a single crate on which to stand – which does not help the child because even with the crate he is still too short to see over the fence. It’s a one-size-fits-all solution. An equitable solution is to give everyone exactly what they need – the tall man needs no crate, the young man needs one, the child needs two. It’s dependent on what a person needs. A just or fair solution, however, might be to replace the wooden fence with a chain link one so that they all can see without being given help. It removes what was causing the inequity to begin with. In a like manner, the best approach is not to give people aid or try to figure out what they need but to change the system or circumstances to avoid the situation.

Of course, in real life the situation is almost always more complex than this simple drawing. Equality can mean giving everyone the same thing, but that’s not the only or even the primary definition. In mathematics, equal means a sum, value, or outcome that’s the same, meaning that everyone ends up in the same place. However, as many people observe, outcome is also dependent on the effort put into it. This is why some people talk about equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome. Equality can also mean that everyone’s the same, which is clearly untrue. There are differences in sexes, ages, and capabilities and desires. Equality of opportunity or equality before the law doesn’t mean everyone is exactly the same. Meanwhile, while equity is often defined as giving someone what they need to get to the same place, it can also mean being impartial. However, impartiality can sometimes result in decisions that some people may not like, such as randomly selecting who gets to play with a toy. Justice may mean changing a system or equalizing the scale by helping one group over another, but it more often means people getting what they deserve. Whenever I complained about being punished for something I didn’t do, my mother would always ask if I had done nothing that deserved punishment, a valid point.

Parents can raise any of these points when talking to their child. Is it always right to give people the same thing, or is it sometimes more important to give people what they actually need or deserve? If one child likes reading, and one likes sports, is it fair to reward them both with time outside to play? If one child did chores and the other didn’t, is it fair for them both to get the same time off? Some children are older and need more space or privacy. Is it fair to expect them to share their room or closet? It might be fair for all three children to have a room, but if your house only has two rooms, what is a fair sleeping arrangement? If two children both want to play with a toy, would the children be happy if you flipped a coin, and they lost? Asking questions such as these helps children to understand that equality of outcome may not always be fair, that impartiality or justice may not turn out the way they want, and that sometimes the fairest solution is unavailable, forcing parents to make merit-based decisions. Regardless, parents must make absolutely clear that, whatever differences may exist in the children, their abilities, or their situations, a parent’s love and God’s love for them will always be unchanging.

Sometimes life is unfair, but that doesn’t mean that the decisions parents make have to be. Sometimes efforts at equality, equity, or justice don’t turn out the way we expect, or it requires balancing one value against another. Helping children understand why parents make the decisions they do not only can diffuse angst about a current decision; it also helps children appreciate the differences in values and approaches in the future. When life isn’t fair, use it as a lesson to teach.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

How to Answer Deep Questions

I recently had a friend who told me about her daughter asking a question about why an eternal God created a mortal world. I shared with him questions my own daughters had sometimes raised, such as how God can be sovereign and still give people free will. Most parents receive questions like these from children at some point. How we answer them can make the difference in how your children perceive truth, God, and our relationship to Him. It is critical that we know how to answer deep questions.

All children ask deep questions at some point, such as about the character of God, if Jesus is the Son of God, the nature of free will and predestination, the reason for certain doctrines, what is sin, etc. Sometimes they come out randomly as the result of something they hear at school, at church, or just talking to friends. Many times, my daughter’s questions came as a result of watching a movie or television. When she watched The Incredibles, she asked if everyone has a superpower? When she watched the post-apocalyptic show, “The 100,” she asked why teenagers acted the way they did. When she watched the Hitchcock movie, Rope, she asked why some people believed there should not be moral restraints. Sometimes, I would introduce a movie or show specifically to raise certain questions so we could discuss it. Most of the time, it just sort of happened when I least expected it.

The question most parents usually ask is, what should I do when my children ask such deep questions? The thing you shouldn’t do is to tell them you don’t care or have time or that they should just shut up with their questions. You’ve been given a great opportunity to share your views about the most important questions in the universe, about philosophy, theology, or wisdom. Shutting down your children at this moment will have lasting consequences. First, it teaches them that the nature of life and reality are unimportant to you and that it ought to be unimportant to them. Second, it teaches them that if they want answers to deep questions, they will have to go somewhere else, and that usually means either a friend (who may not have very good answers) or another authority figure, such as a religious leader (with whom you may not agree). You should always be willing to answer their questions; that’s the way most people learn.

The best thing to do is to provide an honest answer if you can. By honest, I mean what you actually think and not simply what you think your spouse would say or what your religion teaches. The problem is that many people don’t have an opinion or have problems expressing their views. If you don’t have an opinion about deep questions, perhaps it would be worth your time to give some thought about them in advance. A man I greatly respect once told me that everyone should know enough about whatever they believe to defend it. If you haven’t done so, children can force you to take stock of your faith. If you don’t know why you believe something, it would be worthwhile reading up on it, especially if you know a question is coming. You ought to explore different views or talk to pastors or teachers. If something unexpected comes up, it’s okay to say that you haven’t thought about it or that you need time to think about it. Spend a few minutes considering the answer or do some research and get back with them. This gives you a chance to have multiple conversations about these deep subjects.

If you have problems expressing your opinion – and many people do ­– you can do the same thing. You can research it or talk to someone about it, so that you get your answer right. I don’t mean memorizing someone else’s answers but trying to get enough of an understanding about an issue to be able to talk through it. If the situation demands an immediate answer, and you don’t have time to brush up on the subject, it’s okay to stumble through what you want to say. Your children are looking for your honest views however delivered, not an eloquent exposition on the subject. Just getting out your views helps them to understand where you’re coming from. If you need more information, you can google questions on the fly to provide them with references or to inject the views of someone they respect.

It’s also okay to get their help. A lot of parents ask their children questions first. This is called the Socratic method. Socrates believed the best way of teaching was to question something. Sometimes asking questions helps you know what your children are looking for, or it may help you in using terminology they understand. Sometimes you may agree with how they answer it. Sometimes it helps you to frame your answer based on what they already think, using their views as a sounding board. You can ask what their friends think, and this may help you see whether they are under peer pressure. You can ask follow-up questions to find out why they are asking or to get clarification about different aspects of a question. This helps to broaden the discussion and can clue you in more specifically about what the real issue is so you will be able to answer it better. You end up learning a lot about your child simply by having a conversation.

The Bible says that we should always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks for the hope within us. This is good advice whether you believe the Bible or not. You should always be able to talk about deep questions, especially with children. They are going to ask, so you might as well be prepared. Rather than shutting them down or sending them to someone else, take this special opportunity to answer their questions. It might be the best opportunity you have to get to know and influence your child.

© 2022 J.D. Manders

Our Strange Attraction to Royalty

The news of the passing of Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II has resulted in an outpouring of sympathy. It has also highlighted an obsession that many Americans seem to feel toward monarchy. We see this in our interest in all things related to foreign nobility and in our outlandish treatment of visiting royals, not only as foreign government officials or celebrities, but as people to whom we owe some kind of allegiance or honor. This strange attraction to royalty reveals our inner need for a king.

I am not here talking about monarchial government. I believe in republican or democratic forms of government. History repeatedly demonstrates the evils that result when a single person or party holds too much power, whether king, dictator, president, or politburo. The colonialist attitude of Queen Elizabeth, even though it occurred early in her reign, continues to draw criticism from many commentators. Instead, most Americans believe we reach our potential when given the motivation and liberty to be successful while being protected from tyranny. Likewise, neither is there a desire to establish permanent classes of aristocracy or wealth. Most people are unimpressed by wealth and class, especially when they become involved in politics. In other words, when I talk about attraction to royalty, I don’t mean a desire to establish a monarchy or aristocracy. In any case, even though the British monarchy is the titular head of their government, it has been many generations since kings and queens held any real power or even political influence.

Neither am I speaking just about interest in the history of the monarchy, although this certainly contributes to the attraction for some people. I have long been an Anglophile and a Medievalist. I like British comedy, science fiction, literature, and history. I loved studying British history when in college, especially the Middle Ages, and I continue reading about it when I can. Other than the brief Interregnum after the execution of King Charles I, the history of the British monarchy has remained a constant factor in the history of Britain, from the dominance of the kings of Wessex over local competing kings until today. This kind of longevity has no precedent in the U.S., where anything over two hundred years is old. There is a sense that here is something established, ancient, and traditional. Others seem to like the modern monarchy with all its drama, personality conflicts, and family history – it’s like a real-life Downton Abbey or soap opera. This is why so many seem to follow the travails of Prince Harry and Meghan despite their personal unpopularity. You can’t look away. While this is not something that interests me, I appreciate certain aspects of more modern royal history, which reiterates appreciation for this ancient institution.

It is difficult to put one’s finger on what attracts most people to royalty. The sense of history is part of it. The monarchy is old and highly traditional, giving a feeling of archaism and quaintness. Much like the Catholic Church, there is an air of symbolism that reminds us of something we once forgot, that touch our spirits directly. Kings and queens are unfamiliar to those in the states, and this leads to a feeling of otherworldliness. Many democrats act like royals are somehow above them because they understand that there are dominions that are above our tawdry politics. We yearn for a person or cause to rally behind, a figure who can rise above our institutions and unite us. We desire someone who is part of a true nobility, of heart and duty. We want a chivalrous knight to save the day. In short, we all want a king, someone who rules benevolently to help us become better than we are, whose benefice provides for us, whose power and might protects us, whose majesty awes us. Some people might not put it precisely this way. They would stress that they want the freedom to not be ruled over by a tyrant, even when they are looking toward government to do the same things. They thus prove that, deep down, we all have a desire for help in our current situation to restore order, justice, decency, and mercy.

I need not point out that the royals of Britain, or of any other country, are ultimately not going to fulfill this need for a king. They are too damaged, too corrupt, too spoiled, and too unreliable, as all people are. There is only one kingdom that will fulfill our need, and it exists in a spiritual domain. There is only one king who can help us, and that is God. Whenever we recognize that strange obsession with royalty in ourselves, it is to this king that we should turn, for only He can fulfill our desires.

© 2022 J.D. Manders