Thursday, February 17, 2011


3. c : a balance maintained in an artistic work between opposing forces or elements

Even after my last blog post, I've continued to ponder rules, especially why we need and want them.  After writing the post, I went out to dinner with a friend and we started talking about all of the rules that pregnant women face today. No to cigarettes and alcohol, no luncheon meat, no tuna, no sushi, no cheeses, yes to folic acid - all manner of yeses and nos.  Even in the six years that have elapsed since my final pregnancy, the do's and don'ts have grown tremendously. 

This seems a little crazy to me.  Does a turkey sandwich really harm you more now than it would have eight years ago?  I don't think so.  And I suspect the risk is pretty minuscule.  But here's the thing about our culture:  we really want these rules.  Not just because they seemingly keep us safe, but because they limit what is required of us in discernment and judgment.  No need to actually think about whether it might be wise to follow some common sense rules about nutrition by varying your diet and limiting your intake of known dangers like cigarettes or alcohol.  Instead of deciding for yourself and using a bit of good judgment, just pull our your baby friendly checklist and dot every I and cross every T. 

But know as you do this, that it will lead you to two things:  a false sense of security and a self-righteousness about what a good job you're doing.  By following all of the proscribed behaviors during pregnancy, we think that guarantees us a healthy baby, a healthy mom, an all but charmed life.  Guess what?  It doesn't.  So that false sense of security that we get from following all of the rules - that insidious idea that if we do it all right, all will be right - can get yanked right out from under you.  But if the false sense of security bubble doesn't get popped, it gives you the opportunity to judge others who might bend or break the rules.  Or, frankly, to judge others who follow the rules but aren't blessed with the outcome they hoped for.

I think this dependence on rules to protect us from unlikely occurrences is dangerous - and not really how we're meant to live.  I think we're not meant to live all the way to one side or the other on most things.  We're meant to live in the tension.  That fearsome gray area where what seems right for one person one day might not be right for you or I tomorrow.  That area where we must decide for ourselves which path to take, trusting that we'll heed the spirit's call and be able to see just far enough into the fog to not lose our footing.

This tension, while eschewed by many, is one of the things I love best about life.  It's why I love novels that break your heart while also lifting your spirits.  Because all of life isn't heart-breaking, but all of life isn't happy, either.  Life is not simple and easy, even if we want it to be.  I think life is truly lived in the tension.

Living life in the tension and embracing that isn't always straightforward.  It means accepting a certain amount of uncertainty and ambivalence.  I encountered an example of this today while teaching A history.  We are currently reading Machiavelli's The Prince - ok, she's eleven, we're reading the Cliff Notes of The Prince - and I had her read the section in our curriculum on it before reading the first few chapters yesterday.  This morning, I sat down to review her work from yesterday and read the section myself so that we could discuss it.  I wasn't thrilled with what I found. 

One reason I chose this curriculum is that it is less a textbook than a collection of resources to help you figure out the history for yourself.  In my opinion, doing history the right way means hearing not just one version of the story, but seeing what the people who lived during that time thought, too.  In fact, that's one reason I wanted to find a way to tackle The Prince together - a look at Renaissance politics written by a Secretary to the Medici?  That is good original source material. 

But even though this curriculum isn't a traditional textbook, it does have sections of information and explanation before listing additional resources.  A and I have enjoyed previous sections because they are written in a conversational style and do a good job of setting the stage for our real reading that follows.  But today what I read didn't set the stage for gleaning much of anything from The Prince.  Instead, it was eight paragraphs on how wrong Machiavelli's thoughts are and contained very little information on the actual book - and no unbiased information at all.

I talked this through with A.  She had found her reading of The Prince yesterday to be challenging, but before we tackled that together, I wanted to be sure she saw this section for what it was - one very biased opinion.  We started by looking up the word bias.  After reading the definition, A easily said that what she'd read was biased against The Prince.  So then we discussed why we should read the book anyway.  I argued that a book that's been around for four centuries must have some value - otherwise, it wouldn't have survived this long.  A agreed with this premise and we're working our way through it together - and finding that it does have things to teach us.

This experience embodies living in the tension because it would be easy to dismiss a book that offers a worldview different than - or contrary to - my own.  But if I dismiss it out of hand, how will I ever learn more about that position?  It's so much easier to hate what we don't understand.  I want A to develop her own set of beliefs, her own faith.  And I think that will only happen if I encourage her to navigate the tension - to balance the opposing opinions, forces and experiences she'll encounter.  Are we likely to finish The Prince and decide we should be more ruthless in our dealings with people?  I don't think so.  Are we likely to have conversations about whether we see leaders in our world today who follow Machiavelli's suggestions for ruling?  Yes.  And I think we may end this section of our study with a bit of ambivalence, but also with a bit more knowledge about what it was like to live in a world of city states that fought each other and foreign countries constantly.  By spending a bit of time embracing the tension in our studies, we'll hopefully emerge better equipped to live in the tension - and live more fully.

1 comment:

Allison in TX said...

I like this. It's what I think but don't have the words to say. You could also say similar things about religion and politics.