The News According to Fear, Anger, Sex and Hope

This is the news according to Facebook, according to Twitter, according to CNN, according to fair-and-balanced Fox: Hillary pulls ahead by a nose; Trump is a hairpiece away from the presidency; Bernie is being Bernie, and the people love Bernie ("hip-hip BERN-IE!"); the black box was found; the boy is alive though the gorilla is dead; the starlet has a new sex tape (click, click, click and watch her work); the temperature and the terror alert are on the rise; the hurricane is coming; stocks are more volatile than the San Andreas; employment is more fickle than manna; the robots are here; we're going to Mars; we're shooting past Pluto; we are our only limitation--other than Trump, who is a hairpiece away from the presidency. Some call the media a spin cycle, a constant tumbling of news (that is not news), which keeps us off kilter. I call it a mint, watch as they throw the machine into high gear, as they fuel the machine with fear, anger, sex, hope, shades of love, colors of greed. Out comes the money. ([tweetherder]What does it profit a man to report on the whole world and lose his gold?[/tweetherder])

"Tune in tonight for more fear."

"After this commercial break, more sex."

"Buy this box of hope."

"Tonight's angry political commentary brought to you by the good people at Sugar Soy American Porn Corp., Inc."

The stories roll. The emotions roll. The dollars roll. The saints look up from their pine boxes--they roll, too. "The soul was not made to withstand this sort of manipulation," they think; then, "Lord have mercy."

The things I believe about the nature of men are simple: we were made to fear only saber-toothed tigers and the rustling of leaves in the dark; we were imbued with anger to bring gift of reformation; our eyes were meant to see only as far as the horizon, our legs made to walk a few miles at a time; sex was meant for the love our life; love was meant for the wife, the children, the community; hope was given so that we might create; hunger was purposed to push us as far as the next meal.

The things I believe about the nature of the soul are likewise simple: it is tiny, child-like, eternal; it stronger than the body, but so often led by it; it can master or be mastered by anger, fear, hunger, hope and sex. Can I prove this? No. But stop and reflect. You know this is true; don't you?

The line between master and mastered is quite thin--this is the news according to Facebook, according to Twitter, according to CNN, according to fair-and-balanced Fox.

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More On Pimps, Pushers, and Selling Our Souls

Two weeks ago I penned a bit on the game Five Nights at Freddy's, the viral video game phenomenon that's captured the imagination of modern children. It's a simple game, a game which creates artificial stress, triggering the gamer’s survival instincts. It employs fear, misdirection, implied violence, and jump scare tactics to suck the gamer deeper into the Five Nights' world. And the Five Nights' world is a dark world indeed. I won't recap the plot of the game in its entirety (For more on the plot, CLICK HERE), but in general, the game challenges the player to survive the attacks of animatronic puppets during the night-guard shift at a spooky pizzeria. What gives with the animatronic puppets? They're characters in a complex narrative involving a child predator and a series of grizzly murders.

It sounds like good, wholesome, family entertainment that any child-development psychologist would recommend--right?

The Five Nights' characters have become the stuff of urban legend at elementary schools across the country. Though my children have never played the game, the playground stories leave them in sleepless fits on some nights. And it's not just my children. Parent after parent has reached out to me over the last two weeks, and told me their children are terrified of the game. What's more, two child psychologists have sent word that Five Nights is a frequent topic of conversation in their pediatric therapy sessions.

Over the last two weeks, I've been considering the response to that original piece. I've been thanked. I've been accused of fear-mongering and handwringing. The response has been varied and dramatic. Of course it has. This is the internet. But today, I'm writing this piece as a point of clarification. This isn't all about video games and entertainment, see. The video games and entertainment are simply a vehicle for exploring the greater issue--the interaction between the marketplace and the soul.

The Psychology

In "Have We Become Addicted to Violence," an article written for Psychology Today, Dr. Diane Dreher discusses the how violent and fear-driven media has affected our children. She cites studies showing that our children spend 40 hours per week watching violent television and movies, and playing violent video games. It's a steady diet, and as our children consume, consume, consume, their brains normalize the darkness.

Dreher writes:

In a process known as “social modeling,” psychologist Albert Bandura found that we learn our values and behavior from the people around us (2003). Social modeling includes our cultural memes: what we watch and read, even the games we play.

Our technological gadgets are ingenious, ubiquitous--and incredibly addictive, according to neuroscientist Robert Numan (2014). Many of them model behavior on screen that would be diagnosed as pathological. (Citation.)

Dresser concludes that when the evidence is considered, some psychologists are coming to the common-sense conclusion. The entertainment digested by our children has, in fact, "led children to imitate in real life the sadism they see on screen."

Does this sound like fear-mongering and needless handwringing to you? [tweetherder text="For those of you who might be unpersuaded, allow me to remind you, psychology is science."]For those of you who might be unpersuaded, allow me to remind you--psychology is science.[/tweetherder]

The Marketplace of Misdirection and Addiction

These days, it's a forgone conclusion that cigarettes cause cancer. Science has done the work. The evidence is clear. And yet, between the 1930s and 1960s, cigarettes were marketed as harmless, hip, and cool. In fact, in the 1940s a Camel cigarette commercial boasted, "[m]ore doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette."

Eventually, scientific research caught the cigarette marketing-machine by the tail and exposed the truth. Cigarettes were killing us.

The market, see, makes a habit of promising harmless addiction. It conditions us to believe that the vice of the day is normal, fun, and cool. It tells us that there is no scientific evidence proving harm from habit-X to the consumer. The market equates the absence of harmful evidence with a positive affirmation of the behavior. And lest there be any doubt, the market coopts the very specialists who should be opposed to any given addiction--e.g., the doctor to the cigarette--and uses them to affirm the addictive behavior.

"What does this have to do with fear-filled and violent television, movies, and video games?" you ask. I look at the normalization of fear and violence in our present society, and wonder how the "40 hours per week watching violent television and movies, and playing violent video games," is not a contributing factor to the pathological sickness of our day. Perhaps there's not a great deal of evidence suggesting a correlation today, but there's beginning to be more. As a pediatrician informed me last week, "scientific research moves more slowly than we'd like, but it will prove what the pediatricians already anecdotally know--violent entertainment is contributing to the fear-filled and violent behavior of our children."

I think we're in the early stages of studies relating to the effects of entertainment on our children, and I earnestly believe those studies will show what many intuitively know. We'll see how we bought the marketing materials, how we allowed our children to take the option of easy entertainment at the expense of their generation's long-term health. We'll see how we were duped by the slick salesmen and fancy advertisements. We were used.

[tweetherder text="We have made the mistakes of our fathers, only with different addictions."]We've made our father's mistakes, just with a different addiction.[/tweetherder]

This brings me to the broader concern. It's not a so much about the perils of entertainment as it is about the perils of the marketplace. We eat the pills they push, wash them down with the poisoned Kool-Aid. We've asked too few questions, trusted that the market tells us too few lies. We go blithely, consuming the next great addiction pushed by profiteers. And when we discover the market's mendacity, we shift to the next addiction waiting in the wings.

To make matters worse, the market takes great effort to bypass the parent these days. It hopes to get straight into the hands of the children--the easiest of all manipulations. It sneaks into their mobile devices and the advertisers notify them of the coolest, hippest, newest, basest addiction. Market fear and reap a reward--this is the market's motto.

What does it say when we allow the suicide marketing machine to infiltrate our own homes, to so normalize fear and violence that our pre-adolescents are too acquainted with the darkness of the human condition? When we fail to act on our intuition--avoid violence and fear--and instead bend to the will of the market--buy violence and fear--are we forfeiting a necessary part of our humanity? Are we forfeiting a part of our souls?

The pimps of profit-motive are reckless. They are mendacious. They systemically barter blips and bits for your parts of your Godward intuition. It's a racket, see.

See?

*****

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Tiny Ovens and Vintage Presence

Last summer Amber and I bought a tiny place just off Arkansas Highway 16. And although tiny is a relative term, allow me to expound--the little green-brick house boasts just enough square footage for our whole family, so long as we don't all inhale at the same time. We're always running into one another around here. The size of the home was no selling point, let me assure you. Nor were we over-joyed by the lack of a dishwasher or the under-sized refrigerator hole in the kitchen. Everything in the house is smaller, vintage, or sparse, and I do not mean this in an ironic hipster kind of way. I mean this in the we-can't-fit-an-entire-Thanksgiving-turkey-in-our-1960s-oven kind of way. Living life here is a marathon of adjustments.

Oven

Praise the Good Lord and all that He hath created, Spring has come! The new season allows us to leak out of these cramped quarters and into the joys of outdoor living. The boys climb trees and dig holes deep enough to bury bodies, while Amber and I tend to a new garden.

Our garden space was a blank slate at the beginning of the season, though the previous owner had treated the soil well. Hoping to create a more formal garden plot, I found and reclaimed some old railroad crossties, laid them in a 32 x 64 rectangle. A layer of home-grown compost, a dump truck of mulch, and a few straw bales later, and we were officially ready to grow.

Garden Layout

Amber chose the seeds, ordered them from an heirloom shop run by old-timy Mennonites somewhere in the Kansas. They arrived without ceremony, the brown box delivered by a UPS man on an average Wednesday. Amber smiled like a toothless six year old at Christmas when she opened the package. Broccoli, beets, carrots, tomatoes, kale, chard, lettuce, basil, peppers, rosemary, thyme--all her favorites were there, and she spread the packets across the bed as if the harvest had come in. I scanned the packets, said, "what about radishes?" She pulled her chin back, wrinkled her nose, and said, "who likes radishes?"

On Saturday morning, Amber walked the rows and poked seeds into tiny mounds while I tended to other yard work. Without headphones, a smart-phone, or any other device tethering her to the world-wide-information-super-distraction, she was present in the moment. Dirtying the quick of her fingernails, this was her rhythm: stoop, pinch, drop, cover. Smiling. Humming. Laughing to herself. This is the human enterprise of joy.

BellPepper

I suppose by suburban metes and bounds, it's a large garden. That said, it's not like we're running combines or spitting pesticides from the tail-end of a Cessna. And for what it's worth, that's just fine by me, because I'm not skilled in the ways of combine navigation or Cessna spitting. So, we'll tend to the metes and bounds we've been given by hand; we'll use hand-trowells and sweat-of-the-brow. Come Summer, maybe we'll have a few tomatoes, some broccoli, and a bushel of beans for the picking. It isn't grandiose, but it's ours.

[tweetherder text="There is a thing the world does. It says the small things aren't worth a whole-heckuva lot."]There's a thing this world does. Maybe you've heard about it. It says that the small things aren't worth a whole-heckuva lot.[/tweetherder] It demands bigger houses, newer appliances, and faster production. It rewards connectivity, platform, power, and consumption. It pretends the market's quotas are life-giving, and asks asinine questions, like, "why would you plant a garden when you could work a few more hours, make a little more money, and buy all your vegetables?" Bigger, faster, more, more, more. Pay to hire the laborers outside your door.

This logic is hogwash.

We can't all be Hillary Clinton, waging a campaign war for the chance to bring world peace. We can't all be Tyrese Gibson, taking over Hollywood with Mercedes vans and the power of positive thinking. We can't all be power-brokers, or small business owners, or even middle-management company men. Heck, we can't even all be the next internet sensation, the break-out viral video/writer/Facebook post of the month. I suppose we can all be vintage, though. And by that I do not mean vintage in the hipster want-to-check-out-my-vinyl-collection sort of way. I mean it more in the tiny way, in the way that tends to its own patch of dirt.

Make no mistake about it--vintage ain't all that inspirational, but it sure is fun.

*****

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Tender as Cool

"Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." ~Eph 4:32 "Because your heart was tender, and you have humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard what I spoke against this place . . . I also have heard you, says the Lord" ~2 Kings 22:19

“Tenderhearted: easily moved to love, pity, or sorrow….” Miriam Webster Online Dictionary

1.

These are the things we’ve been taught: survival of the fittest; eat what you kill; climb or be climbed over; be tough. It is a world of do or die, and so society teaches us to do from the outset.

We are taught that brains and brawn are the key to success. “Develop physical strength and mental toughness and the world will be your oyster,” we promise. We point to star athletes who throw game-winning touchdown passes in the closing seconds, to performers who “leave it all on the stage,” and businessmen who achieve the pinnacle of success. We marvel at their mental and physical toughness, extol those virtues above most others, even if only by implication.

What about the others, though?

There is a boy with a lazy eye. His vision leads him to believe that, at times, the sky is the ground and the ground is the sky. He is perpetually off balance and out of sorts. Picked last for ever dodge-ball game, he is ever the first target. He has bruises on his body from every ball he never dodged.

Know this: even at seven the spirit of American exceptionalism can be stolen from a child.

The high school girls model sorority life, make snap-judgments about who’s in and who’s out. Does the newcomer dress like the pack; does she think like the pack; does she have the right apps? They single out the weaker fawn, the one with no thigh-gap, too much tooth-gap, or chronic depression. Then, they bully. Snap judgments, SnapChat—these are the ways to steal the teenage spirit.

Know this: teenagers understand the us versus them dichotomy.

We grow into adulthood, graduate into a survival system. We scratch and claw--often with a smile and a handshake--and fight for the next promotion, reach for the next wrung of promise. We march on, and some of us advance without any thought of those over whom we are advancing. And this is not to say that this sort of progression is malicious. But it’s not to say that it’s tender, either. After all, only the toughest thrive in this system.

Know this: the systems of the world are Darwinian in nature.

2.

The tough-minded persevere and become successful, it is said, and at some very base level this is true. What’s more, this sort of tough-minded perseverance is encouraged by nature.

On the sixth day of creation, when God breathed life into the dust, he wired us with a neurological system that rewards achievement. In fact, according to a Psychology Today article entitled “The Neuroscience of Perseverance,” Christopher Bergland writes,

“[e]verything necessary for the survival of our species - eating, mating, sleeping, and physical perseverance - is rewarded by a flood of neurochemicals that make us feel good. This is a very generous biological design and at the same time necessary for our survival. All animals seek pleasure and avoid pain.”

Yes, we are neurologically hard-wired toward tough-minded perseverance, success, and survival. But what happens when this survival instinct goes askew? Are our brains rewarding us for achievement and perseverance at the expense of others?

3.

Yesterday, I was researching tenderheartedness, and I ran across a few notes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In “Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” King extols the virtues of developing mental toughness. After all, he says, a tough mind does not settle for easy answers; a tough mind does not settle for status quo oppression; a tough mind is not persuaded by candy-coated television marketing campaigns.

But, he goes on to say, “tough-mindedness without tender heartedness [sic] is cold, and detached[.] It leaves one [sic] life hardened… without the warmth of spring and the gentle heat of summer. There is nothing more tragic than to see a person who has risen to the displaced heights of a tough minded [sic] and has sunk to the passionless depth of hard heartedness.”

King continues, turning to scripture for examples of this dichotomy. He notes:

“The good Samaritan was good because he was tough minded enough to gain economic security and tender hearted enough to have compassion for wounded brother on life’s highway. … [Lazarus]… went to hell because he was so hard hearted that he guarded compassion and made no move to bridge the gulf between himself and his brother[.]”

King concludes, “[t]he greatness of our God lies in the fact that he is both tough minded and tender heartedness.”

4.

We have been wired toward success, toward perseverance and survival, yes. But when we allow our biological penchants to override our compassion for those around us, we fall into Lazarus’ folly. What’s more, when we fail to rein in our children’s penchant toward this sort of survival-of-the-fittest mentality, we lead them into the same folly.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t teach our children that success and perseverance aren’t important, nor is it to say that we discount the achievements of Beyonce, Tom Brady, or the Fortune 500 CEO. This is to say, though, that it’s time celebrate a different kind of cool. It's time to embody a different kind of cool.

Dr. King had it right: our God is tough-minded, but his tender heart never fails. Jesus was tough-minded, endured the cross; but he was tender-hearted, too, laying down his own life for the life of the world. So if, as scripture says, we’re to be imitators of God, perhaps it’s time for a shift.

Perhaps it’s time to see tender as cool. Perhaps it's time to live tender as cool.

*****

In this month's Tiny Letter (my monthly newsletter), I'm discussing the idea of resting  within church practices. There, I'm speaking candidly about some recent changes in the Haines' household, and I'd love to hear your thoughts. Sign up to read along!

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Shema-rica

Two weeks ago, the local preacher made reference to the Shema, the central prayer of Jewish faith. The introduction to the Shema reads as follows:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deut 6:4-9)

For whatever reason, I found the word "Shema" pliable, began twisting it apart until I created the word "Shema-rica," and then began wondering, [tweetherder text="what is the Americana version of the Shema? @sethhaines #poetry"] "what is the Americana version of the Shema?"[/tweetherder] These thoughts gave rise to this poem.

*****

Shema-rica.

Hear oh America:

both polished people, and huddled masses of pulsing poor who rise and fall like the sea and the other shining sea glimmering in the setting gold of evening—

the lord your god is one. Hear oh America:

you stokers of the Appalachian whisky still, sellers of spirits, and you others who reek of prohibitionist’s perfume, program peddlers to the liminal lessees in some Ozark half-way house—

the lord your god is one. Hear oh America: you field plowers, cotton purveyors, frivolous fashionistas, marketers, miners, all you who pull threads of precious metal through earthen seams or human veins in worship—

the lord your god is one. Hear oh America:

that smell is profit’s smog, the clink of coins the price of prophet’s song; [tweetherder text = "here hidden in market's margin... is a God, maybe forgotten. @sethhaines #poetry"]here, hidden in market’s margin, in the up sale, or extended warranty, in capital greasing the wheels of our futures is a God, maybe forgotten.[/tweetherder]

Hear oh America, the lord your god is one.