Redefining Recovery

It’s National Recovery Month, so I’m spinning a few pieces on the subject and reimagining the language. What is recovery? How do we find it? Consider the word--recovery. We use it as a badge of honor, sometimes a scarlet letter of shame. “I’ve been in recovery for almost twelve years without a drop,"  or “did you hear how Mary had to check herself into a long term recovery program?” It’s a shorthand of sorts, a way of classifying the more broken folks from the less broken folks.

[tweetherder]What is recovery really, though?[/tweetherder] Is it nomenclature confined to the world of addiction? Doesn't it imagine returning to a state of being or regaining something once lost? If so, couldn't we all stand this sort of returning, this kind of regaining?

Consider this.

She makes her way to the merry-go-round, grabs the bars sticking from the ears of the tiny black horse as the older children push her faster and faster. Her face is pure freedom, joy. Ponytail swinging wide, centripetal force slanting her sideways in the saddle, she dangles leftward, as if supported by a cosmic wire. There are no worries about gravity, which, as any adult knows, can sometimes be a real pain in the neck.

Round and round and round she goes, and where the laughter comes from every adult knows.

There are monkey bars and those same bigger kids who pushed the merry-go-round traverse the rungs. They swing from bar to bar, reach the end, examine their hands for callouses or new blisters. Laughing, they make it to the end of the line where they wait another turn. Titus pauses at the top of the ladder. “Help!” he shouts, and is lifted, held, and guided by adult arms. Rung by rung he smiles. At the end, he is dropped to a ladder, which he descends before running to my knees. He looks up, says, “I did it, Daddy.” I don't correct him.

In the evenings there is only the community of children creating a sludge-slick sheen of sweat and dirt, which they swap back and forth as they play Chinese freeze tag. I tell them the name of this game is not politically correct, but they shrug and go on, continuing to generate the smell worn by livestock. They chase and shout “your it!”

They want to fly and pose for photos. They want to believe the universe is raucous and good, even in the dark of evening. They are light on worries and gravity.

The world is a sacrament, an outward manifestation of the goodness of God in the land of the living. It’s the children who see this best and with the clearest eyes. Before first-kisses, first drinks, and first layoffs, even the most ornery of the lot is more innocent than the most innocent adult. This is the beauty of children.

Rest

I read, once, that a good lawyer came to a good teacher and asked how a man could find the kingdom of God. The good teacher looked at the good lawyer, said, “unless a man is born again he cannot find the Kingdom.” The good lawyer asked, “how is it possible to become a child again?” The teacher responded, “only believe.”

"What is recovery?” you ask. I’m not sure that I have it all quite deciphered yet. But consider the children. Now, you tell me.

 

***TINY LETTER AND COMING CLEAN***

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And don't forget to keep you eyes out for my upcoming book from Zondervan, Coming Clean.

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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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On Pimps, Pushers, and Five Nights at Freddy's

He came into the room, head down, hands wringing. "I can't sleep," he mumbled, and when I asked him why, he walked across the hardwood floor, leaned in and whispered "Freddy." Child of the 80s as I am, I considered Freddy Krueger, the razor-fingered haunt of every thirty-something's dreams. He was the villain of Nightmare on Elm Street, the horror franchise that made Wes Craven's career. Appalled, I wonder how my child came to be frightened by this out-dated specter, and I rattled a mixed bag of questions and statements.

"Where did you hear about Freddy? He's not real anyway. Which kid has seen that terrible movie?"

Jude looked at me, brow furrowed. "Movie?" he asked. "They made a movie out of the game?"

Confused, I said, "wait; you aren't talking about Nightmare on Elm Street?"

"What's Nightmare on Elm Street?" he asked, and in an sudden rush of remorse, I lament my interjection of 1980s pop-culture into the conversation. His face soured, cheeks flushed, and tears welled up. "I'm talking about the video game, Five Nights at Freddy's, dad. It's so scary and I can't stop thinking about it. I dream about Freddy every night."

~*~

I'm not one of those issue-of-the-day bloggers, and I don't spend much time exploring or exploiting the ills of pop-culture or the media on these pages. But if only for today, allow me to speak my piece.

The Symptom

Five Nights at Freddy's was the independent video game sensation of late 2014. Rated as 12+ for "Frequent/Intense Cartoon or Fantasy Violence; Frequent/Intense Horror/Fear Themes," Five Nights is a simple horror game. And it's this intensity and simplicity that's led to its virality. In fact, as of the date of this piece, a YouTube search for "Five Nights at Freddy's" results in almost 8 million videos, most of which record the artificial stress gamers endure before cursing and defecating their drawers in fear.

"What's so scary," you ask? Consider the story.

Freddy Fazbear's Pizza was a cool dive, a place where an oversized, robotic bear and his friends served pizza in a family-friendly atmosphere. It was a happening joint until one fateful, murderous day.

As the story unfolds, the gamer learns that a child predator once lured five children into a back room at the Freddy Fazbear's Pizzeria. There, he dismembered the children, and stuffed their constituent parts into the animatronic suits of Freddy and his friends. The killer escaped, and the whereabouts of the children's bodies were not discovered until the patrons of the restaurant noticed blood, mucus, and a foul odor emanating from the suits of the once-happy mascots.

This is where you enter the game. The pizzeria is in the process of shuttering, but in the meantime, you have taken the night watch. And though you're assured there's no need to worry, on your first night, you realize something is amiss. The animals roam the halls of the pizzeria looking for a new victim to rip to shreds and stuff into an empty animatronic suit. If you're not careful, the next victim might just be you.

In full disclosure, I do not own Five Nights, nor have I played it. But after watching numerous videos of the gameplay, I can tell you this--this game is downright freaky.

This fright-fest does not rely on blood spurts or chainsaw mutilation to conjure fear. Instead, it's fear-fuel is found in its dark, yet compelling story, extreme-contrast lighting, and the creepy children's music. The game masterfully creates a world of artificial stress, one that triggers the gamer's survival instincts. And try as you may, it's not easy to make it through your five-night shift as a pizzeria security guard. Invariably, security cameras fail, distractions misdirect you, and when you're least expecting it, glowing eyes enter the room and jump into your screen with high pitched screams.

It seems silly and harmless enough, right? Maybe. But rest assured, the implied violence and horror is enough to send you screaming for your mommy.

The Illness

Now before you jump to too many conclusions, let me be clear--this isn't Really about Five Nights. The game is not the disease, it's not the great social ill. Instead, Five Nights is symptomatic of the greater illness.

My children received their baptism into Freddy's world at school, where their classmates smuggled it in on their iPads and smartphones. Simultaneously scared spitless and addicted, the boys cannot shake free from the game's animatronic grip. And this is the genius of Five Nights--it's captured the adolescent imagination. To borrow a term from Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point, the game is "sticky" among the children. Don't believe me? Ask any ten-year old whether he's heard of Freddy, Foxy, or Balloon Boy. I'll send you a ten-spot if he hasn't.

And is this stickiness among the children coincidental? Was this a game created for adults that just happened to slip into the hands of the children? I suspect not. I suspect children were the target market.

And now we get to the heart of the matter.

[tweetherder]We're rearing children in a world of crack-pushers and pimps who line their pockets by selling fear.[/tweetherder] They whet our childrens' appetites with characters that cloy before before they gore. And capitalizing on primal survival instincts, they laugh all the way to the bank.

Line up the dollars.

Count the stacks.

Parlay the earnings into the next Johnny-Scare-Lately addiction.

Create the modern Marlboro Man.

Make fear cool.

Push it; push it; push it.

These pushers and pimps are the child-predators, but the marketplace has deemed their predation socially acceptable. And so, they continue to sell, and sell, and sell, and our children continue to buy fear, all with our consent.

I'm growing weary of the marketplace that targets the children, that aims to sell them nightmares for a buck-ninety-nine. I'm growing weary of a marketplace that commodifies the God-given fight-or-flight instincts of our children. More than anything, I'm growing weary of a world which steals the innocence of my children, which takes the joy of an oversized teddy bear and turns it into a devil of a thing.

Devils are real, see.

Perfect love casts out fear, the good book says, and we're hoping to cast fear from our home. So we'll be vigilant; we'll guard our children's screen-time, and talk to them about the online pushers and pimps of fear, violence, and sex. What's more, if you send your kids to my house, we'll do our best to keep the fear-free. I'd appreciate it if you'd do the same for my kids, and for the the friends of your children. But all the same, wouldn't it be nice if the market could take a break from it's incessant pushing of fear, horror, and violence? Wouldn't it be nice if this kind of pimping wasn't seen as normal, but was received its share of parental punishment? Wouldn't be nice if we saw the light break into the darkness of market?

Wouldn't it be nice.

Wouldn't it?

Maybe I've become that dad. I don't really care. Revolution come.

*****

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When Children Grow

I tucked myself in the floorboard of the Subaru, my back against the floor curve and my legs reaching into the seat. A plastic blaster in either hand, I scanned the galaxy for any sign of Imperial scum. I was the gunner of the Millennium Falcon, and Princess Leia was my pilot. "You've gotta shake 'em!" I shouted. Leia took a sip of coffee from a travel mug, holstered it back in the cupholder and said, "I'm doing the best I can! There are too many of them!" I pivoted the turret of my imagination, spotted an encroaching tie fighter, and blew it into bits in the pale-blue sky with the mouth-sound of my blaster cannon.

"Our shields won't hold much longer!" I erupted, brow furrowing.

"Prepare to make the jump to hyper-space," she said, shifting into fifth gear.

It was 1982, the glory days of Star Wars and relaxed seatbelt laws, and my mother was carting my sister to school. Making our way down Texas backroads, I stared upward through windows, saw only the battlefield of my imagination. We were fighting for the Rebellion, struggling against the tyranny of the advancing Empire, and every morning we made this perilous journey. Every morning we arrived victorious.

I don't remember the morning it happened. I don't remember crawling from childhood into adolescence, but at some point, I stopped sitting with my back against the floorboard. I stopped propping my legs in the seat and making blaster sound effects. I didn't call my mother Leia anymore, or my sister Chewbacca. Instead, I sat upright, craning out the window into the Texas scrub. I called my mother, "mom," and barely spoke to my sister.

My imagination turned inward and private. I recited math formulas, grammar rules, or spelling test words. I dreamt of being a pilot of war planes, or of the names of the girls I thought were pretty.

[tweetherder]The summer of childhood turns to autumnal adolescence without warning.[/tweetherder]

***

On the morning commute, the boys and I listen to music at parentally irresponsible levels--Rich Mullins, The Beatles, Queen, John Denver. We sing, dance, and laugh as Titus nails the chorus of "Rucy in the sky, wiff DI-mon!" It is our boyish ritual.

Yesterday, we pulled into the school drop-off line, van swaying to the tune of "Yellow Submarine." Stopped near the back of the line, a few of Isaac's classmates strolled past the mini-van on the sidewalk. Ike waived, then turned to the front.

"Dad, could you turn down the music?"

"Sure," I said, "but why?"

"It's kind of embarrassing. The boys in my class might hear it and make fun of us."

I reached for the volume knob, turned it to a whisper. Through the window, I saw the green grass rising to blue sky, the sky I once imagined as the zero-gravity stomping ground of Seth Skywalker. I considered my mother, how she must have felt when the scales of boyish naivety fell from my eyes, when the days of my ignorance to embarrassment faded. [tweetherder]One day she woke, and that was the day childhood wonder was defeated by the empire.[/tweetherder]

In stop-and-start fits, the boys and I made our way to the back of the school. At the rear entrance, Ian slid the door open. Three boys bounded from the van--fourth grade Isaac, second grade Jude, and first grade Ian. I saw them, and in my parental imagination, they shot up like fireworks, turned into adults with their own children in their own drop-off lines. They watched their children run to the schoolhouse door. And then, my children's children aged in a blink and were dropping their own off. I imagined the tyranny of this cycle, how childhood wonder always looses the war against early-onset adulthood.

Isaac slid the van door closed, took three steps forward, then stopped. As is his morning ritual--and has been since kindergarten--he looked back, waived, and smiled. I waived back, mouthed "I love you," and watched him turn away and run to a group of lanky fourth-graders gathered by the door.

There will be a day when Isaac no longer turns back and waives, and when Titus learns to pronounce "Lucy" and "with." Every season eventually passes. But while it's today, I'll store up these memories.

***

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Spacious Hospitality (A Grace Table Offering)

Seven children run through the backyard, arms waiving in the air and squealing. They pass under bare-armed apple trees, duck the lowest wispy switches. It is an evening of tag-you’re-it, and the children run under the spacious arms of stretching evening-pink that reach from the southwest. The older children bob and weave as the stump-legged youngest reaches out to touch the hem of any garment. Isaac pretends to trip, falls, and allows himself to be made it. He recovers, begins chasing his friend Anna, whose blonde hair flips wild as she turns her shoulders slender and ducks his swipe. There is nothing as hospitable as nature’s accommodation of children, I think. She is deep, and wide, and welcomes their chaos. Continue reading at Grace Table, where I'm writing about what it means to offer spacious hospitality.

*****

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