Biggering and transposition: more thoughts on fatherhood

I was talking to a friend a friend about marriage, couples’ counseling, and parenting and she told me that her test for whether she’ll be on board with a friend’s relationship is whether or not the both parties become more or bigger than they were without each other. Her comment reminded me of a line in the Lorax, in which the Onceler rhymes:

I meant no harm,

I most truly did not,

But I had to get bigger,

So bigger I got.

In Seuss’s yarn, BIGGERING is bad. But I think that in the context of relationships and parenting, biggering is good. For instance, being a father tempts me to want to sleep in, watch more television, read less, and learn less new skills. Why? Because I’m tired all the time. But there’s a deeper more fully-human desire to “bigger” myself. It’s like Jack Donovan said, to be a dad you’ve got to be big. And so being a father has made me conscious of a truer, but still biological aspect of myself, to which I am spiritually accountable.

It’s a weird experience, but I think it is one to which all our biological impulses point if you interpret them with reason. For instance, sexual impulses lead us to pursue an experience that exacerbates how incomplete we are without another, but that only lasts for moments. And so sexuality causes us to seek transcend our finitude. Our biology can hide our spiritual nature from us or be ennobled by it. It’s as Paul says in Romans 6. At every moment you can choose to use your members (the components of the flesh) as instruments of righteousness or tools of sin and destruction. The process of eliciting transcendent supernatural value from mundane realities is what C.S. Lewis calls transposition or what I’ve called, in reckless abuse of Seuss’s own meaning, ‘biggering.’

I’ll need to reflect on it more, but being a spouse, a parent, a child, an employee, a manager, a friend, a cancer patient, or just a person is to have a wide field of opportunities for biggering that could just as easily be used as opportunities to give up on anything transcendent.

Teddy Roosevelt on Masculinity

A former student texted me out of the blue something like this, “Why isn’t there anything specific about masculinity taught at the school?”

It’s a problem I’ve thought about for a while. There are, at the high school level, many pitfalls. The first is the significant danger of shaming young boys for non-masculine behavior with girls in the room. Pastors like Mark Driscoll were famous for this at their churches and it was stupid pageantry. Obviously this wasn’t meant. 

But all that aside, I think that the best president said it best:

The boy can best become a good man by being a good boy—not a goody-goody boy, but just a plain good boy. I do not mean that he must love only the negative virtues; I mean he must love the positive virtues also. “Good,” in the largest sense, should include whatever is fine, straightforward, clean, brave, and manly. The best boys I know—the best men I know—are good at their studies or their business, fearless and stalwart, hated and feared by all that is wicked and depraved, incapable of submitting to wrong-doing, and equally incapable of being aught but tender to the weak and helpless. A healthy-minded boy should feel hearty contempt for the coward, and even more hearty indignation for the boy who bullies girls or small boys, or tortures animals. One prime reason for abhorring cowards is because every good boy should have it in him to thrash the objectionable boy as the need arises.

Now, there’s more to masculinity than this, but not less. 

A Spiritual Exercise From Genesis 4:1-7

The Introduction to Cain’s Story

Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, “I have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD.” And again, she gave birth to his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. And Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering;  but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? “If you do well [make the best of it], will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:1-7 NAS)

 

The Lord tells Cain the best thing a resentful person could hear and he says it in two ways:

  1. You’ll feel better about your lot if you seek to improve things around you. 
  2. If you aren’t improving or don’t improve your circumstances, then it’s because there is sin inside of you and you must conquer it. 

In the rest of the Bible, these two instructions are the necessary  responses to the personal realization that we inhabit a catastrophically tragic world. The failure to enact them leaves the bitter soul in a downcast state. The story goes on to say that this resentful and spiteful attitude leads to murderous, dishonest, and sacrilegious ways of being in the world. 

Below are a series of questions meant to help you enact God’s counsels to Cain. They are generally philosophical and could be helpful to anybody reading the Bible. In other words, they aren’t just for Christians, but for any who see the value of the Bible.

The Exercise

I recommend first rereading the passage above. Then you should spend a minimum of 20 minutes writing your answers. This is the sort of thing that could take much longer. I spent 20 minutes on just the first two questions of section one. It might take a few days or weeks to finish. That’s okay. Your answers, if you are totally honest, may make you feel pretty weird or anxious. This is because you’re engaging in deep introspection and perhaps encountering your soul. 

  1. Questions pertaining to the first counsel
    These questions are about your circumstances which aren’t necessarily your fault. I wrote them to get you thinking about the circumstances in which you find yourself, how those circumstances impinge upon your interior life, and what the Cain and Abel story challenges readers to do in the face of their own troubles. 

    1. What do I wish was better in my life?
    2. What do I mean by ‘better’? 
    3. What are the sources of sorrow, anxiety, regret, or resentment to me? Explain why.
    4. Can I change any of these things?
    5. Of those which I can change, which are most important to me?
    6. Of those which are important to me, which circumstances can I act to improve today, this week, this month, and this year? 
    7. What could I add to my life, as Abel added shepherding, to improve my sense of meaning (think hobbies, exercise, Bible studies, starting written correspondence with a friend, etc)?
    8. What action will I do as soon as I can? 
    9. What actions will I do in the coming hours, day, weeks, and months? 
  2. Questions pertaining to the second counsel
    In the story, Cain is downcast because of God’s preference for Abel’s sacrifice. Cain refuses to follow God’s advice and so does not experience an uplifted countenance, improved attitude, or an elevated vision of the world. Instead, he carries on as before in the ways that led him to his lamentable state. The result is that Cain resents his brother so thoroughly that he murders him. The psychological tragedy underneath the murder is that Cain so resents the good he wishes to obtain for himself (God’s favor) that he simply aims to destroy it.
    Many of us desire some good for ourselves like a happy marriage, a disciplined child, a full bank account, a healthy body, or just one day of a cheer and good experiences. But despite those desires, we do not ‘make the best of it’ where we are. This leads us to destroy that which would be our good and like Satan in Milton’s Paradise lost we proclaim, ‘evil, be thou my good.’ 
    Back the story. God tells Cain that there are internal issues with which he must deal. He must master sin, lest it rule him. God challenges Cain to pay attention to what tempts him away from what he sees as good. In Cain’s case, the good is the divine approval.
    At this point in the Bible, sin is that which prevents us from obtaining that which we know to be good. For this exercise don’t think of sin merely as ‘doing things people do not approve of.’ Think of sin as ‘missing the mark of my best self.’

    1. What keeps me from making the best of things? Are there traits, possessions, relationships, or desires which distract me from the good?
    2. Is my understanding of good actually good? Am I desirous of things which are bad for me, impossible to acquire, or out of proportion with reality?
    3. With what must I part to master sin so that it cannot master me?
    4. What can I do to distract myself from temptation (chores when I want to wallow, sing went I want to curse, etc)? 
    5. What would happen if I let myself be mastered by sin? How much would I hate that version of myself? Would I befriend such a person?
    6. Are my sinful desires capable of being used for good (like aiming the desire for too many possessions at designing your home for kindness and hospitality)?
    7. What would I be like and how would I feel if my inner life were so arranged that only major changes of circumstances tempted me to sin? Would I enjoy the company of this genuinely good version of myself?
    8. What will I do today to master my sin?

Concluding Thought

This isn’t a ‘safe’ exercise. It requires that we look to our understanding of the good. But, what do we know? Nevertheless, the very idea of leaving our current way of being and going after what we perceive to be God has a pedigree going as far back as Abraham. I believe in the presence of Christ, who enlightens every man who comes into the world. And, like Abraham, when we mess up in our pursuit of the good, it isn’t catastrophic. Instead, it’s covenantal. In pursuing the good, we reach after God, who designed the world that we might feel after him and find him. It is he who overlooks past sins and calls all to repentance through Jesus Christ.

Science Fact of the Day #2: Teacher Somatotype

As in all cases “science fact” is used loosely.

The Main Claim About Teacher Somatotypes

In Nonverbal Behavior in Interpersonal Relations the authors observed that:

“Teachers who are ectomorphic are usually perceived by students as anxious and less composed but perhaps intelligent. The endomorphic teacher is generally perceived by students as slow, lazy, under-prepared, and not dynamic in the classroom. The mesomorphic teacher is perceived as credible, depedable, likable, and competent but possibly tough and dominant.” Virginia P Richmond and James C McCroskey, Nonverbal Behavior in Interpersonal Relations (Boston: Pearson/A and B, 2004), 269

For those who don’t know:

  1. Ectomorphs are lanky body types
  2. Endomorphs are dad-bod types
  3. Mesomorphs are beefy (muscly) types

teppelin: “ Three common male body types: Endomorph (often “chubbier” men) • Soft and round body • Gains muscle and fat very easily • Is generally short and “stocky” • Round physique • Finds it hard to lose fat • Slow metabolism Mesomorph (the...

Is that a reasonable claim? What is the evidence?

Now, here’s where things might get interesting. In this social-psychology text, several paragraphs per page will be riddled with citations. But this particular paragraph cites no studies. Is this just a personal observation? Is it an impression?

I don’t know.

I think that it’s probably partly true. There is some research that shows similar stereotypes in the broader population toward the somatotypes (which, since they’re based on eye-balling, are basically observational, not genetic categories).

I did find a study from the eighties showing that one class of students rated, based on photographs, attractive teachers and female teachers higher on scales of competence, organization, and imagination.* Of course, to extend this finding further seems like a hasty generalization. But that’s the only one I could find about teacher somatotypes and it wasn’t referenced in the textbook.

One study checked for stereotypes on the three body types and differences between the sexes both in stereotype attributed and in stereotype attribution. In this particular study, ectomorphs were perceived favorably despite historically negative stereotypes.** But over all mesomorphs were still perceived most favorably except in terms of intelligence and meanness. Big muscles can make you look stupid and mean. In this particular study, there were some gender differences: female mesomorphs didn’t suffer on the perceived intelligence or kindness rating. And female endomorphs weren’t perceived as more sloppy compared to male endomorphs. These generalized stereotypes could be applied to teacher somatotypes. 

It’s important to remember that none of the observations above are about stereotype accuracy. That’s a different cake to bake.

But I will make a suggestion here: If you are of a somatotype about whom certain stereotypes are made, it is important in a professional setting to put those stereotypes to rest if your workplace requires merit. If people assume you’re a stupid jerk because you lift, but your boss expects you to be kind as a part of your job, you have to break the stereotype. If you’re not in a merit based job, then those stereotypes may not matter to you. I would suspect that these stereotypes apply to all fields. 

References

*Stephen Buck and Drew Tiene, “The Impact of Physical Attractiveness, Gender, and Teaching Philosophy on Teacher Evaluations,” The Journal of Educational Research 82, no. 3 (January 1, 1989): 172–177.

**Richard M. Ryckman et al., “Male and Female Raters’ Stereotyping of Male and Female Physiques,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 15, no. 2 (June 1, 1989): 244–251.

 

Reflections on Fatherhood

This is just a stream of consciousness about the experience of fatherhood:

  1. When the struggles with Avery and Margot began toward the end of the pregnancy, I had never felt so defeated, alone, or weak. I didn’t handle it well, and I suspect I’m still recovering from that. 
  2. That’s not a complaint, it’s just a shift in perspective. Before fatherhood, I easily recovered from sorrow due to death or the fear thereof. Other things got me down. But rarely the near death or sickness of people I knew.(not sure why, I was just wired that way)
  3. The stresses of parenthood are like those of every life change. The passions of the body and soul find new ways to tempt you to sin.
  4. I’ve never been big on sleep, but my sleep is so shallow these days it’s finally catching up to me.
  5. I’ve always been very protective of children and been very aggressive to bullies. But with my own daughter that instinct has multiplied so vastly. When I read ancient literature, the insane lengths of revenge for hurt family suddenly makes sense to me (not that I endorse that). But I have rethought several aspects of my politics and ethics. 
  6. I do more fully understand wha Jesus meant when he said you couldn’t follow him without hating your family. Here’s how: if I had to choose between the whole world and my daughter, she wins every time. I’d build a space ship, turn the moon into the Death Star, and blow up the sun if it would keep her safe. Anyway, Jesus seems to be saying to put that sort of devotion beneath your devotion to him and adherence to his teachings.
  7. I find watching somebody sleep is now a deep joy.
  8. Few processes are more fun than watching somebody learn to be a person from scratch. 
  9. When Jordan Peterson says, “you have to know that you’re a loaded gun, especially around children, or you’ll harm them irreparably” is good counsel. It’s weird how you can suddenly and accidentally get mad at a person who doesn’t even have a will yet.
  10. I make up songs all day now. That’s weird.
  11. Since discovering the pregnancy, I’ve read so many parenting books and so much psychology and evo-psych literature that I’m actually forgetting author names (never done that before…could be sleep deprivation).
  12. Having a child wakens you, profoundly, to the value of a dollar and the beauty of nice neighborhoods. 
  13. Few moments are so heartbreaking as watching my daughter’s pristine worldview get shattered by bumping her head or suddenly getting hungry.
  14. She recently started emulating “I love you.” She makes a weird three syllable sound with her tongue floppping about. It’s the best.
  15. Unless you’re a terrible person who would definitely be a bad parent, you should get your life together and have kids in order to experience meaning in life.

How to pass any exam

I’ve told my students this exact advice so many times:

Here are some posts I’ve written about serious study strategies:

  1. Lecture to the wall
  2. Thomas Aquinas on Memory
  3. Study Space
  4. The Bible’s Study Pattern

But wait, what’s a 4chan?

Adler’s Moral Axiom

As far as I can tell, there are three major problems in ethical thinking today:

  1. Disconnecting ethics from happiness and therefore thinking that personal well-being and pleasure have nothing to do with ethics.
  2. Hedonism: The idea that right and wrong is only a matter of what leads to the highest personal pleasure. In social ethics, this means allowing people to do whatever they think/feel will make them feel the best. We might call this unscientific utilitarianism (because it isn’t based upon actual knowledge of what is good for the individual or collective human organism.
  3. The is/ought problem: That since knowledge is all descriptive, no understanding of what is can lead to a conclusion about what one ought to do.

In my opinion, all three of these problems are solved in one way or another by Mortimer Adler’s one self-evident moral premise: We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.

Below are the paragraphs where he introduces the axiom in his book, 10 Philosophical Mistakes:

The two distinctions that we now have before us, distinctions generally neglected in modern thought—the distinction between natural and acquired desires, or needs and wants, and the distinction between real and merely apparent goods—enable us to state a self-evident truth that serves as the first principle of moral philosophy. We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.

The criterion of self-evidence, it will be recalled, is the impossibility of thinking the opposite. It is impossible for us to think that we ought to desire what is really bad for us, or ought not to desire what is really good for us. The very understanding of the “really good” carries with it the prescriptive note that we “ought to desire” it. We cannot understand “ought” and “really good” as related in any other way.[1]

While Adler’s claim is presented as an axiom, a truth about which one cannot accept the opposite proposition, it can probably only be accepted once it is properly understood. Here are some questions to help us think it through:

  1. Is it possible for there to be desires that are bad for us?
  2. Are there desires that are good for us but desired wrongly?
  3. Are there desires that are more important than others?
  4. We desire food, but is there a reason to desire food?
  5. We desire to live, but is there a reason we desire to live?
  6. We desire pleasure, but is there a reason we desire pleasure?
  7. We desire sex but is there a reason for sex?

If Adler’s axiom is axiomatic, we have a proposition upon which to build our ethics, dispute them as our understanding of human nature advances, and upon which to build theological ethics for those who accept divine revelation about the purpose and nature of humanity.

References

[1] Mortimer Jerome Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 90-91

 

Sherlock Holmes, Moriarty, and the Devil

In the three most recent adaptations of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock, Elementary, and the Game of Shadows) at crucial moments Holmes is deceived by Moriarty into making a tactical error and in the mean time a song about demon forces is played.

There Are Spoilers Below

In the movie, Holmes is fooled into thinking Moriarty intended to bomb an Opera house during Don Giovanni. Upon Holmes’ arrival, the chorus of demons is played as the main character is received into Hell. 

In the American procedural, Holmes is fooled into thinking a serial killer is Moriarty (when indeed the real Moriarty’s identity remains opaque to him) and Gil Scott-Heron’s, Me and the Devil, plays:

And in BBC’s version, Sherlock rides to the court house to function as an expert witness, and Nina Simone’s Sinnerman plays in the background:

 

Now, is this all just a coincidence or does something in the source material lend to this interpretation? No, it is not a coincidence. Yes, there is one reference to Moriarty as an evil on a diabolical level:

“[He] has, to all appearance, a most brilliant career before him. But the man had hereditary tendencies of a most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers. Dark rumours gathered round him in the university town, and eventually he was compelled to resign his chair and to come down to London…” – Sherlock Holmes on Moriarty in The Final Problem

 

I doubt that anybody I know was interested enough in that confluence of media and Sherlock Holmes source material. I had wondered to myself, “why had they utilized that sort of theme in these modern versions of Holmes, particularly when he’s portrayed as an atheist in two of them?” Since I hadn’t read the Final Problem in a while, the answer was unknown to me. When I went back to it, there it was.

I think part of the appeal of Holmes today is that his intelligence is used in fighting evil, I hope people go back to the books and read them though. Holmes is portrayed more humanely, more philosophically, and though I love the modern adaptations, more excellently in the originals.

Corruption and Perfection

Imagine the horror of your bad habits being made known on your body, on the news, or to the masses on social media. Even more than your social life, imagine the effects of such habits on your soul or upon your highest aspirations in life. If you’ve ever read The Picture of Dorian Gray you get to experience that through a man whose indiscretions are hidden from view by virtue of their effects being transferred to a painting of himself that essentially represents the sum total of his virtues or vices.

The power of the novel, or even the concept of a painting that ages in our place for anybody who hasn’t read it, is in its ability to make us reflect upon whether or not our actions move us closer to perfection or deeper into soul and aspiration destroying corruption.

The processes of corruption and perfection are measurable by comparison to an ideal self, a moral standard, or, in the case of physical goals, literally measurable by the strictest standards of science (fitness, financial, and other such material based goals).

With this in mind, I suspect that the best way to help somebody pursue a like of moral virtue is to get them to imagine an ideal version of themselves that seems ideal to them. Once you start pursuing that vision of the good, two things can happen. First, you realize how poorly you make choices, in other words, you’re a sinner by your own law. Secondly, you realize both the greatness to which you could realistically aspire and the silliness and small-mindedness of your ideals.

Richard Swinburne explains the process of personal corruption. It is essentially the encouragement of bad desires and elimination or deformation of good desires. This is the result of choices we make. In the book he proposes the case of somebody who decides to do what they know (or think they know) to be evil. He describes what he considers to be the two possibilities for somebody who repent of their actions:

“Gradually, unless a man to some degree pursues the good, one of two things happens. First, the agent may try to persuade himself that the action which he believes to be wrong, say stealing, is not really wrong. He looks for disanalogies between stealing and other wrong acts, and analogies between stealing and acts which are not wrong. ‘It’s only luck the victim had the watch to start with,’ says the thief; ‘so I’m just upsetting the balance of luck. Anyway, hardly anyone really loses anything, because almost everybody is insured.’ And so on. Or secondly, the agent may say ‘I don’t care about right and wrong. I’m not going to be a moral man in future.’ In one or other of these ways the agent intentionally dulls his conscience, blinds himself to awareness of good and bad, right and wrong.”1

In other words, as we make poor decisions we either deaden our emotions to that decision but justifying it over and over again or we convince ourselves that morality in this or in all cases is not real.

An important question for thoughtful people is this:

Are there any habits for which I feel the need to justify myself to my conscience? And then ask, “Is my conscience right or wrong?”

This process, I think, applies not just to matters of right and wrong, though it obviously does. I think it applies to any good habit that makes us more fully alive, more fully functioning, and more happily human. Areas that take extra effort to develop good habit like diet, frugality, paying bills on time, working on your art daily, managing your property, reading instead of watching television, exercise, cleanliness, intellectual effort, and so-on can go through the process of corruption until we find ourselves unfeeling and ungoverned by reason with respect to these things. We revert to our merely animal nature and live on the basis of impulses rather than reason.

This particular discussion is interesting to me because my favorite definition of free-will is “the ability conceive of an ideal and pursue it.” I heard it in a lecture and I don’t know from whom the lecturer was quoting. But it’s elegant and sidesteps all the other metaphysical baggage that comes with debates concerning free will.

Anyway, what good thing do you want? Do you want honesty, freedom from pornography, control over your emotions, a positive net-worth, to be truly tranquil in yourself and benevolent to those around you? Now ask, do my habits tend toward these goods or away from them? Is it worth it to keep up with habits that lead you to eventually abandon your highest aspirations or live with the anxiety caused by desiring what you believe you’ll never acquire? In other words, ask yourself if you’re on the path to corruption or perfection. You’ll have plenty of time to decay when you’re dead.

 

Footnotes

1 Richard Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement (Oxford [England]; New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1989), 174

*Image: By Ivan Albright (1897 – 1983) – en:File:The Picture of Dorian Gray- Ivan Albright.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48757597

Simplify: a review

Back in 2008, I saw a review for Simplify by Paul Borthwick over at Internet Monk, back before Mike Spencer died. I bought the book immediately. I found that despite its price tag ($16.99), it contained a wealth of valuable information. It’s exactly what it says it will be. A book about the practical side of simplifying your life, especially with respect to finances and time. I read it as soon as I purchased it and starting applying its principles. My wife then read it (I lent it to her before we were even dating). And it has helped us to live rather simply. It’s principles are worth revisiting periodically. I was reorganizing my library (it must be done often because I always pull volumes off the shelf and lazily put them wherever I can reach), and saw it and reread it.

 

Simplify: 106 Ways to Uncomplicate Your Life

The downside to the book is that everything in it is available free in thousands of online articles or sites like Wiki-How. But the upside is that all the useful information is available in one volume in a format which could easily be used for family reading time, church study groups, or accountability/holiness meetings with other Christians.

One of the funniest things about the book is that the author suggests it may not be useful on the back. As a sincere question, it’s a helpful reflection. As a sales pitch, it’s genius.

Anyway, the book offers helpful advice for saving money, uncomplicating your life, and managing your time. I highly recommend that you read it with your spouse, read it before you get married, or read it as a sort of guide to subtle but helpful pathways out of bad habits.

4/5, highly recommend unless you’re willing to look this stuff up online.