Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My Two Favorite Questions

Most people don’t have a favorite word. I’m a writer, which means that I’m not “most people” in pretty much any category.

For a while, I thought my favorite word was “pretentious.” The word just sounds like what it means. (Try to say “pretentious” without sounding pretentious. Can’t do it, can you?)

And before I knew that word, “snickerdoodle” was high up on the list. Besides sounding funny, you can practically smell the cinnamony goodness as soon as you say it. It’s like an onomatopoeia, but for a smell.

Then it came to me one day, the obvious answer to the question, “What’s your favorite word?” in case anyone would ask (which they haven’t yet…maybe I need stranger friends). My favorite word is my favorite question: “Why?”

Saturday, May 26, 2012

I Am Not Captain America

There’s something about The Avengers that works.

When Thor tries to persuade his brother to reconcile and come home, when Captain America blasts Iron Man for his selfishness and arrogance, when Black Widow is willing to do just about anything to save Hawkeye, we cheer. Courage, determination, self-sacrifice…it’s all there, and we love it.

I want to say that it’s because we believe in these things, deep down where it matters, in places where only stories can reach us. And maybe we do.

But we also traipsed along with a band of unruly pirates for four movies, cheering for the very dishonorable Jack Sparrow because, well, he was funny. We rooted for bare-faced revenge when the one after it was Inigo Montoya. And very few of us would describe James Bond as a man of character.

Our cinematic protagonists aren’t always, or even often, very admirable. So I can’t honestly say that fiction will always show our better side by reminding us that we ultimately want good to triumph over evil. It’s just not the way things are.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Why You Don’t Need to Have Discipline

Have you ever wondered why you aren’t able to make it to appointments on time? Are deadlines your worst enemy? Do you feel guilty when you don’t accomplish your goals?

Well, friends, I have an answer to the staged rhetorical questions that you aren’t actually asking: it’s not your fault. Oh, no. You’ve walked right into a cultural conspiracy and didn’t even know it.

In the past, society has put forth things like discipline and responsibility as character traits that all people should strive for. This, of course, is highly unreasonable. Some people’s personalities just are not suited for these in-the-box traits. Parents, teachers, and employers want certain results from those underneath them, and since those traits are most likely to get good results, they encourage those outdated values. This sociological survival-of-the-fittest is more like mind control than character formation and must be opposed.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Art of Accepting a Compliment

I’ll give you the only two things I know for sure about graciously accepting compliments: first, it’s very important. And second, I’m awful at it.

Before you think that this is going to be a very short blog post, here’s an observation from a delightful little book called Try Giving Yourself Away by David Dunn, first published in 1953.

“Sincere compliments are among the finest gifts in the world, the most hungered for and the most appreciated by nearly all of us. Yet how few of us have learned to receive a compliment gracefully. Instead, we too often clumsily bat it back by making an awkward disclaimer which spoils the pleasure for both parties.”

At this point in the book, I always suspect that Mr. Dunn must have been thinking of me, 60 years into the future, and chuckling in amusement. Because that’s kind of how I deal with compliments.

It goes something like this: someone says something nice to me about my dress or the duet I sang with my sister or the blog post I wrote, and I blush and say, “Oh, thanks. Um…hey, look over there! It’s a…wall. How ‘bout that, huh? So, what do you think about the weather today?”

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Not-Actually-Official Myers-Briggs Test

Most people spend years studying psychology and getting fancy framed degrees in order to put together theories and tests like this. Me? I put on a sweater that resembles a lab coat and speak in a fake British accent as I planned out these questions (everyone knows British accents make you smarter). I could also put together a quick bar graph on Excel with made-up statistics if you like.

No? Well, then, you’ll just have to take this test as it is: a fun kinda-sorta Myers-Briggsish exercise. I tried to be as accurate as I could without being boring. (Most of these tests are as dry as a crouton.) There are four sections for each of the four pairs of traits that I’ve talked each Wednesday.

Pick whichever answer that fits the best, even if it’s not exactly accurate. They might possibly be a little exaggerated in either direction. Sorry about that. It was just too tempting.

For you writers out there, use this test on your characters too. It can be really fun. I found out that my latest narrator has the personality type that I’m supposed to marry, according to the (almost entirely bogus) analysis on one of the Myers-Briggs websites out there. Also, I asked my sister which character in that story she identified most with. She picked the one with her exact same type, even though he’s a very different kind of person than she is. Coincidence? Maybe. Anyway, it’s interesting.

And be honest with your answers, kids. You can’t cheat on a personality test, although you’re welcome to try.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

An Abundance of Muffins

Last week, I was making muffins for a group of about six or seven people. Most muffin recipes make two-dozen muffins, so that’s about what I was expecting from this one. Guess how many it actually made?

Over 60. No, really. That’s a 3:1 output-to-expectations ratio for those of you keeping score at home. When do you ever get three times as much as you expect out of anything? We almost ran out of dorm-kitchen counterspace to put all of the muffins. Since we only needed to keep a few, we handed the extras out to people who went past, whether we knew them or not. There was a pretty high demand, since most college students seem to forget what homemade baked goods taste like in between breaks.

Everyone could have seconds. Everyone could take one and bring it to their roommate (although I suspect a few people’s “roommates” were a fictitious ruse to sneak an extra muffin). Seeing all those muffins lined up there, warm with the chocolate melting and making the lobby smell so good you wanted to eat the air, I couldn’t have been happier.

And I realized that I want my life to be characterized by an abundance of muffins. I never want to be rich, but I want to live on a lower percentage of income so I can give away whatever I can. I want to be able to tell people exactly what they mean to me while they’re still alive to appreciate it. I want to spend time with others and enjoy getting to know them.

Sometimes I struggle with being generous with my money, praise, and time, but mostly, I am a giver. It just comes easily to me.

But most of the time, I only want to give, and I refuse to receive. It’s a strange, holy-looking kind of pride where I dodge compliments and hate asking for help and never want to admit when I’m hurting because I’m afraid I’ll be a burden on someone. And it keeps me from living abundantly.

Here are two things I know are true:

1. God has given me an abundance of muffins. Once, I made a list of all the adults (and some of my peers who I really look up to) who have invested in my life and challenged me. It was really long. “Too many people love me!” I informed my roommate, which, stripped of its context, got recorded in the infamous blackmail document. But, really, it’s true.

And those people have been incredibly generous. They have affirmed my dreams, listened to me when I needed it, taught me how to think for myself, and praised my accomplishments. Some days, I am weak and insecure, God seems very far away, and I don’t feel very lovable. But even on those days, I have this incredible gift: I can see God’s love in the way people around me have loved me. Not everyone has this. No, probably only one in a thousand people have this.

Because I’ve been given so much, I feel like I need to give to others, which is, of course, straight out of the Bible. But I shouldn’t jump so quickly into give, give, give without doing one basic kind of giving first: giving thanks. I need to allow myself to bask in what God has provided without feeling guilty. Otherwise, it will be duty that motivates me and not love.

When do I three times as much as I expect? All the time. It’s called grace, and I have to remember not to take that for granted.

2. God is an abundance of muffins. The first realization told me what I should be doing, the second tells me how to do it. He has “given us everything we need for life and godliness” and “gives generously to all without finding fault” (2 Peter 3:18, James 1:5). But if I have a hard time taking from other people, I have an even harder time taking from God. I still want to give to Him, to prove my worth as His daughter, to be constantly working for the kingdom.

The problem with this is, God doesn’t need me. But He does want me. This is an easy truth to write and not an easy one to understand. On my highest days, I imagine that I’m so spectacular that “well done, good and faithful servant” is already inscribed on my award plaque. On my lowest days, I wonder how God could use me and wonder if other people even like me.

I think I have a hard time with this because I’ve forgotten to be like Mary and sit at Jesus’ feet. I’m too busy working, doing, and trying to simply hear God say, “I love you” and believe it. I know in my head that God is the source of love, wisdom, strength, and everything I need, but I don’t like to take it because I’m too focused on doing everything myself.

This is what I want to learn over the summer. At the advice of one of my professors, I’m taking Ephesians 3:16-19 as my summer passage, where Paul prays for something that I always thought was a little strange: that the Ephesians would understand Christ’s love. Now I’m realizing why that’s so important. Pray for me if you think about it.

Once, someone read John 10:10, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” and compared it to a bubbling, overflowing fountain. For some reason, that picture just didn’t work for me. Big deal, there’s a lot of water. What does that have to do with me?

Now, when I think about abundant life, I see a counter-full of muffins and a bunch of happy college students. That’s abundance. And in order for me to do what brings me joy, giving, I have to be willing to receive first.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Pretending to be Myers-Briggs, Part 4

“Judging” and “Perceiving” are really vague titles that don’t give you an accurate picture of what they’re supposed to mean. Judgment has a negative connotation, like some old lady waving a crooked finger at you and squinting in old-fashioned condemnation. No one is really sure what perceiving means, unless they think of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride closing his eyes and letting his sword guide him to the right spot.

(What, no one else thought of that in connection with the word “perception?” Okay, fine. I’m weird.)

These labels are probably the least helpful out of the bunch. I would have renamed them “Structured” and “Unstructured,” but S is already used and it doesn’t sound quite as official. Also, I am not, in fact, Myers-Briggs.


I am a firm P, meaning that I’m very flexible and slightly disorganized. Right now, I 100% guarantee that my sister is reading this and going, “Slightly? Are you kidding me? Have you seen her desk?” This is because Erika is a firm J. Whenever she can, she’ll grid things up, check them off, and arrange them in alphabetical order.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Sabbath Reflections: A Way to Look at Death

Before you wonder, I love the people in my major. I really do. But if you were to listen to conversations between professional writing majors, you’d probably be slightly confused almost all the time. We care about strange things that no one else does, like the Oxford comma, whether it’s legitimate for Ted Dekker to make a trilogy with four books, and the fact that a stained glass window can be a metaphor for anything.

Happens to wonder what that means? If so, try a little exercise to stretch your creativity. Picture a stained glass window. Now go through a list of abstract concepts and try to use the window as a metaphor. It will almost always work. We’ve come up with ways that it could symbolize suffering, the Trinity, deception, stress, and the Biblical canon. But there’s one picture that especially sticks in my mind, which I’ll be talking about tonight.

(Please bear with me for a second. Eventually, it will all make sense to what this has to do with death and dying. I didn’t misname the blog post – the connection just takes a little time to find.)

 The picture I get when I think of a stained glass window is a mosaic of colorful glass squares put together to form a beautiful scene. Each individual shard contributes to a greater whole. Each is unique in shape and color. Some have a more significant part than others, either because of how large they are or where they have been placed in the overall picture.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Pretending to be Myers-Briggs, Part 3

When we were discussing the topic of emotions at the lunch table one day, I made the observation, “My brain can beat up my heart.”

Sometimes this is true, and I can tell my emotions to sit down and shut up. And other times it’s definitely not. I’m a thinker-feeler. I love debate and heart-to-heart conversations. My driving force is justice, or maybe mercy, depending on the day. The theological problem of evil hit me with a two-punch blow; I struggled with it on an experiential “heart” level and a logical “mind” level.

By all accounts, my personality shouldn’t exist. But it does, because we’re people, and people are more complicated than tests used to categorize them. Because I’m a thinker-feeler hybrid, though, there’s always a lot of conflict going on in this area of my personality.

It’s not a professional boxing match. It’s more like the part in Remember the Titans when Gerry and Julius start punching each other, someone casually yells, “Fight!” and everyone shows up to cheer and take sides. I’m sure it would be fun to watch my brain and my heart go at it.