Friday, May 24, 2013

Why do words hurt?

Coming to terms with hurtful words.

My wife and I were driving to El Paso yesterday to pick up her sister who will be spending the summer with us from the airport. We were driving with the windows open because the air conditioner in our car seems not to function and it is HOT in southern New Mexico this time of year. My wife asked me a question which I completely misunderstood.

I heard “would you be offended if I referred to you as ‘bungie?’” To which I replied, “Probably not anymore, but there was a time when that really upset me.” It was true. When I was a kid at Gertrude Burns Elementary in Newcastle, WY, one of the tools that people would use to bully me was to take my name (I go by “Benji”) and twist it around. Sometimes they’d yell, “hey BUNGIE” and run away or when I’d assert a belief or opinion they’d say “He’s just BUNGIE” then everyone, even the teachers, would laugh at me. They’d keep doing this over and over until I was reduced to tears in front of everyone. Then they’d make fun of me for crying. They enjoyed making me cry. I’d have to say even the teachers seemed to get a thrill out of bringing me to tears so the other kids could mock me for the tears. They wanted me to be hurt. They wanted me to lose my cool. They wanted me to be demeaned because then they could get the pleasure out of taunting me further.

It seems really stupid on the surface. I mean, why would “Bungie” hurt at all? Why were they able to do this, probably most days in second and third grade? In fact, I knew it was stupid at the time. I remember trying to ignore them and play by myself at recess. I would usually, when this game started, just roll my eyes and ignore them. I would ignore them, but they wouldn’t go away. Certainly, if I was successful in continuing to ignore them, they’d move on the physical attacks. It made sense to cry after those. Often they wouldn’t need to resort to group beatings to get me to cry. I’d just start crying because they were saying a meaningless word, or maybe a word that meant a stretchy rope.

 Naming and Association

In discussing rhetoric in the context of argumentation and debate, we often warn our students against fallacies of association. These are mistakes where one associates one idea with another and therefore assumes that both ideas are inherently interrelated. One type of this is the use of the ad hominem argument. Literally translated from the Latin, “ad hominem” means “to man” or more often “to the man.” However, the way we describe this most of the time is “name calling.” For instance when we referred to Bush as a, “trigger happy cowboy” or a “Nazi” or refer to Obama as a “communist” or a “Muslim.” The appellation of the name circumvents arguments about the ideas or actions. Whether or not the name is “accurate” is completely irrelevant. It is that we can use the name to dismiss the person or the idea.

On the other side of the fallacy of association is honor by association: when we say that someone or something is good because it shares certain qualities with other things that are good. For instance, arguing that honey is somehow better for you than corn syrup because it is natural and natural fruits and veggies are good would be this kind of mistake. Or when we mention that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. were both Republicans (which is true) so George W. Bush must be an equally great dude. By naming something as great, it can be seen as great by others.
Painting by Adolph Hitler around 1910

The use of these fallacies in argumentation is cheap and dirty and wrong. Still, people use them because, at least in the short term, they work. It even works when we are having less public debates. In a personal argument, calling someone a jerk, a loser, a witch, a pig, a control freak or whatever epithet an individual might choose to hurl in an angry moment also circumvents one’s own need to explain one’s position. It is a dismissal, a failure on the part of the one who uses it, not on the part of the one who is called the name. It is evil to say these things because they show a flaw in the speaker’s mind, not to have them said to you.

Grown Up Equivalents.

Certainly, I don’t think someone could goad me into crying in a corner by calling me “Bungie” today. Maybe but probably not.

On the other hand, there are other terms that they could use. Most of them are not the type of words or phrases that I’d post on a blog or even use in my private life, but there are certain terms that if they hurled them at me, names that if someone called me I may very well end up in a violent physical confrontation. This is a very real possibility, if they were used the wrong way.

Let’s take one of those words which I’ll not use here, but my more astute readers can guess what it is. We’ll call it the “S” word. In general, I would not be friends with someone who uses this word or words like it often. If someone just hit her thumb with a nail and screams out “S,” I will not really mind. If I am riding with someone in the car on an icy road and we suddenly slide to the side and someone says, “Oh, S,” I will probably never mention the fact to them. If someone says that the political party which aggravates them is just talking a bunch of “S,” I might, if we’re actually friends, ask them to stop swearing. If we’re not friends, we won’t become friends, but I am not going to hit them.

If a person says, however, “You are nothing but an ‘S’ head,” or “you are a piece of ‘S,’” I would probably leave. If a subordinate or equal talked to me that way, I’d report them after I left. If a superior talked to me that way, I’d immediately look for a way out of that position. If a stranger talked to me that way, I’d remember his or her face and avoid them in the future. Either way, I’d leave. I would leave because if the pattern continued I’d either break down and start crying just like I did as a kid, or I’d end up in a physical altercation. In fact, I’d assume anyone talking that way wants a physical altercation since that is the means by which most people arrive at one.


Why is it that when people hurl these sorts of insults at us that we care at all? The old American proverb “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me” (first written in The Christian Recorder, 1869) seems to be right. If someone says something, what’s the big deal? So, they called you a name. So what? I was repeatedly told by teachers, parents and others that I just needed to “get over it.” When people mocked me like this as a kid. And, I probably should have, but I don’t. Neither do you. No person with a sense of self sits there and lets other people curse and swear at them. No reasonable person lets others call them names.

Possibility one: sinful pride

One of my first thoughts about this came from a camp councilor from church camp when I was a kid. I was between nine and ten years old. A group of boys gathered around me and chanted “fat fag, fat fag, fat fag” repeatedly until they had me crying. Now, I was a bit overweight, but I have never had any tendency toward homosexuality or becoming a British cigarette. I am relatively certain that the boys got into a great deal of trouble. However, the man (I saw him as a man, he was probably just a teenager himself) who took me away to wipe my tears explained that I shouldn’t be crying. He explained that the only reason I’d be upset by this is that I am full of pride and think I don’t deserve to be so harried. He explained that pride is a sin, and if I just quit thinking that I was so great that I didn’t deserve to be mocked, it wouldn’t hurt. It was my pride hurting, not me.

Now, I’ve gone around in my head about this and he might have had a point. However, I think that the word “pride” as we use it in English includes connotations that are sinful, but probably this isn’t the always the case. Certainly pride carries with it concepts of entitlement, arrogance and hubris, which are evil. However, the word can also include a sense of propriety, accomplishment and an appropriate sense of self. I think that there is a kind of pride which is sinful, but I don’t think that this is what is damaged when people attack us.

Possibility two: Caring about other’s opinions.

I’ve seen repeatedly on facebook various pictures that say that insults can only hurt a person if one values the insulting person’s opinion. Certainly, the insults hurt far more if they are coming from a person about whom you care. I had a friend in grade school, Nikki (short for Nicholas). We hung out together quite a bit on the playground. We’d even gone to each other’s house a couple times to play. It was great to have a friend like him who lived on the same block. There were other terms besides Bungie the students used. “Benji, wenji, dirty and dingy” was another one. One day he started chanting the hurtful rhyme while we were playing in his back yard. I never played with him again. Not only was it a mean attack, it was a betrayal.

Most of the kids who did this, however, I did not care one wit about. They were not people I wanted as friends. In general (multiple longitudinal studies have shown), bullies are not the popular kids at school, and this was certainly the case there. They were the mean kids, and while I had no idea that meanness had the double, related definitions of “cruelty” and “average,” when I learned about this it made sense to me. The people who mocked me were specifically the people I didn’t care about at all. Yet, it still hurt. It hurts more when it is someone whose opinion matters, but it hurts no matter what.

Possibility Three: It hurts because they want it to.

Perhaps name calling hurts so much because people WANT to hurt us. Certainly, if we change the scenario a bit and make it a physical assault we know that. If someone bumps into us walking down the street, reasonable people don’t mind, as long as it’s an accident. Sure, there might be some people who will get angry at an accidental bump, but these are not reasonable people. In fact, for most people who were properly raised, if someone accidentally bumps into you, you apologize even though the other person did the bumping.
If someone bumps into us on purpose, however, there’s something going on. The hurt might be physical either way, but if someone bumps us on purpose, there is an emotional hurt as well. It doesn’t matter if we know the person or not. In general their overall opinions on most issues don’t matter. If their opinion is that they can hurt us, they are immediately successful in doing so. The secondary emotion might be either sadness or anger, but the primary emotion, hurt is there.

The problem is the threat. The problem is that the person sees us as a verbal (or in the previous case literal) punching bag. It is not that we are nothing to them. If their opinion is not one we value, it is okay to be nothing. It is that for some reason, they wish us ill and have gone to the trouble to let us know. We are in danger and the hurt is the soul’s response to real, painful danger. It is our mind telling us to engage in fight or flight because this is trouble.

Or maybe not.

Maybe we need to get over ourselves. Maybe we need to get over others. Maybe words don’t hurt. But I think, sometimes, they do.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What do I expect from students

Coming to terms with expectations


A colleague of mine at another university is writing a book. I won’t go into details about it for two reasons 1) I don’t know many and 2) what I do know, I seriously doubt she wants put out there in any coherent form lest someone “scoop” her, so to speak. None-the-less, she asked me to write to her about some of my expectations of students. I know she just wanted an email response, but I really think that it is useful to put this out there as a blog. 
This is not the first time I’ve written about my expectations or concerns regarding student behavior. I’ve recently written about my expectations regarding clothes. One of my most popular posts was entitled “The Speech Teacher’s Sermon in the Classroom” and was modeled phrase for phrase after Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but dealing with classroom issues. I have also already written about what I see as standards for grading at the college level. 
Still, I don’t think that any of this is quite what she is wanting. I believe that she is curious as to the day to day expectations that I have with students. I think she wants the expectations that have come out of my particular thirteen years of lived experience as a college teacher. I think she wants to know what advice I would give to students based on what I’ve seen, what I’ve known and what has made me grow with my students.

My Lived Experience

In many ways, my teaching situation is quite typical. I am tenure-track and well on the way to tenure at a small teaching-focused state university. I started teaching as most professors do, as a graduate student. I have taught at large state schools, small state schools, Christian schools, and religiously affiliated private schools. I have taught where there was no accrediting body, some accreditation and accreditation coupled with state regulations. I have held adjunct positions by various titles and tenure track appointments at three schools. I’ve taught in the east, the west, the north and the south of the United States and for that reason, I really can share what expectations of a professor are at large.

However, my longest appointment has been at my current post which is somewhat unique. I teach at a small, regional, teaching-focused school in the southwest. This school is unique for a number of reasons. It would not be possible to go into all the nuances here, but I think I should explain some things that I think effect my expectations.  They make my institution unique.

First of all, it is an open enrollment institution. That means that we take virtually anyone who applies. We don’t require a minimum GPA from high school or a minimum score on the SAT or ACT. Our students take compass tests when they enter and if their scores show that they cannot read, write or perform mathematics at the college level, they are placed in developmental classes until they can. The unique situation that we have here effects my expectations. I know students are often struggling with college level work. I know that many have found school a struggle for their entire lives. I know that for many of them, this school is a far-fetched last hope at something outside the welfare system and that they really don’t feel any hope for success.

Second, my institution is a “majority-minority” campus. Fully two thirds of the students here are Hispanic (a term much preferred in this region to “Latino”). The vast majority of these are of Mexican and Mexican-American descent, but there are a number of students from the Caribbean and South and Central America. This second group wants to study in the States, but prefers a region where they can speak and hear Spanish in the stores, on the busses, at Church, etc. The final third is made up of (in order of population) ethnically Anglo-American students, Native American students, a much larger than average contingent of students from the Pacific Islands, especially Samoa, various students from Europe, African-American students, and a few Asian students.

This effects my expectations in a number of ways. First of all, while my students are ethnically diverse, the faculty members here are largely ethnically Anglo-Americans. It is a visual picture of white privilege. While many of the privileged ethnicity in other places are allowed to have their privilege be invisible, here we are confronted with it every day. We know the advantage of natively speaking the language of instruction. We know the power we have to get in the car and travel the country and not stand out as different. We know that we are trusted by government agencies and officials. We know that neither we nor our family members will ever be deported for missteps. We know we are blessed. We struggle with the extent to which we need to inculcate the dominant culture into our students so they can succeed and the extent to which we need to celebrate and empower the students within their own cultures.

Finally, there is my financial background and situation. I came from a family that was loving, strong, worked hard, read passionately, had strong moral backgrounds and never enough money. When I went to college I was on my own financially. I made it through the bachelor’s and master’s degrees without incurring significant debt. I did this by working, a lot. I needed to take on what has become significant debt in order to pay for travel and materials during my PhD. My wife only has a bachelor’s degree, but also has significant debt. The economy since her graduation has meant that she has only been able to get low, hourly wage, service industry positions. Of course, when the government looks at need-based aid, they don’t look at what your obligations are, merely income. For that reason, we struggle just to put food on the table and keep the lights on in a rented house.

So that is what is shaping my expectations which I can put down as a list here, beginning with

I have no expectations. I have been teaching long enough now that I don’t get surprised at anything. I’ve seen students light up cigarettes in class and attempt to carry out drug deals during my lecture. I’ve seen all manner or chemically altered states in class. I’ve seen students show off how they were body-painted at last night’s party. I’ve seen students bring children, dogs, cats, live snakes and marital aids into the classroom. I’ve seen written 17 letters to judges asking that students be excused from prison to attend class, 4 of those requests have been granted. I’ve had students miss class for nuptials, nativities and necrosis. You can’t surprise me anymore. So, while I say I “expect” these things, I don’t. I hope for them, pray for them, and reward those who follow them. I also allow the natural consequences to flow to those who do not.

Expectations regarding attendance and coursework.

  • I expect that when you create your schedule, classes come in first before work, doctor’s appointments, social events, family obligations, etc.  
  • I expect you to come to class, having done the assignments and readings and ready to share them and comment about them for the most part. On the other hand . . .
  • I expect you to skip class. Seriously: it’s right there in the syllabus. Our accreditation system allows you to skip a number of hours equal to the number of credit hours. So, if you’re taking a three credit hour class that meets three times a week for one hour, you can skip that class three times during the semester. It is allowed. And that’s just UNEXCUSED absences.
  • I expect you to tell me why you’re skipping class. If you just say “personal reasons,” that’s fine, but I expect you to let me know before class starts why you’re skipping. That’s why I gave you all those means of contacting me in the syllabus on the first day. Sometimes, if I think your reason is good enough, I may make the absence an “excused absence.” If I do that, that’s really nice of me, but I don’t have to do so and usually will not. Whether or not I do that probably has as much to do with whether you are respectful and interactive in class as much as how good the excuse is.   
  • I expect you’re going to do the reading before class and have something intelligent to say about it. On the other hand . . .
  • I expect you to skip the reading sometimes. That means you’ll have to catch up later in two ways. First of all, you’ll have to do the reading before the quizzes, exams, or performances that test it. Secondly, you really have to prove in the next few classes that you DID do the reading.
  • I also expect that you will get assignments done on time. I will always have full descriptions of all course assignments including due dates on the course website from the very beginning of class. For that reason I will NEVER discuss the assignments in class unless there are specific questions. That I didn’t “talk about it” is no reason not to do the assignment. On the other hand. . .
  • I know that life is really, really hard and at least a few times during your college career I expect you will decide not to do an assignment because you just don’t have time. If that happens in my class I expect that you to accept that I will give you a zero which will lower your overall course grade and that you will accept this and not look for “extra credit” or “an extension.” I don’t do these things, generally and I doubt your situation is so unique as to make an exception.
  • I expect you to be in the classroom before I am. When you are running late, I expect you to do your best to show up anyway. When you enter late, I expect you to enter as unobtrusively as possible. I expect an apology after class if you were class, and if you have not made it a habit, I fully expect to forgive you and count you as “present” for the entire class. However, if it’s happened more than a couple times, I will still forgive you, but I will also mark you as having missed the class.  
  • I expect you to wait 15 minutes for me if I’m not there when class starts. After that, I expect you to call me or the department secretary to see what’s going on before taking off. Life happens to me too. I will not make a habit out of this either. If it does happen more than a couple times during the semester that you have to wait more than 15 minutes, I fully expect you to take it up with my department chair. Clearly I am on drugs, struggling with personal issues or in some other way unable to perform my duties right now and need help.
  • I expect you to be respectful and interactive in class.
  • That means no cursing, swearing or emotional outbursts but lots of talking 

Expectations regarding grading

  • I expect you to accept the grades I give you. You can see mygrading criteria. They have been looked at and discussed by dozens of experts in the field, my supervisors up to the level of the Vice President of Academic Affairs and hundreds of students. They are just and fair and if you don’t like them . . . great! Let’s have a discussion about them BEFORE we have graded material to defend. I am always looking to improve my criteria.
  • I expect that unless you get 100%, that you won’t like your grade. That’s why you work so hard. Good for you.
  • I expect that if you don’t understand your grade, we can discuss it. Remember, this is not a defense of your work. The grade I give will stand unless I made a mistake. It is a chance for me to clarify. If you approach this from any other position, we cannot have a conversation.
  • I expect that I will make mistakes sometimes. I will count correct answers wrong, etc. I will always fix those grades. I will probably also make mistakes that give you better grades than you deserve. Don’t worry about telling me. I’m probably mean enough as it is.

Expectations Regarding Communication

  • I expect that you will communicate with me, regularly, outside of class.
  • I expect that anytime you don’t understand an assignment, a grade, a policy or a concept from class, you will communicate with me about it.
  • I expect that you will never show up for my office hours, but it would be so awesome if you did. I have them there for you and get so lonely and bored during this time. I will also schedule special office hours to talk just to you.
  • I do expect, however, that I’ll probably get emails, texts and even phone calls from every single one of you during the semester. I expect to hear from most of you once a week or more. That’s fine.
  • I expect when you send an email, text or leave a message on my phone that you will include, who you are, what class you’re in at what time. I have 100 students in four different sections of public speaking, for instance, and I need a reminder. I expect this with every text, sorry; I don’t save your number unless I also know you from church or other social activities. I actually think it would be creepy if I did.
  • I don’t expect you to contact me through social networking sites and will never contact you that way unless you initiate it. If you do initiate it, however, that’s fine. I am not afraid of students on Facebook, but you’ll be subjected to my religious, political and personal rants if you decide to become “friends.” If you decide afterwards not to be “friends,” feel free to leave no explanation. It’s actually less awkward that way.
  • I expect that we will all share our religious, political and personal positions in class too. I just expect that we’ll do so in an accepting and curious way, rather than demeaning the other side.
  • I expect that issues of sexuality and social deviance will probably come up at some point during the class and I expect you to comfortable discussing these concepts in an adult way. On the other hand . . .
  • I expect that your particular sexual acts or criminal acts will not be discussed, nor will mine.
  • I expect that if you have wildly heterodox opinions, that you know that class is not the best place to express them. This includes racism, homophobia and general bigotry. It also includes the belief that you can read minds or that your pet cat is the second coming of Christ. Those opinions should only be discussed among a select few, including your therapist.
  • I expect that you will refer to me by my title, (Dr. Cline, Professor or Prof. Cline) or by my name (Benji or Benjamin). I really feel weird when students call me “dude” or “dawg” or “homes (sp?).” If you forget my name, “sir” is fine. “Sir” or “ma’am” is what I use when I forget your name.

 Expectations regarding my time.

  • I expect that you know that I care about my students, want the best for them and work hard on their behalf.
  • I expect a certain amount of patience. I will usually answer emails or texts within 24 hours, except on weekends, when I might not answer until we are back in session.
  • I expect, perhaps unfairly, that you realize that teaching is only part of my job (45%, according my job description). I also have to do research, perform administrative duties and represent the university in all kinds of community activities and government functions. I am also expected to continue my education and spend more time in faculty development classes and doing reading than you do in your classes if you’re taking a normal load. Teaching is my favorite task, but it is a tiny bit of what being a professor is.
  • I expect that time set aside for grading and preparing for classes is respected, so that you’d never ask to turn in something “late,” meaning I have to have a special time to grade just your piece.
  • I expect that if we make special arrangements to meet, that you come or at least text me if you cannot make it.
  • I expect you know that I have a wife, child, pets, parents, grandparents, etc. with whom I want to spend time too, not just on you. You are important to me. These people are more important. 
  • I expect you know that I have faith obligations and that time spent with God comes first for me. Work is just one way to get money.

Expectations regarding our “relationship”

  • I expect that when the semester ends, so does our relationship. If not, that is great and I have some wonderful friendships with former students. That friendship, however, could only develop after the class ended.
  • I expect that when we hear about the big events in each other’s lives (weddings, births, funerals, birthdays, graduations, promotions, retirements, children’s quinceaƱeras or Bar Mitzvahs), appropriate verbal acknowledgements will be given. However, I will not give or accept gifts and will not invite you or accept invitations to celebrations.
  • I expect that if we see each other in public, at restaurants, shopping or at a bar, we will smile and nod at each other. If we come into close proximity during these events, we may greet each other. We will not “hang out.”
  • I expect that if we are with others during these greetings, we may introduce the others.
  • I expect that you aren’t going to hit on me nor that I am going to hit on you. If you ever do perceive that I am hitting on you, I expect you to point out the behavior so that I can apologize and stop. If I do not, I expect that you will follow our university’s policy regarding sexual harassment. I will do the same with you.
  • I expect that if we have a relationship outside of class because of religious, social or civic interactions, that this relationship will not be used to gain special favors in the class.
  • I expect that no one, not your parents, priest, spouse or friends will discuss your situation in the class with me. If they do, I will only acknowledge that you are in the class and will probably say that I “enjoy” you being there or something else particularly meaningless.

The final expectation.

I expect that these expectations have exceptions. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Our Miracle

Coming to terms with miracles


I read and think a lot about miracles and the power of the Spirit. I read and think a great deal about this because I don’t really understand all my own experiences. I know people who were deaf and now hear. I know people who were confined to wheel chairs who now walk around. I helped to spackle an entire house, two floors, spackled while on a mission trip with a tiny little ball of spackle in the bottom of a bucket. I have seen money from anonymous sources come in the mail to cover unexpected bills. I have seen enough to be pretty sure that “the era of miracles” is not in the past. I also have another miracle that is happening right in my home right now.

I don’t think anyone reads my blog who is not already a facebook friend. I don’t even think that 90% of my facebook friends read my blog. So, for the vast majority of my readers, this is not earth shattering or groundbreaking news, but my wife and I are going to have a baby. Even though we’ve known for a few weeks now, it is earth shattering and groundbreaking for us.

It is so amazing because it is impossible.

My wife has polycystic ovary syndrome. To explain what that is, we can take it apart. “Poly” is a prefix meaning “many.” Cystic, means having cysts, like boils or ruptures. So, polycystic means “many cysts.” Ovaries are the female reproductive areas, where eggs are stored. So, she has many cysts on her ovaries. “Syndrome” means a disease that is recurring or permanent. In the case of polycystic ovary syndrome (or PCOS, as it is often called), it is generally both in different ways. The cysts on the ovaries may be there or not at any given time, but because the ovaries are involved in hormone regulation, the syndrome is present in other ways throughout the body all the time.

The cysts can come and go. When she was 19, one of the cysts on one of her two ovaries got so big that the ovary had to be removed. That left her with one ovary and decreased her chances of fertility. It did not make conception impossible, just less likely. Years went by, she met me, we ended up getting married in June of 2008. After about a year we decided to stop doing anything to prevent pregnancy. I knew about my wife’s reproductive difficulties, but still figured one out of two ovaries made it a 50/50 chance when the time was right. So, it would just be a matter of time. It turned out to be a matter of a long time.

At first I didn't really pray for a child. That we would have A child was just sort of an assumption that I had. After a while I started to pray. I feel like God reveals Himself to me during prayer and speaks to me, though never in an audible voice. He almost always tells me the same thing, “don’t worry so much about it,” no matter what I am praying about.  In small ways and large, God revealed, I felt, like a child was coming. Still, I couldn't be sure when, where or how.  As time went by, I realized (wrongly) that whatever child we had wouldn't coming through the regular procedures (you know what I mean, nudge, nudge, wink, wink). Check the video below if you don't.

Failing to Adopt

We did what we could afford to do to increase our chances, which wasn’t much. We don’t have the big bucks for the really wild procedures. After a couple of years, we sort of gave up. That just wasn’t how God was going to give us a baby. So, we would have to get children another way. We decided toward the end of 2011 that we would foster/adopt. It would be great. We signed up for foster care. We moved to a house that was more in keeping with the legal requirements. We had a home study where they made all kinds of recommendations for our home’s safety. We followed all those recommendations, plugging our outlets, fencing our fireplace, buying safety equipment, getting beds for the future children, etc. We went to hours and hours of meetings and training  We subjected ourselves to intense psychological scrutiny from a firm designated to do that.

That was where the problems began. Suddenly, after all that work, time and expense, we were told that we couldn't be foster/adoptive parents right now. The person who evaluated us said that we've experienced “trauma” and that this trauma was something with which we’d not dealt sufficiently. She was wrong, at least on my part, regarding this. Part of what we needed, they said was therapy.  You might not have to be perfect to be a foster parent, but you’d better not have had anything ever go on in your life.

On a side note:

I've been in therapy for almost two months now and all that my therapist can say regarding these traumas is that if they've affected me at all, it has been in making me a more adaptive, driven and capable person. Or that might be how I’d be anyway. No one can really guess. Still, I never would have thought to go to therapy if it hadn't been for the home study, and it has been great for other reasons. Mostly, just having someone with whom you can speak with absolute confidence regarding all the junk in life is really good. If you have insurance, get a therapist.

Back to the point:

So, we’d tried to conceive and that didn't work. We’d tried to adopt and that didn't work. Then we got worse news. We learned that my wife’s last remaining ovary had a large cyst on it. While it was possible that this cyst could someday heal, it meant that, for now, there was no chance of conception. While we could have some hope that although it hadn't been working so far, we might be able to conceive, this news meant that it was really, really not going to happen.

So, when my wife started to get sick a lot earlier in the year, the doctors would normally give a pregnancy test to a sexually active woman her age. In her case, however, they did not. It would be impossible, they thought, for her to be pregnant. I’ll save you the gory details, but eventually the various symptoms included some that required a trip to a relatively new doctor specializing in female issues. She finally gave a pregnancy test, and it was positive.

This woman would have been the doctor for the rest of my wife’s pregnancy, except that our insurance company wouldn't accept her because she is too new. I wonder, however, if this is exactly why she did the right thing. Her inexperience didn't allow her to realize that a pregnancy test would be wasted. Every more experienced medical professional would have known not to waste the time and money. But it wasn't a waste of time and money because my wife is pregnant.

So, the pregnancy is a miracle.

This pregnancy is a miracle. Another miracle with which I need to come to terms. As I said at the beginning, I've seen miracles before. I've seen them often, actually. But I've also seen something else. I've seen when there have not been miracles. I knew this blind guy who, every single time the Holy Spirit is active in a healing way, steps up for healing. Last time I saw him, he was still blind. I know people who fully believe in healing and come to church in wheel chairs. I know other couples struggling with infertility call out to God often, and still have no pregnancy.

There are a number of popular theories on miracles. One is that they don’t happen anymore, or maybe never happen at all. Many liberal theologians say that God has never caused anything. They see the Bible as human beings wrestling with concepts about God, a sourcebook for those of us doing the same, but not a source of factual truth. Many conservative theologians disagree with that, but take a dispensational view. They believe that miracles, prophesy, tongues and exorcism were necessary for the raising of the church, in what they call the “apostolic dispensation,” but that this time is over now.

I cannot agree with the liberal view because a sourcebook without facts is pretty dang useless. I can’t agree with the conservative view because 1) I have experienced too much and 2) because the Bible itself contradicts dispensational philosophy (Hebrews 13, Romans 4, Romans 11, oh, forget it, the whole Bible). If you can accept the Bible as fact, you can’t really accept miracles as passing away unless or until everything is perfect, at which point they will be unnecessary.

Another theory is that miracles only occur if the person receiving the miracle has enough faith. Just because this is really, really mean doesn't mean that it’s not true. You only get your miracle if you really believe enough. This certainly seems to be implied in some portions of scripture. The woman who was healed from the issue of blood, Jesus told her, was healed because of her faith (Matthew 9:20-22, Mark 5:25-34, Luke 8:43-48). Jesus asked the blind men if they believed he could heal them before he healed them (Matthew 9:28). Paul saw that a man “had faith to be healed” and healed him (Acts 14:9). Maybe if people aren't healed they should be blamed for their lack of healing because they possess a lack of faith. It is victimizing a person twice, but hey, that’s the way it works sometimes.

On the other hand, we’ve got Paul’s thorn in the flesh, which wasn’t healed despite his faith (II Cor. 12:7-10). We’ve also had instances of people without faith being healed. The “man blind from birth” didn’t seem to have any faith or even any clear idea of what was going on even after he was healed (John 9). The man “at the Gate called Beautiful” wanted money, not healing, and got healing (Acts 3:2-6). So, it’s not necessarily the faith of the person receiving the miracle which allows the miracle to be performed.

So, there’s another group who says that it is the faith of the one praying that heals people. Most of the Biblical miracles I can think of where no one prayed with faith and things happened anyway are not the nice kind of miracle. I mean, no one really prayed for Nadab and Abihu to be consumed with fire from heaven, but they were (Leviticus 10:1-2). Elijah didn't pray for food from ravens and it even happened during a big time lull in his faith (I Kings 17:4). Finally, we have these people who hung around with those who would heal others with faith, but were not healed themselves. Trophemus was travelling and ministering with Paul, but got too sick to keep going with them (II Timothy 4:20). Ephroditus got pretty sick for a while (Philippians 2:26-30). They were hanging with healers, but the healers didn't heal them. So it is not the one praying’s faith either.
I’m afraid the answer I've come to is a hard one to swallow. It doesn't put God in a box the way others do. It doesn't confine Him and control Him. It means that there is no sorcerer’s method that will get us miracles. I believe that God performs miracles by grace. There is nothing we can do. It is not a matter of having enough faith. It is not a matter of having the right words or the right clothes. It is just a matter of requesting grace from our loving Heavenly father and knowing that if it does not conflict with other important matters in His plan, He may decide to do it. If He does, it will not be because we are super Christians or more faithful or more righteous than someone else. It will just be because He decided to do it.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Coming to terms with where I am


There are so many things going on right now.
  • The diet is on hold for at least another two weeks.
  • My wife had an ultrasound Friday. The baby looks great.
  • Friday was also the due date for a book chapter I had to write.
  • My wife’s mother just died, Tuesday, and the riskiness of my wife’s pregnancy, the distance between New Mexico where we live and Ohio where my wife’s mom lived and have made attending the funeral unwise.
  • Tuesday was also WNMU’s Academic Research Symposium was also Tuesday. This is always an amazing time. For me, the highlights were my own student’s group projects. The work they did in service to the community is amazing. Still, it was a lot of stress dealing the program and timeline leading up to it.
  • I attended the Kiwanis “Terrific Kids” dinner Wednesday night at which they honor the top students and a student of the year from each of the schools in the county (I think it is county; I know it is bigger than just in town).  Many of these kids have resumes that put the rest of us to shame.
  • Our landlord has agreed to switch the carpet in our room and the baby’s room to hardwood to reduce germs and allergies. Of course, this means moving everything out of those rooms so work can start. My wife has mostly been working on that, but every now and then she needs something big moved, or something taken apart or put back together.
  • The Tour de Gila, a pretty big annual event is in town, causing roads to be closed and traffic to be diverted. Getting to work cannot include normal habits of driving.
  • It is the end of the semester with all the insanity always associated with that: final grades due, student panicking, final writing, etc.
  • I’ve been playing a lot of Star Wars Angry Birds lately.
All of this is playing in my mind as I write and COME TO TERMS WITH WHERE I AM.

Silver City, NM is an amazing place:

I love Silver City, NM. Situated right on the edge of the Gila Wilderness and Gila National Forest, there is a beauty here that I can’t really describe. Amazing hikes, camping, fishing and natural beauty is a 10 minute drive in some cases. There are so many birds here that you almost need a degree in ornithology just to guess at the genus of half of them; forget about species, subspecies or color phases. The cactus, the juniper, the live oak and the yucca squeeze out a living on the 10 inches or less of rain which interrupts the 300 sunny days per year. 

A sign on the way into town from Deming says that we have “more than 30 art galleries.” That, I think, is modest. The arts community is alive and active here. The bars and coffee shops host live music and poetry readings. Huge festivals such as “Pickamania,” a folk and bluegrass music festival and “The Blues Festival” dot the community calendar. Bohemian hipsters and dirty dreadlocked dreamers create for the sake of creation and live for the moment downtown.
For a town with only 10,000 people, the public transit is amazing. A bus circles from the Walmart area, to downtown to the University every hour. For me, it’s free as a University employee. For others it is 75₵ for a single ride. Most people who use the bus often and are not affiliated with the University buy monthly passes, which are cheaper than this. People complain that the bus only comes once an hour, but I’ve never seen a town this size with that option at all.

There is a huge diversity of cultures. The ranch culture is very active and pickup trucks and cowboy hats with healthy, very clean and polished people calling you “sir” or “ma’am” and sometimes carrying side-arms is common. The traditional Hispanic culture is also a powerful presence. The radio switches back and forth between English and Spanish. The architecture reflects the best from northern Mexico. Events such as Dia de los Muerte fill the streets with laughter and music. Of course there is the arts culture mentioned above. There is also a very strong biker culture. Sometimes Harleys line the street downtown as the Buffalo Bar fills up with tattooed hoary beards. There is also student culture. Stopping into any of the 20 some coffee shops will display a few faces clad in purple t-shirts (the school colors are purple and gold, but mostly purple) scrunched over books or laptops multitasking studying with Facebook. The modest Mormons appear whenever there is something being sold in bulk. Their values of self-sufficiency and preparedness permeate the rest of us. Where else can you see all this diversity?

There is, of course, the college. There is never a single day that goes by that I am not proud to be working at Western New Mexico University. We are a college which is moving, improving and growing. Every single area where this school has a flaw, administration and faculty are aware of it and steps are being taken to understand and correct it. Since coming under the leadership of Dr. Joseph Shepard in 2011, it has been clear that we are on a mission. We are growing in numbers of students. We are growing in the quality of programs being offered. We are growing the students themselves into amazing, socially conscious, creative, critical and capable professionals. Yes, there are still flaws and problems here, but it is clear every day that we are working on them.

There is also a sense that liberty is valued here. There are few zoning restrictions or laws regarding personal behavior. People mind their own business and really try to stay out of each other’s private lives unless specifically invited. If I told people around here that I store horse manure in a closet at my house, some would ask why. Most people would wonder why I was telling them. No one would question whether or not I should do that if I want to. It’s my closet:  my business. That’s the type of liberty that is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, and I’ve found few places where it is thoroughly practiced as well as the mountains of Southern New Mexico.

Silver City, NM is a terrible place:

On the other hand, there are some real problems here. Some are problems of the place, others are more personal problems.

The economy sucks. My wife is at work at McDonalds right now. To make both of our student loan payments, rent, etc. we both need professional jobs. I have mine because of the University. She does not have one. While unemployment is horrible nationally, and it is actually a bit better here in the last couple months than it is nationally, there is a long term trend of it being worse here (as I discovered using Google). The fact is that my college educated wife should not have to work at McDonalds. She should have a nice job in an office where she can stay off her feet while pregnant. Maybe this would be no better anywhere else, but unemployment here is bad.
Then there’re the drugs. I’ve never had anything against drugs, really. If an adult wants to destroy his or her body, let them. You use cocaine; I use donuts. I mean, I’ve never thought that recreational pharmaceuticals were a wise decision, but I always figured we all make unwise decisions and that laws and social judgments didn’t really help the matter. When I was in college and graduate school, many of my friends used some very hardcore drugs recreationally, and it didn’t really seem all that much worse to me than any other dangerous collegiate antics (iceblocking, gallon challenge, binge drinking, dilutional hyponatremia). I’ve never lived, however, where drugs were such a major part of everyday life. Fully half the population is somehow involved in the production, distribution or consumption of illicit substances. Marijuana is quite common, but the drug that seems to do the most damage is methamphetamine. Of course this leads to all kinds of health problems and poor decision making. Addicts engage in criminal activities in order to procure their predilection. Probably the biggest problem with drugs is the problems associated with any type of black market commodity. That is that those who violate the norms of the transaction cannot be held to account for their actions via normal legal recourse. Instead, extralegal means must be used. This means assaults, murders, etc.

This leads to another problem here: gang activity. Out here, in the middle of nowhere, really, there are gangs. Last January a guy from my church was hit in a drive-by. That’s right, A GUY FROM MY CHURCH. The gang culture is so prevalent here that it infiltrates even houses of worship and higher education. Students who come from outside the area to attend college find themselves embroiled in gang activity. Members of our police department often have gang affiliations and use their legitimate positions in order to protect their turf. This is not just rumor or conjecture. It is openly discussed.  There are ethnic Hispanic gangs. There are biker gangs. There are racist gangs. There are more ethnically diverse street gangs. These gangs are evident by their tags, cuts, tattoos and violence. Then there are the rumored gangs, or the rumored gang, really. This is certain members of the business establishment who not only maintain their monopoly to keep wages low and profits high and engage in intimidation to keep national chains and up and coming potential competitors.

So that leads to the fourth problem. There is “nothing to do.” Of course, there are tons of things to do: hiking, fishing, camping, hunting, art, festivals, dances, poetry, music. What’s lacking, however, when people say this is really two things: shopping and movies. The concentrated effort to keep others out has led a bit of a dull place sometimes. It has left little for people to do on a regular weekend, so they often do drugs. There are cute boutiques, but no regular stores. There are jewelry stores where a person can buy a $400 pair of earrings, but no “Claire’s” for instance. There are galleries where a person can get a $5000 painting, but nowhere, really, to get a poster. You can eat in fast food or upscale local restaurants, but there’s nothing comparable to, say, an Applebees or Red Lobster.  Finally, the closest movie theater is an hour away in a much smaller town without a local mafia controlling it, called Deming.

Beyond Deming, another hour is Las Cruces. It’s twice that distance to El Paso, which has the closest national airport. That is the level of isolation. To fly home for a funeral (as we’ve found out this week) is an undertaking that reaches the level of being basically impossible. Furthermore, there are no means of getting out there except driving yourself. I’ve live as far from a major airport before, but there have always been shuttles that will take you from the small towns to the big cities: not here. There have been attempts, but somehow, they’ve been thwarted. There is great public transportation in town for a town this size, but no way out if you need to go.

And that matters to us because we are so far physically from family. Jamie’s family is 1,800 miles away in Ohio. My family is about half that far in Nebraska. We can’t just hop a bus or a train or a plane to get out there. We just can’t go. It is enough to drive a person mad (by which I mean BOTH crazy and Angry).
So, I’m frustrated right now.

My wife is more frustrated for obvious reasons. She is also sad, angry and hurt. I wish there was something I could do to dull the pain, but there’s not. Way out here in the Southern Rockies, we’re too far out to do anything but cry.