The Fable of the Two Game Players

The other day while playing the game Castles of Mad King Ludwig, I decided to challenge myself by playing what I guess could be called a Phantom Double Solitaire version. (The official rules don’t actually spell this one out.) I set up a second “player” to build a castle against mine, and we’d see who won.

I, Player Green, always gave myself the first choice for which room tiles I wanted to buy. I also got to choose my own bonus cards (the bonuses at the end often decide the winner). Player Yellow got to buy whatever she wanted to, but only after I did. She also got bonus cards, but I didn’t look at them so I didn’t know which tiles would actually maximize her points.

Other than those two conventions, we both stuck to the rules. I played Yellow’s turn with as much dedication to winning as I played Green’s.

In the end, Player Yellow (the second-choice player) finished in the high 80s. That’s a very respectable solitaire score. As for me, Player Green, I scored one of my highest scores ever, 130.

In my mind, Player Yellow was dissatisfied with our game. But why should she complain? She could start by being grateful she was even allowed to play. Secondly, both of them played the game by the same rules. Thirdly, she got a decent score — not as high as Green’s, sure, but nothing to complain about.

Green didn’t cheat, didn’t do anything to sabotage Yellow. She just played the best she could.

Well, okay, because she always got first choice and got to choose her bonuses — it was easier for Green to get ahead and stay there. Good decisions paid off better, good luck went farther. Bad decisions didn’t set her back quite as far.

Put simply, Green had an advantage — a privilege — that Yellow didn’t. And Green won by 50 points.

There’s a not-very-subtle social justice moral to this tale, if you wish to see it.

White Oblivion

stocksnap_q621it4pyjThis past Monday night, we listened to an excerpt of Martin Luther King Jr.’s profound and poetic “I Have a Dream” speech, read in a raspy Batman-like rumble. (DJ has a cold.)

Most of it went right over the kids’ heads (although Bookgirl probably caught a lot of it this time around). I’m glad that DJ makes a point to read it every year anyway. He and I need to hear it and understand where we’ve come from.

As I’ve said before, I grew up in South Mississippi. We were a lower middle-class white family, somewhere between belle and redneck. The “desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression” that King references in his speech wasn’t the Mississippi I knew. I was vaguely aware that things had been bad “back then,” but it wasn’t anything I recognized in my world. The white community didn’t teach its next generation hate and anger.

It taught us oblivion.

We — my white friends and I — didn’t understand how recently segregation had been the order of the day. It simply wasn’t discussed. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dismissed with a slight shrug of distaste. I didn’t know anything about Rosa Parks until my sixth grade English teacher, a black woman, dedicated a day of class to her. Thanks to Norman Rockwell’s painting, I knew about Ruby Bridges and integration, but not the seething hate that surrounded her. I was married before I learned about the Detroit race riots (thank you, Dreamgirls). It was last year while researching for a story that I looked up “race relations 1972” and discovered that things were still really nasty in Boston and Washington, D.C.

Of course, as a child, I didn’t understand a lot of things. And as I got older, none of these facts were concealed from me. The white community simply didn’t bring them up.

Later in the evening of MLK Day, I got myself some ice cream and sat down with what I consider leisure reading — a 1963 issue of Better Homes and Gardens. At first the significance of the publication year didn’t occur to me. But I began reading an article about how families could make the most of their money, and King’s words came back to me.

I read, “It’s sad but true that a great many homes in America today are below the standard of what their owners should have and can afford.” And a thought crept in, You don’t mean the “the negro’s basic mobility from a smaller ghetto to a larger one,” do you?

I read, “A packaged weekend ski trip that includes bus transportation, four meals and two night’s lodging, rental of ski equipment and tow charges, costs only $37 per person…” Assuming you aren’t denied those meals and lodging.

I read, “Traveling by car offers the advantage of convenience and savings on transportation costs for a large family… Motels and hotels charge about $9.50 a night for two…” Two WHITE PEOPLE. The words were a roar in my head.

This magazine, a “family magazine” for “Americans today,” was written only for white people. And I’d never really thought much about it, because I’m part of the club, so it’s easy to assume that everybody gets the same benefit.

Outright black oppression at the hands of white supremacy isn’t really history. It’s still living memory. It’s a charred field barely covered over with new growth. More and more I realize that we can’t expect our nation to “move on” from a catastrophe that’s still hot to the touch.

I want healing. I want to see things change. And I’m trying to start with myself. I never singled out other races for hate and disgust. I’ve worked hard to shed some toxic ingrained attitudes of white supremacy.

But I can honestly say that what I’m mostly guilty of is something that’s harder to see in the first place. I’m guilty of oblivion.

So this year especially, I’m grateful for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I’m glad that we still have his words that make us stop and acknowledge the truth we’d been taught to ignore. May oblivion not blind us to the plight of our neighbors and fellow humans.

How to Get a Story Unstuck

Let me start with a confession, just to get everything clear and out in the open: I don’t actually have a real method for unsticking a story. But wait! Don’t go away! I do have ideas and suggestions. Which, if you’re interested in this post, is probably more than you have at the moment. Right? Right.

1. Research first

Writing a story isn’t something I can just sit down and get done. Other authors might be different. (Brandon Sanderson apparently can write 1500 words before he wakes up in the morning.) For me, it takes a lot of background research, writing out ideas, looking up character names, collecting possible occupations, and just letting the whole thing simmer in my head for a while. This is an exciting time of development and discovery!

I hate it.

Well, what I really hate is the delay. I want to write, but instead here I am watching quilting tutorials. However, if you get interested in what makes up your characters’ lives and personalities, eventually that will result in a much stronger story.

2. Talk to People

Yes, I’m cheating, because this is technically part of the research stage. But it’s important enough to be its own point. If you need to know about an occupation, a hobby, how to cook certain foods, what it’s like to live somewhere you’ve never been — nothing beats real-life voices and opinions.

For my current Work in Progress (WIP, as we writers refer to it), I’ve messaged six or seven friends for their expertise in certain areas. I’ve watched YouTube videos. I pay attention to conversations, online and in real life, that relate to my subject matter. I plan to attend some community events and get to know real people involved in the world I’m trying to build.

Note:
The research stage takes a lot of time, so you can skip it in two ways:

A. Write about something you already know very well; your research is already done.

B. Fake it and fudge it and write around the stuff you don’t really know. You definitely can write a story this way. Just don’t expect me to like it.

3. Make a List of Possibilities

This trick has gotten me out of Unstuckness many times. But I’d completely forgotten about it until I couldn’t figure out how to start my WIP. I ran a Google search and came up with this article. It’s all good advice, but #9 reintroduced me to my old friend, List of Possibilities.

The concept is simple. You number your page 1 – 10 and then you write down ideas to solve whatever your problem is. You keep thinking and writing until you finish your list. You’ll be surprised at the ideas available once you’re forced to articulate them.

For my problem of how to begin my story, I sat down for my regular writing time* earlier this week, and wrote ten possible openings.

*See my next point about this. Which you would anyway, I guess, but I just wanted to make sure.

I kept making up ideas until I filled up the whole list. It looked like this:

****

Ten Possible Openings
(some written without regard to usefulness or craft, just to fill up the slots.)

1.My grandmother didn’t want to give me the topaz necklace.

2.I was fourteen, it was Christmas Eve, and I was riding around an unfamiliar town with brand-new friends, trying to find somewhere that sold fireworks.

3.When I was fourteen, my paternal grandmother gave me one of her own necklaces. It was smoky topaz, a color that she said suited my ginger hair and freckles. The necklace was special to her, but even more so once it was mine. She often asked me to wear it. That’s how she remembered the story, anyway.

4.Being a librarian, cataloguing comes naturally to me. So as I got ready for work one chilly day in early December, I kept track of the texts and messages that came in on my phone from my dad, stepmom, sister, and brother. Three started with “my god” or “OMG!” One inquired if I were insane. Five overused exclamation points. All seven messages told me to call my grandmother, apologize, and not ruin Christmas for everybody.

5.My life was bookended by grandmothers. Everything else—my parents, stepparents, half-siblings, Christmas in Maryland, Easter in Virginia, growing up in between—was enveloped by the influence of my grandmothers.

Grandmom on my maternal side, my rock and foundation when my life got shaky.

Poppi on my paternal side, the brick wall that never moved, and heaven help the family member who tried to get around her.

6.I wouldn’t say that I grew up with a Good Grandma and a Bad Grandma. I wouldn’t say it out loud, anyway.

7.I liked to curl up in the hanging hammock chair in my living room, snuggled into one of Grandmom’s quilts, and let the swaying lull me into peace. The quilt still smelled like the perfume that Grandmom wore.

8.I guess I like the Dewey decimal system because it puts everything in order and makes sense. It would be nice if my life had a decimal system. I could definitely use a spot for Feelings about The Divorce even though it happened when I was six and I’m twenty-seven now. Or, Of course I love my mother more than my stepmother but Mom could take some lessons from April on being emotionally present most of the time.

I’d need to have a section dedicated to relating to my much-younger half-siblings. And most of all, I’d love to shelve my paternal grandmother. I’m not sure that came out quite right. Then again, considering that it’s Poppi we’re talking about—maybe it did.

9.When I first met Carolina, she was only sixteen and I was only fourteen. But she had enough poise to greet me with a handshake. “Hi, Bria. Nice to meet you.”

I remember the sight of our hands clasped briefly. Her dark skin, lighter along the knuckles, set off my own fair and freckled skin. Even our fingers were a contrast—her smooth oval nails polished in shocking pink, my stubby nails a deliberately offbeat olive-green.

10.When my maternal grandmother died, I packed up all my stuff, left the sprawling suburbia where I grew up, and moved into her old house on 123 Day Street in Delmar, Virgina. If nothing else, it put me three hundred miles away from my paternal grandmother, who was still alive—in case anybody needed proof that life is very unfair.

***

I ran all the ideas through my personal rating system and eventually decided on one. Which one? Well, I hope that when I finish it and give it to the world to read, you’ll see.

4.Write consistently

I kind of have to say this one. When you become an author, you sign the super-secret pact of loyalty that says, among other things, “Anytime somebody asks me about writing, I will without fail tell them to find a time to write consistently.”

Haha, I’m just kidding. Or am I? You won’t know until you join the society of authorship, and the only way you’ll do that is to… guess what?… write consistently.

When I do finally get a draft done, it’s usually because I’ve written it in 300- to 500-word bursts every  morning. Note that, unlike Brandon Sanderson who can write 2500 words while dead, I don’t write a whole lot most of the time. But I’ve carved out a specific time to write, and can keep up any momentum I’ve created. Or even if I don’t have any  momentum, I’m still there to write.

Related to this point…

5.Write anything

Even if you’re not actively writing a story, novel, memoir, whatever — use this time to write. Letters, writing prompts, ideas you’ll one day use, blog posts… Ooh. Blog posts. Yes.

If you’re a writer, start a blog. And then maintain that blog. Who knows if anybody will read it? But it gives you an outlet to write regularly. During the years when I had four young children, homeschooled, and no emotional space to construct real stories, I blogged. It kept my hand in the craft so that when life became less intense, I was already primed and ready to write seriously. (As a major side benefit, we have a fairly regular record of our life stretching back to 2004.)

6.Don’t assume that where you are now is where you’ll always be

One benefit of having finished two serious projects is that now I know the truth. I know I’ll get stuck, the story will tangle up, I’ll hit dead ends… but eventually I’ll figure a way out and finish the story.

That’s not to say that I’ve finished everything I’ve started. I’ve got drafts of two separate stories that I’ve put away for now because I don’t yet know how to tell them properly. But I know that one day, if they’re important to me, I’ll break through the wall and get them in shape. I have before. I will again.

If you’re a writer, you don’t throw in the pencil, turn off the computer, and abandon your foolish passion. You just don’t. You take breaks, find new approaches, and never ever stop writing.

(That’s the in the super-secret author pact too.)

And when I do find a way through a tangle, or when I reach the end of a story, I’m on such a high that I will assure the whole world that it’s worth all that effort just to get to this point.

You know what? It really is.

 

Speaking of Spiders: Some Marriage Advice

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This past weekend, my husband and I got away for an hours-long date. As we were driving home sometime after midnight, I gazed at the stars over the Blue Ridge Mountains. We talked about spiders.

It was wonderful.

We’d driven two hours, eaten Indian together, enjoyed a two-hour show by my favorite indie band (all hail Carbon Leaf), and were on our way back home. We’d discussed his work, my writing, kids, school stuff, plans for holidays, church obligations, an article I read about teaching boys about sexual consent, the 24-disc Eisenhower biography he just finished listening to, the food we ate, the parts of the show we liked, and the boy named Wayne who was generous enough to ask gawky me to slow dance at my last middle school dance.

We still had an hour of driving time to go. So DJ told me about the radio program he’d listened to about some highly-developed spiders. It was interesting—part of the reason I fell in love with DJ was that he knows something about everything—and while he talked, I looked out the window at Orion and thought how happy I was.

If you’re married with little kids, you might be trying to smile and say how great that is that we could get away for all that time. Meanwhile, you’re lucky to get a couple of hours out every three months or so. Assuming the babysitter plans don’t fall through.

Yeah, don’t bother to be nice. Go ahead and bare your teeth. I know the feeling. We had our first child nine months after we got married, and have never lived close enough to family to have any of them pick up babysitting for us. Our dates for years consisted of hiring a teenage girl, eating out, then driving up and down Rt. 11 until after bedtime so we at least didn’t have to put kids to bed. Weekend getaway? Never done it. A week away? Unheard of.

But now I can see something we did right.

During those closed-in years when we had little kids, we could hardly even finish three sentences without interruption. We kept trying anyway. In among kids and work and spiritual meltdowns, we talked about books we read, thoughts we had, opinions we were chewing on. We’d lie in bed at night, sleepy, and talk about theology. While driving up and down Rt. 11, we’d play each other songs we’d discovered, or relate a funny conversation with a distant friend. We didn’t have time for long, leisurely conversations, but we filled what time we had.

And one day, we didn’t have such little kids anymore. This Friday, we left the house at 4 in the afternoon and didn’t get back till 1 in the morning.* We didn’t have to spend any of that time getting reacquainted. The connection we’d shared before life got so intense—that connection was still alive.

So my point isn’t that to keep your love alive, you need to get away without kids, because that’s not really an option for some of us. My point is to fill up the spaces of busy life with conversation, staying connected, never losing sight of each other.

And maybe some night, you’ll be driving together with your love. Maybe you too will gaze out the window as he talks, and see a shooting star trail down the sky. Meanwhile, he’ll tell you about highly-developed spiders.

And you too will be happy.

*Plan assumes you have generous friends who will pick up pizza for your kids’ supper, and neighbors who are always willing to be on call if necessary.

Earning Enough Grace

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Photo: Danielle Ayers Jones (DanielleAyersJones.com)

That title is supposed to give you whiplash. You can’t earn grace, much less “enough” of it. If you’re not actually sure what else you do with grace, or if you’re trying to find somebody who understands why this is a big deal to you… may I suggest a novel I wrote?

My ebook will be released soon, but meanwhile, you’re welcome to check out The Fellowship. This interview with my friend Danielle discusses what the book is, why I wrote it, and how I made a heavy subject approachable.

Danielle and I met when I was still in deep in my own Fellowship culture. We lived with three other young women for six months. They challenged my ideas, teased me, dragged me into conversations about topics I didn’t think we were supposed to talk about… and mostly, they plain liked me despite myself. That wasn’t the first time I ever experienced grace like that, but it was the first time I really recognized it.

So it was particularly fun, all these years later, for blogger Danielle to interview author Sara.

Read Part One: Earning Enough Grace

Read Part Two: Earning Enough Grace

And linger to browse Danielle’s blog, where she reads, cooks, thinks, homeschools, and takes beautiful pictures.

Blogging on Patheos Today

I was invited to contribute to a “public square” discussion on Patheos. The question is, “Why do you homeschool?” It’s a really good question for any of us who came through Bill Gothard’s spiritually poisonous system.

Here’s my answer. It’s For the Children

I’m impressed at the lineup of authors that the editors editors pulled in for this topic. It gives a wide variety of homeschool viewpoints. Check it out!

Proving the Red Pen Wrong

I try not to talk shop too much on my author blog. But I love the writing process, and occasionally I break down and indulge myself. If you’re a writer, you’ll understand. If you’re not, well, I’m sure this can apply to your life somehow– if you try hard enough. Isn’t that how we were taught to accept everything our authorities ever said to us?

ball-pen-1186363-1280x960If you’re a writer, you need an editor.

Yes, you’re a good writer. Nobody else can tell your story like you can. Your grasp of grammar is legendary. Writing is your passion.

I know! Me too! Guess what—we still need an editor.

Writers practice a form of telepathy, really. We allow others to see what exists only in our heads. Unfortunately, the connection tends to be glitchy. Some ideas come off half-formed, and there’s usually an unpalatable amount of self-therapy involved. Most people find it hard to grasp exactly what we’re trying to say. It’s the editor’s job to clean all that up.

Now, I really love to whine about being edited. For one thing, it’s expensive. You pay a good editor real money. But more than that, the process is painful. Every darn time. Getting a marked-up document back is demoralizing, embarrassing, and frustrating.

But after the initial shock… it’s also challenging. My life coalesces around a single, burning goal. I’m going to prove my editor wrong.

She thinks this plot point doesn’t work? Yes, it does. I’ll show her it does.

She questions whether a character would say this? Yes, he would. Maybe not quite like that… I’ll make it fit him.

She says this isn’t the word to describe this feeling… um… well, okay, she’s right that time. But only until I clarify the emotional tenor of the scene, and then she’ll be wrong.

I’ve worked with Lee Ann at Illuminations Editing for both my novel (released last year) and my short story collection (to be released this year). It’s been a bumpy ride in spots—okay, fine, I cried a couple of times over my marked-up document— but overall extremely rewarding. Going through my story document this morning, I pulled out a few editorial comments to illustrate what I’m talking about.* This, writer friends, is what you pay an editor to do.

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After knowing Curtis for 12 years, I doubt Jordan would actually verbalize a fear of being annoying. After all, this is how she would have always talked around Curtis. Dane made her second-guess herself, but I think it makes more sense to have her self-doubt happen below the surface.

Almost nobody else would pause at a quick exchange of dialogue and think, “Hm, I bet that emotion ought to be internalized instead.” But it does make more sense for that character, and the more consistent I am, the stronger the story is. I took out the spoken dialogue and just left Jordan’s inner voice.

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I deleted this exchange because it sounded forced and unnecessary.

The irritating really great thing about a good editor is that she pinpoints areas you already know are weak. I didn’t like that exchange either, but thought it was necessary. It wasn’t.

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“Went through” sounds vague. Depending on how you revise this sentence, you may need to remove the paragraph break and/or rewrite the next sentence so that the action connects and builds properly.

One of the rewarding aspects of a working author-editor relationship is how I can be nudged into a little more creativity.

The offending sentence read, “I went through my purse for my phone.” I could just ignore her comment. What reader is going to stop and think, “Went through is so boring. I hate these stories.” But… what if I made my character dump out her purse, and her phone slides underneath the coffee table? More energy, more interest. That’s better, and I always want the story to be better.

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This does not sound like a Makayla gesture or Makayla words—or maybe the gesture doesn’t sound right because the words aren’t how she would describe it.

In one particular story, I had trouble staying in voice. I kept barging in and talking like myself instead of like the narrator. Lee Ann never let me get away with it, either. I took out the gesture and reworded the dialogue so that it was no longer me talking.

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But just like I don’t ignore my editor’s suggestions, I don’t take all of them either. I’m the ultimate authority over this piece. She highlighted an entire passage with the comment:

This is all unnecessary to the story.

It wasn’t unnecessary. I needed to wrap up a loose end, and I needed to give a character more space after his introduction in the beginning of the story.

The trouble was a telepathic glitch—I’d written it sloppily, so it didn’t ring true for Lee Ann. So I cut down the dialogue and condensed the action. The scene doesn’t drag anymore, but the information remains.

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It’s a lot of work to revise a manuscript, maybe harder than writing it to start with. But if the marked-up manuscript is painful, there’s nothing quite like getting it back with, “You fixed everything. I love reading your revisions. It’s like magic.”

I proved her wrong. Life goal achieved.

 

*Lee Ann approves of “show, don’t tell.” When editing my novel, she had to mention it so often that she finally just shortened the comment to “S,DT” to save us both time.

Inviting In the Blacks

love-1-1314956-1280x1920Up until two or three years ago, I thought racism had pretty much died out.

It was an easy assumption for me. I, a lower-middle-class white girl, grew up in a small Mississippi town only a generation or two removed from segregation. I attended junior high in the “old black school,” and teachers rode us hard to eradicate any use of racial epithets (black or white). The KKK was a thing of the past, and generally deplored among the people I knew. I vaguely knew there had been bad times “back then,” but in my growing up, I heard of only a few incidents that seemed to stem from racial tensions.

I was friendly with several of the black kids, but not close enough that we went to each other’s houses. White girls still didn’t date black boys (I do remember a mild furor when a white friend accepted a black friend’s invitation to a school dance). The churches were divided down pretty straight racial lines; I just always thought it was because blacks worshiped much different than whites did (which actually is true) so we just all preferred our own style.

The more I think about it, the more I realize how separated our world was. The more I see the disdain that my social class held for “them.” But among my parents and other adults, no one taught me malice or hate.

So I took the example of my teachers and parents and went farther. I taught myself to ignore skin color. My kids grew up without hearing anything about how “black people are like that.” Further, I assumed that all the whites of my generation were doing the same thing. We wanted to move beyond the horrors of the past, right?

My first clue that racism was a still big issue should have been when I was writing my novel. When I was sketching out its early drafts, I looked at my cast of characters and realized that they were all white. That’s standard in Christian fiction, and it annoys me. I really wanted to include non-white characters, but immediately ran into a problem.

The Fellowship is a highly insular Southern church founded and run by a white family. This type of church hardly ever includes black families. If I introduced a non-white character, I had to have a good backstory to justify it. But I wanted to avoid the issue of racism because that’s not what my book focuses on.

So I cheated.

I wrote into the story that by the late 80s, black families were admitted into the church and even allowed to marry into the white families. My heroine, Bekah, grew up under these conditions so is basically colorblind. It made me sigh that the only way I could deal with all characters on an equal footing, with only a hint of racism, was to create a utopia that doesn’t actually exist.

I knew it was a stretch. But I didn’t think it was too much of a stretch; we were already well on our way to that point, right? Especially among Christians whose very theology taught us that God looked on the heart, not the outward appearance?

The internet has broadened my circle to take in the black community and what they have to say. The ugly truth filtered in, one heartbreaking bit at a time. It’s easy to “get past” racism when you don’t really live under it.

I’ve changed a lot of my thinking and I’m paying attention to the discussion raging around us. I’m not taking sides except to acknowledge that for generations, whites have enjoyed power and privileges far above their non-white fellow citizens. In a nation founded on principles of equality and freedom, we were wrong. I’m sad for my friends whose skin color eclipses their personhood, and regret how oblivious I was (and am).

But do I regret my decision to make the Fellowship a slightly implausible haven of racial equality? Not at all. Because just like my story gives hope of recovery from spiritual abuse, I like its picture of a world where a person’s skin color is merely another physical trait, not an indication of character.

Here’s to the future.

The Fellowship is available in paperback and Kindle.

Listen to Your Heart

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I hate this graphic.

But it’s a Bible verse! What’s the problem?

One thing that a lot of people don’t seem to understand is that a spiritually abusive Christian system is always based on Bible verses. I remember when a friend read an early draft of my novel, and came back saying, “I’m surprised that the church in your story uses these verses about grace. I thought they’d just ignore those.”

No, they don’t ignore the verses. They isolate them and redefine them to fit their own ideas (just like they do to the people involved). Then they pile their own teachings on top. That way, when someone notices something wrong, the teachers can always dig up that tattered, smashed, and almost unrecognizable verse and say, “See? It’s based on God’s Word. Your problem isn’t with me, it’s with God.”

The verse in this graphic is the source of a lot of grief to those of us who came through an abusive system. It was used to make us suppress our instincts, give up our passions, and conform to whatever our “authorities” wanted us to be.

It’s actually part of a longer passage in Jeremiah where God is alternately rebuking and lamenting Judah’s idolatry, interspersed with hope that He will heal and redeem them. I can’t give an informed interpretation of the passage in its larger context. Most of us can’t.

All we ever knew was this one snippet: “The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked.”

We all know that’s true to an extent. History amply demonstrates how wicked human beings can be. Our own friends and family show us greed, manipulation, and anger. In fact, we ourselves know our own selfishness, covetousness, and fear. The problem isn’t that the verse is false, it’s that it’s used as an all-encompassing truth.

Abusive teachers point to this verse and tell us, “See, you can’t trust your heart. God says so. So if you want to do something that I don’t like—you have to give it up. If you feel that something is wrong—you need to ignore your instincts and obey what I say.”

Obviously it’s never presented that baldly. But it permeates the system.

A story:

One of my children exhibited symptoms of Sensory Integration Disorder. From the time she was a baby, loud noises (applause or sirens, for instance) would send her into a meltdown. She didn’t interact easily with other people; they insisted on touching her, looking her in the eyes, and invading her space. Sudden changes in schedule, such as a substitute teacher instead of the one she was used to, sent her into a tailspin. Although it was exhausting, my husband and I did our best to give her an environment where she could be comfortable.

I instinctively knew that she wasn’t being defiant when she couldn’t manage to follow orders. But others in our church at the time didn’t understand that. One woman in particular, who set herself up as a mentor to me, frequently engaged in power struggles with my daughter and was determined to win. The fact that my daughter was so reactive was a judgment on my own parenting—which I felt every single time.

Obviously I should have pushed back. I should have said that as her mother, I understood her needs, and I wasn’t going to stand back and watch this woman cause her grief. Instead, I let it go on for years, hardly ever protesting. Why?

Because my heart, the one that understood my daughter, was deceitful. I couldn’t trust it. It was clearly communicated to me that I was afraid to discipline her properly, so I instead had to bow to the ideas of my “authority” who saw a child’s rebellion where my (deceitful) heart saw confusion.

Eventually, my half-suppressed instincts clawed their way to the surface, and I drew some boundary lines. That was the end of my friendship with my “mentor.” For years I was bewildered and guilty, wondering I’d done so wrong.

Years later, I have a much better view of everything. My instincts were right. My daughter now has learned to cope with the overstimulation and is sociable and happy. She’s very much her own person, but not defiant. And all I did “wrong” in my relationship with the other woman was to listen to my heart, which she didn’t agree with.

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As wicked as our hearts can be, the other half of the truth is that the heart isn’t always wrong. It’s not wrong to explore what you love and pursue the desires of your heart. Obviously that has to be balanced by reason, understanding, and a heavy reliance on God’s grace. But then, doesn’t reason need to be balanced by compassion and creativity? (The answer is yes.)

Another story:

A few years ago, my friend Amy (not actually her name) came to me in tears. Her childhood best friend was getting married, but didn’t ask Amy to be a bridesmaid. However, the bride had asked two other newer “best friends” to be in the wedding. Either the bride didn’t value her friendship with Amy, or simply forgot about her. Both options cut her deeply.

Her head told her that she had a right to be hurt, and she ought to talk to her friend about it. But her heart, bathed in the grace of the Holy Spirit, said something different. It told her not to spoil her friend’s wedding day with any suggestion that she was upset. So Amy listened to her heart. She talked to me and others about how hurt she was, but when the wedding day came, Amy was there with a smile. Afterward, she made a point to see her friend pretty often, and never mentioned anything except good about the wedding. As far as I know, the bride never knew what her forgetfulness cost Amy; and Amy herself forgave and (mostly) forgot.

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For the meme above, I would react less to it if “Jesus” was saying, “You let it serve itself instead of remembering others?” The problem isn’t that we listen to our hearts or even follow them. It’s when we set our own desires above the good of others that things go wrong.

Also—just to mention it—the fangs on the heart really are kind of an overkill.