Psalm 23: The divine pursuit of a good, holy, and perfect Father

Psalm 23 is a beautiful psalm. No, seriously, bare with me here. I know you’ve heard it a thousand times. It’s the one that starts, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.” Growing up in the church, I’ve heard it literally hundreds of time. I’m pretty sure I’ve memorized it on three different occasions between Sunday school and the Christian school I went to as a kid. I’ve read or heard it most commonly in the NIV translation, and every time I see it I tend to glance over it, because I’ve known it for most of my life.

Or at least, I normally glance over it.

But yesterday, I got stuck.

While reading through Psalms yesterday morning in the New Living Translation (potentially for the first time in this translation, I’m not even entirely sure), I got completely hung up on the last verse of this single entry in the largest book of the Bible. Hung up in a good way, to be clear. But I found myself staring at the final verse of this chapter, reading it in different translations, and journaling about it for nearly an hour. There are two big reasons for this being the case, the two of them being somewhat unrelated, while simultaneously completely connected. But I’ll take some time to explore both of those as I’m processing through them here. But first off, for context’s sake, here is Psalm 23 in the New Living Translation:

1 The Lord is my shepherd;

   I have all that I need.

2 He lets me rest in green meadows;

   he leads me beside peaceful streams.

3     He renews my strength.

He guides me along right paths,

   bringing honor to his name.

4 Even when I walk

   through the darkest valley,

I will not be afraid,

   for you are close beside me.

Your rod and your staff

   protect and comfort me.

5 You prepare a feast for me

   in the presence of my enemies.

You honor me by anointing my head with oil.

   My cup overflows with blessings.

6 Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me

   all the days of my life,

and I will live in the house of the Lord

   forever.

For anyone who’s read or heard this psalm countless times before, this translation may read a little differently. Now, people may start the debate on literal and non-literal translations of the Bible. That’s not what I’m getting at or even trying to start a conversation about. What I’m talking about is simply how God can use word choice to completely change the way you read something. There was something that jumped off the page when I was reading this psalm this time, specifically in verse 6. Most people, myself included, likely grew up reading Psalm 23:6 in the NIV, which reads this way:

Surely your goodness and love will follow me

   all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

   forever.

It’s a slight difference, sure. But there was something in that simple difference that completely shifted my perspective and made this passage jump out at me in a completely different way.

And that simple difference was this: The word “pursue.”

I have nothing against the NIV’s reading of this passage whatsoever. The ESV, NASB, and NRSV, among other literal translations, read much the same way, meaning that they are “more directly” translated from the original meaning of the passage (Again, I’m not trying to start a debate of literal vs. non-literal translations). But there’s something wildly, and outrageously profound about the use of the word “pursue.”

Similar thoughts are expressed in other similarly-written translations of the Bible, two of which I read being the Message and the Passion Translation:

Your beauty and love chase after me

   every day of my life.

I’m back home in the house of God

   for the rest of my life. (MSG)

 

So why would I fear the future?

   For I’m being pursued only by your goodness and unfailing love.

   Then afterwards–when my life is through,

   I’ll return to your glorious presence to be forever with you! (tPt)

I don’t know what it is, but surely I can’t be the only one who’s had this jump out at them for the first time. And sure, I’ve heard this message and similar sentiments countless times. But there was something about recognizing it in such a familiar passage of Scripture for the first time that made it distinctly profound:

God pursues us every day. His love chases after us. It doesn’t just “follow.” It never. Stops. Running.

It’s something that I’ve heard numerous times, even more so in the past two years since leaving a spiritually abusive church. But there’s something beautiful and particularly enlightening about finding it in a familiar passage after a lifetime of missing it. It wrecked me in the best way. And still is.

But there’s still something else about this psalm that blew my mind yesterday. Yesterday morning, I was planning on blowing through five psalms or so as I’ve gradually been trying to make my way through my favorite book of the Bible. I started on Psalm 21 and was planning on getting through Psalm 25. So, right before I started reading Psalm 23, I read Psalm 22, known for being one of the clearest prophecies of the death of Christ, written by King David centuries before Jesus’s birth. For context’s sake, here is Psalm 22 in the New Living Translation:

1 My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

   Why are you so far away when I groan for help?

2 Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer.

   Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief.

3 Yet you are holy,

   enthroned on the praises of Israel.

4 Our ancestors trusted in you,

   and you rescued them.

5 They cried out to you and were saved.

   They trusted in you and were never disgraced.

6 But I am a worm and not a man.

   I am scorned and despised by all!

7 Everyone who sees me mocks me.

   They sneer and shake their heads, saying,

8 “Is this the one who relies on the Lord?

   Then let the Lord save him!

If the Lord loves him so much,

   let the Lord rescue him!”

9 Yet you brought me safely from my mother’s womb

   and led me to trust you at my mother’s breast.

10 I was thrust into your arms at my birth.

   You have been my God from the moment I was born.

11 Do not stay so far from me,

   for trouble is near,

   and no one else can help me.

12 My enemies surround me like a herd of bulls;

   fierce bulls of Bashan have hemmed me in!

13 Like lions they open their jaws against me,

   roaring and tearing into their prey.

14 My life is poured out like water,

   and all my bones are out of joint.

My heart is like wax,

   melting within me.

15 My strength has dried up like sunbaked clay.

   My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.

   You have laid me in the dust and left me for dead.

16 My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs;

   an evil gang closes in on me.

   They have pierced[a] my hands and feet.

17 I can count all my bones.

   My enemies stare at me and gloat.

18 They divide my garments among themselves

   and throw dice[b] for my clothing.

19 O Lord, do not stay far away!

   You are my strength; come quickly to my aid!

20 Save me from the sword;

   spare my precious life from these dogs.

21 Snatch me from the lion’s jaws

   and from the horns of these wild oxen.

22 I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters.[c]

   I will praise you among your assembled people.

23 Praise the Lord, all you who fear him!

   Honor him, all you descendants of Jacob!

   Show him reverence, all you descendants of Israel!

24 For he has not ignored or belittled the suffering of the needy.

   He has not turned his back on them,

   but has listened to their cries for help.

25 I will praise you in the great assembly.

   I will fulfill my vows in the presence of those who worship you.

26 The poor will eat and be satisfied.

   All who seek the Lord will praise him.

   Their hearts will rejoice with everlasting joy.

27 The whole earth will acknowledge the Lord and return to him.

   All the families of the nations will bow down before him.

28 For royal power belongs to the Lord.

   He rules all the nations.

29 Let the rich of the earth feast and worship.

   Bow before him, all who are mortal,

   all whose lives will end as dust.

30 Our children will also serve him.

   Future generations will hear about the wonders of the Lord.

31 His righteous acts will be told to those not yet born.

   They will hear about everything he has done.

Before I even reached Psalm 23, this psalm was already messing me up (again, in a good way). This psalm, foretelling the experiences and words of Christ on the cross, takes a dramatic shift three verses in. David, and ultimately Jesus, are crying out to God in the first two verses, desperately trying to understand why God has abandoned them. And then in verse three, there is a sudden, drastic, beautiful shift. The entire psalm spins its heel on the phrase “Yet you are holy.” This psalm, though it prophecies the most gruesome, brutal death experienced by any human being in history, is the ultimate representation of worship in the midst of suffering. That Jesus, while bleeding, dying on the cross, taking on the sin of the world, would declare that God, his Father, is holy, enthroned upon the praises of Israel, is mind-blowing. It is worship in the darkest hour, the bleakest season. And even from this point, the psalm goes on to further describe the suffering and death of Jesus, and even still declares that God is worthy to be praised.

Then the psalm ends. And Psalm 23 begins.

A psalm that prophecies the death of the Savior of the world is followed by a psalm that reflects on the character of God. In the midst of tragedy, what follows is Psalm 23, a representation of the goodness, mercy, and love of our Father. In the midst of suffering, God still pursues us, chases after us, provides for us. Suffering and tragedy doesn’t change who God is. Nor should it change how we view him. He is still good. He is still holy. He is still worthy of all praise.

I will never know in this lifetime exactly what Jesus was thinking as he died for the sin of the world. But what I do know is that even as he breathed his last, Jesus’s sufferings didn’t change who he knew God was. Who he knew his Father to be. It didn’t shift his perspective.

So why should I let it change mine?

Advertisements

College: (Definitely not) the best years of my life

As of August 11, I officially finished my four-year degree in Music Education at CU Boulder. To some people, this may come as a surprise, or some may simply ask, “Wait, why did you not finish until August? Didn’t you walk at graduation in May?” Well, the short answer to that question is that I had some credits to make up and ended up taking three classes this summer. The long answer to that question is…A bit more complicated.

So here’s the thing: I’m going to be ranting a bit in this one. Kind of reflecting, but…Ranting. Is there really a central, positive message to this blog? Eh…That’s debatable. Is it even that organized or planned out? Also debatable. I’m kind of just putting my thoughts about college on a page, recounting my experiences and everything. Don’t get me wrong, there were some great things about my college experience. I have a four-year degree from a public university with no student loan debt. And…Well. That’s about where all of my thoughts start to come in. And before people start getting into this and start telling me I should be thankful for my college experience and degree and everything, let me make it clear that I am thankful for all of those experiences and the support I had to help me receive my degree. But that doesn’t change the fact that I wish I had done some things better than I did. So while I will be recounting a lot of the things that I disliked about my college experience, I’ll take some time towards the end of this to talk about some things that I could have done differently and wish I’d done differently. So if you’re going to going to college in the next few years or thinking about going to college, I guess this could potentially be helpful for you.

But, mostly, I’m going to be ranting. Or reflecting in the form of a rant. So…There’s your warning.

From the very beginning, my decision to get a degree in music education was so that I’d have a “backup plan” just in case I wasn’t able to have a successful music career, a common fate for many musicians. I actually started out as a “double-major,” working on a five-year track that would get me a degree in both music education and performance. I ended up dropping the performance part of my double-major during my sophomore year.

Which, other than joining a cult for two years in college, was probably one of the worst decisions I made in my college years.

Here’s my first mistake: I wasn’t studying something that I really cared about and really wanted to do. When I first started college, I did honestly consider becoming a band director because of the incredible experiences I’d had in high school. But I found out pretty quick that a career in music education involves a lot of political, bureaucratic BS and has a never-ending line of hoops to jump through. Yes, that’s a strong opinion. Yes, that’s my opinion. And anyone who really knows me knows that I really don’t like brown-nosing. And I really don’t like jumping through hoops. And being a band director involves doing that for a long time before you can really do things the way you want to do them, and I definitely can’t wait that long to do that. (Side note: Don’t get me wrong, I think education and music education especially are incredibly important. Some of the most important fields to go into. I’m just not wired for it and can’t force myself to try and be wired for it. It’s just not for me. Students deserve a better teacher than I would be for them.)

This is about where people would start chiming in, “Well, why didn’t you just switch majors or something?” Well, this also requires a somewhat complicated answer. I was fortunate and blessed enough to receive a 75% music scholarship, which lasted for four years. By the time I realized that I didn’t enjoy what I was studying and wanted to study something else (or just switch from music education to either a Performance degree or a BA in Music), I was too far into my degree to switch majors without adding at least another semester, if not another year, to my time in school. Which, with in-state tuition for music students at CU Boulder coming in at nearly $6,500 just with full-time student status (meaning taking exactly 12 credits, no more, no less, when music majors end up taking at least 15 credits per semester on average), there’s no way I would have been able to afford paying for the rest of my education without my scholarship. And I’m incredibly grateful to my family who helped me pay for the last 25% of my school each semester, but that much money each semester would be way too much for us to afford.

So I had to finish my degree in music education if I wanted to have a degree at all. And for people that know me, they know that I have a really…Really hard time putting effort into things that I don’t care about. Not to mention that some of my professors over the years (one in particular) were very unsympathetic, impersonal, and very discouraging, always pointing out the things we weren’t good at and never addressing the things that we were successful at. I had no motivation to work hard for these people. (That’s a completely different subject. TL;DR version of my opinion on that entire topic: Tenure is stupid.) So the last year and a half of my degree was a case study in going through the motions. I put in the minimal effort that I could on everything that I did while still passing everything I needed to, knowing that I was working to get a degree I would never really use after I graduated. All I wanted to do was be done and get out as soon as I possibly could. And it all worked out all right.

…For a while. Until my last semester, anyway.

My final semester of my music ed degree was student teaching. Which is basically working a full-time job as a teacher for sixteen weeks without getting paid. And actually paying money to do so. Which is a great experience for people wanting to go into that field…Not so much for me. And any teacher, and especially music teachers, regardless of what age of students they teach, will tell you that being an educator is one of those careers that you absolutely have to LOVE in order to be successful in it, and even survive in it. And not only did I not love what I was doing, but I couldn’t force myself to love what I was doing either. I’m really bad at faking it. And my professors could tell. So, ultimately, I was being asked to make a certain amount of progress and improvement, which I clearly wasn’t achieving. I couldn’t. So, long story short, I actually ended up failing my student teaching semester and ended up not receiving my teaching licensure from CU. Which, since I have no intention of going into the teaching field, I’m honestly okay with.

So, to make up for those credits I lost, I ended up taking three courses this summer, which costed over $4000 in additional tuition. But I ended up finishing classes in August and ended up finishing a four-year degree from a public university without taking out any student loans.

Some people would call this a success story of sorts. I made it through, I did the hard thing, I got my degree, and I won’t be paying off student debt for the rest of my life. Others might consider it a failure. I wasted four and a half years of my life and thousands of dollars getting a degree I won’t really use in a field I don’t care to go into.

And here’s my response to both arguments: Yes.

While I did make it through and I ended up receiving my degree, I often feel like I could have done a lot of things better, or at least differently in such a way as to really enjoy my college years. They were far from the best years of my life because I made some basic decisions that ended up making myself miserable. If I could go back and do it all again, I wouldn’t because I’m sure the experiences that I did have have helped make me who I am today.

BUT. If I could go back and do it all again, knowing that I’d be in either the same place or even a better place than I’m in now, here’s some things that I’d do. Here are some of the things that I wish I’d done differently, or at least better. (Future college students, here’s where you can start paying attention).

I wish I’d started off at a community college or something to save money. People laugh about going to community college and everything because it’s…Well, community college. But guys, seriously. I WISH I had knocked out all of my core credits (math, science, history, etc.) before going on to finish my degree at CU. Then, not only would I have saved money doing that, but it would have given me a chance to focus exclusively on my degree once I got to CU. I spent a lot of time writing papers and doing homework for classes that I just had to get out of the way to finish my degree, when all I really wanted to do was focus on music. If I’d gotten these “core credits” taken care of beforehand, I could have taken exclusively music classes during my time at CU. And I most likely would have been at the University for a shorter amount of time, saving myself even more money.

I could have networked better. While the people I was interacting with at CU weren’t really the kinds of people I need to be connected with in the field I’m in now, I still could have networked a bit better. This is something that will apply more when you’re studying in a field you care about and want to go into. Whatever field you’re wanting to go into, if you’re interacting with professionals in your area of interest, build a network with professionals in your area of interest. I can’t stress this enough. If you’re studying education and want to be a teacher, build a network with teachers, professors, and public school staff in the area. If you’re studying music and want to have basically ANY chance of getting a gig after you’re done, build a network with professors, performers, and professional musicians at school and locally. There’s something to be said about “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Knowing people in your area of interest plays a significant role in getting jobs nowadays. So you need to know people. I don’t know many people in worship ministry, which is what I’m doing now. My network is small, and I’m just now starting to try and kind of build a network. Here are my two biggest recommendations for starting to build a network in college:

  • First, just talk to people. Ask questions of people who know more than you. It goes a long way in showing that you want to learn more and grow and that you’re teachable, which is one of the most important qualities people look for nowadays.
  • Second, I’d honestly recommend starting a LinkedIn profile while you’re still in school. Even if you don’t have a ton to put on there yet, you can start building your network while you’re there and start adding people as you go through school. Knowing people is so important for getting a job.

And I’d say this is the most important thing: I wish I had studied something that I care about. I simply can’t stress this point enough. If I was truly invested in what I was studying, I definitely would have done a lot better in school. I’m a bad student as it is, and so when I don’t care about what I’m doing, things take a very negative turn. So I’d encourage you to study something you care about. I wish I had gotten some sort of degree in worship ministry. I feel like I’m learning a lot of things now that I could have been learning over the past four years. And if you don’t know what you want to do yet, that’s okay. That’s when I’d really recommend starting at a community college or something like that. If you aren’t even sure what you want to do, please don’t start at a full-on university. Or you’ll end up spending thousands of dollars on classes that you don’t know if you need to take and could end up being at school even longer than you need to be. And if you start off going to community college, just getting an Associate’s Degree IS NOT A BAD THING. It’s a degree. And it can be a good start to receiving a higher-level degree if you want to! And you can still choose to study anything you want after getting your Associate’s. Please, please, please study something you care about. However long it takes you to figure that out, just take the time to figure it out. Don’t spend potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars on school if you don’t know what you’re wanting to do. It could end up just being a waste of time and money.

Those are a lot of my thoughts on college. I wish I’d done some things differently. I have some strong opinions and thoughts in here, and I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on them. Thanks for taking the time to read this.

Rant over.

 

 

P.S. – Before people start trying to crucify me for all of this, again, I want to make it clear that I’m incredibly thankful for all of the support and encouragement that I had through my college years, financially, spiritually, emotionally, all of those things. I ultimately am thankful that I made it through my college years and ended up receiving my degree. That doesn’t change the fact that I wish I had done things differently and wish those years in school were spent better than they were. While I am thankful, it doesn’t change the fact that I wish some things about my experience could have been a little different.

The Enneagram: The basics of personality

I’ve taken tons of personality tests in my life. I’m an INFP on the Myers-Briggs personality test. I’ve taken the DISC test, though I don’t remember what my letters were. I’m pretty sure I’m a “Blue” on one of the personality tests I’ve taken. I’ve even been sorted into Hufflepuff, and I don’t read, watch, or even like Harry Potter (controversial opinion, I know, but I digress). All of this to say, I don’t remember most of the personality tests I’ve taken. Myers-Briggs has been the most helpful for me, but I don’t even remember what the four letters of my type stand for half the time, much less what those four letters mean for my type and personality.

It was about a year ago that I was first introduced to the Enneagram of Personality by the Liturgists Podcast. Without knowing anything about it, I listened to Michael Gungor and Science Mike go into detail with two guest hosts on the nine personality types of the Enneagram, very confused as to what was going on and being described. After listening to the podcast and doing some research of my own, I discovered a lot of interesting things about the Enneagram, some of its history and how it’s benefitted people’s lives. So I decided to figure out my personality type.

And it changed everything for me.

Like I’m prone to do when I write blogs, let me make something clear here: I’m not an expert. I don’t particularly care to do a ton of research into things I don’t particularly care to know everything about. My personality typing will help explain why that is. I will give some very basic explanation of what the Enneagram of Personality is and how it functions, but I would strongly encourage you to do some of your own research on its history and look into the typing of yourself, your friends, and family in your own time. I’m serious when I say that the benefits are well worth it.

What it is

The Enneagram Institute website calls the Enneagram “a modern synthesis of ancient wisdom traditions.” The Enneagram is a personality typing method based not purely in analytic or scientific research, but based on observations of humanity, of real people. The Enneagram holds a belief that people are two parts: Essence and ego, the essence being a person’s ideal, true self, and the ego being the subjective personality that develops throughout life and its trials. The Enneagram is a tool to help people identify their essence and their ego and the difference between them, so that they can identify factors and stressors in their lives preventing them from reaching their true selves.

The Enneagram is divided into nine individual personality types. Here are some incredibly basic snapshot descriptions of the nine types, taken from the Enneagram Institute website (which I will link to below):

1 The Reformer – The Rational, Idealistic Type: Principled, Purposeful, Self-Controlled, and Perfectionistic

2 The Helper – The Caring, Interpersonal Type: Demonstrative, Generous, People-Pleasing, and Possessive

3 The Achiever – The Success-Oriented, Pragmatic Type: Adaptive, Excelling, Drive, and Image-Conscious

4 The Individualist – The Sensitive, Withdrawn Type: Expressive, Dramatic, Self-Absorbed, and Temperamental

5 The Investigator – The Intense, Cerebral Type: Perceptive, Innovative, Secretive, and Isolated

6 The Loyalist – The Committed, Security-Oriented Type: Engaging, Responsible, Anxious, and Suspicious

7 The Enthusiast – The Busy, Fun-Loving Type: Spontaneous, Versatile, Distractible, and Scattered

8 The Challenger – The Powerful, Dominating Type: Self-Confident, Decisive, Willful, and Confrontational

9 The Peacemaker – The Easygoing, Self-Effacing Type: Receptive, Reassuring, Agreeable, and Complacent

How it works

What is unique about the Enneagram is that it also involves sub-types, personality types on the spectrum that people operate as in times of stress and in times of health. So, for instance, I am a 4 on the Enneagram, which tends to be a more withdrawn but artistic and expressive type.

1481922118453.gif

When I am mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy, I act more like a 1, the Reformer. So, in health, I use my creative passions and pursuits in a way that functions in such a way as to improve the environments I’m in and act in more of a leadership role. On the other end of the spectrum, I function more as a 2 – the Helper – in stress. When I am not mentally, emotionally, or spiritually healthy in one way or another, I function in such a way as to assist other people in their pursuits. 2’s can go out of their way to help people in such a way as to make themselves feel needed, which is often how I operate in times of stress, focusing more on supporting others’ pursuits than using and pursuing my own artistic, creative endeavors. Not that these are necessarily bad things in and of themselves, but they are deviations from the way I would normally operate when I am in a healthy place. Each type has a “home base” type as I tend to call it, with two sub-types that a person tends toward in times of health or stress. Each of these nine types can also have “wings.” These wings are slight deviations from the normal type, either to the left or the right on the scale. So, for instance, as a 4, I am able to have either a 3 or a 5 wing, based on subtle intricacies in my personality. I don’t have a strong leaning toward either of these types, so I’m a “normal” 4.

So those are the basics of personality typing. But that’s not all there is to the Enneagram. From this point is where the real benefits of the Enneagram come into play. Each of the nine types has very detailed descriptions, and each has both a basic fear and a basic desire that motivates its actions in life, as well as key motivations to pursue this basic desire. When I have reached moments of conflict or gone through trials in my life, I’ve read through my type description and found a precise, and oftentimes exact explanation of why I’ve felt depressed, stressed, or anxious, and it has been followed up with things that I can do to help get myself out of my head and into action to help myself reach a healthy headspace again. For instance, my basic fear as a four is that I have no identity or personal significance. The most stressful, trying times in my life have been when I feel I have no purpose or that my life is without its own individual meaning. Simply recognizing this feeling has helped me more than you realize, and I’ve been able to take steps to combat these feelings of worthlessness that have crippled me in the past. Each type description contains this information, and can be incredibly beneficial in times of stress.

Each of the nine types also has a comparison chart for compatibility with each of the other nine types, and clearly defines any problem spots or reasons for conflict with other types. I’m in an interesting position where I am surrounded by 2’s in my life: My fiancé, my best friend, my mother, along with a few others. 2’s and 4’s can, if they are not able to sort through their differences, find each other too emotionally needy to really function in a healthy way. Knowing this has helped me navigate my relationships in such a way as to pursue forward motion rather than stagnating in unresolved emotional turmoil, and I’m happy to say that my relationships have only benefitted from knowing my Enneagram type and how I interact with others. Oftentimes if I meet someone new, I’ll ask them if they know their Enneagram type so that I can know how to interact with them better, but also so that they can reap the benefits from knowing their type for themselves.

All of this to say, I really can’t completely put into words how beneficial the Enneagram has been for me in my life and in the lives of many people around me. There are so many personality tests out there, but this is the one that has benefitted me more than anything else. It has, quite frankly, changed my life in multiple ways.

Finding your Enneagram personality type

So how can you find your own type? Well, since it isn’t as well-known and since it is incredibly detailed, there aren’t a bunch of free tests out there that you can take. However, there are a couple of options, though you will have to pay some money for them.

enneagraminstitute.com has the RHETI test that you can take on their website. This is a 144-question test that will rank your best-matched types and send you a detailed description for your top 3, all in one PDF sent to your email so you can save it. This is also the website I use for all of my Enneagram needs. The test on this website costs $12 to take: https://tests.enneagraminstitute.com/test/1/code

There is also an app on the Apple App Store that has a full Enneagram test. This one doesn’t create a PDF for you or anything, so I’d recommend taking a screenshot and then looking up the descriptions of each of your types on enneagraminstitute.com. This app is $7, and you can use it as much as you want. So you can have your friends take the test, too! Find it here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/enneagram-personality-full-test/id365310605?mt=8

There are some “free Enneagram tests” out there, but I haven’t found any that I would recommend. I took three of them at one point in time and got a different type for each of them, only one of which I think was my actual typing. I really cannot stress the benefits of finding your Enneagram personality type. It’s played an incredibly important role in my life over the past year or so, and I know that you, your friends, and your family can benefit from it as well.

Resources

All of the information I used in this post was taken from this website in one place or another. I’d encourage you to explore this website and find your own type and description, as well as the types of others in your life: enneagraminstitute.com

The podcast that first introduced me to the Enneagram can be found here: http://www.theliturgists.com/podcast/2016/8/23/the-enneagram-episode-37 It’s a great resource for descriptions of all nine types, as well!

Short Story: Diplomacy Check

Arthur did one final check through his supplies. Potions, throwing axes, spell scrolls, the amulet his father gave him as a boy. Everything a warrior needed. He glanced around at the rest of his party. Dreyfus, his childhood friend from their time in Brandwell, read through his spellbook just to make sure he wouldn’t forget anything at his disposal. Unlikely, considering he had been planning this attack for months and knew it backwards and forwards. Ameria, more commonly called Amy, swept her hair behind pointed ears as she sharpened the dagger she had stolen from the orc warchief of Carmarthen. If you listened closely, you could still hear the screams of the souls trapped inside.

The three of them had been through countless adventures together. They had made their way through the Dread Marshes by sheer force of will, the spirits inhabiting that forbidden place hindering their every step. They had trekked deep into The Expanse and been taken captive by sand raiders all to retrieve a ring sealed with the royal family’s crest. They had led the charge against the dark elf king of Nair, who had made a pact with the orcs in the north and planned to take the kingdom of Listeria for himself. The trio had many fond memories of past adventures, each more daring than the last.

But this one was different. Amy rubbed her finger against the blade of her dagger to check its sharpness, then glanced around at her two companions. She asked, “Where is that little halfling nuisance?”

The doorbell rang. Right on cue. Mason looked up from behind his dungeon master’s screen at Arty. “Jason?” he asked.

Arty smiled. “Jason.” Mason grinned and shook his head, then returned to the notes he had written up for the battle at hand. Arty pushed his chair back from the card table, leaving Richard to flip through his Player’s Handbook to find all of the effects of Dreyfus’s spells. Amy pulled out the first compendium of The Walking Dead comic. She’d been using every spare moment she had to get through that book, and she was getting really close to the end.

Arty made his way up the stairs to the main floor of his house, ribbons and medals from spelling bees, science fairs, and math competitions hanging on the wall of the stairwell. He never particularly cared about them, but even less so nowadays than he had before. He made his way through the foyer with its high ceilings to the front door. “Hey, buddy,” Jason shouted as Arty opened the door. Jason practically burst through the entrance as soon as it was open a crack, wearing all black as he usually did. “Hey, Jason.”

“So I’ve been listening to Metallica’s new album. It’s been pretty true to form, all things considered, but luckily Hetfield is getting his voice back after all these years.”

Arty nodded and gave his typical responses. “Oh yeah? Sweet. Dude, that’s awesome.” He didn’t think about music very much. He liked music, and he liked listening to music, but thinking about music too much reminded him of multiple piano recitals with an empty chair next to his mother. They made their way down the stairs while Jason continued to ramble on about Metallica, finally concluding with a “Hey, guys” once they reached the basement. Everyone greeted him back. Amy rolled her eyes. Arty and Jason situated themselves around the table. “What did I miss?” Jason asked.

Dreyfus looked up from his spellbook to where Clovis, a halfling bard, had suddenly appeared sitting on a rock not ten feet from him. “What did you miss?” Ameria asked. “Where have you been? And how did you get here?”

Clovis laughed as he tuned his lyre string. “A bard arrives precisely when he means to.”

“That’s wizards, stupid.”

“What?” Jason wrapped up the headphones of his iPhone.

Amy sighed from across the table, obviously annoyed. “That’s a quote from Gandalf the Gray. ‘A wizard arrives precisely when he means to.’ Have you even seen The Lord of the Rings?”

Mason cleared his throat and peered at Amy from behind his screen. “Y’know, I’d say he’s playing his character pretty well.”

“Yeah, Amy! I’m role-playing!”

“Can we get back to the game, please?” Richard didn’t talk out of character too often, but whenever he did it was to get these two to shut up. Arty sat back and watched this all unfold. He always found it interesting how closely his friends’ characters matched their own personalities. Mason interjected, “Thank you, Richard. Anyway…”

Dreyfus stepped between Clovis and Ameria. “Can we get back to the issue at hand, please?” Ameria stomped off with a huff as Clovis waved her off with a sly grin. Arthur thought back on the past few days. They had met Clovis less than a week prior when he was performing in the town square of Caerleon, telling tales of fortune long lost from a deceased dwarven race. Rumors of hundreds of years’ worth of treasure is enough to lure in any adventurer. Clovis just needed other people to do the heavy lifting for him.

So here they were. Arthur breathed deeply. He knew the plan. They all knew the plan. But he was still nervous. Death is always possible when facing a dragon. He looked to Dreyfus. “Ready?”

Dreyfus tucked his spellbook under his arm and turned to Arthur with a grin. “Always.”

The four of them gathered their belongings and set forth into the cave on the side of the volcano. Nothing particularly eventful happened as they walked in silence from the mouth of the cave to the expanse further in. The only sounds were the echoes of their own footsteps and the quiet plucking of lyre strings as Clovis warmed up his fingers.

Each of them was preoccupied with their own thoughts of what could be lying beyond in the darkness, and of what they would do with the treasure once they found it. Arthur would buy a house near the ocean for his wife and daughter, who he had left behind in Brandwell. The other three would likely go their separate ways, pursuing their own lives of luxury and ease. That is, if they survived.

The air grew warmer with each step they took deeper into the volcano, and the cave lit up with flashes of fire coming from further within. Arthur moved to the front of the group with Ameria – bow drawn – close behind, while Dreyfus and Clovis fell a bit further back. As the opening to the dragon’s lair drew closer, Clovis played a quick tune for all of them, filling them with strength and courage. After what seemed like hours, Arthur finally set foot into the dragon’s quarters. He scanned the darkness of the massive cave, looking for where it could be.

Suddenly Ameria shouted, “Look out,” firing an arrow into the black. A spout of flame shot out from the darkness, burning over Arthur’s head. Dreyfus muttered a quick arcane word and light filled the cave. A massive red dragon lurched toward them from the other end of the massive cavern. “Here we go.” Arthur drew his battleaxe and charged forward just as the door opened at the top of the stairs.

Arty turned from the table to look back at the stairs to the main floor and saw his father’s shoes coming down the stairs. The game froze as Mason stopped narrating the events of combat. Amy pulled out her cell phone and pretended to start texting. She wouldn’t be able to read during this. Richard cleaned his glasses on his robotics team t-shirt and started reading over his spells again. Jason put in his headphones and started blasting Metallica again. They all knew what was coming. They couldn’t roll initiative for this encounter. Arty would have to go this one alone.

Mr. Williams came down the stairs and looked over the table in disappointment. “Again?”

“Mom said they could come here tonight, sir,” Arty said, staring at the floor.

Mr. Williams, arms crossed, looked around at Arty’s friends. “Do you have all your homework done?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What time are they going home?” Mr. Williams glared at Mason. Mason stared right back.

“We’ll be done by 10, sir.”

“Make it 9:30.”

“But, Dad–” Arty tried to protest, but Mr. Williams just pointed at him with that look in his eyes: That look of disappointment mixed with frustration that parents give when a video game’s next save point is the priority over homework. Arty muttered a “Yes, sir,” as Mr. Williams climbed back up the stairs, leaving the door open a crack.

Jason whispered, “Dude, screw that guy.” Amy kicked him under the table.

Arty slumped in his chair. He looked down at his character sheet. Arthur Stormbearer. He’d come up with the name himself. Same with his backstory. Stormbearer wasn’t his given name, but it was the name the people of Brandwell had come to call him after he and Dreyfus managed to drive back an air elemental and water elemental that had been terrorizing their small town with their fighting. The elementals’ combat caused a storm around the town, and the two of them drove the elementals away and brought safety back to their village; thus, he was given the name “Stormbearer.”

Arty looked through the other pages of his character and found the portrait he had drawn of Arthur. A warrior with clearly defined muscles, a chiseled jaw, and eyes that pierced through any evil that was unfortunate enough to step in his path. He’d put so much time into this drawing. More than he put into most of his drawings. He remembered his favorite drawing. He had drawn a picture of a dragon in art class that he brought home to his mother. She loved it. She put it up on the refrigerator, where all masterpieces go, for the world to see. But it wasn’t long after Mr. Williams got home from work that it was torn off the fridge and ripped to shreds. Arty was sent to his room amidst shouts about “encouraging worthless pursuits” and something about “stems.” He shut himself in his room that night with his sketchbook as his parents’ voices echoed off the high ceilings of the foyer. His portrait that night, of a man setting foot on a foreign planet for the first time, was still stuffed in a shoebox tucked underneath his bed all these years later. Every now and then he would pull it out and take it all in again.

That fight was his favorite drawing.

“You okay, Arty?” Mason asked. He hated seeing Arty like this. Like the first day he’d met him, sitting alone at a table at lunch. “What are you drawing?” he’d asked.

“Oh, nothing,” Arty said while frantically stuffing his sketchbook in his backpack.

“Really? It looked pretty cool. Looked like a knight.”

“I mean, it isn’t anything special, really.”

“I don’t know, man, I can’t draw to save my life, so anything is better than what I can do. Can I take a look?” Arty looked around at the rest of the cafeteria before slowly retrieving his sketchbook from his backpack and sliding it across the table. “Dang, man. This is pretty good. Where’d you get the inspiration for this?”

“Well…” Arty talked for the next eight and a half minutes about this knight he’d been drawing. He went into detail on this knight’s past, his home, his family, his relationship with the king. The kid sitting across the table from him in that moment was a completely different person from the kid he’d approached a few minutes earlier. That was the Arty Williams that Mason knew.

Arty shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. We have a dragon to slay.” Mason forced a smile and rolled a 20-sided die.

Arthur drew his battleaxe and charged forward just as the dragon swept its claws at him. He cleaved its hand out of the way as a magic missile shot past him and hit the dragon square in the face. Clovis, still near the entrance to the cave played his lyre furiously, imbuing them all with strength as Ameria slashed the dragon from the sides.

Like clockwork, the four of them tore the dragon apart piece-by-piece, each person knowing exactly their role. Arthur, the barbarian, took much of the brunt force of the dragon as Amy, the assassin, carved her way through the beast’s scales from the sides. Meanwhile Dreyfus, calling out strategies for the rest of his team, did what he could to chip away at the dragon’s defenses from a distance while occasionally healing his comrades. And Clovis, singing songs of heroes of old, smiled as he thought of the places he’d be able to perform after telling this story.

This continued for several minutes. Dice were rolled, potions were used, and the four friends discussed and strategized, gradually bringing down the dragon’s health. Between dice rolls Mason looked at the door at the top of the stairs.

The dragon weakened. Dreyfus shouted from behind, “Arthur, now’s your chance! Go for the killing blow!” Arthur, battered and bruised, swept in once more and swung his mighty axe at the dragon’s head with all of his strength.

Mason rolled a d20. Everyone held their breath. Mason smiled.

The dragon’s head landed on the cave floor, its body lying ten feet away. Arthur, Ameria, Dreyfus, and Clovis, took a moment to catch their breath. Arty, Amy, Richard, and Jason celebrated with high fives and shouts of joy. A foot stomped on the floor upstairs and the four of them sat down again, still quietly celebrating their victory.

After healing themselves, the four adventurers made their way to the back of the cave where two massive doors awaited them. Arthur placed a hand on one, marveling at the architecture. Dwarven make, nearly as high as a giant, with the complete family tree of a race of dwarves long dead. He looked at Dreyfus. “Ready?”

Dreyfus grinned. “Always.” The two of them pushed open the doors. What they saw was beyond what they could have imagined. Mountains of gold in all shapes and sizes: Coins, jewelry, statues, goblets. Weapons and armor of the highest quality, though much of it wouldn’t fit them due to its size. Each piece an artifact of the finest dwarven craftsmanship. The four of them would be able to have whatever they desired with this wealth. But in this moment, they didn’t even notice the gold, the weapons, the armor. The four of them stopped still as they looked at the back of the hall where a man, in all black, sat on a solid gold throne.

Mason stopped talking. Silence filled the room. Several seconds went past. Amy couldn’t take it any more. “Who is it?” Mason looked down at the table for a moment. Then he looked at the door at the top of the stairs. Then he looked directly at Arty across the table from him.

“My son,” the old man said.

Amy, Richard, and Jason, all turned their attention from Mason to Arty. Arty sat in silence for a moment.

Arthur, the barbarian, uncharacteristically hesitant, took a step forward. “Father?”

“Yes, my son,” the old man said. “I knew that one day you would come for me.” Arthur walked toward the throne as his father continued. “All those years, I prepared you. Prepared you to be a warrior as well as a scholar. Prepared you to be a king. I came and prepared this wealth for you.”

Arthur stood directly in front of the throne. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. But this was most definitely his father. Hands, formerly prepared for battle, now weathered from a lack of use. Eyes, once filled with a passion and desire for power and riches, now sunken back and empty. Lifeless. The crown on his head, the crown of former King Lysandre, who was murdered by his father decades ago.

He recognized the man who had worked him nearly to death every day when he was just a boy. The man who kept him up late at night studying just to wake him up early the next morning to train again. The sword in the morning, the pen at night, until one day he suddenly disappeared, leaving his family and becoming king of Listeria overnight through betrayal.

“Now look at you. A barbarian, associating yourselves with thieves and wizards. Disgusting.” Arthur’s father spat on the floor. “But there is hope for you yet,” he said with an outstretched hand. “Take my throne. Become what you’re meant to be, my son.”

Memories flashed through Arthur’s mind. Cold water dumped on him to wake him up. Late nights spent writing when he could barely keep his eyes open. Crayon drawings torn off the fridge and thrown in the trash.

Richard, Amy, and Jason watched as Arty closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“Father,” Arthur said, “Since I was a boy, I’ve wanted to go on adventures. I’ve wanted to see the world. And now I have.” He glanced back toward his friends, standing in silence at the main door to the hall. “And I’ve made some incredible friends along the way.”

He looked back to his father: old, dying, trapped. “Can’t you see what’s happened? Can’t you see the curse this treasure’s laid on you?” Arthur yanked his father’s amulet from around his neck. He ran his fingers over the engraving, For you, my son, and tossed it in his father’s lap. “I don’t want it. Any of it.” Several gold coins clattered on the ground as Ameria slapped them out of Clovis’s thieving hands. Arthur didn’t even notice the sound. “I refuse to follow in your footsteps if this is what is waiting for me.” He turned and made his way towards the doors where his friends waited for him. Clovis snuck a gold necklace, lined with rubies, into his pocket. No one noticed. They walked through the giant stone doors. Arthur turned back one more time. “Good-bye, Father.” And he sealed the king with his riches in his chambers, the doors never to be opened again.

Arty exhaled as Richard clapped him on the shoulder with a smile.

Jason laughed. “You guys are idiots. At least I still got something out of this.” Amy kicked him.

Mason looked knowingly toward the main floor as Mr. Williams, sitting at the top of the stairs, removed his glasses to wipe his eyes.

Confessions of a closet romantic

I hate romantic comedies. Like, really can’t stand them. “Blasphemy!” many of you will say. Cool. Awesome. I really don’t care. Go somewhere else if you want.

This subject kind of came up in a conversation last night, and I started thinking about why I hate them so much. There are a few reasons I don’t like romantic comedies. First off, every single one is just a variation of the same storyline. It’s always about Ryan Reynolds and anywhere between 1-3 women figuring out they’re in love. Generalization? Maybe. Fairly accurate? Yeah, I’d say so. (Seriously, Ryan Reynolds has been in a LOT of rom-coms.) But every romantic comedy has the same storyline, which I absolutely can’t stand. I like original stories. Plus all of the “comedy” in rom-coms is generally just taking advantage of obscenely awkward situations. I can’t sit through an episode of the Office without reverting to the fetal position due to the awkwardness. I don’t like it. Can’t do it. Uh-uh.

So that’s the first reason. Here’s the second reason I don’t like romantic comedies: The way things work out in those movies is absolute crap. I hate movies that are set in the “real world,” where everything works out absolutely perfect and after the guy’s car breaks down, his bicycle spontaneously combusts, and he accidentally starts World War 3, he still manages to get to the airport just before the woman he’s realized he loves gets on the plane to go pursue her dream of becoming a doctor in a third-world country. Then he says three magic words: “I love you.” Which, following the train of logic to its obvious conclusion, leads to the two of them getting married, having kids, and living happily ever after without ever having a single fight ever for the rest of their lives.

I get it, it’s for the sake of romance, and all of this guy’s efforts are to prove to the audience watching how much he cares. But here’s an interesting thought: What if the romance in these rom-coms — and romance movies, for that matter — is actually complete BS to begin with?

As I’ve kind of mentioned before, I am the physical incarnation of Charlie Brown. Like Charlie Brown became flesh and it’s me. I’m quite cynical, I’ll be perfectly honest. I’m very blunt and to the point, and my BS tolerance sits at a hot zero. Needless to say, I don’t get invited to parties much; I’m just wayyyy too much fun. But I feel like romance, as we seem to picture it today, is absolute garbage. It’s like social media: You see all of the best parts of it, with none of the bad. Everything you witness is absolutely perfect, even though shortly after the wedding at the end of the movie the newlyweds have a fight about who’s going to cut the roast chicken for dinner and never realized how difficult having to do life with another person like this was going to be. The relationships I have with my friends are more difficult than the relationships in romantic comedies. And I don’t have any sort of romantic pursuits with any of these people, which is where things start getting super difficult as you try to figure out how you operate together.

Romance has become this grand, incredibly emotional thing that only happens in movies. Young people say “I want a guy/girl like x,” and throw #relationshipgoals on couples that don’t exist in reality. These couples are more often than not just shells of human beings, with all of the good parts and none of the real ones.

Now, oddly enough, here’s where I have a confession to make: Deep down, I’m honestly a total romantic. I’m a complete sap, quite frankly. But I’m so opposed to what everyone considers romantic nowadays that it seems like I’m absolutely opposed to it completely. That’s really not the case at all. But the most romantic things that I’ve seen haven’t been in movies. In fact, they haven’t even been from newlyweds or people who are just dating.

More often than not, the most romantic things that I’ve ever seen are from people who are already married. And have been for a long time. For me, romance is the soldier overseas who surprises his wife on a trip home. Romance is the creative ways that a woman tells her husband she’s pregnant. Romance is the old couple holding hands sitting across from each other in the corner of a diner. Romance is the cup of coffee that a woman wakes up early to make for her husband every morning before he goes to work so he has one less thing to do in the morning. Romance is the husband who takes his kids out for breakfast early in the morning on a weekend so his wife can sleep in. And, from time to time, it’s the unique proposal after a dating relationship that’s been tried and true.

Am I some sort of expert on romance? Absolutely not, there’s tons of evidence to go against that. I’m clearly not one of the trolls from Frozen. I’ve never even been in a relationship before, what do I know?

Here’s what I know: Every now and then stories like this show up in my newsfeed on Facebook. Stories about real people. And I read or watch every. Single. One. These are the kinds of stories that nourish my soul, that give me hope for humanity and make me realize the lengths people are willing to go to for this crazy thing called love. These are small testimonies of people who have gone through the ringer — together — and are still willing to go the extra mile to prove to their partner that they care about them. When I see these, I smile, shed a man-tear or two, and then I go about my day a little better, a little more hopeful. Just because I’ve seen a glimpse of real, authentic love between two people.

So back to the whole #relationshipgoals thing that I mentioned earlier. Every now and then, very rarely, I feel like there are couples in fiction that really capture authentic human interaction and romance. Honestly, I have my own little Hollywood couple that I look up to as well, but I’m assuming that people wouldn’t even consider them in most cases. My #relationshipgoals couple is Rob and Laura Petrie from the Dick Van Dyke Show.

dick_van_dyke_petrie_family_1963

If you haven’t watched the Dick Van Dyke Show (you should), Rob and Laura Petrie, along with their son Ritchie, have a lot of interesting experiences. The show follows them through all seasons of life, some good days, some bad days. More bad days than good days, honestly. But Rob and Laura, in spite of everything, always make sure that they resolve whatever conflict they’re facing. There are multiple episodes where they fight with each other, but they always work together to make sure they’re on the same page again. There aren’t many fictional Hollywood couples that do that (or “real” Hollywood couples for that matter). They do all of this because they love each other. They couldn’t imagine life without the other after all these years. That kind of love, the kind that refuses to fall asleep without making sure that they’re okay first, is what I consider romantic.

So yeah, I hate romantic comedies. Why? Because I want to see real, genuine human interaction. I want to see the reality of what happens when two people are in love, not the social media-ready counterfeit. I want to see what happens when two people get kicked in the gut by life and decide to walk it out together. If there’s a rom-com out there that captures that sort of essence of humanity and the reality of human relationships, feel free to let me know. But it’ll probably still be horrifically awkward, so I probably still won’t watch it, just being real.

The Gray Area: A plea for a higher level of discourse

The world we live in — and especially the US — has become very polarized. I believe that this polarization has existed for a long time, but I feel that in the past couple decades the polarization has increased due to the development of an hypersensitivity, where everyone becomes easily offended by anything that they don’t agree with. This disagreement with a group or individual results in an inability to co-exist, where each side sticks solely to their views and refuses to sway from their own opinions, and, because of this dedication, refuses to come to any sort of mutual consensus to agree to disagree with opposing voices. I feel that this upcoming election is the perfect of example of this problem. There are two hyper-polarized ends of the spectrum, with very little in between, and people are taking sides, sometimes simply to make sure the person they don’t agree with doesn’t end up being elected.

But this election has also created a very interesting phenomenon. A growing number of people don’t buy into either end of the spectrum, realizing that both sides have distinct problems. A growing number of people are realizing that not everything is black and white, that there isn’t simply a right or wrong answer to everything.

In other words, there’s a growing number of people who believe that there is a gray area on many issues.

And I feel this group of people is growing.

As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, about a year ago I left a spiritually abusive church environment. This church approached everything — every issue — as black and white. When I left this church, I ended up swinging to the opposite end of the spectrum of everything that they believed, as some sort of revolt or rebellion against them. This only lasted a short while before I realized that the end of the spectrum opposite theirs also had its fundamental flaws. So then I was caught in an interesting dilemma: Which was correct? The conservative, white evangelicalism that I was basically raised with and had become further indoctrinated with through spiritual abuse? Or the more progressive Christianity that is opposed to “organized religion”?

Before long, I realized that my conscience wouldn’t let me commit fully to either camp. Each end had its merits, but they also had certain things that I didn’t agree with; things that Jesus isn’t about. Things that exclude people from the kingdom of heaven and completely demonize certain people or behaviors.

It was then that I realized there had to be an in between. Or, in other words, a gray area.

Now, there are some things that I believe are black and white. I’m a Christian, and I believe in salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. There are certain fundamental, foundational biblical principles that I do not and will not sway on. True conviction on select issues is life-giving. When you have something at the end of the day that you can plant your feet on know that nothing will move it, it makes it easier to sleep at night. There’s a reason Jesus is called the “cornerstone of our faith.”

There are some other not necessarily biblical issues that are black and white for me, as well. Art is important. Racism is wrong. Life is valuable. And everything is better with bacon.

But there are some issues that I’ve lived in the gray area on for a long time. For example, creation. I believe that God created the universe. But within that reality, there are a lot of variables. There are people who believe in the literal interpretation of Scripture, that God creating the universe and everything in it in seven literal days. There’s also a growing number of people who are in essence “Christian evolutionists,” who believe that God used evolution as a means to create life and — ultimately — man. People are very polarized and divided on this issue. Denominations of Christianity have divided because of the debate of creation, families have been torn apart by it.

Here’s my stance: I don’t really care.

At the end of the day, whether the earth was made in seven days or over the course of billions of years does not change the fact that I believe God made it. And it also doesn’t change the fact that, before the beginning of time, God planned a great work in advance to send his own Son to live a perfect life as a human being and be executed by his own people so that we could be reconciled with him. So I don’t really care about the details of how the earth was made. It could be billions of years old, it could be thousands of years old. Besides, I won’t know for sure how it all happened until I get to ask God face-to-face, anyway. So why bother worrying so much about it now? (I have an interesting quirk in that I don’t really need an answer for everything. There are a lot of things that I’m willing to take at face value. It has its negative aspects, but it also has its benefits. Some people need an answer for everything, and will pursue an answer until the find one. I don’t need an answer for everything. So I end up being content a lot sooner. But then I don’t always have proof or evidence for what I’ve come to accept, which is where the occasional negative part comes into play. But I digress.)

I know that not everyone will settle with remaining in the gray area on most issues. In fact, I’m sure most people will still believe that things are pretty black and white. They will continue to have strong opinions and beliefs and they will continue to hold to them. And let me make this clear: That’s not a bad thing. Again, having strong opinions on things can be a good thing. When having strong opinions becomes dangerous is when people refuse to engage in conflict with opposing voices. The hypersensitivity that has developed in recent years, along with the development of social media, has caused people to simply react to things. When something or someone offends an individual, that individual will often just go off on whatever or whoever offended them. This causes a huge problem, because it results in hyper polarization, as all parties involved disengage from the other, and start throwing insults and slander around about the other group. Groups demonize any and all opposing groups, and opposing groups respond in turn. So everyone ends up just being angry and no one listens to anything any more.

I’m not asking for people to let go of their convictions and beliefs. What I’m asking for is conversation. There is something to be said for listening to both sides of the story. Rather than sticking to your guns and shooting down every word of an opposing argument, there’s a lot of merit to approaching the situation at hand with empathy, and trying to look at it from the other person’s perspective. At the very least, you will be able to gain an insight into how this person is approaching the argument, rather than just sticking to your own argument and refusing to allow anyone else to have an opinion or a voice.

I’m not asking people to give up their convictions. This is a plea for a higher level of discourse.

Everything has become a shouting match rather than an actual debate. Discussion will at least enable people to approach opposition with empathy rather than anger. And, once the dust has settled, it’s entirely possible an agreement hasn’t been reached. And that’s okay. Part of being human is realizing people are different than you and that they won’t always agree with you. That doesn’t mean you can’t associate with that person. In fact, I’d highly recommend having friends with opinions different from your own. If you only interact with people who agree with you on everything, you won’t grow as a person. Conflict fosters growth.

As Mike McHargue has said, human beings are a social species, and refusing to interact with people simply based on different beliefs is not the way we should approach life. It’s only through discussion and engaging in conflict that we’ll be able to grow and progress.

I believe that letting go of issues as being purely black and white can be very beneficial. Nowadays, I sit in the gray area on most controversial issues. I do my best to listen to both sides of most arguments so that I can come to an informed decision. But oftentimes I can’t side completely with either side. Because oftentimes each side has important points that, contrary to popular belief, don’t conflict with each other, but can actually exist together. And each side also generally has points that don’t make sense. Or are just ridiculous. And so I choose to sit in the gray area. And if I disagree with people on these issues, that’s absolutely fine. I’ll still love them anyway.

We need to stop causing division and just accept the fact that people won’t always agree with us. It’s not our responsibility to change their minds. And it isn’t their responsibility to change ours. If anything, it’s our responsibility to engage with conflict, have intelligent, logical conversation and debate, and not cause division because of petty disagreement. If people were more accepting of the reality that not everything is black and white, and that disagreement shouldn’t result in shattered community, I do honestly believe that the world would be a better place. Rather than focusing on the areas where you disagree with people, find the things you agree on. And come together with creative ways to focus on the good things and bring about peace and change.

 

Write Something Good: A plea for quality art

In the past month or so, I’ve had two separate and drastically different movie-going experiences. The first, I went to see Suicide Squad the second week it was out. The second, I went and saw Kubo and the Two Strings with some friends of mine.

Now, let me make one thing abundantly clear. I am a DC fanboy through and through. I grew up watching Batman and Superman and I’ve read DC comics for as long as I can remember. I can go on and on about how much I love Batman, and the reasons why Nightwing is my favorite superhero, and why I have a polarizing love/hate relationship with Superman. I love the DC universe and everything about it, and I’m super stoked that DC Rebirth has been doing so well.

But the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is a trash fire. I won’t go into everything, because I could literally talk for hours about the travesty that Zack Snyder has created (I’m very opinionated if you haven’t noticed), but let’s just say that I’ve been burned by two DC movies this year: Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad. The two movies suffer from different problems (BvS has too many to count), but one of the biggest things Suicide Squad suffered from was poor writing.

This poor writing manifested itself in a few ways. Namely confusing or non-existent character motivation and development, sloppy, awkward dialogue, and mischaracterization of characters who have very rich backgrounds that have been developed over 30+ years. The movie also suffers from producers getting too involved in the director’s vision, but that’s a different issue. I think that the actors (Margot Robbie in particular) did a pretty good job considering what they were given. But the plot was really convoluted and ultimately really didn’t make sense. I did enjoy the movie at certain points, but it was ultimately really disappointing due to garbage writing.

Kubo, however, was a different story. Kubo was made by the same studio that made Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. Kubo is one of the best movies I’ve seen in theaters in the past few years. Kubo is beautifully animated, and has one of the most archetypal “hero’s journey” stories that I have ever seen. It follows the hero’s journey beat-for-beat, while creating compelling examples of the meaning of family, the importance of storytelling, and the pain of loss. The story, while fairly predictable, is beautifully written, the characters are authentic and well-developed within the short run time of the film, and I was still pondering the movie’s thought-provoking themes hours after I’d left the theater.

Now. Here are some numbers for you.

Suicide Squad released on August 6 in the US, and was made with a budget of $175 million. As of today, it’s made $640 million in the box office. It has a 27% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 67% user rating.

Kubo and the Two Strings released on August 19 in the US, and was made with a budget of $60 million. As of today, it’s made $30.5 million in the box office. It has a 97% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 88% user rating.

There are definitely some things that factor into this. Kubo appeals primarily to families with children, while Suicide Squad appeals to a significantly wider audience, especially millennials, who are currently the largest living generation in the US.* Suicide Squad is also the third movie within the DCEU, and was preceded by Man of Steel and BvS, so the anticipation was high (and much of the advertising for this movie was driven by the Joker, who ended up being in the movie for about 10 minutes). Many people thought this could be DC’s chance to get back in the game for movies after Marvel’s success…And they suuuuuper blew it.

All this to say, I have problems with this reality. And questions.

Why do bad movies make so much money?

Why do good movies, even if they’re children’s movies, sometimes hardly make any money?

Why do people keep pumping money into movies that are bad? And do the people making these movies seriously not know the movie’s bad before they release it?

Why do people spend so much time and energy perpetuating bad storytelling, while good storytelling gets left by the wayside?

As always, I’m not an expert in this area. I don’t claim to be. I might end up making claims and saying things that don’t make sense in the “real world.” And this is kind of a rant that I’m just word vomiting onto a page and then posting. I’m completely open to comments and discussion. But this is incredibly frustrating.

Much of this is based around advertising. Suicide Squad had a pretty good advertising campaign, and many early trailers got me excited for the movie. Our culture is also really into the interconnected movie universe thing right now. Which, as much as I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they’ve created something unique that has cursed much of the rest of modern cinema. Everyone tries to create movies that connect to something else, and it all ends up being ridiculously complicated. Oftentimes they don’t even tell a full story within a single movie, as the movie is basically being used to set up a sequel. When people are focused on the property they’re setting up, the writing of the current story suffers. People also are really focused on trying to write these intricate, complex stories with some sort of twist ending, and then they end up not recognizing the numerous gaping plotholes and faulty character motivations they’ve created. So many movies are created to make money, rather than to create art that can be appreciated for its intrinsic value. Nowadays many movies don’t have much intrinsic value. Superhero movies, as much as I love them, are starting to become a disease.

And here’s my point here.

Write. Something. Good.

Please.

So much of modern cinema is about pandering to the culture in order to make the money that they put into the movie back and set up the next movie they have planned. But I would venture to say that many of these movies that have come out in recent years will be completely forgotten in around twenty years. The most well-remembered, culturally relevant and impactful movies that end up having a lasting impact are often the most well-written. They have authentic, realistic characters and an interesting story that doesn’t obviously contradict itself. And, and this is one of the most important elements to me, they say something. And they say something compelling. That’s why I love Kubo so much. It’s a beautiful movie with interesting characters, a simple, easy-to-follow story, and it conveyed several important, compelling messages.

Let me make something else clear: I’m not opposed to complex stories. One of my favorite stories I’ve ever encountered is the Zero Escape series of video games, which (in my opinion) is one of the most convoluted, confusing stories ever written. Over the course of three games, it takes the time to explain to you all of the different confusing aspects and how they all interconnect to make one story. But what I love about it is that it also has interesting, well-developed characters, and has a fascinating commentary on the importance of decision making, questions reality, plays off probability and chance, and asks questions about the Many-Worlds Theory. I’ve spent hours playing these games, and many more hours thinking about all of the different questions and arguments it poses.

Please stop making art that panders to the culture and then fails to say anything at all. Or just stop writing garbage. There’s something to be said for a simple hero’s journey that doesn’t confuse your audience and has a clear message. Not everything has to be a big spectacle. In this culture we live in, it’s unfortunately possible that your art may not be successful if it’s not a big spectacle. But if it’s inherently bad, it definitely won’t be. Please, just write something good.

 

*http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/25/millennials-overtake-baby-boomers/