I get frustrated at machines sometimes, especially computerized machines. They do the most inexplicable things at times. When I was a stagehand, we called this IWF (Intermittent Weird Failure). IWF when I was a stagehand was eminently addressable—in most cases, we just switched out the offending part and went on with our lives. But I don’t always have that option out in the world where most things don’t have immediate replacement parts available. And so I get frustrated sometimes.
Shouldn’t this thing just work?
With that in mind, I today happened upon this blog post from Dr. Philip Mamalakis on parenting intentionally, which included this passage:
The more we understand how our children learn and what we are teaching them by our reactions and responses, the more intentional we can be about how we respond in the face of challenges. The child development research reveals that kids form their ideas about themselves and the world through their interactions with adults. When we understand what’s happening beneath the surface, or within their hearts, we can be intentional about responding in a way that teaches our kids what is true and good.
Rather than trying to learn how to get our kids to behave, or how to stop misbehaviors, we need to learn how to be intentional in our responses to kids when they misbehave. Essentially, it’s really about us, as parents, learning how to behave appropriately when our kids misbehave appropriately. They are supposed to act like kids. We are not. Taking some time to learn how to change our behaviors will help our kids far more than hoping that our children will change their behaviors.
This reminded me of something that came up during the recent conversation/class we’ve been having at my parish. In the first session, we discussed how spiritual life is actually “a thing.” That is, it is something that can be identified, chosen and acted upon.
Spiritual life, much like parenting or marriage, is not actually “a thing” for many Christians. It’s something that we enter into passively, expecting that certain minimal techniques or fulfillment of requirements will get us through.
Just love your kids. Just love God. Be a good person. Just love your husband. Help out once in a while. Just love your wife.
All these responses and more speak of a spiritual life that is essentially just supposed to work by itself. Why am I having problems with my kids, my marriage, my ability to pray, etc.? Shouldn’t this thing just work?
And when things don’t “just work,” we figure that something is desperately wrong. In some cases, we may reach for replacement parts—a replacement romance, a replacement spirituality, a replacement church, etc. People don’t usually think to replace their kids. But they may mostly just give up on them or treat them badly in other ways.
But you can’t replace these people or this life. God has given them to you for a reason. And they aren’t actually dysfunctioning. There is nothing desperately wrong when your spouse, your kids or your spiritual life don’t work the way you want them to. Actually, they are doing their job, which is to reveal your sins and give you an opportunity for repentance.
Back when I was in college (and much thinner with more hair), I used to hang out in computer labs on campus quite a bit. I had discovered The Internet in all its great glory. But because people saw me there so often, they sometimes assumed that I was the lab attendant who was there to help them. (I was not.) I sometimes helped them, but I also sometimes replied to their frustrations with “this thing” (that is, the computer) with this bit of sarcasm: “I think the problem is located somewhere between the keyboard and the chair.”
When our Christianity isn’t going well, we can be sure that the problem is somewhere between the floor and the icons, the floor and the kids or the floor and our spouses. That is, the problem is us. It is we who are not doing what is needed.
We cannot treat Christian life (in all its elements) as a project that gets put together and then is perfect and then should just work—just leave it on auto-pilot, and everything should be fine. Marriage doesn’t work that way. Parenting doesn’t work that way. Spiritual life in general doesn’t work that way.
When we approach spiritual life in any of its aspects, we can’t leave things on auto-pilot. Instead, we have to take it up as a project, as “a thing” that we identify, choose and act upon. We have to be, as my friend Fr. Barnabas Powell likes to say, “Orthodox on purpose.”
Instead of saying about our lives as Christians “Shouldn’t this just work?” let us instead make our prayer that great saying of Anthony the Great, the founder of a very intentional kind of Christian life: Every day I say to myself: “Today I will begin.”