Sanity Check!!!!

The children have gone to church with K. I’m taking a more “authentic” sabbath and keeping a day of rest–and writing (conveniently, the sermon being preached today is entitled “You need the rest,” and concerns the fourth commandment).

There’s so much I want to do in this ephemeral freedom, so many easy distractions with which to sate superficial needs and truly kill time. But I’m exerting some self-discipline and spending the time doing what I love best–and what will truly restore some much-needed energy and sense of value. Writing. This post is the warm-up to returning to some work in writing the finer plot details for my novel as preparation for writing proper. If I hit a block on that, I suspect that there may be further blog posts later this morning.

Two sorry-not-sorry apologies to begin. If you clicked on this post hoping for something gaming-related (and who could blame you), you’re going to be disappointed–this is a post about raising children. If you have no idea what a “sanity check” is or who H.P. Lovecraft is, you may need to open Wikipedia and/or do some independent research for all of this to make sense. If you are a gamer parent, or a gamer who expects to have kids one day, I expect that this post will be especially enjoyable.

It occurred to me that I have some subconscious association between having kids and H.P. Lovecraft. When we had our first placement (three years and one day before this one), I reread all of Lovecraft’s corpus. This time, I find myself drawn to the recently-released Call of Cthulhu and Sinking City games (though I have no time for them at present and thus have not purchased them). A psychologist would have a field day, and we’ll delve into that deeper in a moment, I suppose.

But first, the two boys who are with us need some names for blogging purposes. Our first two were, by sheer randomness, Abe and Bess. This time, I’m having more trouble deciding. There’s Cain and Abel, but that didn’t work out so well. Jacob and Esau, but that too isn’t the best of relationships. Joseph and–nope, that one’s not going to work either. Has anyone else noticed how many dysfunctional family relationships are in the Old Testament? There’s some great theology to be had there, or as my pastor friends would say, “That’ll preach.” Someone remind me to do a post to delve into that, it’s a topic for another time.

That still leaves me with no names, though. How about Hawkwood and Marshal? Two famous English mercenary captains. They’ve been waging a concerted war against me, I’m sure, so it seems to fit in my own mind. We’ll make Hawkwood the older boy, three in October, leaving Marshal for the younger, of course, one in October.

Now that we’ve got some names, some fun ones, I hope (and if you don’t enjoy them as much as I do, that’s too bad–I’m a nerd and I’m the one writing!), let’s get to the point.

Why is it that I’ve got this link between Lovecraft and raising children in my mind? I pride myself on being especially self-aware, particularly able to look at myself in a somewhat objective light and get to the bottom of my psyche without assistance; let’s see if it works this time.

Lovecraft wrote a different kind of horror, not entirely free of historical influences and bindings, of course, being especially mired in the nihilistic thought and existential philosophy that developed over the course of the 19th century. We can associate some of the classic tropes of horror with Lovecraft–body horror, Otherness, fear of mortality, societal and psychological anxieties, etc. But Lovecraft went further with his Cthulhu mythos, which is why we call his genre of horror cosmic. Lovecraft’s deepest form of horror is existential–that the universe has no overarching and benevolent structure or meaning, that suffering is inevitable, constant, and without redeeming value, and that entropy and despair are the ultimate fates of all things. That’s the type of horror that sticks with a person long after the sudden shocks and momentary frights, after the monsters have gone back under the bed or into the closet and the ghosts have been exorcised for a while.

Again, what does this have to do with children? A few things, actually. Sanity being one of them. Not in the broad sense of a person’s mental health, but in the localized sense of those little insanities that sometimes overtake each of us when we lose our cool and the concomitant ability to act rationally. These are my moral and personal failings–but a two-year-old sure has the fast track to bringing them out in me. Just as I had to deal with them with Bess (see Just Give Her the Damn Goldfish!), I’m still letting myself get out of my own head with desires to achieve some modicum of control over situations where control doesn’t matter. Since two-year-olds often say one thing and then do another, or change their mind about what they want or don’t want in milliseconds, opportunities abound.

As (I think) I’ve mentioned, Hawkwood is extremely intelligent. His vocabulary is astounding, he bent our Alexa to his will within two days (we’ve listened to Toto’s “Africa 57,432,001 times now. I used to like that song.), he can help with laundry, dishes and cooking. But between two and three is when children begin to learn to consciously manipulate to get what they want. This is developmentally appropriate, it is the early stages of learning important social and relational skills. But since Hawkwood is so intelligent, his attempts at manipulation are especially infuriating. A few examples: Hawkwood asks questions (often random, but always associated with something or someone nearby) whenever he wants to change the subject and avoid something he’s being asked to do; he phrases what he wants as questions: “Do you want milk?”; he parcels out affection when it is calculated to achieve his ends. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a sweet boy and I’ve quickly become quite fond of him. He’s also a little booger.

It’s that the above combines with his inability to rationalize or employ logic (although it’s possible he’s just using non-Euclidean geometries in his logic) that has a tendency to make me lose my head. You can’t bargain with a child who’s not ready to evaluate cost and benefit. You can’t reason with a child for whom cause and effect are not entirely real, such that consequences–particularly those that are minutes or hours down the line–carry any real sense of urgency.

As you know, I am a lawyer in my day-to-day career. There are a few things I’ve learned well in that profession: (1) You cannot make someone do something they don’t want to do without coercive force; this is never a positive experience and always has consequences. (2) For those people (and it’s certainly not everyone), with the ability and desire to act rationally, they must be able to reasonably calculate costs and benefits in order to be persuaded. (3) For those who cannot or will not be subject to reason, you can only achieve compliance by playing into their pre-existing beliefs, weaknesses and expectations (something our current president does all too well).

All of these things remain true of a two-year-old, except that they cannot be expected to act according to reason and do not yet have any pre-existing beliefs and expectations (other than selfishness) to use to advantage. That leaves me–someone who is typically quite persuasive and (I think) very good at working through conflicts–powerless when it comes to Hawkwood. And I hate being powerless.

Add to this sleep-deprivation, a schedule that currently revolves entirely around meeting the needs of the children and helping them to adapt in what is a very difficult situation for them, and putting aside the semblance of frustration (as much as possible) to help them to bond to you, and you quickly lose sight of the idea that this is a phase that will pass. Once the children are in daycare and I’m back to working, the days will be far easier and life will return to something that feels manageable. In the meantime, the horror feels existential. Cue Lovecraft.

But Lovecraft was an atheist, and that left him little respite from his nihilistic despair. I am a man of faith, and one possessing a powerful will at that. So, regardless of the similarities between the terror of children and the cosmic terror of otherworldly beings, the differences are greater, and the ending is not the same. I will not succumb to despair, and my present situation will not acquiesce to tragedy or insanity. We will make meaning out of chaos and thereby dispel the lurkers at threshold.

Maybe that puts us closer to August Derleth’s much-maligned “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft, in which Derleth’s own Christian view superseded Lovecraft’s atheistic nihilism in the stories of the Cthulhu mythos the two wrote “together.” Maybe that’s what I should pick up next, to read while Hawkwood is slowly drifting off to sleep at night after I pick him up and rock him, play the classical music on his night-time CD, and sit with him in the bed until slumber takes him.

More to come.

 

A Christian Theory of Humor

I feel like I’ve written about this before, but it seems that I haven’t, so here we go.

There is much to be said about humor, its causes and its effects, from physiological studies to sociological implications (I heard someone talking about the role of humor in demonstrating integration into a social group on NPR a while back). I’m going to focus on what humor tells me, at least, about theology.

Let me begin by saying that I must rely on the hope that God is especially forgiving of humor, even if in bad taste. If not, I might be in trouble…

The theory of humor; i.e. “why are some things funny and some things not?” looks to several core attributes of those things that make us laugh. By way of shortcut in the matter of theory, I’m going to point to Wikipedia’s article on “Humor.” Not the most reliable or deepest of sources, I know, but it’ll do.

Wikipedia says that the “root components” of humor are:

(1) Being reflective or imitative of reality; and
(2) containing surprise/misdirection, contradiction/paradox, or ambiguity

I look at these descriptors and marvel at how they mesh with my existential approach to theology.

Before I unpack that, though, let’s look to an opposite phenomena that I think will shed much light on my ideas that follow.

We start with a German word: weltschmerz. Weltschmerz (literally “world-pain”) means that pain that one feels at realizing the difference between the way the world is and the way the world could be. It is often defined as being similar to the French ennui, but I think that these terms are quite different (but both existentially related)–ennui being the suffering caused by finding no meaning in existence.

Weltschmerz is a wonderful word; it describes with specificity something we all feel at one time or another but struggle to communicate. When something is overhyped and the experience fails to fulfill the expectation of the experience? Weltschmerz. That sense of injustice that causes one to rage inside while also feeling helpless? Weltschmerz. The force behind fatalism and gallows humor? Weltschmerz. It was this idea that started me thinking about a theological explanation of humor.

Things are funny when they are close to reality but not quite right. On top of that, let’s look at the three other aspects Wikipedia attaches to humor: surprise, contradiction and ambiguity.

Surprising things are funny because they turn expectations on their head. Surprise is about possibility, and the pleasure of surprise in humor is that it reminds us that the world does not have to be the way that it is–it could be different. Often, the surprise comes from a sudden change in frame of reference or perspective. Consider the following, ripped straight from the internet:

“Mom, where do tampons go?”
“Where the babies come from, darling.”
“In the stork?”

Reference what I said before about inappropriate humor.

I’ve had some difficulty finding a joke (that I’m willing to write here, which says a lot) that adequately demonstrates paradox/contradiction that isn’t also heavily inundated with surprise. This is understandable, I suppose. The best I’ve found is the following, from Demetri Martin:

“‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologize’ mean the same thing. Except at a funeral.”

Without providing a bunch of jokes to allow for an inductive conclusion about the nuance between surprise and contradiction, I will point you to an established narrative trope using contradiction for humor, via TVTropes.com. If, like me, you can lose hours following rabbit trails on TVTropes.com, I apologize.

When we attempt to come to a Christian theological understanding of humor, paradox and contradiction are essential elements. First, there is the “meta” aspect of thinking theologically about paradox and contradiction–much of theology is an attempt to reconcile apparent contradictions and paradoxes, or, as Chesterton puts it, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them furious.”

He’s right, you know, Christianity invites us to dive headfirst into paradoxes and contradictions and to struggle with them, often without easy (or any) resolution.

At the same time, paradox in humor is a sister to weltschmerz; the half where we see the difference between how the world is and could be and we laugh instead of crying–both are existentially-appropriate reactions, I think.

At its most fundamental, paradoxical humor reminds us that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is; the contradictions of paradoxical humor often ask us to laugh at how the world is worse than it could/should be. Like humorous surprise, the same humor reminds us that we can make things better.

As a relevant aside, Chesteron has also written, “Paradox–Truth standing on her head to get attention.”

And now to ambiguity. If you’ve read my previous series on ambiguity in scripture, you’ll know that I think that ambiguity–and our ability to struggle with and engage it–are fundamental aspects of Christianity. So it should come as no surprise that I think that the humor derived from ambiguity is not merely an existential coping mechanism (though it is often that), but a well-concealed revelation of Truth.

There’s a great (and short!) article on how lexical ambiguity contributes to humor here, on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology website. Lexical ambiguity is just one small portion of ambiguity in humor, but it suffices to illustrate the point. I’ll borrow an exemplative joke (much tamer than the previous ones) from that site:

“How do you make a turtle fast?”
“Take away his food.”

Note the inseparable elements of contradiction and surprise in that joke, which uses ambiguity about the applicable definition of the word “fast” to reach the punchline.

Taken altogether, ambiguity, surprise and contradiction work together to make us laugh by disrupting comfortable and seemingly reliable assumptions and expectations. At its most fundamental, this is also what Christianity does as well–it tells us that what the world tries to seduce us with (money, power, fame) does not have the depth of meaning and ability to fulfill that true living does (through love, the pursuit of justice and mercy, and relationships, for instance). Both Christianity and humor tell us that things can change–that we can change both ourselves and the world for the better.

By my Chrsitian understanding, humor does two theological things: first and most important, it gives us hope by reminding us that things do not have to be as they are–that God is calling us to work to change them for the better; second, humor reminds us of raw possibility, of our ability to participate in the creation of meaning, of the existential joys of being God’s creations.